After years and years of development, beginning its life as Project ‘Van Buren’ under the skillful hands of the illustrious designers at the Black Isle Studios (later to be cancelled by Interplay), Fallout 3 found new life again when it was licensed to Bethesda Softworks.
In the intervening years, Fallout fans (I among them) have jostled and argued over the fate of their sacred cow. Most fans are deeply concerned that the developer of The Elder Scrolls series (Arena, Daggerfall, Morrowind, Oblivion) will misuse the license and produce a bastard Fallout-Oblivion hybrid unfaithful to the original series.
On the other end, the folks over at Bethesda face the pressure of developing a game that simultaneously satisfies the whims of rabid doomsayers, doubting thomases, FPS fans, hardcore role-players, post-apocalyptos, apathetics, ambivalentés, and Bethsoft believers. After the early fanatical hype and later discord of TES: Oblivion, Bethsoft has a lot to get right this time around the may-pole.
Rather than a simple, Carmackish, “It’s done when it’s done”, the folks over at Bethsoft have been surprisingly candid with their experiences of developing the game, have tried to maintain a positive relationship with the ardent Fallout fan communities, and have pushed hard in the last few months to hit every major online and offline publication with the latest preview of their game.
The hype has been all over the place. People who’ve played it for a few minutes seem to love the graphics and atmosphere. The developers are fanatical about the “VATS” pseudo-turn-based targeting system. FPS lovers are intrigued by the freeform exploration and stunning apocalyptic vistas. Other gamers are up in arms over the same issues: the world looks like Oblivion dipped in mushroom gravy, the gore is gratuitous, VATS is a shoe-horned hack, epic vistas and scenery aren’t the focus of the Fallout universe. Every celebrated feature for one person is a potential disaster for another. The hubbub reminds me of debates that raged when David Fincher’s Alien3 made its debut and forever transformed the face of the Alien series.
Although all aspects of the game seem to be staked out, there are a couple of details that have remained ominously silent in most publications. In this article I take a quick peek at the Writing and Music of the Fallout series, and what it might mean for Fallout 3.
Although often left neglected, one of the key aspects of the Fallout universe (excepting Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel, which is not a role-playing game) has been the writing quality. The Fallout series shares much with Planescape: Torment, insofar as text-based dialogues that can take minutes and sometimes tens of minutes to explore. Ethical choices and moral predicaments are common to both games, and Fallout does an outstanding job of presenting the player with imaginary temptations. And like Torment, characters are written from the perspective that each “has their own story to tell” and the player is invited to join in on that story and carry it along for a while. At every turn the story feels handcrafted and personal, and encourages the player to continue assisting in telling the story until the end. The Fallout world is one lived-in through its stories.
This stands in sharp contrast to The Elder Scrolls series which has always celebrated a technical-minimalist approach to writing. Dialogues are composed of randomly-generated phrases, characters are generated on-the-spot, and NPCs only tell their stories in order to enable the player to increase statistics, gain items, or pursue combat. In many ways The Elder Scrolls grew out of the “roguelike” school of thought: create enough algorithms and the player has limitless freedom and combat opportunities. Specifically, Daggerfall and Oblivion both suffered from writing that was too generic, too loosely coupled to its universe. Stories just don’t matter a lot for the TES games.
Fallout’s score has often been overlooked, perhaps because of its minimalistic and ambient tenor. Mark Morgan’s composition is atmospheric and often tugs at a sub-conscious experience of the game. Thinking of my first tenuous step into Fallout’s “Necropolis” (ghoul city), Morgan’s score – full of distorted strings and warped buzzing steel saws, was petrifying. The track (listen to it here) is tense and terror-inducing… the musical equivalent of taking a midnight walk down a deserted subway track in zombie territory. At other times Morgan brings a more earthy, tribal tone that hints at a melody but never breaks into it (listen to it here). There is something wonderfully atmospheric about the score in the Fallout series that subliminally cranks up every scene a notch or three without dominating or distracting from it. The music is absolutely central in the game.
Sidenote: If you’ve seen P.T. Anderson’s There Will be Blood, Johnny Greenwood’s score shares much with the scores composed for the original Fallout games (try the “Henry Plainview” track here for a sample).
The Elder Scrolls scores on the other hand have always tried to emulate the modern epic sound – string-heavy, choir-heavy, brass-heavy, and brutally unsubtle (listen here). The scores for Morrowind and Oblivion could have been ripped straight from blockbuster Hollywood grand adventure or fantasy films such as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. While technically sufficient and comparable to film scores, the music never quite gives these games an identity. The scores are something tacked on to the game as an afterthought, and bear no constitutive relationship with the gameplay, character interaction, or emotions of a scene. Like the writing, the music is sufficient, generic, and non-intrusive. The music simply doesn’t matter much.
So Where Does That Leave Us?
The last thing that the Fallout universe needs is another opinion on Fallout 3. While visual art direction, compelling combat, and freeform world exploration are fundamentals of the Fallout series, it disturbs me that other I daresay more important aspects of the game go unmentioned. What I’ve tried to do here is open up the debate on these two aspects with the hope that we can begin to understand why Fallout 3 will be very much unlike Fallout 1 and Fallout 2.