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This article was originally published in issue 186 of Retro Gamer last year. Consider subscribing to this award-winning magazine. Since this was published before the release of Fallout 76, we've added a few tweaks to the conclusion for ease of reading.
Considering the fact war never changes, it might be surprising how much the Fallout series has transformed over the past two decades. Beginning life as an isometric CRPG bathed in the glow of both tabletop and pen-and-paper role-playing games, as well as its spiritual antecedent Wasteland, the series became a world-beater.
Going back to the first game now is an initial exercise in frustration—1997’s Fallout was, and remains, a brutally difficult, uncompromising game. If you mess up, you die. If you make the wrong decision, you die. If you don’t mess up or make the wrong decision, you still die. It’s dark, it’s (generally) presented with a straight face, and it wants you to know that the end of the world via nuclear holocaust is as cruel and vicious a thing as it sounds.
“I had been a post-apocalyptic fiction fan since I was a kid,” Brian Fargo, executive producer on Fallout (and founder of Interplay) tells us, “And Wasteland was my first attempt at bringing something to the genre. Shortly after finishing the Wasteland game, Interplay became a publisher and we no longer created games for other people. I tried to get EA to license me the rights back, but I was unable to succeed despite trying for many years. I finally decided we’d do our own post-apocalyptic game and call it Fallout.”
Sitting down with the development team, Brian Fargo and his crew at Interplay analysed what made Wasteland tick—what it was about the then-decade-old PC RPG that had kept people playing it so much over the years. “It was a matter of getting a small team to start bringing the project to life. To breathe humanity and charm into the game,” Brian remembers. “We created a sensibilities document that spoke to points such as moral ambiguity, tactical combat, a skills based system and the attributes system. After we nailed down what was important, development went off and began working on ideas that hit the touch points.”
Tim Cain is credited as the creator of Fallout—after all, it was his work on the game’s engine that brought the world to life, with a dedicated stretch of months working alone to get the project off the ground. Early versions saw time travel, and use of the GURPS ruleset that was implemented and ultimately abandoned (more on that in a minute). “I was working on different engines while nominally tasked with making game installers,” Tim explains. “I made a voxel engine, a 3D engine and finally an isometric sprite engine that I really liked. From there, I started making a combat engine based on GURPS, which I was playing paper-and-pencil with a group two or three evenings a week. That started getting some people interested in after-hours work on the game, and that grew into Fallout.”
It sounded straightforward, but development was impacted by the fact Interplay didn’t put much stock in the project. “The game did not follow a formal development process at Interplay,” Tim says. “It sort of grew organically, collecting people as it did so and avoided two near cancellations as the administration felt those resources would be better spent elsewhere.” The ‘elsewhere’ in question being big licences the studio had acquired, which it saw as the better financial option for a potential release. But Tim continued, as did a team of around 30 people, on crafting something new and original—albeit something that originally began life riffing on Wasteland.
One system introduced in the original Fallout was a bespoke creation, and has remained one of few constants in the series: SPECIAL. Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck all came into play in shaping your character—you might have gone for a brute with low IQ, making you unable to converse with smarter NPCs, or maybe you wanted to solve everything with your wit and suave, charismatic nature: the tools were set with this deceptively simple formula.
And it almost wasn’t to be. “Fallout was originally a GURPS game,” says Chris Taylor, lead designer on Fallout. GURPS was a tabletop system developed by Steve Jackson Games; standing for Generic Universal Role Playing System, it was made to be used across all forms of role-playing, and the folks behind Fallout thought it would be a great fit. GURPS was licensed, and work began on Fallout: A GURPS Post-Nuclear Adventure, as it was called early on.
Things didn’t turn out well, though. “We showed the opening movie with the prisoner being shot in the head while waving at the camera and Steve Jackson was not fond of it, to say the least,” says Brian Fargo, “I knew the kind of world we were building and that opening scene was just a warm up to the brutal world of Fallout, so I terminated the deal.”
Needing a replacement, Chris Taylor turned to a nascent ruleset he’d been working on in his own time. “I wrote my own RPG system on the back of three-by-five cards, in notebooks and on scraps of grid paper. My game was called MediEvil. It was not good. So [my friend and I] played D&D instead. But I kept those notes and would work on the game every now and then for a decade—when it came time to replace GURPS, I had something to work with,” he says.
“The team took the system and made it work. We took it and adapted it; it had the statistics and skills we needed, but Perks were created specifically for Fallout to replace the GURPS advantage/disadvantage traits.”
This lent itself nicely to the mythos behind what Fallout would become. “The team on Fallout had a very special vibe,” Tim remembers, “We were all working together to go in the same direction. There was very little clash of egos or desire to pull the game in a different direction. That is rare in development.
“Fallout was always seen as a B project at Interplay,” he continues, “At least until the last few months of development. It is frustrating to see something in your game that no one outside the team can see until almost the last moment before it is complete.”
The team could see it, though, and those who played Fallout were treated to a deep, original, and incredibly bleak look at a world ravaged by nuclear war. Survival was hard, but you were presented with more than just guns and knives to make your way through the world. Your words were just as deadly, and the game’s final boss encounter could see players with high enough charisma talk the big bad into killing himself after convincing him of how wrong he was. This was unprecedented in computer gaming at the time, and was testament to the incredible work Tim Cain and the team carried out.
Before the original had even released, however, work on the sequel began. “Fallout really caused a buzz in the studio about six months before it was released,” Tim explains, “QA staff were coming in nights and weekends, on their own time without pay, to play it. So Fallout 2 was started even before Fallout shipped.” A small project for Interplay had become a labour of love for those working on it, and when the review scores—and money—did start coming in for the first game, it became a labour of business love for the brass at the publisher, too. Fallout 2 would launch exactly one year after the original.
