Videogames are usually built upon the fantastical, but so often they neglect to nurture a believable fiction. They force their stories down our throats, or fatally undermine their integrity by giving the player too much agency, or claim to offer choice and consequence while taunting us with invincible player characters and predetermined decisions. Fallout, though, creates a world that feels believable, cohesive and uncompromising, employing subtle writing and flexible, consistent game design in the quest for internal coherence. It forces the player to actually roleplay, working with your character’s skills and strengths to see situations play out in all manner of ways. Through individual behaviour and choices, Fallout lets us create our own stories in a way that aspirational developers still struggle to achieve.
Fallout’s opening cutscene sets the tone for the series’ hallmark retro-futurism, satirising 1950s Cold War paranoia even as it presents a brutal depiction of the exact alternate future that it feared. The camera zooms out from a TV playing cheerful ads suffused with American Dream hyper-optimism to reveal the crumbling skyline of a devastated city. It imagined post-apocalyptic America long before it became a cliché, and it’s not a pleasant place. Fallout’s relentlessly bleak outlook on humanity damns us as squabbling, self-serving and violent, consigning ourselves to a piteous wasteland existence through our obsession with war. Everything in the world is rusting, broken: the guns, the cars, the buildings, the people. Its deserts are full of aggressive mutated wildlife, its scattered settlements and cities are mostly populated by drug addicts, bandits and slave traders, permeated by the destructive absence of hope.
It’s a game rich in stories, and each player weaves the threads into their own intricate tapestry of chance, choice and consequence. These stories are found, created, rather than simply told. The overarching narrative provides context for the player – a refugee from one of the underground vaults that protected some of humanity from the nuclear holocaust – rather than dictating their actions. Fallout’s crossroads moments aren’t always obvious; a good branching story bends in ways you’re not even aware it can, and the suspension of disbelief is never punctured by the obviousness of the choices.
Possibly the most distressing thing about Fallout’s setting is its prescience – forced into a pointless, filthy struggle to stay alive, this is a convincing portrayal of what might become of the human race. It’s violent, nasty, and you have to work on the assumption that people are looking for the slightest excuse to kill you and scavenge your corpse for your weapon, or the meaningless bottlecaps that have become the only thing the world can use as currency. A crucial element of Fallout’s continuity is its insistence on self-reliance; it leaves you to learn on your own, gathering information and equipment from the few non-hostile characters you encounter. Without a tutorial in sight, the player is chucked out of the safety of Vault 13 and told to find a water chip, given only the tiniest bit of guidance as to where to go. You’re on your own with an old pistol and a knife, and though you pick up companions as time goes by, that feeling of isolation and desperation never dissipates.
Fallout’s best stories feel incidental – things that you simply come across one day in the wasteland, or uncover by accident in one of its cities, and that you wouldn’t know existed unless you’d happened upon them. Wasteland encounters like a crashed UFO or a band of ghouls may provide a valuable item or hint, but they point the player in interesting directions, leaving room for the imagination. It works because it’s not explicit, leaving you to draw inferences from the world, to make up and investigate your own quest lines. You might think that Junktown’s sinister Doc Morbid’s extreme rudeness is borne out of caution, just like everyone else in the wasteland – unless you happen to be scavenging his house for ammo at night and find the manhole leading to his secret butcher’s shop, where he and his dwarf assistant prepare their patients for sale as snacks in a neighbouring town. If Doc Morbid’s tongue-in-cheek name isn’t Fallout’s only flash of black humour, then nor is Vault Boy, the cheerfully grinning face of nuclear disaster. Fallout flashes its gallows humour like a wicked grin, elevating the mood without undermining the tone.
The game owes much of its intrigue to the level of detail. Fallout realises with words and situations a rich, detailed, tortured and desolate landscape that it can’t show with a limited colour palette and isometric sprites. Scrolling text descriptions at the bottom-left of the interface embellish what’s onscreen with incidental detail; where you see a brown clump of pixels oozing red, the text describes how a mutated mole-rat, fatally wounded from a crippling injury to the right leg, crumples and dies. Character descriptions, dialogue, even the manual all feature a descriptive verbosity that greatly enriches the game’s fiction.
