How Fallout 2's Wild Wasteland Came to Define a Series

The folks at PCGamesN have recently covered the making of the original Fallout, and now we can also read an article of theirs that's focused on the peculiarities of Fallout 2's development that have resulted in a wasteland full of weird and wild moments. If you've ever wondered why Fallout 2 had such a different tone than its predecessor and had so many pop culture references, you may want to check the article out. Here's an excerpt:

The first game had sold reasonably well, but the critical response had been feverish; hoping to capitalise on the Fallout buzz, Black Isle’s publisher, Interplay, quickly commissioned a sequel. Bigger, better, and with much more for players to do, development on Fallout 2 also had to be completed inside nine months. For Feargus Urquhart, co-director of Fallout 1 and one of Black Isle’s founders, the nuclear heat was on.

“We'd started working on Fallout 2 before we'd even shipped Fallout 1,” he tells me. “That was in the middle of 1997. By the beginning of 1998, when Interplay was having some financial difficulties, they decided they wanted to make Fallout 2 and make it in the same amount of time as the original, and as far as they were concerned, we'd already been developing it for half a year already. So that gave us basically nine months to make the whole game.”

“Fallout 1 was amazing,” continues Eric DeMilt, Fallout 2's producer. “It really knocked it out the park. But Interplay launched it right before launching Baldur's Gate, and in terms of revenue, Baldur's Gate absolutely smoked Fallout - Fallout initially sold something like 200,000 units while Baldur's Gate sold like a million. And it was a much bigger game. So when we kicked off Fallout 2, there was the ambition to make it as big as Baldur's Gate, and that's where a lot of the pressure came from.”

As well as a hectic development schedule, that extra pressure led to Black Isle creating and calcifying what would become some of the Fallout series' most-famous trademarks. In the case of dynamic, fleshed-out characters, this was on purpose. In the case of bizarre and often hilarious glitches, it was by accident.

“I remember being in a meeting with Interplay's sales and marketing people,” explains Urquhart, “and them kind of looking at what we had done so far on Fallout 2, and asking 'well, what's new?' They specifically wanted to improve the colour palette, jump from 256 colours to 16-bit. But [Interplay co-founder] Brian Fargo opened up and said 'look, Fallout is awesome. We're making more Fallout. It's like a sequel to a movie. It's all about the story and the characters’.

“And so we started focusing on an antagonist who, compared to The Master from Fallout 1, would appear in the game earlier on. The player would see him doing horrible things but not be able to interact, and that gave more of a sense of who he was and what he was doing. We also wanted to have Companions evolve a little more, In Fallout 1, the Companions were always the same as when you 'got' them. In Fallout 2, they levelled up with you.”

“Another idea,” continues programmer Dan Spitzley, “was giving players this car, where they could store items in the trunk. The way we implemented that was to basically categorise the trunk as a companion - the game would think of the trunk as a companion. But that meant sometimes the trunk would disconnect from the car and kind of ‘walk around’ behind the player. You'd be on the third floor of a Vault or something, and the trunk would suddenly turn up next to you. It turned out to be a huge issue.”

To meet their tight production schedule, designers would often have to draft huge game areas and then move quickly onto the next, leaving vast portions of Fallout 2 sparse or underpopulated, right up until its release date. It was a harried way of working, but it actually helped to cultivate Fallout's absurdist visual style; with swathes of the map still requiring characters, missions, and other playable material right down to the last minute, Fallout 2's artists and programmers were creatively set loose, and developed appropriately strange ideas.

“I basically sat down and thought up everything and anything I could to fill these spaces,” Spitzley says. “That's where a lot of the crazier stuff, like the treasure-hunting dwarf or the Radscorpion that played chess, ended up coming from.”

Characters’ talking heads, seen up-close during cutscenes and conversations, were animated using 3D clay models and a laser scanner - the resulting dialogue sequences, all big eyebrows and facial tics, helped define Fallout’s amusing, chunky aesthetic. To lighten the long, sometimes intense working days, Black Isle’s designers were encouraged to add-in easter eggs, and nods to their favourite films. As a result, Fallout 2 teemed with references to popular culture, as would Fallout 3, New Vegas, and Fallout 4.