Safe now in the realms of 20-year-old rose-tinted reminiscence, we remember the sequel fondly and laugh at its more light-hearted take on the series.
“Behind the scenes you will always find that it’s very intense with the creative leads battling for their perspective,” Brian says, “But that is nothing more than the creative process at work. Getting Fallout 2 off the ground was a bit painful but other than that I don’t have any specific memories of negative things. It was an all-star cast of talent all pulling in the right direction.”
One factor that stood out more than others was the fact Tim, along with two other big names in the first game, Leonard Boyarsky and Jason Anderson, all quit developer Black Isle Studios during Fallout 2’s creation. While based on ideas from the three—“We just left work for a whole day and brainstormed until we came up with the right design, which, if I recall correctly, was accepted as is without any revisions,” explains Leonard, art director on the first game—it had become a project pushed by corporate desire rather than personal motivation, with an exceedingly short development timeframe for such a huge project, and a leadership vacuum in the wake of Tim and co’s leaving.
“We had no idea any of this was going on,” says Chris Avellone, designer and writer on Fallout 2 and New Vegas. “Next thing we knew, Feargus [Urquhart] was calling an emergency meeting in Black Isle and rapidly passing out area designs for Fallout 2, splitting the game areas up amongst the available—and even unavailable—designers. We all got drafted and got to work. I was working on Planescape: Torment at the time, so my double-duty on two RPGs began.
“It did feel like the heart of the team had gone,” he continues. “And all that was left were a bunch of developers working on different aspects of the game like a big patchwork beast—but there wasn’t a good ‘spine’ or ‘heart’ to the game, we were just making content as fast as we could.”
That patchwork approach to development led to a tonal clash throughout Fallout 2. Where the first game was dark, the second included wacky references to Monty Python, Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy, Godzilla and more. Some were genuinely funny, sure, but plenty were off-target. “I think the loss of Leonard and Jason accounted for a lot of the loss of the dark tone,” Tim Cain explains. “And my personal rule of ‘no jokes or cultural references that made no sense to the player who didn’t understand them’ was thrown aside after I left development.”
“Fallout 2 was a slapdash project without a lot of oversight. Management didn’t have the time,” Avellone says, “As a result, people just threw in things they thought were funny—even things like character models you didn’t know what you were going to get.”
The fedora and Tommy gun-toting thugs in New Reno, whose character models don’t even look like they belong in the game, were presented to Chris Avellone without him even asking for them. “They were just done,” he explains, “And I had to make use of them even though they didn’t have the right ‘feel’… but then again, not much of New Reno did, even though there were a lot of things you could do in town.”
There was a lot to do throughout all of Fallout 2. The game itself wasn't terribly different from the first, but it was still a lot of fun, and the tonal differences with the first game actually amassed an army of diehards demanding humour in their Fallout games to this day. And when Fallout 2 wanted to do serious, or wanted you to see the consequences of your actions—well, just check what happens when you get ‘slaver’ tattooed on your face for a lark (spoiler: you essentially ruin your game as hardly anybody of importance will deal with you).
Fallout 2 released after around a year of development, compared to the original’s three years. In that time the team made a new part of the world to explore, a vast amount of new stories to tell—they even gave you a car. It was an impressive feat, yet still one that rubbed some Fallout diehards up the wrong way. Fallout’s creator, though, remained positive even though he’d left the project: “I have always been impressed that the team could make a game that was much bigger than the original in a third of the time,” Tim Cain says. “They should be enormously proud of their achievement.”
The problems arising through Fallout 2’s confused development would set a pattern for the years to follow at Interplay, and the second game would end up being the last core title in the series by the publisher. Though that’s not to say it didn’t try launching a bunch of projects, but ultimately these didn’t get off the ground. In the period between the second and third games came a couple of releases: one with some good ideas; one best left forgotten. But whatever the case, Fallout was long from being pronounced dead.
In 2001, Fallout Tactics arrived—a spin-off focusing entirely on the combat aspects of the original two games, it was a decent foray into a world like Jagged Alliance, though the ‘tactical’ aspect went down the drain a bit and it ended up being a lot more run-and-gun than might be expected.
“I was very happy with what the developer Micro Forte did with Fallout Tactics,” Chris Taylor, who acted as senior designer on the game, says, “But I’ll admit that it wasn’t exactly the game that we envisioned early in the project’s preproduction. When games are nothing but ideas, it’s easy to get excited about the concept of a game. Then reality usually steps in. Compromises are made. In Fallout Tactics’ case, it shipped earlier than it should have. It could have used a little more time baking.”
While Tactics was appreciated by some, and has grown in reputation as the years passed, the other spin-off Interplay managed to get out—Fallout: Brotherhood Of Steel—was less well-received. A consoleified version of Fallout similar to Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, the game was, at best, dull. At worst? A stain on the reputation of the series. But Interplay wasn’t just focused on the spin-offs—it was working on an actual Fallout 3.
Codenamed Van Buren, Interplay’s take on Fallout 3 never made it to a finished state before it was cancelled. “Brian Fargo was gone by that point,” Chris Avellone explains. “And the vision for the company went along with him. And while we knew the company needed to turn a profit, we were starting to feel it in the trenches.” The first Fallout 3 was cancelled, and ultimately the franchise moved on to new owners, with its original custodian Interplay—eventually—losing all rights to Fallout.
In 2008, Bethesda, the studio behind the Elder Scrolls series of first-person role-playing games, released its own version of Fallout 3. It was a massive hit, immersing players in a post-apocalyptic wasteland (obviously) of Washington DC—changing things up significantly, while at the same time keeping the fundamentals, like the SPECIAL and VATS targeting systems, as they were. It was brand new and exciting, while at the same time completely familiar.
