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Editorial: Fallout

Celebrating the Fallout week on GOG.com, David Craddock together with Tim Cain and Chris Taylor from the former Black Isle Studios takes you behind-the-scenes of the Fallout 1 development process.

By the mid-1990s, the once-fertile landscape of computer role-playing games had degenerated into a desolate wasteland. The genre was stagnating, with many developers embracing regurgitation over innovation after achieving success with a particular formula, or flocking to consoles in an attempt to cash in on the success of Japanese RPGs.

by David Craddock



By the mid-1990s, the once-fertile landscape of computer role-playing games had degenerated into a desolate wasteland. The genre was stagnating, with many developers embracing regurgitation over innovation after achieving success with a particular formula, or flocking to consoles in an attempt to cash in on the success of Japanese RPGs.



In answer to the need for a revolution, developer Black Isle Studios and publisher Interplay released Fallout, a post-apocalyptic RPG that took computer gamers looking for something fresh by storm. "I think Fallout hit several gaming sweet spots," explains Fallout designer Tim Cain. "It was open-ended. Today that would be called a sandbox game, but back then, we just knew that we were getting tired of linear RPGs where everyone played the same story in the same order with the same encounters. You could vary your character class, but that really just changed your damage--you killed the monster with a fireball instead of a sword."




Some of the earliest ideas in Fallout came out of [...] dinners, just random ideas that were tossed around. Some of it stuck, but most of it was forgotten.


The conception of Fallout did not occur during tense negotiations or nuclear threats, but casual dinners and brainstorming sessions. "A bunch of Interplay developers used to go out to Coco's for dinner once or twice a week," recalls fellow Fallout designer Chris Taylor, who speaks of secondhand stories relayed to him when he joined the team later on. "It was people like Tim Cain, Scott Campbell, Scott Everts, Jason Taylor, Wes Yanagi and others. They just shot the shit and talked games. Some of the earliest ideas in Fallout came out of those dinners, just random ideas that were tossed around. Some of it stuck, but most of it was forgotten."



Many ideas were modified or vetoed by the design team, but everyone agreed unanimously with one crucial inspiration: Wasteland, a computer RPG developed by Interplay for the Apple II. "We had all played Wasteland and loved that game," says Cain. "From that game, we took the ideas of non-linearity and an open world map, and we also loved that certain quests would lead you into moral dilemmas."



The originality of Fallout's nonrestrictive gameplay, as well as its emphasis on moral ambiguity, is a natural extension of its narrative. After the nuclear war that occurred in October 2077, humanity's few survivors fled into underground chambers known as Vaults. As the game begins, the year is 2161, the setting is Southern California's Vault 13, and you, the protagonist, are as undefined as the world's hazy, radioactivity-laden surface.



Creating a new character wasn't as simple as choosing from pre-constructed archetypes. Black Isle and Interplay wanted to make sure that each player's experience was vastly different from any other. To ensure this, Interplay originally employed GURPS, the Generic Universal RolePlaying System, but a variety of complications caused the team to construct their own system.



"Wasteland designer Brian Fargo had us vote on which license for Interplay to acquire, and there were more GURPS fans at Interplay than gothic horror or fantasy fans," explains Chris Taylor. "But after the GURPS project started, Interplay acquired the actual D&D license ... and GURPS sort of fell off to the wayside. It helped that we had some very experienced RPGers on the team. Tim Cain, Jess Heinig and I were all familiar with different RPGs and we all worked together to craft SPECIAL."



A fitting acronym for Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, and Luck, SPECIAL allowed for each of its defining attributes to be adjusted to the player's liking. Other skills could be manually tweaked so that players could excel at hacking, proficiently wield large or small firearms, become an articulate manipulator, or a jack of all trades but master of none.



After stepping out of Vault 13 on an assignment by the Vault's Overseer to find a replacement for the Vault's water system, the barren wasteland of Southern California becomes the player's playground. The freedom of exploring such a vast overworld initially seemed imposing, but nervousness was quickly eclipsed by the curiosity and freedom with which players could approach Fallout's often difficult choices.




If the player wanted to do bad things, we let them but we put consequences in there for as many possible decisions that the player could make.


"We didn't force the player to follow a specific moral path," says Taylor. "If the player wanted to do bad things, we let them but we put consequences in there for as many possible decisions that the player could make."



Tim Cain recalls one particularly difficult quest in Wasteland in which players are assigned to find an orphan's lost dog as a source of inspiration. "You go looking for an orphan’s puppy, only to find that it’s gone rabid and you have to put it down. Then when you try to explain it to the boy, he attacks you. What do you do in that situation? Fight? Run? Disable the boy somehow? That kind of moral ambiguity was the inspiration for many of Fallout’s quests."



