So much depends on a red wheelbarrow

(Frank Stella’s Marriage of Reason)

As I’ve mentioned, I’m replaying the Fallout series in anticipation of the third title, which (Amazon willing) will be on my doorstep the day it releases. It’s been at least six years since I last played the first title; eleven since the local sysop of the BBS my family and I most frequented brought over the title. My initial impression of the game back then was: “This feels like Diablo!” I was fourteen at the time, and still to this day it gives that feeling when I first enter the game, to quickly be replaced by a difference in tone, thematic content, and style of play.


This game made me fall in love with the Ink Spots.
It is very quickly apparent that Fallout is dark, but well buttressed with comedic moments that feed on our knowledge of pop culture. If you’re familiar with the Mad Max series, you’ll get a chuckle when you visit Junktown, for instance. Instead of being whisked away into a world of fantasy, Fallout plays on the fears of the Cold War generations, keeping the kitschy tone of that era (though the game’s events start with a nuclear war in 2077). This takes place in a destroyed California, you emerging from a vault, to which your family fled before the nukes dropped, in order to obtain a water chip to replace the one that has failed. You just happen to be the unfortunate person selected to leave the vault’s safety.

Fallout is both a more mature and thought-provoking game than Diablo (I love both games for very different reasons–they’re also in wholly different genres, even if both affix an RPG to it). This is in part because fantasy is not as visceral as seeing your own world in ruins, but also because Fallout feels much more minimal, allowing me plenty of room to fill in the gaps of my own horrific experience (horrific in terms of what my imagination does with it). Through music, presentation, and guidance, the game has a very light touch. When I first entered The Glow, a nuked research vault that is still irradiated, a shiver went down my spine as I listened to the music and saw the graininess that presented itself on screen. Fallout is a game whose older graphics add to the feel of the game–this is a world stuck on nostalgia that has not progressed in its images.

One will walk by dilapidated buildings that hang old advertisements; when one is still learning to survive, why worry about the aesthetics of your environs, after all? The world is populated very sparsely, and even the largest towns feel woefully underpopulated. Even though the game actually starts in 2161, eighty-four years after the nuclear attacks ravaged the world, mankind has only begun to rebuild. When traveling the overhead map, I often stared at the vast distances between spaces and gawked at the fact that my character was walking across those mountains and deserts. Even with the NPC followers I had, it made me feel very abandoned and alone (a critique on their usefulness beyond gameplay, actually).

Yesterday, I finished the game. Playing a character who used diplomacy more often than not (but specialized in Energy Weapons), I managed to get a ‘good’ ending, where I was able to see what happened to all the communities across which I came. I started the game on Sunday and finished on a Tuesday. As soon as I Tweeted about the fact, Daniel Purvis of Graffiti Gamer replied with this: “I love that Fallout 1 is such a reasonable size. You can really bite into it, yet you don’t feel like you’re stuffing yourself.”

Again, the game is very well designed in that I did not feel I was playing some epic RPG that could last me until the end times. There were certainly options, and I imagine I’ll replay the series again in the future as a more war-mongering, ‘evil’ type (playing the second with a varied build of my first character), but even completing all the side missions and talking to everybody, it is not a game that bogged me down with meaningless options. Even talking to the ghoul in the Followers of the Apocalypse building saw me taking a sharp intake of breath when he mentioned he was once a resident of Vault 13, sent by the same overseer that pushed me out into this forsaken wasteland. The game may be minimal in many aspects, but it provoked a rich emotional response from me; this world has a story, and it does well in presenting it to me through small snippets.

What aided was the fact that I played a character of my own choosing. Being given many different options of what I had to do versus how I could do them made me contemplate my choices quite often. Michael Abbott mentioned through both VGC and Twitter that his students were having a rough time of the game–it does not hold your hands. There is no tutorial, no guidance, and almost everything in the game is purely optional. You only have a few goals: first, locate a water chip; second, destroy the mutant menace; oh, and can you do it all within this set time frame before your vault either dies of dehydration or the mutants find them? That’s it. Everything else in the game can aid you, but you can take a completely non-linear approach to how to go about interacting with this world. In many ways, this game was a sand box before that phrase became a buzzword.

Even the options given: you can kill the townsfolk if you so wish. When going to Junktown, you have the option of either aiding the town in ridding itself of a crooked gambling establishment and its town, or killing off the law. One can even kill children, though don’t expect people to treat you very nicely thereafter. The karma system is one I have to more fully explore, but it seems an intriguing element that set many a standard. You have the choice, will you become a hero, perhaps an anti-hero, or will you be villainous to the extreme. You do not have to kill off the mutants, by the way–you can in fact join them. This may not be seen as ‘winning’ the game by some, but it is an ending option with movie scene to its credit.

This makes me want to say there is a vast difference between nostalgia and a well designed game: Fallout falls into the latter category, thankfully. It is actually quite easy to see why this game has such a strong fan base, and why it is considered a canon RPG.

Now, while I made allusions to minimalist and pre-minimalist literature and art in this post, please do not consider me saying this is actually minimalist game design. First, there are more contemporary games that better illustrate actual minimalism (you won’t find them in the stores). Second, this was also probably largely due to technical limitations at the time. Is this a bad thing? While with many games we can look back and wish for an upgrade, I don’t think Fallout would benefit from such. The game isn’t perfect, but it does fit in with its technical limitations quite well. To me, this illustrates quite well what creativity can be spurred by placing boundaries on artists. Third, and last, my assertions were primarily based on comparison. Compared to the games I play today and was playing at the time, this game seems so deceptively simple that it stands quite well as a rather (thematically heavy) palate cleanser.

I’ll probably be posting my thoughts on its sequel as I progress. Already, the game feels much less sparse; with eighty years transpiring between the two, this is easily explained, though.

About Denis Farr

Writer interested in intersectionality, games, comics, nerdy stuff in general, theater, and how it all mixes. Graduate of Wabash College, with studies in Theater, English, German, and Gender Studies.
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