Fallout: Nuts and Bolts

Last time we looked at what I consider the “intro” of the game. This time we’ll be looking at what I consider the end of the “linear” part of Fallout. Last time we hung out in Shady Sands, maybe did some small side quests, and found out about two even bigger settlements: Junktown and The Hub. Junktown is on the way to the Hub, so much like you’re expected to stumble upon Shady Sands, you’re also clearly expected to use Junktown as a stopover on the way to the rest of the game.

Mayor Killian Darkwater. Apparently in development he was authoritarian to a fault and arguably the wrong person to run the town, but in the game as it was published he’s a generic goodguy lawman.

If Shady Sands was the game’s introduction to the game’s mechanics and structure, Junktown is the game’s introduction to the game’s sense of morality and player influence on the plot. Shady Sands had some sidequest chains, but they were all things like “find me a poison antidote” or “stop monsters from attacking our livestock,” goals where the player had little incentive to do anything other than helping their quest-giver. Junktown’s sidequests are all entirely contained within Junktown itself, and nearly always require acting against the interest of specific Junktown residents.

Gizmo used to be the pragmatist to Killian’s idealist. Would you prefer the town be run by inflexible ideologues, or openly corrupt businessmen who don’t care what happens as long as they get their cut? In the final game, Gizmo’s an unrepentant villain and even if you side with him, he dies an undignified death in the game’s ending.

The primary quest chain revolves around the power struggle between Killian Darkwater, the town’s mayor, and Gizmo, crime boss and owner of the local casino. The game drops a number of hints that Gizmo engages in various illicit dealings like protection rackets throughout the town, but Darkwater hasn’t made a move because he believes in due process and hasn’t been able to prove anything. Most players will receive the quest after finishing their first conversation with Darkwater only to immediately witness an assassination attempt. As it turns out, the “good” resolution to the quest requires entrapping Gizmo by offering to assassinate Darkwater yourself; not only does it make the good path more interesting than “go kill the boss,” it’s also a subtle way to ensure that the player knows that an “evil” path exists.

This is representative of the game’s approach to morality: it allows “good” and “evil” options, but doesn’t patronize the player by explaining these options. If you’re going to assassinate the mayor for the local crime lord, you don’t need a popup telling you about all the evil points you just earned. There’s a reputation stat buried in the character sheet, but it hardly matters. You know what you did.

Speaking of the character sheet, this is as good a time as any to discuss a subject I’ve been avoiding: the game’s mechanics.

I’ve played these games enough that I decided to pick my stats and tag skills by RNG. Then I chose my traits when I realized that this was bordering on a troll character. Meet Rando Calrissian.

Fallout is kind of a broken game, and it’s hard to get this far without noticing. For starters, take the skill list. The usefulness of the various skills varies wildly, and most people will have at least noticed by now that Small Guns and Melee Weapons are dramatically more useful than every other weapon skill. You might be tempted to sink all your points into Small Guns, only to find out in the very next town that Small Guns is the only weapon skill that can be raised via skill books. That’s right, the game has skill books that can even be bought in stores, but only for certain skills, and this is something the game doesn’t warn you of in advance.

NPC companions were designed oddly compared to most games of this genre, and most games ever. Reportedly the game’s designers figured that a companion would help you for awhile until they got themselves killed, then the player would just loot their corpse and move on because the wasteland is a harsh mistress. Gamers being gamers, nearly everyone drove themselves nuts trying to make companions permanent additions and already some of the problems with Ian (the companion almost everyone gets in Shady Sands) have started rearing their head by now. You can’t give companions armor. You can’t give them orders of any kind in battle. You can’t even make suggestions beyond “draw your best weapon for the next battle.” Even outside of battle, you can’t say “HEY IAN I’D REALLY LIKE TO LEAVE THIS BATHROOM BUT YOU’RE STANDING IN THE ONLY DOORWAY, THANKS.” They have their own inventory and won’t openly share (although most people figure out how to circumvent this with Steal or Barter).

Ian will tell you that his best weapons are an SMG and a knife. If you give him those things, he will probably stand behind you, accidentally burst fire the SMG into your back, and then, assuming you’re still alive, switch to a knife and use that for the rest of the fight because that costs less AP than reloading.

Junktown has two recruitable companions and both recruitment methods support the “the designers didn’t find this particularly necessary” claim. The first is a dog, and if you’re wearing a leather jacket, he will mistake you for his owner, even if you’re the wrong gender, because that’s totally how dogs work. Otherwise, you’ll need to feed him his favorite food. There’s a decent chance you never guess the one food he likes to eat, and even if you do, you may not figure out how to use the questionable interface to give it to him.

“You see a man in dusty leather armor with a trenchcoat and gas mask.” His sprite has a visible, bald head and bare arms, like every other male NPC in the game wearing leather armor. One advantage of having text descriptions is that you can contradict what the player is seeing and the charitable among us will just roll with it.

The other companion is Tycho, a wasteland survivor. He can only be recruited during the Darkwater quest. Specifically, he can only be recruited after you have agreed to take down Gizmo. And only after you already have the evidence against him and gave it to Darkwater. So all you have to do is agree to take down Gizmo, get the evidence, talk to Darkwater, have Darkwater tell you to go talk to his deputy, then go to this bar and recruit Tycho instead. A bar that is only open after 4pm. And where, even if you talked to Tycho previously, you were never given any hint that he might be recruitable.

I’m pretty forgiving of bugs, but this sure feels like something that should never happen. A villager is trading me 2 stimpacks and 12 bottlecaps for my 2 stimpacks. I can keep making lopsided trades like this until she’s nearly broke. This is typical for anyone who tagged Barter, and even high-Charisma characters who didn’t.

There are several ways to break the economy, and it’s very possible the player has already discovered at least some of them; Gambling and Barter both open up easy yet tedious exploits for functionally infinite money, the latter of which calls to attention just how bad the bartering interface is. Human enemies like Raiders drop too much expensive armor for you to sell. Money may already be perilously close to not mattering, except in that it creates a lot of busywork.

It’s easy to imagine people bouncing off this game. It’s one thing to talk about how cool it is, but it’s quite another to actually play it, and I sometimes wonder how many people only got through it because of exploits and save-scumming. Not only do most of the problems I’ve discussed persist for the entire game, but some new ones arrive later (the phrase “armor-bypassing minigun crit” is likely to raise the hackles of anyone who saw this game through to the end).

I love Fallout, but it’s a pile of jank. The rest of this retrospective is going to focus on the plot and quest design, because those parts are not only timeless but in fact better than most modern games. Too bad all the good stuff is hidden in a 1990s computer game.

Next time: The Hub, and the midgame.

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