This article is a speculative look at information about Fallout 3 as available, from developer comments, from the GI articles and interview and from Bethesda's own releases. The slow information stream from Bethesda and de facto media silence means that an amount of this information might not be accurate. However, as Bethesda always prides itself in not showing something until they're ready (ref), the accuracy is fairly but not 100% reliable.
This article was written when the GameInformer article and Q&A were released. It has not been adapted to include information released by the many previews following that article, and as such is outdated.
This article has been removed from frontpage circulation as it is too outdated.
Who is this for?
Written by Brother None, additional contributions by Tannhauser and Wooz
Game Informer editor Matt Miller noted, when answering what his overall impression was of the game, that "If you are a fan who is adamantly against some significant changes to the way gameplay occurs in the Fallout series, I’m going to tell you right now and save you the disappointment: I don’t think you’ll like Fallout 3. However, if you’re a fan of the Fallout universe, of the unique look of the world, of the moral ambiguity, of the dark and often violent humor, and the invigorating branching story paths, then everything about what I’ve seen of Fallout 3 should please you."
While we haven't seen nearly as much of Fallout 3 as Matt Miller, this strikes one as an odd conclusion to make. Not only is he limiting what defines Fallout in a way that directly contradicts statements from the developers of the original game (ref), but Miller is making a sweeping statement about expectations. To understand what he's basing this on, it is best to first examine the specific elements he identifies, namely the unique look of the world, moral ambiguity, dark and often violent humor, and invigorating branching story paths. Afterwards, we'll look at some of the revealed Fallout 3 elements on our own.
Unique look of the world
It is hard to put your finger on what exactly the unique look of Fallout is, as it is an amalgamation of styles; Interplay artists have identified Brazil, City of Lost Children, and the graphic novel Hard Boiled as major influences (ref). However, the most recognizable style throughout the games is the retro-fifties look that defines the setting, such as the Art Deco and Googie architecture, the fifties-inspired cars, the comical look of enemies such as Super Mutants, and the gigantic size of radiated animals. In short, the artists "set out to make a future science that looked like what the Golden Era of science fiction thought that future science would look like." (ref)
For people who are not particularly interested in the gameplay, this unique style is one of the things that stands out in Fallout. Not only is it different from typical Tolkien-inspired fantasy, but it's also unique amongst post-apocalyptic settings. Rather than using a generic post-apocalyptic atmosphere, it adds its own inspirations and elements to create its own unique style.
Matt Miller lists this as one of the elements we will see return in Bethesda’s Fallout 3. One of the most prominent examples we have to discuss on this topic is the typical "Hulk"-esque look of super mutants (ref). The look of super mutants was based on the fifties "future science" feel, but very little of that is visible in Bethesda's Fallout 3:
A cursory glance allows one to conclude the trademark style of Fallout’s super mutants has moved significantly closer to the generic super zombie style that we know from Return to Castle Wolfenstein and Resident Evil.
To continue with the unique style of Fallout, another significant element would be the architecture. From the four pieces of concept art released (ref), only one piece had Googie in it, and that was shoved into the background (ref). As the concept art was done by an independent freelance artist, that doesn’t tell us much; but Game Informer has released a piece which we’ve put alongside a Necropolis slide from the original Fallout for comparison:
The Necropolis slide most noticeably has an enormous Atlas statue, but on closer inspection it is also obvious that the ruined buildings have a number of key elements of Art Deco stylization around the corners and windows (art deco example ref). In the Game Informer image, if you remove the single "Nuka" billboard in the background, there is no identifiable difference between the ruins in Bethesda's Fallout 3 and the ruins of any other post-apocalyptic setting. On its own, the architecture of Fallout 3’s ruins would fit in any modern post-apocalyptic movie (where the apocalypse took place in the eighties or ninties), whereas the ruins of the original Fallout show a definite, unique style. On a more artistic level: Fallout's style was largely inspired by pulp covers from the fifties, with a well-defined linear drawing as a base, warm colors, subtle color hues and shading gradients. The material we have been shown of Bethesda's Fallout 3 contains pictures whose primary focus are sharp light contrasts, depriving them of color and shading mid-tones.
