Fallout: How to Open a World

Fallout starts with a simple cinematic. The format is by now familiar to fans of the series: A 1940’s pop song plays, setting a dissonant backdrop for a series of clips showing off a world war and its resulting devastation.

They have no dialogue and no visible facial expressions, but the animation and body language make it clear that these soldiers are having a laugh about the helpless guy they just shot to death.

With the universe’s backdrop and tone in place, Ron Perlman comes in to give us our first bit of narration:

War. War never changes.

The Romans waged war to gather slaves and wealth. Spain built an empire from its lust for gold and territory. Hitler shaped a battered Germany into an economic superpower.

But war never changes.

In the 21st century, war was still waged over the resources that could be acquired. Only this time, the spoils of war were also its weapons: Petroleum and Uranium. For these resources, China would invade Alaska, the US would annex Canada, and the European Commonwealth would dissolve into quarreling, bickering nation-states, bent on controlling the last remaining resources on Earth.

In 2077, the storm of world war had come again. In two brief hours, most of the planet was reduced to cinders. And from the ashes of nuclear devastation, a new civilization would struggle to arise.

A few were able to reach the relative safety of the large underground vaults. Your family was part of that group that entered Vault Thirteen. Imprisoned safely behind the large Vault door, under a mountain of stone, a generation has lived without knowledge of the outside world.

Life in the Vault is about to change.

This is the part where we create our character, but I’d like to skip that for now and move on to the first thing we see after starting a new game and rolling a character: the Overseer giving us our mission.

Ah, you’re here. Good. We’ve got a problem, a big one. The controller chip for our water purification system has given up the ghost. We can’t make another one, and the process is too complicated for a workaround system. Simply put: We’re running out of drinking water. No water, no vault. This is crucial to our survival, and frankly…I think you’re the only hope we have. You need to go find us another controller chip. We estimate we have four to five months before the vault runs out of water. We need that chip. We’ve marked your map with the location of another vault. Not a bad place to start, I think. Look…just be safe, okay?

This all adds up to around six minutes of exposition. It’s six minutes well-spent. Even for a player who knows nothing about Fallout (which was nearly everyone), we’ve learned that there was a 21st-century resource crunch, a subsequent nuclear war that destroyed most of civilization, and that there are underground bunkers called “vaults” that you come from. I didn’t even feel the need to introduce this game because the series does such an admirable job on its own.

This is also a perfect setup for the kind of player character the game needs. Fallout as a whole works toward a very immersive style of game; the kind where you choose everything your character says, and where possible, everything your character is. The Vault Dweller was raised in a vault and…that’s about it. There’s no need to explain much about the outside world because Vaults are intentionally sequestered from the outside world. The game feeds you just enough to become a part of the world without intruding on your agency.

This focus on immersion and its requisite verisimilitude are so great that they take priority over what would otherwise be considered common-sense design concepts. The first of these we’ve already seen: the time limit. The idea of a CRPG that doesn’t let you just grind forever is unthinkable now, and was contentious even in the 1990s when this game was released (a patch removed the time limit from the endgame in response to player outcry).

That tiny text you can’t read says: “To the west, you can see a natural light. For the first time in your life, you are looking at the outside world.” Fallout likes to drop the occasional reminder that the player and player character are discovering this world in tandem.

Upon exiting the vault’s cave, you can head for Vault 15, the only location marked on your map. Here you’re likely to run into a caravan that offers to take you to Shady Sands; otherwise, you’ll run into Shady Sands itself if you beelined for the Vault. This is good because your starting equipment doesn’t actually give you a way into Vault 15.

Either way, Shady Sands is our first town. It’s a pretty standard RPG town. We learn that it’s mostly populated by refugees from the very vault we’re about to investigate. A thorough player can easily discover:

  • Multiple sidequests
  • Directions to the next two major towns as well as a raider camp
  • An NPC companion
  • The need to bring a rope to Vault 15
  • The barter system (and the fact that it’s not limited to merchants)

This actually ends up being a lot more than what we get from Vault 15: some supplies and a dead end.

Vault 15 was the hook for this sequence, but it was never the point. And this is an important difference between this game and a modern game, even including modern Fallout installments. Nobody told you to go to Shady Sands. The game saw to it that natural player actions would lead to it one way or another.

We’re hardly out of the tutorial, but we can already see a pattern that will hold throughout the entire game: Fallout knows how to play both the “open world” and “linear plot” cards. It suggests rather than forces a path. It gives you clues that direct you toward the correct path without outright telling you what it is. And it understands how to give you digressions that don’t advance your main goal without flagging these digressions as an obvious waste of time.

Fallout may open with a red herring, but it’s a red herring that makes a point: you are an explorer on a hunt, not an avatar following a yellow brick road to the end boss.

Next time: Junktown and the end of the beginning.

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