“There was always a desire in those days to make Bethesda Game Studios into more than just ‘the Elder Scrolls team’,” explains Gavin Carter, lead producer on Fallout 3. “There was a lot of musing about what might make a great second project. I don’t recall the exact moment I found out that it was going to be Fallout, but it was definitely in our conversations. I remember it moved quite rapidly from ‘wouldn’t it be cool if…’ to ‘maybe there’s a chance but don’t get your hopes up,’ to ‘time to start project planning.’”
Fallout 3 presented a detailed, vast world placed right in front of the player—and a shift back to the more straight-faced serious tone of the original game. After all, war is supposed to be hell. It was an intentional move in tone, Gavin tells us, because—while the second mainline Fallout game is an all-time great—these things felt like distractions to the team at Bethesda. “We wanted to more fully realise a vision of a post-apocalyptic future,” he says, “And felt that too much humour pulled you out of the experience more than it contributed.”
The move into sci-fi, away from the studio’s usual fantasy, was a challenge the team was willing to take on. While its detractors would call it ‘Oblivion with guns’, the fact is Fallout 3 was a huge accomplishment for Bethesda and the series as a whole. And it was a positive experience for the team working on it too, contrary to the years previous over at Interplay: “I remember watching people work for months to get the ending Liberty Prime sequence just right,” Gavin Carter says, “The PS3 team crunching for weeks to fix a VATS crash bug, playing VATS after Todd [Howard] and a programmer and artist huddled on it for two weeks and finally got it working well… concept art feedback meetings—‘That minigun looks way too much like a Dyson vacuum, sorry,’ walking by cubicles and seeing our VFX artist with a curtain and a warning sign up because he was gathering gore reference, the first time we got dismemberment working and were blowing up 3D people over and over again.”
Bethesda would next return to its Elder Scrolls series, moving on to what became Skyrim—but it didn’t want to leave Fallout behind, so it turned to Obsidian Entertainment, a studio made up of many folks who worked on the first two Fallout games, as well as the cancelled Van Buren. “The team was working on Fallout 3 DLC and getting ramped up and excited about Skyrim,” Gavin explains. “So they understood we couldn’t do everything on our own. I think people also realised that the choice to work with Obsidian, given their history with the franchise and the quality of work that they do, was a smart one.” Fallout: New Vegas was the ultimate result, arguably the best modern entry in the series, though it had its development challenges too.
“The biggest problem was just scope,” Chris Avellone explains. “The game was too big and there was too much added in the timeframe—and as we neared the ship date, the game still had a lot of bugs that were unaddressed.” Patches came, but they impacted the upcoming DLC, which required more work—and the pattern repeated. “It was even more difficult than it sounds,” he continues. “Because the patches and the fixes became moving targets as balancing changes started getting introduced with patches, and sometimes those would break critical path quests.”
New Vegas was riddled with bugs, and received extensive criticism at launch for this. And then there was the infamous Metacritic scoring incident, where Obsidian apparently only received royalties for achieving a Metacritic rating of 85 or above. New Vegas ended up on 84.
Despite all of that, New Vegas went down as a cult classic and has, over the years, cemented itself as the best in the series for a certain subsection of the Fallout fanbase. Fixed with subsequent patches and built upon with some genuinely brilliant DLC expansions, New Vegas served as the balance between Bethesda’s new 3D approach, and Black Isle/Interplay’s focus on traditional RPG mechanics. But the experience was fraught, and Obsidian’s crack of the whip proved a one-off.
Bethesda did of course return to the sci-fi series with Fallout 4—another step away from the pure form of the original, bringing in elements of construction and crafting. While well-received in its own right, the fourth game was never going to hit all the right notes with the old school purists. A good game? Definitely. A great Fallout game? That’s up for debate.
Fallout is a series that has changed a gigantic amount since its inception—possibly more than any other series in gaming. At the same time, however, its central themes of the apocalypse, the fundamental nature of humanity, and the need for some sturdy rope in a survival situation have all passed through the decades to make up core tenets of the series. It’s different to what it used to be, but it is still loved—even by the creator who abandoned it: “Fallout will always be my baby, even if it was adopted by another family,” says Tim Cain.
An additional bonus of Fallout’s success has been the resurrection of the series that inspired it. Brian Fargo’s current studio, InXile, was able to crowdfund Wasteland 2. “Everything I learned from Wasteland I put into Fallout and everything I learned from Fallout I put into Wasteland 2,” Brian Fargo tells us—back in 2014, and at the time of writing work is underway on Wasteland 3, with none other than Chris Avellone contributing. “[There’s a lot of Van Buren in] Wasteland 3,” he says, “We used a lot of the pillars of Van Buren to guide design decisions in tandem with the Lead Designer, George Ziets, who took the high-level concepts and then made them appropriate for the Fallout universe.”
Meanwhile, Bethesda has knocked together something we never thought we’d see: an online version of Fallout. Bringing together multiplayer and the wasteland is something that’s been talked about—and tried—since day one, but it took some 21 years to make it happen. Fallout 76 is a flawed effort that falls short of its potential, but the series is too popular not to survive that. Fallout's return in singleplayer form will likely come after the upcoming Starfield and Elder Scrolls 6, both of which will eat years of Bethesda's time. We look forward to the day the series sets the world on fire again.
HumansNot just your regular folk, but dwarves, beastfolk and swamp people, among others. Humans are the most widespread species of the post-apocalyptic futurescape, even though it was humans who caused all of this nuclear nonsense to begin with. One thing’s for sure in the wasteland, though: human nature isn’t very kind.
GhoulsFolks who forget to slip, slap and slop with their factor 5 million in the wasteland end up a little worse for wear as irradiated, skinless ghouls. Many you encounter maintain their faculties and operate largely as normal human beings. For some, prolonged exposure to radiation has eaten up their brains, and they roam the lands as feral zombies.