Bethesda has added a number of Fallout elements to Fallout 3. The released teaser trailer shows the interior of a bus wreck, filled with items that fit with the previous games. Once the camera pans out of the bus, we again see the generic post-apocalyptic setting in the buildings, with a few hints of art deco spread around, as well as a fairly retro-50s power armor. In Game Informer's article, you can see a ruined 50s car, one vault billboard and one atlas-esque art deco statue stuck on a building with art deco-windows.
An attentive reader will recognize what this description reads like: a list of easter eggs. The design appears as if the Bethesda developers designed a generic post-apocalyptic setting and afterwards added a number of "Fallouty"-elements to it, rather than designing a unique post-apocalyptic setting from the rich retro-fifties setting.
Two other examples:
Both of the cars are excellent examples of fifties-inspired design in Fallout. On the other hand, the ruined wooden house in the background of Bethesda's image is utterly generic (despite the white picket fence) compared to the background of the image from the original Fallout.
The Vault of the Future looks like any postcard from the fifties. The clear line style of Vault Boy in Fallout 3's "Vault Secure" picture is at odds with the rest of the billboard, showing that he has been literally "slapped on" the art.
Moral ambiguity, dark and often violent humor
Addressing these two together, the moral ambiguity topic is an odd one from the start. Matt Miller assures us that moral ambiguity is in the game, yet while Bethesda revealed to him that children were in, they refused to clarify if children could be killed. If we are discussing the same moral ambiguity of the original games, there should be no hesitation if the question "Can I kill a child in the game?" is raised. In keeping with the original games, the answer should be "Of course, that is your own moral choice." We have yet to see such an answer from Bethesda.
The dark and often violent humor is a large question mark. Pete Hines noted in an interview with SpoNG "You know, the humour in Fallout 3 is that you can get a weapon and blow a guy to a bloody mess, then when you pull up your interface, you see a little smiling cartoon character holding his thumb up. Like that's funny… funny not in terms of jokes or winks at the camera and such…" (ref) If you were to ask any experienced gamer, or very likely any Fallout designer, to define Fallout's humor, that would not be their answer. While Pete does assert that they won't be repeating the silliness of Fallout 2, and is a self-proclaimed fan, he seems unable to define Fallout's humor.
The humor of Fallout would be best defined as dark irony, combined with ludicrous situations arising from the confusion between the expectations of the player and the way the characters behave. The confusion stems from the fact that this is a retro-fifties post-apocalypse. To fit that unique setting, the characters have unique ways of surviving and interacting that has little to do with the way we interact in real life. It has absolutely nothing to do with the juxtaposition of creating a bloody mess and the PIPBoy icon.
Some examples of Fallout's dark irony; the fact that FEV, designed to save civilized mankind (USA) from the barbaric hordes (China) ends up threatening humanity twice (Unity, Enclave). The fact that nuclear bombs, which brought down civilization, end up saving it twice (Cathedral, Oil Rig). The fact that you get kicked out of your vault after saving it. Some examples of Fallout's ludicrous situations: the way Cabbot of the BoS reacts if you tell him you want to join and again when you return, the way Butch Harris reacts when you start talking about deathclaws and the conversation you have with him when you return to solve the quest, the fact that you can tell Lou in the middle of his torture-interrogation "[I'll tell you] On one condition, pal....Put a bag over your head so I can stand being in your presence."
Game Informer doesn't provide many examples of Fallout 3's humor, but one in particular sticks out: a situation in which you hack a computer to send a ticketbot to use its laserguns (?) to kill a gang of super mutants. Once the ticketbot is activated, it asks for tickets from the super mutants, when they don’t provide any, the ticketbot kills them. While this is close to the same genre of humor as Fallout, it is distinctly different. It is roughly the equivalent of someone trying to tell a Yakov Smirnov joke and ending up with "In Soviet Russia, bread bakes you!" It's still a Yakov Smirnov joke, but it also completely misses the point.
