Computer gaming culture is an extremely interesting study, should you care to examine it in any detail. For those of us aged 25 or over, computer games have always really been around, at least since we were old enough to properly appreciate. This being the case, it’s very easy to forget that the gaming industry as a whole is extremely young. In mainstream terms, it’s been around, what, 20 years? It’s very much a modern phenomenon. Dependant as it is on technological development, gaming has progressed over that period at an exponential rate. If you showed a game like Mass Effect or Battlefield 3 to someone circa 1990, you would have made their head explode.
This being the case, the gaming industry and its associated culture is virtually unique in its nature. The extreme speed of its development means it can, in many ways, be seen as a microcosm of normal genre development, displaying a progression in trends similar to that of other genres and industries, but at a greatly accelerated rate. While I could discuss this matter at length (and may do at some point) it is the way trends and ‘fads’ are so prevalent in the industry and so malleable and rapid in their progression. You can, at a greatly simplified level, track trends to individual popular games. Examples are the development of game features such as Bullet Time mechanics following the original Max Payne, recharging shields in FPSs following Halo: Combat Evolved and cover-based shooting following after Gears of War. While this is a fairly natural, if accelerated, progression in product evolution, with popular aspects being adapted and improved upon (an interesting debate point I’ll grant you), what is particularly interesting are the consequential reactionary movements. For example, there has been, for a short while, a real rise in the popularity of so-called retro gaming. Older games, with inferior graphics are being lauded and distributed almost as much as new, graphically superior intellectual properties. This is, again, an interesting reflection of other genres. For example, in film, old movies are often cited as superior products and are often remade. Now with film, this is in a genre which has an extensive history over a long period of time. Gaming, however, being much younger would not be subject to this remake culture you would think. However, the rapidity of the genre’s development has seen remakes be a significant aspect of the releases in the industry, not just recently, but also historically. The current day, however, has seen a significant increase in remakes of old titles or the resurrection of old titles in the form of belated sequels.
It is at this point that I finally get to the point and actually start moving towards a discussion of an individual game. In this case Fallout. The game has resulted in a number of sequels, one ‘proper’ sequel relatively soon after the original and then a further 2 modern sequels, which are arguably more adaptations of the original concept rather than full sequels. I feel it would be interesting to take a retrospective look at the 2 original Fallout games and then at their modern offspring, if nothing else than as a study on how games have developed over time and the overall nature of how a reimagining/resurrection of a game franchise happens.
To do this, we have to start at the beginning. This particular beginning was in 1997, when Fallout was released by Interplay and was quite unlike anything that had been seen at the time in gaming. Set in a post-apocalyptic America, the game had a very distinct style, echoing the 1960-70s pop culture depictions of future space travel and technology. It harked back to cold war imagery and Flash Gordon -style (the original comic series not the film) iconography. It is an inspired design, managing to mix aspects of nostalgia with science fiction and even some fantasy, albeit fairly dark fantasy. Considering most mainstream RPG games up to that point, with some notable exceptions, were sword and sorcery style fantasy stories in the Tolkien tradition, this in itself was unusual. Though pointing to one older game and saying it was a massive factor in the trends taken by later iterations of the same genre is often a lazy and flawed argument, within the games industry, more than many, this can hold some merit.
Gaming has a very focussed spotlight on what is popular and what is not. Something new and different stands out from a fairly saturated market (often to become an also ran in a stream of band-wagon jumpers, but that’s another debate). Fallout can be argued to have been an important milestone in computer game storytelling, moving on from such luminaries as the Ultima series by Origin in allowing a lot more free choice and even character design options. Fallout has a lot of features that many would consider to be modern game developments. Firstly, you can choose the background, gender and overall statistical abilities of your character. Though not as in depth as some of its RPG predecessors (Ultima and its ability to Hobbits, Bobbits, Furries and Larks please stand up) the fact you could choose from a few character detail choices or throw them out and create your own character were notable. The sheer number of skills and abilities on offer were something special at the time, being very similar to the build of table top RPG games in its complexity. It truly gave you the licence to play the type of character you wanted to be. Want to be a flower power smooth talker? Fine, do it. Good luck with not dying, but all power to you.