Super MutantsHumans ‘dipped’ into Forced Evolutionary Virus (FEV) goo sometimes—not always—result in super mutants: gigantic brutes, usually dumb, sometimes smart, always extremely dangerous. A mainstay of the series since day one, super mutants tend to be on the antagonistic side of things, but every now and then you get a friendly one.
RobotsRobots come in all shapes and sizes and are everywhere throughout the entire series, friend or foe, and the Fifties sci-fi feel of Fallout is helped a great deal by them—none more than by the Protectrons: your standard security bots who just happen to look strikingly like Forbidden Planet’s Robby The Robot.
AliensIt wasn’t until the third game that the aliens made an actual, living appearance, but plenty of spaceships of theirs crashed across the wasteland from the first game on. Intelligent and cunning, these blighters are as mysterious as they are rare—though the rumblings are they could have been behind the Great War.
SynthsThe post-apocalyptic kids on the block, synths are one of the few new technologies to arise after the bombs have dropped. Based on prewar technology, synths were created to mimic—and be indistinguishable from—humans. Nick Valentine, arguably Fallout’s greatest companion, is a synth, though it’s quite easy to tell.
UFO crashFallout 1-4, New VegasIf there’s a Fallout, there’s a UFO crash somewhere along the way. And usually sweet alien loot to bag, like the awfully useful and high-powered Alien Blaster. Keep on crashing, alien friends.
Raider of the lost fridgeFallout: New VegasA more realistic recreation of the scene we’ve tried to burn from our memories, in which Indiana Jones hid safely from a nearby nuclear explosion inside a fridge. In this version, all that’s left is a skeleton and hat.
Don't panic!Fallout 2The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy is your usual reference point for ultranerds, and Fallout 2 is no exception. The whale has fallen from a great height, though that’s not what killed it – it was the sudden stop.
Old-ish ScrollsFallout: New VegasAn acknowledgement of where the modern Fallout games owe a lot of their existence: some lampposts in Freeside have ‘TES-04’ engraved on them, referencing the then-upcoming Elder Scrolls IV: Skyrim.
The other guysFallout 3For all the legal issues and a certain fall from grace, Bethesda still managed to give props to original publisher Interplay with this structure looking the spitting image of the latter’s logo. Just don’t mention Fallout Online.
Monty PythonFallout 2You run into odd folk in the wasteland, like a bunch of so-called knights headed by a chap called Arthur on their way to find a ‘holy hand grenade’. You can pretend to help, but they still don’t know where the GECK is.
Mad MaxFallout 1-4, New VegasThe leather armour in the Fallout series is synonymous now with the games that it’s easy to forget it was based on the outfit worn by Max Rockatansky in the Mad Max films. Shame that the Interceptor doesn’t show up, though.
The TardisFalloutTo say this encounter is a bit on the nose is an understatement: you’re in the wild, you stumble upon an old police box, its light starts flashing and it fades from the scene. You just got Doctor Who’d, kid.
Fallout Extreme (PS2, Xbox)Cancelled: 2000A tactical shooter playable from a first or third-person perspective, Fallout Extreme never made it past the conceptual stage. Which is a shame, as on paper it sounded like Hired Guns in the Fallout universe. The planned storyline would take players outside of the US, into territories such as Russia, Mongolia and—ultimately—China, marking the first time a Fallout game would have left the States. Extreme was cancelled after little more than an outline and some concept sketches were made.
Fallout Tactics 2 (PC)Cancelled: 2001Around the time the original Tactics released, preproduction work began on a sequel. Sadly sales of the first game weren’t up to expected levels, and Interplay cancelled the project. Surviving today are some sketches of mutant crocodiles—it would have taken place in areas such as Florida—and a general idea behind the story, which would have incorporated an irradiated GECK. The resultant mutated Garden Of Eden would have been a cool twist on Fallout’s eternal quest to restore a perfect world.
Van Buren (PC)Cancelled: 2003Created using the engine Black Isle made for Baldur’s Gate 3 (also cancelled), this original incarnation of Fallout 3 was under the stewardship of eventual New Vegas alums Chris Avellone and Josh Sawyer. Set across Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and Utah, the game would see players in the role as a prisoner and some tweaks to established systems, like SPECIAL. A tech demo was released, but ultimately Interplay decided to channel funds towards Icewind Dale instead, and the project died.
Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel 2 (PS2)Cancelled: 2004A bit of a double-edged one this: it’s sad that BOS2 never released, as it was close to completion when development was shut down thanks to Interplay layoffs. On the other hand, the first game was pretty much awful, so it doesn’t feel like the greatest loss. The sequel did feature elements like Caeser’s Legion and the Jackals—both borrowed from Van Buren and both making an appearance in New Vegas—as well as another appearance of the irradiated GECK. Still, it wasn’t to be.
Project V13 (PC)Cancelled: 2012V13 was the name of two projects from Interplay and a reformed Black Isle Studios. The first was an MMO, Fallout Online, which was put together by Masthead Studios with Interplay as publisher—a legal dispute from Bethesda popped up, and the project was cancelled. A second attempt saw V13 rebranded as nothing to do with Fallout, tried to raise money via crowdfunding, then quietly disappeared some time after with nothing to show for it.
"One of my boring, pointless hobbies is making lists, recently these lists have been timelines," Connor Rawlings begins a reddit post by stating.
"Thus I present perhaps the most in-depth timeline of the whole canon Fallout series."
That's a huge claim, but one which - somewhat incredibly - seems to be true.
Way back in the forgotten times of glossy paper games magazines, I remember my first exposure to what would become Fallout: A Post Nuclear Role Playing Game. Early previews said Fallout was going to be a PC showcase of the GURPS pen-and-paper RPG system, but it grew into its own thing. Now, tabletop studio Modiphius have announced the Fallout: Wasteland Warfare Roleplaying Game, a freeform RPG expansion for their tabletop miniature tactics game. Curiously, there’s yet another, more traditionally pen-and-paper version based on Modiphus’s 2d20 RPG rule-set due next year.