So what "dark and often violent humor" are we talking about here? Your guess is as good as mine, but it doesn't look like it's something that's we would recognize as being "Fallout."
Invigorating branching story paths
The greatest source of confusion on this topic is that Oblivion and Fallout have similar free-roaming design. While it's true that they are both "go anywhere, do anything" games, the two show differences in how things are presented to the player. Fallout allows a player a chance to do anything; but the choices the player makes, including character creation, also limit what the player can do in one play-through. While a player can eventually do everything, it will not be with the same character. Oblivion had no such limitations, allowing the player to become the leader of every guild in a single play-through. In Game Informer's interview, while Todd Howard explained that Bethesda realizes the differences between Fallout and Oblivion's design, he notes the similarity is that "you make a character, you go do what you want, you go explore a big world," (ref) It is not the first time he spoke on the topic, he has noted before that he "thought Fallout would be a great fit for us, it has all the big things I love about RPGs – player freedom, big world, go do what you want type of stuff." (ref) In neither case does he discuss that we are speaking about dissimilar types of player freedom in here, in fact he has never discussed that topic.
The Game Informer article features in-game side-stories, as well as explaining game features like V.A.T.S. and gun erosion. Yet it mentions choice and consequence only once. It does speak of branching storylines: "If you make one choice, it may close off an entire branch of missions from ever becoming available. However, because of that one decision, an entirely new series of missions will emerge that the other option would never have revealed." This is encouraging, but it's also the only time that the article mentions this aspect, though it spends entire paragraphs on combat. As RPGCodex' Vault Dweller puts it: "Anyway, did you notice that the article does not mention any option to do something differently? One would think that Todd would have illustrated or at least mentioned all the options while playing through this quest. Something like "of course, you can blow a hole in Mister Burke's head instead" or "you can talk to the sheriff", etc. So, either these options are not present and the game railroads you or Todd doesn't think that these options are interesting / have consequences / worth mentioning. Either scenario is alarming." (ref)
One of the memorable extremes of Fallout's gameplay was that you could play through the entire game without firing a shot. When asked about that, Matt Miller notes "I never got a hard and fast answer on this point, though I did ask the development team about it. (...) Whether you’ll be able to play through the whole game without committing any violence is a point they’re still hammering out, to my memory. " (ref) He did ask, but Bethesda could not provide a simple answer on if a non-violent playthrough is possible.
Possible conclusions concerning "invigorating branching story paths?” It could go either way, it is impossible to tell from the above information, but the following is right on topic mentioned above, as we leave Matt Miller's list...
The term "dialogue" was mentioned not once in the Game Informer article, the only information available about it is from Matt Miller's FAQ: "Sure, Fallout 3 plays primarily from a first-person perspective like Oblivion, and conversations with NPCs use a similar style of dialogue tree, but combat, questing, character creation and most importantly the tone and style of the gameplay shares more in common with Fallout 1 and 2 than Oblivion." (ref)
Matt Miller seems as if someone who knows enough about the gameplay of Fallout to understand that the basic structure of Oblivion's dialogue system is similar to Fallout's. Both place NPC’s answers on top a window with a list of options for your PC to state on the bottom (though not simultaneously for Oblivion), with dialogues that branch out.
Yet he specifically mentions that the dialogue trees of Fallout 3 are closer to Oblivion's style than "in common with Fallout 1 and 2". So what are the differences between Oblivion and Fallout? On the surface, the PC lines in Oblivion are represented by single words or abbreviated phrases, while the lines in Fallout are complete responses full of personality. Beneath that, Fallout’s system tracks the player's reputation, the previous gameplay choices he had made, and the choices he does make in the dialogue to open or close certain branches of the dialogue tree, branches that are permanently open in Oblivion.
Is that what Matt Miller means? I don't know and we shouldn't draw definitive conclusions from a single quote that isn’t from a developer. But, that element is probably the most significant difference between the two dialogue systems: you have to watch what you say in Fallout, while Oblivion is mostly a click-fest to get the right line. Until definite word is in, we can only hope that this statement was somehow inaccurate.
