A mirror of Eric Schwarz' original article on his Gamasutra blog. Follow more of his writings there
Older RPGs are generally not considered to be the easiest games to get into, especially on the PC. Complex systems of rules and mechanics to learn, stories steeped in arcane lore and fully of dense sub-plots, and a focus on managing multiple characters, quests, and other goals all at once often leads to a sense of things being impenetrable. Even experienced RPG fans can sometimes find themselves intimidated by older games, or those based on rulesets they may not be familiar with.
The original Fallout is a game with such a reputation. Generally considered uninviting and not very good about telling the player how to play or where to go, it's fair to say that many people stop playing before they even really get into the game. However, I feel this reputation isn't really appropriate to the game itself. Indeed, Fallout, despite its age, actually has one of the strongest opening segments in an RPG that I've seen in quite some time. In this article, I'll be examining the early goings of Fallout and will demonstrate how it manages to ensure that players are given a thorough introduction to its gameplay and themes, without relying on heavy-handed tutorials or narration.
What's in a Introduction?
The goals of a game's introduction sequence are usually twofold: introduce the player to the rules of the game in such a way that prepares him or her for the challenges ahead, while also providing a solid narrative basis for the player's actions. The latter is what we generally call backstory, although the extent of this can vary wildly - Fallout might require quite a lot to establish its world and characters, but Angry Birds doesn't have much to explain so it can get its narrative elements out of the way almost immediately and without having to spend a single word or line of dialogue on it.
The former is usually the bigger challenge, and it almost always takes the form of some sort of learning sequence. Learning in the early stages of a game is the most critical part of the entire game - all game functions necessary for playing the game must be demonstrated. This is best done through interactivity - a set of simple challenges designed to introduce game elements one by one and by providing a series of gates such that the player cannot progress without proving that he/she has a grasp of the mechanics, controls and/or interface. This can be everything from "calibrating your HUD" in a shooter to teach basic camera controls, to requiring the player bash down a barrier to proceed.
Role-playing games, especially ones with complex rule systems, have things doubly hard. Not only does a designer have to ensure the player is familiar with the mechanics of the game before starting, but the user interface has to be navigable by the player in a way that expresses all of those mechanics clearly and allows for easy interaction with them. Typically, this is why an isometric, old-school RPG such as Icewind Dale is a bit more imposing than a modern action-RPG like Mass Effect - with more party members to manage, more ways to interact with the world, more abilities to use, etc., the interface is going to necessarily become more complicated. The trade-off made is that once the player is familiar with the interface, there's typically a lot more the player can actually do in a game (such as Fallout allowing the player to use specific skills with specific objects or characters in the game world).
So, that out of the way, here's exactly what an opening to a game like Fallout needs to teach the player:
• The key backstory (United States vs. China, world apocalypse, Vaults, etc.)
• The most important characters (the player character, the Overseer - others are only relevant later in the game)
• The player's goals and objectives (search the surface world for a Water Chip and bring it back to Vault 13 within 150 days, in order to save the Vault)
• Movement (point and click)
• Interacting with the game world (right-click context menu, hotkeys, skill use)
• Inventory use (managing and equipping items, looting containers)
• Combat (turn-based system, melee attacks, ranged attacks, aimed attacks, action points, hit points, reloading)
• Different weapons (guns, unarmed, melee, etc.)
• Using the world map
• Random encounters
• Following directions towards goals
• Interacting with other NPCs (speaking, bartering, "ask me about" feature)
• Importance of skill use in the game world
• Choice and consequence within the game world
• Distinction between combat and non-combat zones
• The player's relative position of strength in the game world
Seems like a lot of things to teach, more than most other games, and you'd be right... but at the same time, Fallout is able to pull just about all of these off, and does so without ever using a single tutorial message or pop-up.
Interface and Controls
After its introductory sequence, which gets the first several points out of the way (the backstory, the player's goals, etc.), the player will find him or herself inside a cave, the huge Vault 13 door shut behind. Interestingly, despite being a far more complicated and story-heavy game than most modern titles, its cutscenes still total just about five minutes, and can be easily skipped. Many other games with much less to them have far, far more elaborate openings, which demonstrates how effective Fallout's relatively short and to the point beginning really is.
