PCGamesN on Fallout 3's Level Design

PCGamesN continues their Fallout coverage, now moving into the Bethesda era, where they praise Fallout 3's level design in a couple of articles. The first one analyzes the game's metro tunnel “dungeons,” and the second one talks about the memorable opening level of Vault 101.

An excerpt from the former:

Blessed with a dedicated level design team from day one - for the first time in the studio’s history - Bethesda were in the mood to experiment. And nowhere is that experimentation more apparent than in Fallout 3’s rendering of Washington, D.C. Or perhaps that should be ‘rending’. The idea is that the city - America’s capital, after all - had been the target of a direct atomic pounding. By the time we get there, D.C. is a tortured grey mass of steel beams and debris, like the inside of a crushed-car cube. Travelling overland is consequently near-impossible, and fraught with Super Mutant encounters, driving players into the metro tunnels: Bethesda’s biggest, most ambitious dungeon.

This dungeon broke all the rules. Mainly through size: these tunnels are not a self-contained loop you can easily get your head around, but a sprawling network of ancient stations, collapsed basements, and natural caves. They are overwhelming, by design.

“Players are not expected to ‘complete’ D.C. in the sense that one completes a traditional game level,” Burgess says.

The whole area is secreted with little cues intended to point out that fact, gently breaking down those expectations learned from decades of dungeon-delving. NPCs you meet in D.C. will tell you in no uncertain terms that the place is huge. Major areas are given unique names to suggest they are full-length experiences in and of themselves. And, perhaps most significantly, Bethesda broke up their dungeon into discrete map markers. These tiny squares encourage players to mentally compartmentalise the capital’s challenges and - as any Bethesda game player knows - double as fast travel points.

Soon enough, that familiar dungeon loop emerges in a newly organic fashion. There is a natural end point to a D.C. adventure you will probably recognise, and that is right around the moment you find yourself battling weight restrictions to keep your best loot. From there you can travel back to town, sell your trinkets, treat your wounds, and then return to the most recent checkpoint you uncovered in the capital’s ruins. There is always something else worth seeing: Bethesda gave themselves a mandate to make every train tunnel unique in some way.

“This is in response to one of our own criticisms of Oblivion, echoed by many fans of that game, which was the amount of repetition in dungeons,” Burgess explains. “Though we must re-use art assets out of necessity when creating such a large game, we made time for every space to be built and iterated upon by hand, by both level designers and artists.”

And now the latter:

I have played through the opening of Fallout 3 upwards of 30 times, but leaving the comfort and safety of Vault 101 never gets any easier. No tutorial or introductory set of missions does more to immerse you in its world than Fallout 3’s all-too-brief stint in a populated, functioning Vault-Tec vault - stepping out into the serene devastation of the Capital Wasteland for the first time is not a liberating experience, it is one of sheer terror.

Of course, it doesn’t take long to get acquainted with the various quirks of post-apocalyptic life, but that initial pang of anxiety never really leaves you. For the first half an hour of Fallout 3 you are living in a bygone era, from cradle to adulthood you grow up in roughly the same world that existed before the bombs dropped. Yes, you are underground, but the same principles of pre-war life apply: uniformity reigns supreme, you know your neighbours, and optimism abounds. Growing up in Vault 101 is like living in a dream state, where there is scant mention of the horrors of the wasteland outside. Instead, you hop between scenes of normal life in post-war America before being dumped into a hellish dystopia.

While exploring the Capital Wasteland, you stumble across other vaults like your own, and even a replica vault in a museum that looks the part - even if it is undermined by an eerie verisimilitude. The closest you get is Vault 112, whose inhabitants have been in stasis since the bombs fell, living in a virtual reality created and controlled by psychopathic scientist Dr. Stanislaus Braun. The simulation is called Tranquility Lane, a fictional cul-de-sac in pre-war America where vault residents live out a prim and proper existence of domesticity, albeit under the manipulative thumb of Braun, who treats them like his personal playthings. That spoils the whole utopia thing a bit, especially when Braun - who takes the form of a little girl called Betty in the simulation - asks you to make a child cry and split up a marriage.

As you near the end of Fallout 3’s main quest series you get a chance to return to Vault 101. An emergency broadcast frequency pops up on your Pip-Boy. It is Amata, she is pleading for you to return as the situation in the vault has deteriorated - some of your fellow vault dwellers want to leave and the isolationist overseer has gone mad with power trying to keep life in the vault as it has been for the 200 years since the bombs fell. Coming home is ever the bittersweet experience.

Inside, the vault is nothing like you remember it. Vault security are acting like the guards from the Stanford Prison Experiment, coaxing one another into stronger and stronger displays of force. Meanwhile, to defend themselves, the rebels have fashioned a barricade around the vault’s clinic - their hostile sentiments can be read on graffitied signs and slogans in the atrium. However you choose to approach the mission - seal the vault, open it up, or render it totally uninhabitable - once you leave, you can never come back. It is far from the homecoming I dreamt of when leaving Vault 101 for the first time.