Why can’t I climb the walls?
As development started, we quickly came to an understanding of what kind of game this was going to be. There were several decisions that defined the spirit of the game.
Since most of us were rabid pencil-and-paper role-players, we loved the flexibility of approaching obstacles from many different angles. Most of these potential solutions were completely convoluted - much to the chagrin of the Game Master - but fun none-the-less.
For example, if the GM said, “There are two bandits ahead of you.”, there would always be a variety of actions from the players. “I sneak into the bushes to lay an ambush.” “I take cover and ready my bow.” “I approach to parley.” “I run up and intimidate them into giving me their money.” “I run past them shouting, ‘Oh god, it’s right behind me! Run!’” It was rare that players in a paper-and-pencil game would just say, “We attack them.”
GURPS was also a skill heavy game, and its combat was kind of brutal. Characters in a fight could easily be overwhelmed by their opponents, even weak ones. Players had to rely on their character’s skills to best foes or overcome obstacles – and GURPS had a LOT of skills. (No really, at the time there were hundreds of skills, and in its current incarnation there are one thousand plus skills!) It was common to have a dozen of skills on your character sheet, but potentially only use a handful during a whole adventure.
All of this led us to two very important decisions:
Rule #2: No Useless Skills. The skills we allow you to take will have meaning in the game.
This meant that the player will never be presented with a dialog stating, “Will your stalwart band choose to (F)ight or (R)un?” They will need to have an enormous amount of freedom to tackle each encounter as they see fit. If they spent the points to purchase the Intimidation skill, they should be able to use it as often as possible and to accomplish as many challenges as possible.
I wanted the game to seem brutally real. The player should feel that the world is out to get them. There is no safety and you can’t trust anyone. Any false step could be your last.
That meant that some of the team’s zaniness didn’t work well. For instance, a roving gang of cannibals who dressed like evil clowns? That’s good. If they threw pies or honked their noses? That’s not good.
Most of the humor stemmed from the dialog. We figured that most everyone living in the god-forsaken world outside the vaults had to be somewhat insane, just to survive the daily horrors of living. That helped us create so many bizarrely memorable characters.
(The idea of a clown gang stemmed from my otaku fascination with the movie Akira, but I quickly realized that it didn’t really fit the world we were creating.)
Another core decision that stemmed from our Role-Playing addiction was the idea of creating your own characters. Sure, most RPGs allow you to allocate attribute points and choose a male or female body – we wanted you to be able to create a character that allows you to play the way you want to play.
How do you want to play the game? Do you want to be the gun-wielding tough-guy? The buff melee brute? Maybe the stealthy assassin? The nimble guy who can’t be hit? Or maybe the guy who can talk anyone into anything? All of these choices (and any combination between them) must all be valid. By simply choosing from a few skills and abilities, you can tell us how you want to interact with the game.
This also meant that however a player specialized their character, they still had to be able to get through the game. Initially, I underestimated all the permutations that this decision actually meant. What if you had a character that was really good at persuasion, but not trained in combat? If a player wanted that kind of play experience, we had to deliver. Thus, those “Charisma-boy” characters can easily gain allies that fight for them, and are able to talk their way out of most situations in the game.
Introducing Heap of Gore Technology ™
Ah, Leonard Boyarsky! That dude was not only an awesome artist, but single-handedly keep the entire aesthetic look of the game in his head. He was loud, crass, and funny as hell, much like the Lenny Bruce shirt he often wore.
We had already come to the conclusion that this was going to be a bloody game. I think it was Tim that coined the phrase, “Heap of Gore Technology ™”. (We actually wanted that as a bullet point on the box.) The idea was, if you score a critical hit which kills an enemy, they fountain blood like a Shaw Brothers film and fall dead. The methods of their death showed different animations – critical death by sword and they are cut in half, critical death by machine gun and they shudder with bullet holes before falling into a pool of gore, blasted by a laser and a smoldering ash pile is all that remains.
So, one day, we had an art meeting about the characters and all animations they needed. In going through the list of characters, Leonard noticed that we had children on the list – and subsequent death animations for them – Heap of Gore animations included.
I remember him looking up quizzically at me and saying, “Kids too? Do we really want to do that?”
I had a moment of indecision. I had visions of parents walking into little Timmy’s room and watching aghast as he mercilessly mows down a schoolyard of children with his chain-gun.
Thankfully I stuck to my beliefs and said, “Hell yeah.”
You see, I wanted the player to be able to do anything they wanted in the game – along with suffering the unavoidable consequences. You steal from a shop? That shop owner won’t sell to you anymore. You shoot up a town? The guards will attack you when you come back. Kill children? You gain the “Child Killer” reputation, and now no one in the whole game (except the most depraved or desperate) will even talk to you. If you want to be a villain, you’ll be treated like one.
Of course, this led to all sorts of interesting situations. Those sick bastards in playtest had the funniest by far. They would use their character’s Pick Pocket skill on a kid, which would open up a window showing what that kid had in his pockets. Instead of taking anything, they would instead place a timed explosive in one of their little pockets. As their character would duck for cover, the innocent little kid would skip back to his group of friends and then BOOM!
I heard that the testers competed to see how many kids they could take out in one blast.
Funny as hell, but sick nonetheless.
We also wanted the characters in our game to speak frankly and crassly – sometimes even curse.
You gotta remember that this was early 1995: the word “ass” was still banned from the public airwaves by the FCC. Lots of people didn’t like the explicit violence in video games, and they spoke loudly to senators who would gladly like to demonize an emerging artform.
Luckily, Interplay’s marketing didn’t think it would be a detriment to have harsh language in the game. As long as we stayed away from George Carlin’s 7 words, we’d be OK.
My old high-school friend Mike “Paco” Greene (who also worked at Interplay) told me that his most memorable Fallout experience was hearing me gleefully racing down the corridors of Interplay shouting to everyone, “I can say ASS!”
Speaking of funny language restrictions, while the Super Nintendo version of Lord of the Rings was submitted to Nintendo for approval, it was rejected. Why? “Nine for mortal men doomed to die.” Nintendo would not allow us to use the term “die” in a SNES game. Seriously. We told them that we were quoting from a piece of great literature, but still they denied our submission. In anger, the game’s producer changed it to “Nine mortal men doomed to cry.” (And I can still hear the screams of horror from the Tolkien fans in the office.) Finally, Interplay’s lawyers stepped in. It seems that there were a great number of Japanese published SNES games that had used the English translation “die”… and they all passed submission… so why not us Gaijin, hmmm? Nintendo backed down, and the Mortal Men were again doomed to die.
Although I had left Interplay by then, in 1999, Interplay made some political shockwaves by publishing Xaitrix’s Kingpin: Life of Crime. That was the first game to have not only explicit violence, but every line of dialog was filled with intentionally hard-core language.
Funny story, as a few Interplay marketing people watched as Senator Leiberman held aloft Kingpin (the game they had marketed) before the Senate floor as an example of why games should be regulated, he called the game by its marketing subtitle, “You’re gonna die.” The marketing lead was heard to say, “I’m not sure what disturbs me more, that my game is an example of pure evil, or that he got the name wrong…”
But I digress...