So, what have we got? There's a corpse at the door, a computer console, and the path leading forward. Already, things are tense: the music is moody and atmospheric, the corpse implies hostile circumstances, and the darkness of the cave ahead is certainly not very inviting. Instantly, the stage for the bleak tone of the game is set.
The Vault-suited corpse and the unresponsive radio near the door is the first of many subtle, dark jokes throughout the game that say all they need to without a word.
Fallout teaches the fundamentals of its interface in surprisingly intuitive and covert ways. This is accomplished through the corpse near the player - after all, just about everyone's going to want to inspect it. To do so, Fallout requires the player right-click to change the cursor to "interact mode" and then left-click on the corpse once more. This opens up the looting panel, which clearly displays both the player's inventory and the container's own items (in this case, a machete). When the player's done, however, another problem appears - the player can't move anymore! Well, right-clicking worked once, so what about again? Sure as can be, a second right-click returns the cursor to movement mode and lets the player continue exploring.
But what about the machete on the corpse? Provided the player can read, he/she will no doubt notice the "INV" icon prominently displayed on the user interface. Clicking it opens up the inventory, where the player will notice a few things: first, that he/she hasn't been sent out without supplies; second, that the machete appeared at the top of the player's list; third, that any items can be equipped in the "Item 1" and "Item 2" slots, not just weapons. Thus, the player has learned not just how to use the interface for moving, interacting, looting, and equipping items, but also that items can be used in the weapon slots - suggesting not only that, say, Stimpaks can be used to heal one's self, but that they can be used to heal others as well.
Like most things, Fallout appreciates that players are smart enough to figure the basics of inventory management for themselves, building scenarios to introduce it without telling the player to do anything.
Although this seems counter-intuitive and difficult to figure out, this is actually one of the most effective "invisible" tutorials I've ever seen. With a single sequence, the game has taught the player the fundamental differences between movement mode and interaction mode, how to change between the two modes, how to interact with the environment, how to manage inventory, and a whole other mode of interacting with the world, through items. It's not mandatory, but unless the designers wanted to break immersion with tutorial messages, this is about as quick and effective a way as you can teach the player these things.
Many modern games would attempt to map all the same functions to a single mouse button, and while that might seem more intuitive and easy to get a hold of, in drawing clear lines between different types of interactions, Fallout also avoids many of the interface muck-ups that other games have (such as attacking an NPC instead of speaking with him/her). With a clear interface, there can be no ambiguity or mistakes in the player's own actions - to do something, you really do have to do it.
With those basics out of the way, the player will feel confident to set out into the cave ahead. Doing so without running into one of the local denizens, however, is nearly impossible - they blend in with the game background, they're small, and moving nearby initiates combat automatically. Could it be anything other than rats?
Rats. RPGs, RPGs never change.
Due to the rats' small size and placement right on the path ahead, he player is almost guaranteed to end up in combat mode, and will more or less be forced to learn the basics of the interface and mechanics to proceed - taking minor damage demonstrates the hit point mechanics, seeing scrolling text in the bottom-left corner of the screen teaches the player about the value of the info log (which is used for both combat and non-combat functions), how to pass turns, and, of course, the player now knows how to shoot, stab and punch others (by clicking the big weapon button on the bottom of the screen).
Once again, the player has to figure all of this out. Unlike most games, combat is something the player has to figure out on his or her own, without tutorial messages. How do I attack? How do I move? Why can't I attack anymore? How do I end a turn? How do I change weapons? Normally, this would be a lot to take in, and it is. However, that's also the beauty of a turn-based game - the player has plenty of time to find out what does what, and the low-level rats the player will fight are almost impossible to lose to even with a very physically weak character.