Sex. Speedrunning. Not two things you expect to hear in the same sentence - and yet here I am, writing an article about it.
Speedrunner tomatoanus, who you may remember from his world record Fallout anthology speedrun (and his rather colourful username), has returned with yet another wacky video. Not content with whizzing through Fallout 1, 2, 3, New Vegas and 4 in under 90 minutes, tomatoanus' latest speedrun is all about sex. Specifically, getting it as fast as possible. Like a night out in Magaluf.
Similar to his other world record speedruns, tomatoanus played through the games considered by the community to be the "main" titles in the Fallout series, with the goal being to have sex in each game as quickly as possible. This apparently has its own unofficial category, called a "sex%" run, and has already been attempted by a number of speedrunners in Fallout 4 (check out these ones by Jinjenia and Duchys).
There's been plenty of negativity surrounding the Fallout series as of late - so today it's time to focus on something rather more hopeful. Following in the footsteps of other remake mods like Fallout New California, one modding team is using Fallout 4 to give Fallout 2 a rad-ical makeover.
Fallout 4: Project Arroyo, named after the tribal village in Fallout 2, was publicly announced on Reddit back in December. Some commenters were sceptical as to whether the project would get off the ground - but earlier today the team shared more information and several screenshots to give us our first look.
"Fallout 2 became my favourite Fallout game when I began playing it," team member DoctWhite stated on Reddit. "The branching questlines, dynamic stories, and the immersive universe all called my name, however there was one problem for me. That is the game's isometric and outdated gameplay.
Folks who bought Fallout 76 last year can now grab ye olde Fallout, Fallout 2, and Fallout Tactics for free. Finally, your Fallout 76 purchase will get you a good game (several, even). The giveaway is the latest part of Bethesda’s ongoing apology tour over the multiplayer survive ’em up’s shonkiness. Unlike the trifling amount of virtuacash offered in apology for the 175 edition’s garbage bag (Bethesda do plan to replace the bags), this is available to folks who have any edition. All Fallout 76 editions were wonky enough to merit apology gifts. All of it. The whole thing. Not that Bethesda call it an apology gift, of course.
Anyone that has logged into Fallout 76 in 2018 will get the original Fallout, Fallout 2 and the combat-focused Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel for free next month, Bethesda has announced.
Players will get the games as part of the Fallout Classic Collection, and should be able to claim them in early January. The collection was initially available as a pre-order bonus for Fallout 76.
Bethesda didn't specify where you'll be able to play the games but I presume it'll be through the developer's own launcher, rather than via Steam.
The games have been available for free before, and they only cost pocket change each but, hey, we're not going to say no. If you're a fan of RPGs then they're still worth playing, even 15-20 years after they were first released. You can read a couple of retrospectves on them here and here.
Fallout 2 turned 20 years old yesterday.
Black Isle Studios' turn-based, open-world post-apocalyptic role-playing game came out on 30th September 1998 to rave reviews and it is now considered one of the greatest RPGs of the era.
Fallout 2 is set in 2241. The town of Arroyo is under threat from a drought, and it's up to you to venture out into the wasteland to retrieve a Garden of Eden Creation Kit to save the day. It is an understatement to say things do not go well.
In 1992 Microprose released Rex Nebular & the Cosmic Gender Bender, an adventure game set on a world where a "gender war" had killed off all the men. The remaining women separated themselves from the rest of the galaxy, hid their planet, and perpetuated their species thanks to the Gender Bender, a device that instantly but non-permanently transformed women into men and vice versa. What does the game do with that setup and the questions it raises? It makes jokes about how men leave the toilet seat up and women don't know what torque wrenches are.
We've come a long way since then. In 2007's Mass Effect the Asari are a monogender alien species coded as women, and they don't hide themselves away refusing to learn how wrenches work. On the surface they seem like stereotypical blue space babes, but they're also a matriarchal society that plays a central role in the politics of the series. One of the Asari, Liara T'Soni, is a potential love interest for the player-character regardless of their gender—which, at the time, was controversial. Imperfect as they were, Mass Effect and its sequels felt like they were dealing with gender and sexuality in a way that's much more common to science fiction outside of games.
If your space opera novel about aliens gives them three genders readers accept it, because of course alien societies would have different ideas about sex. By the same token in cyberpunk novels where people can have laser eyes it's easier for readers to accept gender transitioning as commonplace. When we think about the future we do so by taking modern norms and simply pushing them a bit, and that includes our modern ideas about sexuality and gender.
Extreme Meatpunks Forever is many things. It's a contender for best videogame name ever for starters. It's also an episodic visual novel about friends on the run in the Hellzone, which happens to include an Atari-style arcade action game where those characters climb into mechs that look like skinless monsters to fight fascists. Creator Heather Robertson (who also worked on Genderwrecked) describes it like this: "Extreme Meatpunks Forever is a serialized visual novel/mech brawler about four gay disasters beating up neonazis in giant robots made of meat."
Three episodes into the series, its heroes the Sundown Meatpunks are sleeping rough, missing their home, squabbling with each other, and shopping for protein bars in a convenience store called Blood Station where the clerk has static for a face. There's plenty of surrealness at play, but there's truth in it as well.
"It's about growing up queer in a small town," explains Robertson, "about feeling at odds with your own body, about feeling broken and trying to make a community with other broken people. Sure it may be a game about body horror giant robots and cosmic mysteries and post-reality hellscapes, but all the emotions in the game are very real—things that either I or someone very close to me have experienced."
