War. War never changes.
These four words are indelibly marked onto my gamer consciousness, invoking the excited, anticipatory moment I first visited the Fallout universe in all its jaded, ironic dystopian glory.
Unlike many RPG fans, my introduction to the genre came by way of my addiction to science fiction, rather than fantasy. As a misunderstood, angst-ridden teen (apologies for the redundancy), I found myself spending countless hours devouring stories, alternatively, about worlds where advanced technologies erased prejudice and alien cultures revolutionized our own, and about worlds where some combination of war, natural disaster, and/or disease rendered existence unrecognizable and intolerable. Perhaps the disparate reading materials reflected a subconscious inner struggle between despair and hope. Perhaps I was drawn to themes underpinning both. Or perhaps I was just scary moody.
Regardless, in Fallout — my very first computer RPG — I found an irresistible balance between the two.
For those not familiar with the game, Fallout‘s basic setting is a southern California ravaged by global nuclear war occurring almost 100 years prior to the game’s timeframe of 2161. In the alternative timeline of the Fallout universe, a 20th-century emphasis on generating massive amounts of nuclear power leads to a century of peace and prosperity, after which the major world powers are pitted against one another in a scramble for scarce resources bringing the world to the brink of war by the mid-21st century. The specifics of the war are never made explicit throughout the Fallout series, but instead are only hinted at for dedicated players to attempt to piece together, through various archives and documents (of widely varying credibility) the player may or may not find in one of the series’ installments (the Fallout wikia has helpfully compiled a historical narrative based on information provided throughout the series). One of Fallout‘s most recognizable trademarks is its relentless juxtaposition of an unflinchingly cheery retro-futuristic motif against its dreary post-apocalyptic reality.
The original Fallout‘s protagonist has spent his or her life in Vault 13, one of numerous government-backed fallout shelters (called Vaults) designed during the escalating international conflict leading up to nuclear war. Players may customize the player character’s age, name, and gender, but cannot customize his or her appearance: the PC is a fit, white brunette regardless of any other choice. Players can choose from three pre-built characters — Albert, spec’d for diplomacy, Natalia, spec’d for stealth, or Max, spec’d for strength — or create their own custom character by assigning base character points to strength, perception, endurance, charisma, intelligence, agility, and luck (the game calls this its SPECIAL system, because it is), assigning skill points, and choosing up to three skills to tag for skill point bonuses, as well as optional traits granting both an advantage and a disadvantage. The character creation screen doesn’t require you to alter the character’s name, age, or sex, meaning that it’s possible to play through the entire game with an unnamed character. Which I may have unintentionally done the first time I played it.
Vault 13′s inhabitants rely on an abundance of clean, potable water, which is provided by a marvel of tech called a Water Chip (basically, a computer chip that ensures the quality and safety of recycled water). Fallout opens with a cutscene of the Vault’s Overseer informing you that you have been selected to venture out into the wasteland in an effort to find a new Water Chip, as Vault 13′s has been rendered non-functional. And thus, off you venture into the terrifying unknown, armed with only your wits, a pistol, and a Pip-Boy 2000 (an interface that helps you keep track of your own stats, maps, and game objectives).
Gameplay mechanics are that of a fairly straightforward open-world RPG (with turn-based combat): your objectives lead you to explore numerous wasteland cities of varying levels of organization, technological capabilities, and basic human decency. Throughout your travels, you meet potential companions and stumble across countless optional sidequests. One unique aspect of Fallout‘s gameplay is its utilization of an actual countdown timer. From the day you leave Vault 13, you have only 150 days to find a replacement water chip before the Vault’s inhabitants die — and traveling between cities takes time, so you must plan your travel strategically. After supplying your Vault with a replacement chip, you are given a new assignment: save the Vault from an invading army of powerful mutants led by a crazed messiah called the Master, whose plan is to transform humanity into a race of Super Mutants by exposing them to a putative evolutionary virus (the virus in question, of course, is itself responsible for the deterioration of the previously-human Master’s own mind). This mission, too, has a strict time limit on it. Thus, while Fallout is open-world, it does not afford the player limitless time in which to complete each and every side mission or to join each and every faction. In Fallout, your choices have true consequences, and this is reflected both in the narrative’s evolution and in the game’s epilogue, which treats you to brief description of the fates befalling your varied companions, enemies, and other key characters you’ve met and helped — or harmed — along the way.
It was this element of Real Choice that was perhaps most meaningful for me. Growing up in a very strict home meant I grew up with a lot of conflicting messages, and even more conflicted feelings. (Although “strict upbringing” normally doesn’t translate to “being allowed to play M-rated games,” it’s important to keep in mind that this was in the late 90s, pre-Columbine. There was a lot less wringing of hands and fretting over video games than we’re used to today.) In the world as I was taught to see it, there were Right Choices and Wrong Choices, and Right Choices led to Right Outcomes, period, full stop. If you didn’t see a Right Outcome from a Right Choice, it was probably because you failed to appreciate the perfect plan behind it all. Indeed, in a way, Fallout and its Vault-colored glasses perfectly described reality as I understood it: the messaging was always optimistic, squeaky-clean, and woefully oversimplified. If that seemed incongruent with reality, maybe my problem was that I wasn’t drinking enough Nuka-Cola!
But, of course, I had no such Nuka-Cola deficiencies to blame. The wasteland I saw on my computer screen didn’t fit with the world it advertised itself as — just as the world I saw around me didn’t look the way I was told it ought to. I saw a world full of people who were hurt, people who were misunderstood, people who were rotten, and a handful of inscrutable people who seemed to hold all the cards. In Fallout, I played a game in which consequences were real, but didn’t map perfectly onto my actions. My PC lived in a world where her actions earned “karma” and a reputation — but not everyone cared about it, and not everyone reacted to it the way I’d expected they would. Playing as a goody-two-shoes was as likely to close important doors as it was to open them. Losing or gaining the respect and friendship of other characters was as much a function of their personalities as it was of my actions. No matter what I did, I could not mold the world into what it “ought” to be simply by making right choices.
I didn’t understand why at the time, but even as I found the game depressing and wished a “perfect” outcome were possible, something in my mind sensed the truth in it and embraced it as a message of hope. Even in a world utterly destroyed by the foolishness and thoughtlessness of others, even amidst corruption and atrocities and desperate poverty, one person could still matter to someone — to many people. The impact of one person’s life on another’s is inescapable. Our actions affect others directly, indirectly, and in unanticipated ways. And these effects often don’t depend on whether or not we’ve might the “right” decisions.
When it comes down to it, this is why I play RPGs. This is why — when I find one I really love — I’ll invest literally hundreds of hours devouring every corner of the game, trying out different decisions and seeing which ones matter. There’s a lot of discussion nowadays about the meaning of choice in RPGs, the benefits of open-world versus the benefits of quasi-linear narrative, and the implications of Authorial Imposition of Canon in the place of player realities. I think these are important discussions for gamers to have with developers, and I think they’re fundamentally getting at what it is that makes RPGs so irresistible for many of us. I know I’m not the only gamer who’s felt disappointed to learn on a subsequent play-through that something that I thought was the result of a meaningful choice was in fact a predestined outcome — nor am I the only gamer to have felt the mix of pain, joy, and pride that results from seeing the consequences of a difficult decision with an open-ended outcome. And, of course, technological and budgetary limitations mean that even the best RPG ever developed will, almost by definition, still be susceptible to improvement. But I respect those games that try, if for no other reason than that the ones that come close might impress upon another young mind the complexity of choice, and the importance of appreciating both its beauty and its potential to cause collateral damage — as well as its limits.
Because, you know. War never changes.