The Fallout series has seen numerous iterations over the years leading to many interesting ideas taking form in gameplay and story across the series’ 22 year history. (Dylan Robinson/Lariat)
With humble beginnings forged out of nuclear waste and atomic ash 22 years ago in 1997, Fallout staked a claim in the role-playing game genre. Touting itself as the definitive “post nuclear role playing game” on the box art, Interplay Productions knew exactly how to excite curiosity diverging off the typical fantasy setting the genre was littered with.
Science fiction was explored extensively by the late 90s in works like Blade Runner (1982), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Alien (1979) all in cinematic form urging a generation of gamers to take inspiration from these films and create something new out of it on the games front.
Fallout was not about exploring hopeful aspects of science fiction just as the films mentioned prior and instead sought to realize its apparent horrors. Looming over humanity in our modern world is the tangible threat of nuclear annihilation and well, it no longer loomed for the world of Fallout as the bombs dropped in a fictional war between the US and Chinese governments of the game.
The lore of the game saw the setting as a world that never developed beyond the 1950s aesthetic in both ideology and technology as the transistor was never conceived. Without the conception of the transistor that led to tech miniaturizing in our real world, the Fallout timeline branched off developing its tech primarily through harnessing atomic power and vacuum tubes.
All of this is inconsequential to the passing by gamer as none of this really means anything when you are elbow deep in irradiated wastes fending off hordes of Super Mutants and Radscorpions a la Mad Max, but what it conveys is that the series is very grounded in its own set of rules and lore restrictions.
The gameplay finds itself upon this mound of juicy lore conveniences and continues from there whereas other games will create either the story or gameplay first and expand off which came first. Fallout marries its core gameplay and story together as you the player are in direct control of which choices are made, who lives, who dies and what ending is then sought out.
Developing sequels seemed like a no-brainer then to the happy go lucky Interplay developer as what they had to work with as a foundation was an endless treasure trove expanding across the entire world, albeit in a nuclear soaked fashion.
A sequel soon came in the form of Fallout 2 a year later in 1998 that some hold in an even greater light than the original, yet Interplay faced bankruptcy closing down its development studio and selling the rights to Fallout 3 off to Bethesda Softworks as a guaranteed advance against royalties.
Now what comes next is not entirely Bethesda’s fault as without them there would have been no further Fallout past the second game. They received the rights as fairly as possible and made sure to seek out the best development for the game they could have at the time releasing their final Fallout 3 in 2008 to mass hysteria surrounding the hype and legacy of the series having been mostly mute on the main installment front for 10 years outside of spin-off Fallout: Tactics and Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel in 2001 and 2004 respectively.
Fallout 3 released to critical and commercial success in 2008 and saw many post release expansions in the form of five pieces of downloadable content supplementing the game post launch. Gamers were happy to have their hands on a modern release from the series showcasing trappings of first person shooter games of the time while still blending the original two game’s role playing furnishings cultivating an eccentric formula in addition to the VATS system allowing time to halt for the player to then focus in on an enemy’s specific body part just as the originals did.
It was all a recipe for success, yet the lore was cast to the wayside in favor of telling a story Bethesda Softworks helmed by Todd Howard saw fit. Howard and team had just come off the heels of developing the high fantasy RPG, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion releasing in 2006 and since the engine had been shared between the two titles, Fallout 3 was essentially Oblivion with modern armaments and Fallout iconography to sell the world to the player as something more than Oblivion with guns.
Given the success on nearly every front Fallout 3 saw, it was inevitable the series would trudge on but this time seeing development under another studio, Obsidian Entertainment through Fallout: New Vegas. This game returned to the roots of the original two games with a greater emphasis on retaining the established lore, creating more involved role playing elements and not mentioning Fallout 3 as the games were set on the opposite ends of the United States allowing for more creative freedom away from Bethesda’s lore splintering.
Thanks to the original Interplay devs returning to help with New Vegas, the game was an utter success despite not getting the same glowing reception and sales 3 has seen at the time of release. It was a return to form and a testament to how strong the design philosophies of old still held up in a modern lens.
Most recently in 2015 Fallout 4 saw release under Bethesda in addition to 2018’s Fallout: 76 both showing that Bethesda had not really learned from Obsidian’s commendable work with New Vegas.
Fallout 4 felt like a step back in nearly every department writing, lore and role playing wise as systems were streamlined to appeal to a more casual demographic and pull in larger sales due to another mystical development cycle of 7 years between 3 and 4 creating quite a stir in gaming spheres. Of course it sold well, yet the quality had really took a hit and the internet’s passionate fans really let Bethesda know their unbridled rage this time around as platforms like YouTube has proven instrumental in hosting the thoughts of many an upset gamer of the years.
Fallout: 76 was even more of a catastrophe being the first game in recent memory for the series really getting poor reception in both sales (still selling over a million although being nothing in comparison to the rest of the series) and critical response. Bethesda even resorted to making the always online game free to play for a while in addition to locking private servers between friends behind a monthly paywall offering meager rewards in return for the steep $12.99 per month price tag.
What the decline of the series revealed over the years is that maybe some things are better left in the past. Sure gems arose like New Vegas being one of my favorite games of all time and serving as a cornerstone to modern RPG development, but it always places me with though over what could have occurred if the series just ended after Interplay’s initial financial struggles resulting in bankruptcy.
Just as Star Wars fans speculate over what could have become of the series if it had just remained in the original trilogy, the same thoughts cloud my view of Fallout as a series. The lore would have been preserved and fondly remembered over the years as an absolute achievement in world building for role playing games and not marred with Bethesda’s carefree approach seen with 3 and 4.
The gameplay would have remained turn based and isometric and could have even been a relic of 90s game design which in some respects, they still are today. What I tend to do now is just isolate the Bethesda lineup from the Interplay/Obsidian lineup and take pride in my cherry picking of the series’ best parts up to this point.
For better or for worse, the series will always stick with me as some of my favorite pieces of science fiction media ever crafted. Telling the atrocities of humanity and just how bright the future could be even in the face of pure annihilation when we come together towards a singular goal.
Maybe the future of the series lies in putting faith in the new blood to lead us to new heights the series had not gone to before and letting go of the past that I hold so dear. That, or screw everything that comes next and reside in my fallout shelter forever, basking in blissful ignorance of the happenings around. Yeah, that sounds about good too.