Each of the Meatpunks has an alter ego they embody when they climb into their mech, when they become the raw and bleeding version of themselves who has to fight back. Lianna becomes Crash Queen, Cass becomes All Or Nothing, Sam becomes Roots Among Ash, and Brad becomes Ultra Brad. (We all know someone like Brad, I think.) Having mechs is one of the things that unites them. The other is, as Robertson puts it, that they are all "queer disasters".
"Science fiction is an interpretation of the present, through the lens of the future," Robertson says. "When a science fiction book talks about minority groups in the future, or specifically avoids talking about minority groups, it's a political statement. 'You will be/you will not be allowed into the future.' The first category, of largely avoiding queer issues, may even come from a good place: that the author wants to include people like them in the future but isn't quite sure how to do more good than harm so they leave it as a side issue. Representation in science fiction isn't just about who can see themselves in a fantasy. It's about who can see themselves in the future."
In an interview with The Paris Review five years back, sometimes science-fiction author Warren Ellis made the case that the genre has always been more of a way of saying things about the time it's written in than about predicting the future. "Science fiction is social fiction", he said. "That’s the line from Mary Shelley through H. G. Wells and Aldous Huxley and George Orwell to the politically committed writers of the sixties and seventies. It's about using speculation as a tool with which to examine the contemporary condition."
I get the impression Heather Robertson's ideas about science fiction are similar. Her story of queer outcasts being hassled by fascists and failed by the police is a contemporary story dramatized by being pushed ahead of us in time. "If science fiction is an interpretation of the present through the lens of the future," she says, "it only makes sense that people take it as a chance to stake their claim on the future, and to say: 'I may not make it here, but someone like me will.' Queerness is unstoppable. It is resilient, unkillable. The future is made of love."
Subserial Network is a game about a future where humans are long gone, and androids called synthetics who have personalities based on those lost humans try to build a society of their own, inspired by what's left of humanity—which is mainly the internet as it existed in the 1990s. You play a synthetic and see the world through web browsers, email and chat clients, even a music player reminiscent of WinAmp.
It's your job to sift through the digital creations of synthetics, their fanfic pages and proto-blogs, hunting for those who deviate. Some synthetics have begun modifying themselves, adding serial ports so they can interface in new ways, which is seen as a threat by others.
It's a story about the future, but as with all of these games there are parallels to modern concerns. "I think pursuing a highly stigmatised body modification because there’s a very firm idea of the sacredness of the body and what that body is supposed to do is just a good story in itself," says director Sophia Park, who was also responsible for Localhost. "But look, it’s happening every day. When people online are talking shop about the idiosyncrasies of their vaginas based on the manufacturer and the inherent quirks therein, it feels pretty cyber. I think being aware that there are people living that life right now, let alone the past, you know, fifty years, or whatever, is pretty cool."
In some ways it's a very personal game. "I directed the project and led the story, yeah? And the ideas first came once I started pursuing sexual reassignment surgery. And most of the game was written after I actually did it. So. It’s not about that, but it is? But it’s not. But it is." Park says that she doesn't want players to see Subserial Network as "a trans game" but as a game about characters you can find a common ground with rather than feeling excluded by your differences. "We try to take the metaphor and mess it around, recontextualize each and every element of our life experiences until it’s in a space where you don’t feel that. You feel like you can relate. And then you can understand your trans friends better, even if you don’t know why you do."
One of the Geocities-looking web pages in Subserial Network contains an interview with a synthetic who, in an attempt to understand what it means to be human, has been experimenting with sex. There's humor to it, an android with reconfigurable limbs trying to figure out what all these bits do, but also a sense that maybe by going beyond what someone with more traditional human parts could do they're actually discovering useful things about themselves.
"In Subserial Network, we extrapolate some of our experiences into a world where your entire body can be reconfigured, where you can live, entirely, online, and where you for some reason are asked to be what you just aren’t. And I think within that premise you can explain or explore a lot of things that you might feel you presently can’t," says Park. She hopes that, in doing so, people can reach "resolution, conclusion, understanding, empathy" without necessarily feeling like her game is simply making a statement about a group of people and nothing more.
In one of Subserial Network's most affecting moments, a synthetic describes finding an old magazine with a photo of the human she was based on inside it. There's a face there that she recognizes as her own, but it belongs to someone separated from her by years, someone she both is and isn't. It's haunting, even divorced of subtext.
When Park describes science fiction she talks about how it focuses on 'the new thing', "a technology or a scientific concept that is elaborately explained and the story hinges on the changes this new thing inflicts on the world. It’s a thing you’ll see in, like, Black Mirror episodes or what have you. There’s always a new thing—and the new thing has narrative consequences, and it influences the worldbuilding, and it recontextualizes narratives and genres and maybe lets us understand something better today.
"Science fiction shares a lot with horror—the new thing is instead abject, and it’s terrifying, and no one explains it. It points backwards, and society has to reconvene after the new thing is put away. But these two things are often related. Are trans people more horror or science fiction? People tend to act like we are some abject thing, or some new science experiment that redefines gender and human society. But the new thing is just the new thing, right?"
The Red Strings Club is probably the best game I've played all year. It's three cyberpunk stories surgically attached as if by a back-alley street doc: one about a hacker, one about a bartender, and one about an android who bio-sculpts cybernetic implants. Together these three characters have the potential to bring down a corporation planning to brainwash the world by doing away with sadness, but also potentially eradicating free will and the motivation to improve our lives and those of others. The Red Strings Club interrogates the ideas we have about unhappiness (like, is it really a motivation for creativity or is that a myth we use to justify how unfairly society rewards artists?), and also questions the smaller ways we're responsible for manipulating people's emotions every day.
At the same time, The Red Strings Club presents queerness as an ordinary part of its near-future setting. Two of the main characters are gay and in a loving relationship together, and one of the secondary cast is a transgender woman. The android character is genderless and that's used as a vehicle for asking questions about the concept and its value. As Jordi de Paco, director, writer, and programmer at indie studio Deconstructeam explains, these themes weren't an intentional addition.