In a game where hand-holding is almost nonexistent, tutorial pop-ups everywhere would have killed the flow of the game and would have coddled the player, leaving him/her unprepared for later on... by making the player use his/her head, not only is there a genuine feeling of learning and progress, but the player now knows to expect little help when the game gets more difficult. By modern standards, this is sacrilege, but even today, getting into Fallout is fairly easy because of the way it's set up to encourage learning. Even if the player misses out on something right now, the player is almost guaranteed to learn the fundamentals.
Once the player has dealt with the first enemies in the game just south of the Vault door, chances are he or she will be much more alert and ready for the next encounter - now that the player knows what rats are, it'll be much harder to run into them unintentionally. The player may also have noticed that going into combat mode highlights available targets, making it an effective way of spotting them in the darkness. This means that the player likely won't blunder into combat again, unless it really is his or her own fault.
The additional caverns to explore don't just provide extra XP and loot - they also teach the player about risk/reward, and about the optional nature of most combat in the game.
More importantly, though, this combat sequence and the level design of the area actually teach the player that much of the game's combat is avoidable. The opening cave area has two caverns off to the east and west, both of them completely optional to explore, and with them, the combat within. Although the player does receive some rewards for exploring and defeating the rats, the large groups of them off the beaten path may be off-putting. If the player invested in Sneak, now's the time to try it out. This lesson about avoiding fights, especially when outmatched, will be invaluable as the game goes on and the player learns that often, running is the best solution when faced with tough odds. What's more, on subsequent plays, there's nothing to stop the player from simply rushing past the minor enemies and heading out into daylight.
When the player emerges into daylight for the first time, he/she will be presented with a brand-new interface element: the world map. Aside from looking neat, it forms the basis for overland travel and is the lifeline between the different settlements across the game world. Fallout's world map deviates from the norm in a key way - whereas most games have world maps that display the entire world on a single screen, in Fallout, the player only ever sees a 9x9 grid, with each settlement taking up one space on the grid. To find more locations, the player will have to penetrate the fog-of-war and explore the outlying area. Even in the heat of the sun, the feeling of a hostile, mysterious world is still preserved.
Starting out can be intimidating, but handily, we already have a list of two locations - Vault 13 and Vault 15. The player knows (or should know) that Vault 13 is where the game began, so the most logical step to take, as per the Overseer's instructions in the intro video, is to head to Vault 15. To do this, the player need only click the Vault 15 button on the interface, and he/she will begin traveling to the east.
Interestingly, there's some additional "left-to-right" videogame logic at work here to guide the player. Upon first appearing on the world map screen, Vault 13 is shown on the top-leftof the screen. The black fog-of-war to the right and bottom of the location suggests the player go in those directions, rather than left or up. Going up will eventually take the player to the top of the world, with little of interest otherwise, while going left will soon cause the player to stumble into far more difficult enemies and, more than likely, instant death. Meanwhile, going right or down will take the player in the general directions of civilization. It's a subtle touch, but very effective in steering the player.
The layout of the world map screen and the starting locations relative to each other is just one more way that Fallout teaches the player about the game and its world without breaking the fourth wall.
Pressing the button to initiate travel towards Vault 15 reveals a few interesting things. First, moving around removes the fog-of-war. Second, different types of terrain affect movement speed, which in turn affect time spent traveling. Last, and most importantly, there's another settlement on the way to Vault 15! The player will no doubt recognize it as such due to the big green circle (which looks exactly like the Vault 13 marker), but since the player hasn't arrived at Vault 15 yet, it must not be something entirely different. But what?
This opens up an interesting dilemma. Does the player continue on to Vault 15 or stop at this first settlement (by left-clicking the map to interrupt the current course)? If the player continues on to Vault 15, he or she will find a few things - more difficult enemies to deal with (bigger rats), and soon after, it will be impossible to proceed, owing to a non-functional elevator that needs to be bypassed. Even if the player skips by the first town initially, it will become necessary to visit it shortly after, either because the player runs from a tough fight, or because the player simply can't move on. The decision to stop or continue is a compelling one to make and is the first step in cementing Fallout's open world nature, even if there's nothing really lost either way.