How about the choice between good and evil? None of this, paragon/renegade, evil and good point business, I mean the option to be however pure or corrupt as you like, or whatever shade of grey in the middle you choose. True roleplaying at its very best.
Sandbox is a big thing these days in a game, with some developers even putting it on the box as a promotional feature. Get modern gamers in a room and ask them to brainstorm features of a modern game and I guarantee Sandbox will come up. Since Grand Theft Auto all those years ago sandbox gaming has been big news. But games like Fallout and Ultima were doing it years ago. Fallout is open from the minute you emerge from your Vault, bleary eyed into the world. In theory you could march straight over to the Super Mutant facility and bust some heads (though good luck handling that with your pistol and knife!) With the sheer scale of the game world and with random encounters that add to the game tension, not make you keyboard-chewingly annoyed, Fallout truly gave you a world to explore and one that rewarded you for exploring.
The quality of the writing and narrative is prevalent through, with genuinely funny dialogue and actions, mixed in with truly tough decisions. The game is probably bests known for its brilliant parody and satires of modern day (at the time) society and of overall attitudes and thinking (something I will cover in Fallout 3 and New Vegas). All of this is incorporated without constantly bringing you out of the moment. It’s very subtle and maturely handled, unlike some games where it amounts to the equivalent of furious mugging and winking at the camera, even in modern games (*cough* Duke Nukem Forever *Cough*). Sadly, subtlety is one gaming trend that is all too often not copied in modern games.
The story, as I touched upon, is actually pretty original, or as original as you can get in these modern times. The mechanic is one that has many potential ramifications and you can see various stylistic homages to it in the recent past (the way your character emerged from the sewers in Elder Scrolls: Oblivion for one). The ability to collect companions and manage their loadouts (though limited until the sequel admittedly) is something that, again, can be argued, has ripples and reflections in modern games. Mass Effect’s focus on squad harmony is most likely at least partly owed to the legacy of such games as Fallout, Baldur’s Gate et al.
Oh and you get a pet dog. I remember this being trumpeted as a major innovation by Peter Molyneux for Fable 2. If you ask any player who has played both Fable 2 and Fallout which dog they cared about more. If they take any time at all before they say ‘Dogmeat!’ then I will buy a hat then eat it.
Obviously Fallout is not perfect, no game can be. The game mechanics of combat can be frustrating and the scaling of enemies in random parts of the game map WILL kill you at various points, thought this can be (and has been) defended as realistic. The random battles, thought well implemented, suffer from burnout and attrition at times and it can be extremely tedious running from battles over and over. Also, in the first game the combat is very heavily skewed in favour of the ranged weapons to the point melee combat amounts to a lottery, which, again can be seen as realistic, but it does rather limit your options.
For a game with such excellent writing, there are a few instances of pretty horrendous clichés and stereotypes, but honestly, the overall character of the world means they more or less get away with it.
Fallout, in many ways, can be argued as epitomising a bygone era of games (a whole 12 years on!). You rarely see a game with such subtle and understated storytelling aspects in which it is clear as much care has gone into creating a realistic and engrossing world and story as it has on gameplay. Yes, at times this can be to the detriment of the enjoyment of the mechanics themselves, but it can be forgiven that. However, one could also argue that in many ways, Fallout demonstrates many of the features that would be considered key to a ‘modern’ game: effective and detailed character development through events (Half-life 2), a story with a large and dramatic scale (Mass Effect), and a dog (just kidding).
Perhaps this is the conclusion that can be reached; that Fallout merely demonstrates the features of what makes a great RPG; that such things are timeless and a great game is a great game whatever era it is viewed from. Or perhaps it was ahead of its time, a forerunner, the creation of a gaming Leonardo Da Vinci that could never be properly realised due to the culture and technology of the time. Perhaps examination of the other Fallout games will assist in determining this (I certainly hope so as I’m going to review them!)
Either way, one thing that I can say in conclusion for absolute certainty is this: the original Fallout game was and is an excellent example of a western-style RPG that still stands up today as an enthralling and immersive gaming experience. Couple that with the fact it can be picked up online for a nominal fee to download and play instantly, you really have no good reason not to go and play this fantastic piece of gaming history, even if it’s just so you can say you have done.