"Because we ourselves on the development team define ourselves as queer I just created the characters as my environment, like my friends and the kind of lives we lead", he says. "In Gods Will Be Watching, our previous game, I kind of I wasn't that aware I could do other stuff with videogames. I was just making what videogames do, with a white male protagonist and their friends. With The Red Strings Club I wanted to make more personal stuff. Suddenly, it came out naturally. The characters came out gay and they have different gender identities because it's my actual environment. I don't live in a space opera but I do live in this kind of context."
Even though The Red Strings Club developed its themes naturally, it's not been any less immune to criticism from the kind of people who use the word "forced" to describe any representation of characters different to them (which seems like every single person who uses the word "forced" on the internet). On the whole, de Paco was pleased by the response to their game. On the whole.
"With The Red Strings Club the big majority of feedback is really good and they're thankful the game made them feel things," he says, "and it happened that the bad feedback of The Red Strings Club feels like good feedback too. It's basically a lot of people complaining about it being 'a game full of fat chicks and faggots' and having 'a political agenda' and trying to 'force them through their throats' and everything."
Another response was less expected. Waypoint published an article critical of the way The Red Strings Club depicted one of its characters—who had an unhealthy obsession with a transgender woman—using her 'deadname', the name she no longer goes by. "We didn't feel like it was healthy criticism," he says, "like, 'Hey, guys, be careful with this because some people may be having conflicted emotions', we are really open to that kind of feedback. We have reasons to want to depict the reality of deadnaming in the game, we explained that on a follow-up article on Waypoint, but we were called 'cheap' and 'gross' and we 'sabotaged our vision'. It felt too harsh for us since that was not intentional at all. I understand that intention is not everything that counts, but being called out because of transphobia feels really, really tough, especially for us."
In spite of that, de Paco says he wouldn't change anything about his game if he was to make it over today. "I prefer to make it this way, because after experiencing putting a game out there with not that much that's personal in it and making something that's personal, I don't think I'd want to go back to making regular games. I really enjoy the way you can connect with the audience. Even the harsh feedback is something that makes you grow personally and it's interesting to expose yourself. I think that it's something that we have to offer that big companies don't have, so why limit that kind of potential we have? We really can explore these kind of experiences. If we cannot compete with big companies in technical issues maybe we can compete in feelings and being flawed and kinky or whatever we want to be."
Fallout 2 was the first game to depict same-sex marriage, and some of the later Fallout games embraced a similarly forward-thinking attitude. Fallout: New Vegas in particular included characters from a spectrum of sexualities, including Veronica, Arcade, Whiskey Rose, and Christine. And then there was the Think Tank, from the Old World Blues expansion.
Writer Chris Avellone, who worked on both Fallout 2 and New Vegas, explains. "In terms of game stories and sexuality, when we were doing Fallout: New Vegas—Old World Blues, the twisted view of sexuality of the Think Tank Brains was intended as symptomatic of their psychological problems—but it was repressing them that was causing at least two of them serious emotional issues." Those characters were brains floating in jars, a homage to old school B-movies, who had over many years grown disdainful of biology and forgotten much about how it worked. Their ideas about sex were idiosyncratic, to say the least.
"One of them was obsessed and aroused by the biology of the human form—she was turned on by a character blinking, yawning, chewing, etcetera—even though the others found the human form repulsive, to put it lightly. And another was a chronic masturbator, which he hid from the others. The player can champion both so they don't feel ashamed of these feelings anymore during the end sequence—and they'll side with the player if the player helps them." The message was plain. As Avellone puts it, "it's OK to be you, just don’t hurt anyone while you're being you."
Avellone also worked on the 2017 version of Prey, a game that let players choose the sex of its amnesiac protagonist, Morgan Yu. Whether you explore Talos Space Station as a man or a woman, when you meet fellow crew member Mikhaila Ilyushin you discover she had a relationship with Morgan in the past, which you've since forgotten.
Initially, Morgan had been conceived of as a man, and as Avellone says, "I suggested that Morgan, as a result of what’s happening on Talos and the disconnects and being unaware of his previous connections to others, could have his condition highlighted by being unaware of his past relationships with others". When the decision was made to allow Morgan to be played as a woman, they decided not to alter Mikhaila's role as your ex. "I think we simply asked, 'why would we?' So we didn't and left it in. Ultimately, we felt it was the relationship in the context of Morgan's condition that was important, not Morgan's gender."
Avellone's been in the videogame industry for a long time, with credits going back as far as 1996. Back then, he says, "sexuality in games was something of a taboo", something he believes is changing. As he puts it, "there’s been a shift in games over time to portray sexuality in games and show the range of sexuality in the game space."
And that's a positive trend. Like all of these developers, Avellone sees value in the genre's ability normalize things, to say that if we're going to accept interstellar travel and robots we may as well accept gay and transgender people. He brings up Iain M. Banks' novels in the Culture series as an example. "While one could argue that the way those subjects are treated in the books are sideline subjects, I think it gains a certain strength in that it's 'simply the way it is,' so much so there’s no reason to underscore it or exaggerate it because it’s simply the norm in the galactic society Banks created."
And although none of these developers think predicting the future is science fiction's main job, Park does give a shout-out to Mass Effect's vision of the 22nd century. "One thing Mass Effect did really well was in the casual bisexuality of the trilogy", she says. "I think that’s what the future looks like; everyone’s a little more fluid on the Kinsey scale, the determinative social role of human sexuality collapses, but the original architecture more or less stays up."
Whether it's acting as a weathervane for what's to come or drawing back a curtain on an aspect of the present, science fiction can use its distance from our lives to open us up to ideas we may not have considered, including ideas about gender and sexuality. Whether they're videogames, books, movies, or TV shows, our stories about the future could stand to be a bit ahead of their time.