The world map also teaches another few important narrative facts about the game world. The first: there is almost no civilization left. The world as we know it has been destroyed, if not erased. The land is barren and inhospitable. This is something communicated in the introduction, but seeing it in-game has its own strong emotional resonance. Most games would see the player exploring a wilderness full of life, or a sprawling metropolis - in Fallout, it's desolate, bleak deserts.
Should the player stray too far, there's an interesting gating mechanism at work. Although the player is free to move in any direction, there are tough enemies off the beaten path - to the far west, Super Mutants (which are effectively impossible to fight until much later in the game), and to the south, Radscorpions and raiders (both of which are also more difficult and imposing than the rats the player is now used to). Thus, it's pretty much impossible not to end up at the first town, Shady Sands.
Arriving at Shady Sands, the player's learning phase is beginning to come to an end. However, there's still a couple very important things left to see before the player can move on to the goal of Vault 15 - namely, more complex interaction with the world, speaking with other characters, bartering, and accepting quests and earning reputation.
The gate at Shady Sands and the warning to unequip weapons marks the difference in gameplay between combat and non-combat areas, as well as the narrative distinction between wasteland and civiliation that accompany them.
Right off the bat, the player will learn that Shady Sands is a peaceful place, as the guards at the gate tell the player to put away his/her weapons. Speaking to one of the NPCs, Katrina, will give the player a valuable and welcomed exposition dump - basics on the game world, as well as mechanics like healing, buying new items, and so on. This is the most direct tutorial the player will ever get, and speaking to Katrina will yield an XP bonus. In another subtle bit of teaching, this sequence reinforces the value of learning through interacting and accomplishing goals rather than simply killing enemies (as 500 XP is likely more than what the player earned fighting the rats in the cave).
Inside Shady Sands, the player will spend most of his/her time exploring and learning about some of the game's finer points. There is an early game quest to pick up, which sees the player ridding the town of its Radscorpion problem, which will likely provide the player with his/her first level-up and some more advanced combat experience (though there's an alternate non-combat solution, involving collapsing the Radscorpion cave with explosives, as well). There's a lot of loot to find in the various containers around town. There's a new companion to pick up, Ian, and doing so will most likely require that the player barter for some extra caps to pay him with. There's the "tell me about" feature which can provide the player with extra information in dialogue (though sadly it's not very useful, and was removed from Fallout 2). There are even a few Speech and Science checks to make that allow the player to appreciate the value of intellect over brawn.
Teaching farmers about crop rotation rewards the player's character-building choices, while also fleshing out the game world in intelligent ways.
Importantly, many of these early moments also reinforce certain narrative qualities as well. The Radscoprion quest demonstrates that in the wasteland, humans are constantly struggling to survive against the wildlife. The farmers, who lack understanding of crop rotation (which a smarter player can teach them), are only barely managing to get by. The player even learns, through Tandi, the village leader's daughter, that human nature - desire for excitement, adventure and recklessness in youth - has remained largely the same even in the face of apocalypse.
Long story short, when the player is done with Shady Sands, he/she will feel truly ready to go ahead and tackle Vault 15. If the player already visited it, then this learning phase in Shady Sands will instill a lot of extra confidence and will allow the player to gear up for its challenges. If the player stopped at Shady Sands first, then the player will probably have to backtrack at least once, but won't find it truly intimidating and difficult either. Most importantly, though, the player now has a clear distinction between and understanding of all the different modes of play the game has to offer - combat, exploration and conversation, and world map travel.
Vault 15 is the game's first major goal and marks the transition point from introduction and tutorial into the meat of the game. Not only does it put the player's skills to the test, it also throws a huge monkey wrench in what likely seemed like a fairly straightforward experience up to this point.
The first, and most obvious sign that Vault 15 is a bigger threat is that it contains some substantially larger enemies. If the player fought off the Radscorpions in Shady Sands, they won't seem nearly as threatening, but compared to the rats encountered earlier, the larger pig rats and the monstrous mole rats are certainly deadly. Although the choice of so many rats might seem a bit odd, it actually provides a nice sense of mastery over the game world that another enemy type wouldn't provide, and draws attention to the effects of radiation on the local wildlife in increasingly more dangerous ways. Once the player's dealt with the big critters, he/she will have symbolically moved beyond the intro phase.