As well as finding stories, Fallout excels at letting you create them. Generally, videogame moral decisions amount to either giving a begging tramp 20 credits in the hope that he’ll turn up again later with a nice item or shooting him in the kneecaps for the experience points. Either way, there’s a reward, and the Right Thing To Do is often patronisingly obvious. Fallout screws with this primary-school perception of good and evil. The harsh reality is that there are usually two bad choices, and at best you’re forced into the least morally reprehensible course of action. Fallout is aware that being a good person can mean doing a terrible thing, and the game never attempts to moralise. It’s a far cry from “nuke the village for money, or save it for a house”.
Indeed, one of Fallout’s key quest lines – determining the fate of Junktown – was so distressingly morally ambiguous that Interplay demanded that the outcomes be altered. When the Vault Dweller first stumbles across it, the settlement is locked in a power struggle between mayor Killian and gambling mogul Gizmo, whose criminal activities bring both financial prosperity and problems to the town. Originally, siding with Killian against Gizmo turned the town into an authoritarian nightmare, led by Killian’s own personal version of frontier justice; siding with Gizmo turned it into a filthy rich but morally bankrupt den of sin. In the final release, though, the outcomes had been forcibly changed to provide a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ ending, wherein Killian enforces just law and increases prosperity or Gizmo simply increases his own wealth before choking to death on a chunk of Iguana-on-a-stick.
The game is built, from the ground up, around the pitiless imperative for survival – and crucially, that means that Fallout’s story can end in failure. The game’s original tight 150-day time limit was later lifted with an optional patch because it restricted players’ ability to discover the wasteland, but there was something poetically brutal about it – it forced you to prioritise, and put the horrible consequences for wasting time in Junktown or taking a detour to rescue a city full of ghouls firmly on the player’s shoulders. Fallout always forces you to live with your own consequences. Kill the town vendor over a dispute, and you can’t buy anything ever again. Start a gunfight in a bar or a town, and people will remember. You can turn an entire town hostile with a misplaced word or bullet. Failure and death are stark facts of reality, and their omnipresence in the wasteland greatly contributes to the believability of the gameworld.
This insistence on making you live with your own consequences led to censorship in Europe. The presence of children in the game had unpleasant moral implications given the game’s violence and choice-dependent ethos, so they were taken out entirely to remove the option of murdering them. Rather than compromise its realism by making children invincible, as Bethesda opted to for Fallout 3, Fallout offers up unique and terrible consequences for killing kids. It would earn you the word ‘Childkiller’ emblazoned indelibly on your character’s stat screen, and that reputation would ruin NPC interaction and eventually send a squad of bounty hunters into the wasteland after you; even in the amoral wasteland, child killers are reviled. Regardless, though, the option was there, testament to Fallout’s commitment to choice and narrative consistency.
Black Isle employed many emergent storytelling techniques in common with Bethesda, of course, which made the developer a good match for the Fallout series upon its resurrection in 2008. But in Fallout 3 Bethesda does, in the end, let you become a superhero, with stats and skills coming out your ears – at which point it immediately stops being so affecting. In Fallout, you never stop being a victim of the wasteland, and you can never control it. It’s always a struggle. In fact, the game frequently lets you get yourself into situations you can’t escape, leaving you to either die of radiation poisoning in the middle of the wasteland or resort, exasperated, to a previous savegame.
Perhaps being completely uncompromising is the price that has to be paid for presenting a world as cohesive and believable as this one, in which so many stories rise spontaneously to the surface. Fallout’s vision is epitomised in the ending image, in which the Vault Dweller is seen alone and stumbling – not striding, but stumbling, shoulders hunched, head down – into the sunset, exiled by the unbearable weight of his experience. There’s no reward for bravery. Not in Fallout’s world.