Some video game companies are just like little kids these days. See, kids are known for doing dumb shit, like when they dismember their toys for no apparent reason, and then affix really random replacements onto every available orifice, sort of like little Dr. Heiters from ‘The Human Centipede’. Now, look at an average modern video game and tell me you don’t get a similar vibe. Most games today are some type of mutatious (new word) freaks: shooters are prone to all sorts of role playing elements and VD sounding things–like “stats” , racers now feel like they must tell a story and have you “race for your life!“, brawlers are now everything from Tetris and Mario Kart to softcore porn (oh, you clicked on that link, didn’t you), and single-player games are now online for some reason.
Now, I’m no fanatical purist who goes apeshit whenever a developer decides to rename the main character’s parrot or doesn’t put enough makeup on some JRPG chap. I’m all for experimentation and extras (‘murica!), when it’s done in a sensible manner. At the very least, making me periodically decide between going right or left, in Gears of War, wasn’t the most flow-breaking, brain-wrecking addition to a shooter, for example.
It becomes a problem though, when the things that fans most want in a given game (when, you know, they buy an FPS to play an FPS), get plucked out or half-assed in favor of some random “new” feature, like when RPG’s get cover systems and skippable dialogs, while scaling down on meaningful player choices or character attributes that actually matter. What we end up getting as a result is a sub-par RPG, with a severe case of unrealized potential, and all just so it could also resemble a shitty action game with clunky mechanics and horribly-designed action segments.
It’s no wonder, really, that we don’t know any better anymore and now consider sets of dialog options like “‘yes’, ‘fuck yes’, and ‘affirmative’” to be three legitimate choices and any form of “leveling up” to be a sure sign of a proper RPG. At a point in time, there was an industry term for something like that–it was called “a shit game”.
Back in the olden days, role playing games used to focus on character interactions that didn’t boil down to an exchange of bullets to the face, choices that impacted in-game communities in more meaningful ways than you dropping by to unload the loot like a one-man coat drive, comprehensive character development, team building, stories with actual endings, and all the things that had something to do with playing a meaningful role (get it?) in a living and breathing game world. Some RPG’s did some of those things first, others did some of them better, but none took it all to the level of the 1998 Black Isle game, titled Fallout 2. And yes, I’m talking about that Fallout series.
And no, it wasn’t an RTS back then.
Fallout 2 was very similar to the original but in terms of sheer “RPG-ness”, it set a standard that remains unmatched. You might be imagining me typing this while squinting at the screen through a thick cloud of crack smoke, since that game obviously didn’t feature the cinematic presentation of modern BioWare games; unlike most normal RPG’s, it also didn’t offer voice acting for everything with a hole in the face (although the voice acting it did have was excellent); and there were certainly no cover systems or epic battles against bosses with Mount Everests for testicles. Hell, you couldn’t even kill a rat in real time but you could engage in a series of awesomely-written and masterfully-designed quests that decided the fate of one of the most unique game worlds ever conceived. And let me get a bit deeper into that “decide the fate” bit, since that is the point here. To start, Fallout 2 featured 15 (fifteen!) actual towns or communities, and I’m not talking about some punk-ass “towns” like the ones you encounter in Fallout 3.
I’m not even counting the numerous unique quest locations here that offer plenty of gold nuggets of RPG goodness worth bothering with, like the mysterious Ghost Farm or the high tech Sierra Army Depot. If you wander into any of the fifteen real-deal hubs in Fallout 2, you better pack a toothbrush and a change of underpants because you will be staying awhile to deal with all the numerous important and believable characters and to discover some inconspicuous things happening somewhere under the surface.
And don’t expect to just get to all those places and rid a few basements of roaches either; most of the quests there serve a purpose and offer options with drastic consequences that are both immediate and not. The littlest fetch quests might affect quite a few things in the game’s ending, which does not only wrap up your own trek through the wasteland but also informs you of what happens to all the various communities because of your actions along the way (and does not simply summarize what you just did in the game, as was the case in Fallout 3).
Fallout 3 may have started with a uh… bang when it um… blew minds with its’ main Megaton-related bombshell of a quest (… please don’t leave), but that highlight of the game was essentially only an example of how you could end up impacting every community in the prequel, (only there it was less random and made actual sense).
I know that Fallout: New Vegas did a lot to rectify a LOT of those missteps but let me just try to give you an idea of the shit you may choose to stir in Fallout 2: deciding to lead a town in an attack against a camp of weirdos, from among numerous other options, may result in the said town (an actual believable town, remember) acquiring a reputation that gets it wiped off the map; completing some quests a certain way (or not at all) may result in an advanced city getting a whole bunch of happy endings or getting invaded, destroyed or mutated with radiation; and yet another massive town may fall under control of one of its’ main gangs, depending on who you decide to help, or even your own heir… if you play your cards right… if you know what I mean… giggity. What other RPG allows us to affect its’ game world to such an extent? Even one of the least linear and genuinely inspired RPG’s in recent years, The Witcher is a rather focused trip to a long icy boss battle, with few enough meaningful decisions along the way that they are blasted at you with trumpets and banners.
Now, I love The Witcher (seriously, buy. that. game) but it’s not an especially subtle or interactive experience when compared to Fallout 2. Black Isle packed in so much cause and effect into their game, and made it look so seamless, that I still can’t predict my endings or what random cool events might occur during a playthrough, and this is after replaying it more than a dozen times. As impressive as New Vegas was in that regard, I cannot say the same about it.
The very last time I completed Fallout 2, I was blown away yet again, when at a certain point, I was presented with the optional task of sneaking into a brewery operation and busting it up. I liked the people who operated the business so I had a change of heart at the last moment and left but not before dropping a poisonous scorpion tail into one of the stills, just to see if that did anything (mostly because those things were heavy as shit and I needed any reason to drop one). Nothing happened, as I expected. After all, the game already offered me a choice of Gordon Freemaning that shit with a crowbar or using my Repair or Science skills to sabotage the place, and didn’t mention that I should try dropping random shit in. I happily moved on, appreciating the fact that I was free to do so, until–and do take a pause to think about this–I noticed a whole bunch of town drunks start dropping dead in the streets…
Then there is the atmosphere. Let me just say that in terms of its’ feel, Fallout 3 was the Joel Schumacher’s Batman movie of the franchise and New Vegas was… hmmm… which one is good and often spot on but still out there? Batman Returns? Let’s put it this way, the series used to be a lot more than an experience of a violent future, as imagined in the 1950′s; it had a very nuanced culture that was much deeper than slapping a smiling Vault Boy on every object in the game. Everything from the general attitude, to the personalities, to the language, to the branding, to the architecture of the wasteland had a unique style of its’ own, and something like style is impossible to force or fake when it comes to any creative work. Going back to Batman (as is always appropriate), it would be like Christopher Nolan trying to direct his trilogy in the same style as Tim Burton. They would probably still be good movies but they would never feel natural enough.
Just like this wouldn’t look as natural on anyone else but this guy.
But enough has been said about that already and I do realize that a story and a setting are highly subjective things in most cases (plus the next ‘Older Games’ piece will be about precisely that). What I mainly wanted to communicate here is the feeling I got playing the demo for Fallout 2 a few centuries back, that no other RPG has been able to replicate for me. It was the feeling of being genuinely intimidated by the game’s world, as I was completely unsure just how much it was keeping track of. I mean, it actually freaking called me a ‘gravedigger’ for looting a grave and a ‘childkiller’ for killing a kid (he stole my jerky!), I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t get a fucking loitering ticket mailed to me by Black Isle for dropping items just anywhere in the game’s towns and that’s what makes it an epic fucking RPG!