The first three episodes of Extreme Meatpunks Forever are available on itch.io, as is Genderwrecked. Subserial Network is currently available to Humble Monthly subscribers. The Red Strings Club is on everything.
Fallout isn't set in in our hypothetical future, but the future of another timeline—one in which culturally America never left the 1950s and technologically the world went down a path heavy on the vacuum tubes and without color TV. Each new game has added to that alternate history, and sometimes rewritten bits of it, and no doubt Fallout 76 will add and revise even more. The trailer suggests a starting date of October 27, 2102, which is much earlier in the timeline than any of the previous games. It's 59 years before even the original Fallout, and 185 years before Fallout 4.
Below is a timeline of the major events in Fallout's alternate history as it exists right now. While there have been references to events going back as far as the 17th century in the games (like the alien abductions in Fallout 3's Mothership Zeta expansion), the broad sweep of history in the Fallout universe resembles ours right up to the end of World War 2. It's only after 1947, when transistors were popularized in our world but not that of Fallout, that divergence begins, and only in the 1960s that those differences becomes significant.
Captain Carl Bell of the United States Space Administration, piloting the Defiance 7, becomes the first becomes human in space. According to the Museum of Technology in Fallout 3, "this has been constantly refuted by both the Soviet Union and China."
The USA is divided into the Thirteen Commonwealths, each comprising several of the existing states, and changes its flag. The Valiant 11 lunar lander touches down and Captains Richard Wade, Mark Garris, and Michael Hagen of the USSA become the first astronauts to walk on the surface of the moon. In 308 years time, the Valiant 11's dish will be repurposed to increase the distance over which Three Dog can play 'Butcher Pete' at people.
The Sierra Army Depot changes its mission statement, becoming "Responsible for the demilitarization of stores of surplus ammunition". Eventually, it will become home to the Skynet AI as seen in Fallout 2.
The USSA commissions the creation of the Delta IX, the final model of manned moon rocket. Eventually the Delta IX rockets will be repurposed, their crew and instruments replaced by nuclear warheads.
The first Mister Handy Robots are made available to the public.
The final manned moon mission occurs in the same year that worldwide resource shortages begin. Oil prices in the Middle East rise drastically, and the European Commonwealth responds by declaring war. This escalates into a global conflict called the Resource Wars.
The European-Middle Eastern War inspires the US to begin Project Safehouse, which will lead to the creation of the Vaults.
The US increases its military presence in Alaska and establishes the Anchorage Front Line, causing tension with Canada.
The European-Middle Eastern War ends as soon as the Middle East's oil fields run out. Many countries, including the US, devote more effort to nuclear energy research. The European Commonwealth dissolves.
New York's nuclear reactor comes close to a meltdown. Construction of Vault 76 begins.
An energy crisis in China contributes to increased aggression toward the US, who refuse to export oil to them. China invades Alaska.
Chryslus Motors debut the first fusion-powered cars.
The US begins annexing Canada.
US troops are deployed in China. The President walks out of trade negotiations, declaring that US oil won't be for sale or trade.
The US completes its annexing of Canada, and deploys T-51b power armor (made possible by nuclear fusion cells) in China. On July 4, Vault 76 is opened to celebrate the US tricentennial.
On October 23 the Great War begins. As Ron Perlman puts it in the intro to Fallout 2, "The earth was nearly wiped clean of life. A great cleansing, an atomic spark struck by human hands, quickly raged out of control. Spears of nuclear fire rained from the skies. Continents were swallowed in flames and fell beneath the boiling oceans. Humanity was almost extinguished, their spirits becoming part of the background radiation that blanketed the earth." Also on this day, Nuka-Cola Quantum is released to the public.
Survivors of the Great War still living on the surface begin to notice mutation spreading, both among themselves and animals.
The start date of Fallout 76. It's Reclamation Day, again.
In The Hub, a group of merchants seize control of the settlement's water tower and rival merchants unite to fight them. The Great Merchant Wars begin.
Robert House awakens from cryogenesis.
Start date of the original Fallout.
The Vault Dweller, protagonist of Fallout, settles down and founds the settlement of Arroyo with several other exiles from Vault 13 and members of local surface tribes.
The settlements of Shady Sands, Los Angeles, Maxson, the Hub, and Dayglow vote to combine themselves into a federation called the New California Republic.
The ghouls of the Capital Wasteland form the Underworld.
The Boomers settle Nellis Air Force Base.
Start date of Fallout 2.
Caesar establishes a base for the Legion in Flagstaff, Arizona. The Pitt, a raider settlement in what was Pittsburgh, is attacked by the Brotherhood of Steel and almost the entire population is wiped out in an action called 'the Scourge'.
Start date of Fallout 3, or at least its character creation.
The NCR defeats the tribes based around Bullhead City in an action called the Pacification of the Mojave.
The NCR and the Desert Rangers sign the Ranger Unification Treaty.
Galaxy News Radio makes its first broadcast.
Caesar's Legion moves into the Mojave, and the first Battle of Hoover Dam occurs. Boulder City is flattened, but the Legion is defeated when the NCR lure them into a trap. Caesar blames Legate Graham, and he is punished by being set on fire and thrown into the Grand Canyon.
Start date of Fallout: New Vegas.
The Quincy Massacre occurs when the Gunners attack the Commonwealth Minutemen, leaving only 20 of them alive. Start date of Fallout 4.
The furthest event in the timeline of Fallout is a hypothetical one, but if you complete the excellent Old World Blues expansion for Fallout: New Vegas and fully upgrade Blind Diode Jefferson, the AI who has the blues, then the epilogue explains he eventually "created a symphonic counter-frequency that saved Big MT from sonic invasion in 2910. If you didn't hear about it—good."