Old enough to remember the above picture? If I recall correctly, and I’m not sure I do, it’s from the first Fallout game’s installing process. Could be from the second game’s installing process as well. Fucking hardcore if you ask me. To me it speaks volumes of a genre that’s gone missing from our collective mind. Sort of reminds you of some old heavy metal album cover. Or old games cover for that matter. Both Doom and Duke Nukem featured their protagonists standing on heaps of corpses ready to make a final stand. And here our two protagonists, unnamed vault dweller 1 & 2 standing in the midst of a bleak city-scape surrounded by ghouls. They honestly seem kind of fucked.
It’s all very pulp. And I might not be using the word pulp correctly, but it’s kind of a throwback to the old classic fiction. It makes me think of writers like Ron E. Howard who wrote his Conan stories in these short-story magazines that came out on a monthly basis. The stories were episodic or standalone, and these magazines (like Strange Tales or Weird Tales), whether they were fantasy or sci-fi, had a tone of weirdness. And by weirdness I mean that they were strange. Science-fiction before Star Wars was as I understand it, odd. I think we who grew up post Star Wars have a concept that sci-fi means future and but-in-some-sense-real. That the elements of sci-fi have to be plausible and relatable to the real world. So far as I understand, this was not always the case back then. Bear in mind, I wasn’t even an idea in my parents’ head when these monthly short-story magazines were printed. Also bear in mind; I am being highly speculative in the musings that follow.
I can only assume that the people at Black Isle Studies had grown up with these strange tales as well as with Star Wars. And I believe that you can see the influence of this old paradigm in writing in Fallout 1&2. Because let’s face it. Fallout 1&2 carries itself very differently from Fallout 3. This must in part be because the medium in which the story is presented has changed. It’s no longer an RPG seen from the so called isometric top down view. It’s a first person RPG in which all contact with people is done face to face. It’s a game in which every word of dialog is spoken. It’s a game which focuses on you being the vault dweller. This last point may be something I have read into the game. It’s something that can be more difficult to tell in first person games because of the perspective. You have games like Metro 2033 where it’s very clear that you are playing Artyom, and that it’s not up to you to be anyone else than him. You may control some of his actions, but you’re always him. In games like Fallout 3 you are never confronted with a personality other than the one you give to the character. In Fallout 1&2 this isn’t true to the same extent. For me that probably has the most to do with the perspective. You are always looking down at your character while you are leading him or her to the destination at hand. And this has quite drastic changes in the way the narrative is delivered. For me the perspective lends itself easier to a “he/she said this line I chose” narrative than the “I chose to say this” that I believe exists in Fallout 3.
It’s not really the mechanical aspects I want to talk about today. They are what they are and have benefits and drawbacks of their own. I want to relate this post to the ever so vague word vibe. Vibe doesn’t really mean anything on its own. It’s a stupid word that could be replaced with atmosphere, setting or other vague words like feeling. A good game always instills you with a feeling. And if you’ll indulge me, it has a certain vibe. The first Fallout games to me seemed to draw very heavily on a certain kind of vibe to produce the atmosphere that is so prevalent in the games. To relate to the nonsense I wrote above, it’s my guess that they drew their inspiration from source material that was very pulp. On some levels it becomes very obvious. Fallout is set in a post-war apocalypse that is set a long time after the great resource war that culminated in 2077 with the destruction of the entire world (All lore statements can be referenced to the Fallout Wiki). The nuclear war, and in that respect the themes and appearance of the game draws from the cold war and early propaganda from America during that time. And it was also in that time that magazines like Strange Tales were in circulation. But other than that I feel that the vibe that Fallout projects doesn’t always stress realism.
It’s more a strange journey through a wasteland in which people struggle to survive. This feeling of weirdness is conveyed through the various instances of dark humour in the game. These can be found scattered like easter eggs in the general world, but also in the various special encounters you get while travelling the world map. For my experiences with the first Fallout games the humorous tone was very important just as the bitter realities of the wasteland were important. And let’s not forget: The wasteland in Fallout is unforgiving, bleak and without much hope. And that’s exactly why it needs that hint of weirdness.
This is where Fallout 3 fails for me. That familiar vibe from the first games is lost and your journey through the wasteland seems simply bleak. Don’t get me wrong here, I do love Fallout 3, but not for the same reasons that I love Fallout 1&2 for. And it might be that I simply like Fallout 3 because it echoes the Fallout setting, albeit not as well as the previous installments. There is something inherently cool about life after the apocalypse, and Fallout 3 rides this wave. And it does so well with all its shooting and exploring. But, and here’s the kicker, not as well as New Vegas.
New Vegas fails in many technical aspects. It’s buggy and a bit wonky at times. It shares the awkwardness of character presentation with the spoken dialog of Fallout 3. But it is much more a throwback to the wasteland of Fallout 1&2 in terms of vibe. It has that dark sense of humor. The various factions are presented in a manner that speaks to me more than Fallout 3. The Brotherhood of Steel for example in Fallout 3 felt like a sterile shell of a faction. Whereas it in New Vegas feels a helluva lot better. And it’s not even in the main storyline. New Vegas nails the feel of the raiders, the gun runners, the super mutants. Everything feels a lot more Fallout than Fallout 3. It’s my opinion that this comes from the fact that New Vegas makes a serious attempt to connect the experience to Fallout 1&2. Fallout 3 built upon the setting, but drew little from the history created in the previous games. New Vegas lets you build a story of your own, but it also references a TON of things from the games that came before it. Like with the gun runners from the Boneyard in Fallout 1 who have a booth outside Freeside. The Van Graffs who sell energy weapons in Freeside will if questioned talk about their own expansion, but also talk about how it has been halted by the strong presence of the gun runners. These things, and how New Vegas connects various points of interest throughout the game and the previous games makes New Vegas feel like a more authentic experience, in terms of attention to detail and vibe, as opposed to Fallout 3.
If I were to describe the vibe I’d call it honest. New Vegas seems to inherently know that it’s Fallout, and it always makes sure to stay true to that legacy. Fallout 3 seems to make an attempt to be Fallout, without really grasping what that means. I may not know what that means either, but I feel like New Vegas is the sequel that should have followed the second game.