At the least Bethesda has promised improvement on voice acting, but that's no wonder when you compare the voice-cast of Oblivion (ref) to that of, for example, Troika's Vampire: The Masquerade (ref) or Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (ref).
Matt Miller's separation seems fairly accurate here: the inclusion of turn-based combat has always been a gripe of the more traditional Fallout fans and is rarely listed as important for other fans. What is Bethesda giving us instead of turn-based combat, then? Matt Miller describes it: "I talk about this a good bit in the July magazine article, but to be clear, Fallout 3 plays in both real time and a paused tactical combat mode. It’s not really turn based, however. Instead, you can pause the real-time action in order to make aimed ranged or melee attacks on your opponents, smashing their legs to slow them down, or perhaps shooting an arm to hurt their weapon aim. Like in the original Fallout games, doing these aimed shots take action points, but since there are no turns, those AP recharge over time after unpausing the game. You can shoot in real time, but that will then slow your recharge rate. In practice, this means players have the option to play the game very much like an RPG, but with a good bit more action than traditional RPGs. Are there other details to the way this system works? Almost definitely, yes. Do we know all the answers to how V.A.T.S. works after seeing it in one demo? No. We’re waiting just like you to find out more." (ref)
That reads pretty accurately as standard Real-Time with Pause gameplay, with the only difference being that the number of pauses are limited by your agility and that you can aim in pause, giving it a kind of superman function. Standard RTwP gameplay has been prevalent in RPG gaming since the Infinity engine games such as Baldur's Gate or Planescape: Torment, and has survived successfully up to now with titles such as Knights of the Old Republic. It is an obvious choice.
But that is part of the problem. It's an obvious, safe, non-innovative choice. As Tim Cain said about Fallout's original design choices: "It also showed how popular and fun turn-based combat could be, when everyone else was going with real-time or pause-based combat." (ref) Whether or not you dislike turn-based, you cannot deny that it was a daring choice to use it during the time when Diablo, Ultima Online and Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall (and System Shock on vaguely the same genre) were dominating the RPG market. Rather than emulating the daring of the original developers, Bethesda has chosen to go safe, with tried-and-true Real-Time with Pause.
Todd Howard noted on his RTwP system that "We don't want to be rewarding twitch play. It's not an action game. It's a role-playing game." However, a RTwP system will not offer anything that role-playing gamers haven't seen before, while fans of first-person shooters in a post-apocalyptic or retro-fifties setting can turn to S.T.A.L.K.E.R. or BioShock. So…
Who is this for?
This question remains, and it's an important one. Working on the basis of what we know (and don't forget the disclaimer at the beginning of this article), Bethesda has ignored calls from the traditional fanbase to keep combat and gameplay style, it has ignored calls from the less-traditional fanbase to keep the same visual style or dialogue method, it isn’t going to please any FPS fans with a system designed to discourage twitch play, it seems to be consciously side-stepping every chance to bring something unique or non-generic to the RPG market. So, asides from people who will buy it to spite NMA users, who are they making this for? Luckily, we have an answer:
Pete Hines: “As Fallout fans and guys who make roleplaying games and have for over a decade, we have pretty good ideas about what we want to do and how to do it.” (ref)
Todd Howard: “I worry about meeting our own expectations. (...) That being said, I'm sure there's a vocal minority that wants to kill us for even attempting to do it. But they wanted to kill Peter Jackson too, so you have to ignore that and just do something great that you'd love to play.” (ref)
Todd Howard: "We’re fortunate in that people are allowing us to make these big virtual crazy games. No feature is off limits, right? It’s a role-playing game and you do what you want, so almost anything we think of we have an avenue to put into our kind of game.
All of us in the office play a lot of games. So the first thing is we make them for ourselves. People here tend to try and entertain each other. There are more ideas than we can ever possibly do every week. Videogames are absolutely the most energizing creative thing you can ever work on. You have this technology magic and then you have story telling and gameplay. It’s all open. You can get motivation from everything; just from walking around looking at things and going ‘oh that’s really neat’." (ref)
Ah, they're making it for themselves. Good market there, I hear.