I’ve been playing and replaying old Fallout games – there may be some kind of tenuous connection between that and the release of Fallout 4, but mostly I just finally got around to playing through New Vegas and that whetted my appetite for more post-apocalyptic talk-and-shoot. I tend to expect, replaying games I enjoyed in my youth, that I will find them a combination of enjoyable and tedious, the bright and once-fresh ideas and aesthetics muted by interfaces designed before they knew what worked well and often tedious game mechanics. I was surprised to find that I actually just found Fallout super damn fun to play, aside from some technical issues and a combat system that’s a bit over-randomized.
I was also surprised by how much you have to fight. I think that, over time, the approach taken by Fallout had conflated itself in my mind with that taken by some other RPGs, where there were non-violent ways to resolve almost all situations, but no you’re pretty much not going to get through the game without killing a lot of dudes. You can sneak by some of them, and you can talk your way out of a number of fights, but most characters won’t be able to do both so eventually you’ll probably need to be able to take a rocket to the face and keep fighting. What made Fallout remarkable, though, and still does, is it really feels like the fighting and the talking are taking place in the same game. An awful lot of the dialogue choices will instantly start a fight, and when you win that fight people in the world often notice and comment on it. If you lose the first you just die and reload – and hopefully you saved recently because this was before quicksaves and autosaves were a thing. The combat and narrative are part of the same story in a way that just isn’t true of most games, making the entire adventure feel like a cohesive whole, rather than a bunch of fights strapped to a bunch of dialogue.
Going back, it’s also striking how the interpretation of the post-apocalyptic wasteland has shifted over time. In later games, anarchy generally reigns, with raiders everywhere, angry super-mutants everywhere, feral ghouls everywhere – there’s some logic to what goes where specifically, but in general the world is overwhelmingly and consistently dangerous. In the first game the world is plenty dangerous, sure, but the settlements all have walls and active police forces, sometimes even police forces powerful enough to become bloated and corrupt. They politely ask you not to start trouble, and when someone asks you to do something flagrantly illegal, which everyone does for some reason, you can tell them and they’ll do something about it. Considering this takes place like a hundred years before the newer Fallout games, society seems to have actually backslid somewhat – which, granted, seems to work nicely with the interpretation that the nuclear apocalypse wasn’t really the worst thing that happened to humanity, just an especially noisy episode in the unending chain of awful things humanity does to itself.
I noticed partway through that there were no children in this edition of the game. Apparently they’d been removed, since having them there meant the player could kill them which was I guess deemed to be a no-no, since for later entries, Fallout 3 and above, children are immortal. I gather from reading forum posts that this removal was achieved by making all of them invisible, which ruined a few players playthroughs when they only discovered later on that an earlier grenade or spray of full-automatic fire had killed some invisible kid and now everyone in the wasteland hated them for it. There’s also a quest which describes the grisly murder of a man’s son – but we never see him, either, so I guess generally it’s fine if children die as long as they’re considerate enough to do so out of sight.
It’s also noticeable just how much Bethesda, who took over the series starting with Fallout 3, ran with the whole 50’s futurism idea. In the first game, the future of the past is taken as a rough cue for some of the tech design and the licensed music, as well as a veiled critique of the mid-century ideology America tends to frequently fetishize, but later games interpret that aesthetic as the core concept of the series. Unfortunately, in so doing, they often eschew the biting satirical angle that made it such an interesting twist on the post-apocalypse in the first game – turning an intriguingly piquant side-dish into the main course, as it were.
I don’t really have a conclusion to come to here, other than that Fallout is like real fucking good man. I don’t want this to turn into me complaining about the newer games, because I’m sure they’re perfectly fine as what they are, it’s just that what that is is definitely not the same thing Fallout was and is less interesting to me personally. It’s interesting, at any rate, to observe how the road of creativity runs through these different studios’ and artists’ interpretations, and emerges something recognizably similar but definitely not the same, different ideas emphasized and excised, a game of telephone played with multi-million dollar budgets.