Sunday, March 2, 2014

30 For 30: Fallout

I turned 30 on February 18th. I want to celebrate this, and get myself back into writing, by spending a few weeks rambling about the 30 things that have meant the most to me over the years. These will be from music, movies, books, videogames, and maybe even art and other things for good measure. I feel like my life has been much more about the things I've experienced than it has the people I've known or the places I've traveled to, and these 30 things have helped to make my 30 years more than worth all the innumerable bad things. Expect heartfelt over-sharing and overly analytical explanations galore! In part 13, imagine Ron Perlman reading this entry out loud for the authentic Fallout experience.
While RPGs on videogame consoles had gotten better and better throughout the 90s, during the same period the genre had all but stagnated on PCs. Credit is largely given to BioWare for breathing life back into PC RPGs, but it's easy to forget that Fallout and its sequel were both out by the time Baldur's Gate arrived in late 1998. I don't want to diminish the impact that BioWare's classic had though I do think that Fallout deserves more credit than it gets, to say nothing of the Elder Scrolls series. Not so much for its influence on games released in its wake but rather for its originality and replayability, Fallout should be held up as one of those 'exceptions to the rule' games that proves companies don't need to rely on Fantasy or straight up Sci Fi settings to find an audience.

Even though Fallout's world and style borrows liberally from the Wasteland series, as well as other post-apocalyptic media like Mad Max, the addition of a retro-futuristic style gave the game its own personality. The inclusion of the song 'Maybe' by the Ink Spots and the famous Pip-Boy character make Fallout stand out from any other game of its era. Fallout is also a heavily atmospheric game, with a cinematic/ambient soundtrack that perfectly complements the environments of vast desert landscapes and run down post-apocalyptic settlements. This aesthetic and atmosphere is the crucial part of what makes the Fallout series what it is, far more than the overhead camera angle and turn based combat that most diehard fans want developers to bring back. This is why, despite being excited for the original version of what was supposed to be the third Fallout game (dubbed Van Buren), I wasn't worried when we first started to see what Bethesda was doing with their version of Fallout 3. In the midst of complaints that it was going to be a sloppily thrown together “The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion but with guns”, I thought the addition of Fallout's aesthetic to a first person open world RPG in Bethesda's trademark style, if done properly, would be genius. Whatever flaws the game might have in the eyes of Fallout purists, I don't think there's any denying that Fallout 3 looks and feels like a Fallout game, which is a hell of a lot more than can be said for the execrable Fallout: Brotherhood Of Steel, a game everyone seems to have agreed to erase from history.

 Pip-Boy reenacts reaction to Brotherhood Of Steel

By today's standards, Fallout holds up pretty well. You might even be able to convince someone it was a modern day labor of love Kickstarter project to explain some of its awkward gameplay quirks as intentional throwbacks. Since character creation allows for a wide range of choices, you can usually find a way around the parts that prove difficult for your specific character because Fallout does a decent job of accounting for different builds and play styles. By contrast, I'd argue that the first Baldur's Gate suffers from close adherence to its license (Dungeons & Dragons, specifically the 2nd edition), so that the first few hours of the game can be ridiculously hard thanks to the random dice roll based combat. And god help you if you've never played the game before and you go for a Mage style character (Mages being notoriously underpowered and weak in the first few levels of any 2nd edition D&D experience). With Fallout, however, once you get over the slightly clunky interface you soon learn how the game is going to work and can adapt accordingly. It does suffer from the common mid-90s PC RPG issue where, unless you look up a FAQ, you won't know how important certain stats and abilities are going to be. For instance, you won't know that Throwing and Unarmed are useless skills unless you're going for a very specific character build. But once you learn how crucial Stimpacks are, the importance of aimed shots, the way the game's economy and barter system works, and how to maximize your AP usage during combat (by doing things like shooting enemies who use melee attacks from as far away as possible, forcing them to spend several turns moving before they can get close enough to hit you), Fallout plays as well as any modern game.

This AP abuse is a necessity against the god damn Deathclaws

I think the main reason it holds up so well, far better than Fallout 2, is that it isn't a terribly long game and encourages experimentation during subsequent replays. You can try to play through Fallout without killing anything, and conversely, you can wait until you have the best weapons and armor and go back through each town and kill everyone in it—including children, shockingly enough. Tired of shooting everything? Try a stealthy character who steals from people and plants explosives in the pockets of unwitting foes. Wonder what will happen if you min/max? Play through it with a low Intelligence stat, and the game accounts for this by giving you different dialogue options. On the flip side, if I recall correctly, you can play a character with high Speech and Science skills and talk the 'end boss' into realizing his plan is doomed to fail, avoiding a fight entirely. Fallout even lets you get a 'bad' ending by agreeing to join forces with the mutant army. Further adding to the replay and experimentation are the random events that happen when traveling on the world map—if you get really lucky, you can find a crashed UFO with the best gun in the game.

All of this aside, what makes Fallout mean something to me is the world that it builds. Which is perhaps ironic because it's not like other fictional worlds I want to escape into when reality has me down. This is why I find the appeal of it, and why it continues to mean something to me, hard to explain. The best I can do is to say that it gives me something that no other games or media can. It has a feel and atmosphere all its own, affecting me in a way that is somewhat dreamlike and yet somewhat nightmarish, too. It's perfect for playing late at night with headphones on, an eeriness seeming to pervade the room while you're wandering through post-apocalyptic ruins and scrounging for supplies in every nook and cranny. Sure, it has some goofy characters and moments that lighten the mood; I don't want to make Fallout seem as unendingly bleak as Silent Hill 2. But you know, it can be just as bleak at times, especially with its bummer of an ending, dooming your character to continue wandering the wasteland instead of returning home to live in the Vault you just saved. I wouldn't call it depressing, it's more melancholic, like the ending of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. And anytime I can compare a game to a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, it has to be worth something.

No comments: