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The original Fallout is the perfect antidote to Fallout fever

War did change, actually

The original Fallout box art with a power armour helmet
Image credit: Bethesda Softworks

Speaking to RPS regular Jeremy Peel in a new feature about RPG design, Amazon's Fallout TV show and his time working on Pentiment and Pillars of Eternity, Obsidian's Josh Sawyer has reflected a bit on what Fallout: New Vegas owes to Black Isle and Interplay's very first Fallout from 1997. "A lot of the philosophy that I approached New Vegas with was the philosophy of Fallout 1, or how I interpreted it," Sawyer observed. "Fallout 1 was foundational for me in understanding how role-playing games should be made."

He made specific links between the original Fallout and the "robust and dynamic" quest and conversation design of New Vegas, which he feels have outlived some early player upset over the game's similarity to Fallout 3. "I think that's what has lasted," Sawyer told Jeremy. "The initial impact where people said the gameplay feels very close to Fallout 3 is totally fair. But then as time stretches on, and people play them side by side, the fact that we had so much of our time to focus on the content, I think that's what people were excited about."

A screenshot of Fallout New Vegas showing the player taking aim at some enemies.
Image credit: Bethesda Softworks

Sawyer's association with Fallout goes deeper than New Vegas - he joined Black Isle in 1999, and was one of the lead designers on a third Black Isle Fallout game, codenamed Van Buren, before Black Isle closed in 2003 (Richard Cobbett wrote a piece about it and several other cancelled RPGs back in 2015). Obsidian themselves were founded by former Black Isle developers in the same year. It makes sense, then, that Sawyer would default to viewing Black Isle's Fallout as "foundational", though he doesn't appear to harbour any grudges towards Bethesda's subsequent takes on the series.

I've been revisiting the original Fallout myself these past few days. The key incentive, of course, is Amazon's Fallout TV show, which has been doing pretty well on the Googles, and has accordingly prompted a great migration of videogames news writers, fanning out across the wasteland in search of Fallouty detritus that can be alchemised into headlines. See how we brawl in the dirt over new Fallout 4 and Fallout 76 mods, updates and questions of canon, like feral ghouls scrabbling for the last cadaver. It's a sordid business, but Fallout is a universe I enjoy digging back into. Specifically, I've loved replaying the original Fallout, which feels nowadays like an entirely different universe.

The player's character standing outside the Vault 13 hatch in a cave in the original Fallout
Image credit: Bethesda Softworks

The obvious difference is that Black Isle's Fallout games are played from a trimetric (aka, elevated diagonal) perspective, with 2D sprites for people and buildings, where Fallout 3 and its successors are first-person RPGs with polygonal "true" 3D landscapes. It's worth dwelling on how that alters the mood. In the original Fallout games, you never see the sky. All you get is cracked and sterile earth. At the edges of each location there's an embroidery of angular shadows to indicate that you're leaving the map. Not being able to see the sun in a Fallout game feels very Fallouty. Even when you exit the Vault during the game's beginning, it feels like you've only strayed into a bigger Vault. It's as though the game's trimetric visuals were of a piece with the game's crushing post-nuclear purgatory.

Bethesda's Fallout 3, by contrast, is a game of daylight, nested vanishing points, and picturesque horizons. Its signature flourish, I think, is that when you leave the Vault following the prologue, you're briefly overwhelmed by the sun's radiance - a characterisation that may apply as much to the player weaned on the Black Isle games as to the Vault-Dweller exiting confinement.

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Bethesda have always had a knack for horizons. Their open worlds are magnetic because they give such good landmark, all those sprawling yet well-defined ruins on the edge of vision. I've enjoyed all Bethesda's Fallouts, and I like the contrast they present with the Black Isle games. But the trade-off, of course, is that they feel less oppressive, less engrossingly hopeless, more of a hike through the woods. They're Fallout tourism, on some level. These are vastly more cluttered environments, too, in a way that is more videogamey than post-apocalyptic. Fallout had its scavenging and vexatious inventory limits, but Bethesda's RPGs are particularly infamous for turning you into a lumbering packrat.

It's also worth dwelling on how each game handles sound and audio. The original Fallout's ambient music has stuck in my memory where pretty everything I've ever heard in Fallouts 3 through 76 has faded away. The Black Isle games don't play out in real-time, which seemingly gives the soundtrack more license to build a mood befitting the landscape, rather than trying to keep pace with the player. In hindsight, they feel deliberately minimalist, with long, slow compositions that settle over you like a radioactive pall. Desert Wind, especially, echoes through my skull in a way that makes me picture it perched on the baking sands, a couple of centuries from now. I love this track. I hate it too. It's like they took the title music from Alien and somehow made it even more... alien.

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There's on-going discussion among journos - again with one eye on the Google juice - of which Fallout game is best for any newcomer to the series converted by the TV show. I think the original game is probably the hardest to get into, by virtue of the differences outlined above, however "foundational" it may be as an RPG. Still, I'm sort of disagreeing there with Tim Cain, the co-creator of Fallout, who thinks that the TV show does a great job of capturing the original mood.

"Everything feels like Fallout," he said in a recent Youtube update. "It feels like Fallout. That is hard to do, trust me. I know how hard that is to do. It's easy to write post-apocalyptic stuff that doesn't fit in the Fallout mold, and it would have been very easy for them to accidentally go off, to be too silly, to have things that are like, that's not a part of Fallout, but they didn't."

Cain has found it eerie to see his old concepts for people and places blown up into a world of glistening Hollywood talent and HD props. "[There's] that surrealness when you see the thing you worked on really hard, and all these ideas and visuals, and just to see it in real life, realized," he said. "They had huge sets, amazing production values on them, amazing props, the acting was phenomenal. I mean, it was just surreal to watch Fallout recreated in real life like that.” I've found it similarly surreal to dip back into Fallout itself, 27 years on. The next step, if I have time, is firing up Fallout: New Vegas to investigate how much Sawyer and Obsidian really took from the first game's conversation and quest design.

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