Battling through the monsters, the player will come across the first major roadblock - the elevator is broken, and there's no way down! In what is quite possibly one of the most infamous moments in RPG history, the player is unable to progress until he/she collects, of all things, a rope. I cannot count the number of stories I've heard of players throwing their hands up in disbelief at this realization. For many players, this will mean traveling back to Shady Sands to find one - there are a few available for barter, and one to find/steal. Although this moment is often critiqued, I actually think it's a pivotal moment in Fallout - it forces the player to understand the importance of interacting with the environment, of using items to solve puzzles, and importantly, that not all problems can be solved with bullets.
Vault 15 is the player's first true test, and has both combat and environmental challenges that must be solved to make sure the player is adequately equipped to deal with the rest of the game.
After fighting more enemies, and gathering some more loot (the player will no doubt appreciate the ammo and the leather jacket, the first new piece of armor in the game, and another symbolic indicator of progress and mastery), the player will finally come to the Vault's control center. If the player decided to revisit Vault 13 before coming here, then this will no doubt look familiar, but even so, reaching the end is fairly simple and straightforward, with a strong critical path and a few optional rooms to explore off to the sides.
Unfortunately, it also presents a huge twist in Fallout's gameplay and completely changes the player's relationship to the game world. Simply put, there is no Water Chip in Vault 15. Just about every player who ever gets this far in Fallout will have the same reaction: "so... now what?"
This really marks the moment when Fallout moves from being just another straightforward RPG into a fully open-ended title with non-linear narrative and goals. While the player will always find the replacement Water Chip, eventually, at the same place every time, the ways to get there can be remarkably different. Even returning to Vault 13 and speaking to the Overseer won't really provide much help - the player is truly on his or her own to move forward in the game, and Fallout completely embraces this by providing only vague directions and forcing the player to explore and interact, rather than follow instructions.
After all the basics of interface, mechanics, and gameplay modes are out of the way, the player is truly ready to take on the world. This is where the tutorial ends, and where the real game begins.
Despite all these great things Fallout does to ease players into its inhospitable world, there are some definite issues that many players and designers over the years have correctly and fairly pointed out. The first of these, the relatively complicated character system and the relative uselessness of certain skills compared to others, is by far the most damaging. Unfortunately, it is possible to make an outright bad character in Fallout, and while it's not quite as easy to mess up as some players occasionally suggest, there's no way of knowing what's on the outside world, and thus what will be most useful, until going out yourself. Woe to thee who tagged the Gambling skill.
There's also, unfortunately, the issue of the timer. Specifically, 150 days doesn't seem like a lot, and while it's more time than the ticking click might suggest, putting the player on a time limit from the very beginning can feel stifling. Worst case scenario, the player really does run out of time, earning a non-standard game over. Starting over a game was actually fairly common back in 1997 when Fallout came out, especially in RPGs, but by modern standards, being forced to replay the beginning of a game due to a few bad early choices seems patently ridiculous.
Last, the tutorial isn't explicit about a few things. Using skills in the environment may not be entirely clear, although with experimentation most players will eventually figure it out. The same goes for more advanced combat functions like aimed shots, and even some of the basic rules in combat like action points. These are all important, and unfortunately they're very hard to communicate in the passive way Fallout attempts. Fortunately, back then, games still came with instruction manuals!
Fifteen years later, the first Fallout still demonstrates effective teaching of both its narrative and gameplay through subtle gating, smart scenarios of vary scales which lead from one to another, and by giving the player increasingly challenging tests with a good feeling of progression and mastery. There might be a few rough edges, but for a game with so many moving parts, its opening accomplishes a lot without resorting to a single pop-up. Compared to contemporaries like Baldur's Gate, Fallout's opening still stands the test of time as a smart and effective piece of game design.