Fallout Retrospective

EDGE is offering a fairly positive retrospective article on the original 1997's Fallout, developed by Interplay just before its RPG division would be renamed Black Isle and Tim Cain, Jason Anderson and Leonard Boyarsky would depart to form the ill-fated but much-loved Troika. Here's a sampling:
Fallout's best stories feel incidental things that you simply come across one day in the wasteland, or uncover by accident in one of its cities, and that you wouldn't know existed unless you'd happened upon them. Wasteland encounters like a crashed UFO or a band of ghouls may provide a valuable item or hint, but they point the player in interesting directions, leaving room for the imagination. It works because it's not explicit, leaving you to draw inferences from the world, to make up and investigate your own quest lines. You might think that Junktown's sinister Doc Morbid's extreme rudeness is borne out of caution, just like everyone else in the wasteland unless you happen to be scavenging his house for ammo at night and find the manhole leading to his secret butcher's shop, where he and his dwarf assistant prepare their patients for sale as snacks in a neighbouring town. If Doc Morbid's tongue-in-cheek name isn't Fallout's only flash of black humour, then nor is Vault Boy, the cheerfully grinning face of nuclear disaster. Fallout flashes its gallows humour like a wicked grin, elevating the mood without undermining the tone.

The game owes much of its intrigue to the level of detail. Fallout realises with words and situations a rich, detailed, tortured and desolate landscape that it can't show with a limited colour palette and isometric sprites. Scrolling text descriptions at the bottom-left of the interface embellish what's onscreen with incidental detail; where you see a brown clump of pixels oozing red, the text describes how a mutated mole-rat, fatally wounded from a crippling injury to the right leg, crumples and dies. Character descriptions, dialogue, even the manual all feature a descriptive verbosity that greatly enriches the game's fiction.

As well as finding stories, Fallout excels at letting you create them. Generally, videogame moral decisions amount to either giving a begging tramp 20 credits in the hope that he'll turn up again later with a nice item or shooting him in the kneecaps for the experience points. Either way, there's a reward, and the Right Thing To Do is often patronisingly obvious. Fallout screws with this primary-school perception of good and evil. The harsh reality is that there are usually two bad choices, and at best you're forced into the least morally reprehensible course of action. Fallout is aware that being a good person can mean doing a terrible thing, and the game never attempts to moralise. It's a far cry from (nuke the village for money, or save it for a house).

Indeed, one of Fallout's key quest lines determining the fate of Junktown was so distressingly morally ambiguous that Interplay demanded that the outcomes be altered. When the Vault Dweller first stumbles across it, the settlement is locked in a power struggle between mayor Killian and gambling mogul Gizmo, whose criminal activities bring both financial prosperity and problems to the town. Originally, siding with Killian against Gizmo turned the town into an authoritarian nightmare, led by Killian's own personal version of frontier justice; siding with Gizmo turned it into a filthy rich but morally bankrupt den of sin. In the final release, though, the outcomes had been forcibly changed to provide a .ood' and a '˜bad' ending, wherein Killian enforces just law and increases prosperity or Gizmo simply increases his own wealth before choking to death on a chunk of Iguana-on-a-stick.