Players quickly realized and embraced their role as co-authors of Fallout's dynamic story. Such flexibility added flair to standard RPG quest fare such as rescue missions. "I loved going to rescue Tandi from the raiders, but I never took her home to her father," says Cain. "Instead I gave her a weapon and dragged her all over the wasteland as an involuntary recruit. She was a pretty good shot too. I took her anywhere but back to Shady Sands, even though she complained a lot, and I think she died somewhere in the mutant base, trying to run through an electrified field. Good times, Tandi," he sighs, "good times."



Shady Sands prompted Chris Taylor to recall similarly bittersweet memories. "I accidentally started a fight in Shady Sands and ended up killing the entire town over a pretty minor reason--which I can't actually remember--but I was shouting to Aradesh to try and settle things peacefully. I felt bad about gunning down the inhabitants of Shady Sands. It didn't stop me from looting their corpses, but at least I felt bad about it."



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Creating a constantly shifting tale required the team to carefully examine each and every instance where players might deviate from what they, the designers, had intended. "We used character archetypes (like Stealth Boy, Combat Boy and so on) as examples of how characters with a particular build would be able to overcome a particular challenge," says Taylor. "We also had a very freeform dialogue system that probably drove our script-writers nuts, but it gave us a good bit of flexibility when it came to writing the actual dialogues."



To the team's amazement, the game's massive fan base began to fill in holes that were difficult for the team to plug due to not wanting to explain a resolution in a way that might not make sense to players who went about solving a particular quest in an unorthodox way.





"We picked up on the 'less is more' storytelling style, and didn't fully explain everything," confirms Taylor. "I was a little shocked to read some of the message boards when the game came out and players were filling in the bits that we purposely--or accidentally--left vague."



For a project as ambitious as Fallout, accidental vagueness is often a best-case scenario. The designers were often plagued by pre- and post-release flaws, many of which were quite humorous to behold.



"The first time I shot the rocket launcher, I used the wrong art for the missile," explains Cain, "and instead of a rocket shooting out and exploding, a man appeared in front of me, ran to my target, and blew up into tiny pieces. We laughed so much that I replaced the man with a dog so we had a puppy launcher."



Chris Taylor was eager to submit another Cain-induced folly. "Tim Cain implemented doors and was excited to show them off. We all gathered around his desk and he clicked on the door. It opened, then it closed, then it opened and then it closed and so on. Each time it opened and closed, it moved a few pixels to the right. Eventually, it moved off the screen and into random memory where it crashed the game."



"I imagine it’s still out there in the wasteland somewhere, headed up to the North Pole," Cain chimes in with a laugh.



"I have to admit that the quotes file was a guilty pleasure," continues Cain. "I would jot down comments from my co-workers during meetings or from conversations as I passed them in the hallways, and anything that sounded funny out-of-context would go into the file. Some of my guys were a bit over-represented in that file, but I think they just used ambiguous pronouns a bit too often for their own good."




Fallout took three years to make. For the first six months, it was just me (Tim Cain). For the next six months, it was me, a scripter and an artist.


Of course, not every obstacle was a humorous one. Fallout's development initially lacked manpower, which resulted in a longer-than-anticipated cycle. "Fallout took three years to make," says Tim Cain. "For the first six months, it was just me. For the next six months, it was me, a scripter and an artist. For the next year, it was about fifteen people. We finally went up to thirty people in the last year. That’s not a lot of people to make such a big game, especially an RPG. We worked a lot of late nights and a lot of weekends."



When Fallout debuted in the third quarter of 1997, its impact on computer RPGs was felt as strongly as a nuclear blast. Many respected video game critics such as PC Gamer and GameSpot have given it noteworthy positions in multiple "greatest games of all time" compilations, and GameSpot immediately awarded it RPG of the Year upon its release.



For Tim Cain, the special place reserved for Fallout in many a gamer's heart makes its arduous three-year development cycle well worth the struggle. "Fallout had a really engaging style--funny but dark, nostalgic but futuristic, optimistic but depressing. Getting these opposing styles balanced was a difficult task, but the entire team saw the same vision for the game, which helped immensely."



"Fallout came out at an odd time for computer RPGs," agrees Chris Taylor. "It was very popular in the 8-bit days, but had kind of been replaced with the console RPG. There weren't a lot of CRPGs being made and I think Fallout managed to be in the right place at the right time."



In the next part of GOG's Fallout retrospective, Black Isle Studios returns to the surface for Fallout 2--but many key team members quickly realize that the world they created has changed in ways they were not prepared to face.


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