Some ardent defenders of the Fallout series - let's call them Fallout traditionalists - have a beef with Fallout 3 and the RPG they fear it will be: non-isometric, non-turn-based, sans dialogue trees, simplified (i.e. dumbed down) SPECIAL system, and a distinct lack of the offbeat, self-referential Fallout vibe. Such a game, say the traditionalists, may be perfectly suitable for gamers who prefer 3-D action RPGs like Oblivion. But it's just not Fallout. So don't call it Fallout.
My students have been playing Fallout 1 and 2 for a couple of weeks, preparing for the release of Fallout 3. They are an unexpected mix of gamers: a small handful of RPG veterans, a large majority of relatively casual gamers (mostly sports games and shooters), and a few with almost no experience playing video games at all. Quite a challenge for a teacher who expected to be met by a small legion of hardcore D&Ders with a possible cosplayer or LARPer thrown in. Fortunately, they're all terrific guys willing to try anything I throw at them.
So when I handed them Fallout (half played the original, half the sequel) with no instructions or special preparation, they struggled. A lot. They had the original manuals, but almost nobody read them. After exiting the vault, they had no idea where to go or what to do. Their movements were limited for no apparent reason; "action points" made no sense; and they died within minutes nearly everywhere they went.
A few early posts from our online forum:
Idk if anyone else has this problem but I am having a hard time getting anything done... I started as Max Stone hopin to kill some things and level up... but there isn't much 2 kill... the redscorpians are owning me... Any way to move like a little bit quicker?
I kept walking back and forth between 15 and 13 and get stopped by travelers... they took me to a town where I forgot to save and got dominated and lost all my experience and time...
i have enough to fire a gun and kill a scorpion, but then i'm only 1 action point short to use a weapon and i get screwed because i can't fight back...how do i gain more action points and why do they randomly go away when i'm fighting?
I'm terrible about reading manuals and whatnot, so it took me forever to find out how to rest because the pipboy doesn't work originally and I didn't try it again until I clicked it by accident. So far, I appreciated being left to my own devices, but because the game is so old, with the graphics it has and whatnot, it sometimes is hard to recognize what needs to be done. Like it's only after you play a game like this that you realize how much easier having glowing objects of interest is.
Our first Fallout conversation was a disaster. Few students had posted on the forum as I had asked them to, and it was obvious that almost no one had devoted much time to playing. They basically tried the game, got frustrated, threw up their hands, and walked away. Our midterm break began the following day, so I told them I expected them to continue playing over the break, be resourceful, roll up their sleeves, and figure it out. "Somewhere in there," I assured them, "is the best RPG you will play this semester. If you dig harder to find it, I promise you will thank me." A bit of hyperbole, perhaps, but I meant it.
All of these students have seen the trailers for Fallout 3. When I told them we would play the game immediately after release, they burst into spontaneous fits of delight. I should mention that I made this announcement at the conclusion of our Planetfall discussion, a text adventure they gamely tried to enjoy because I told them they should - but which they mostly detested. In this setting, Fallout 3 was received like mana from RPG heaven. Subsequently, Fallout 1 and 2 were seen as trials to be endured while awaiting the modern gameplay savior of 3.
Then, during the break, something broke. I began to notice increased activity in the discussion forum, which soon turned into a small flurry of posts. A sampling:
What is interesting about the random encounters in the game is that not all of them are hostile encounters. The kind of encounter that is very rare in games is the neutral encounter where you encounter people fighting. You can help either side but even then sometimes they will just turn around and attack you when they beat whoever they were fighting. My favorite way to deal with these encounters is to wait till a few of them die, and then it's looting corpses time. It’s amazing what kind of nice loot you can find on them. It’s also where I got my first gun.
Think about it, they have almost myths of what we know about these people and things. They don't know everything and have to rely on what they do know. I'm really interested in seeing how much information is lost because of the isolation caused by the vaults.
That's an interesting idea. What effect would the isolation of the vaults have on the society? And what would changed based on the nuclear apocalypse? It would be like taking all the data in the world and deleting random parts. It would cause mass chaos, especially once the original humans (from pre-nuking) die out. Or, alternatively, there could be a safe-haven somewhere. From a developing standpoint, how could that effect the game? Could it?
I just found out that the greeter at the Den tells you to be vewy vewy quiet he is hunting rabbits, and i just stopped and laughed for about fifteen mins.
Suddenly, they got Fallout. They grokked the mechanics and embraced the non-linear gameplay. They made peace with uncertainty. But more importantly, they built a relationship with the character and the offbeat but perilous world. As Iroquois Pliskin points out in an essay I shared with my students:
But this takes time. Fallout doesn't greet you with a getting-to-know-you opening level or a hand-holding tutorial. My students were willing - granted, at my insistence - to keep plugging away, and they were richly rewarded for their efforts. It's nice to be right. I may have even gained back the credibility I lost with Planetfall (which is a great game no matter what they say!)
And so this feeling of vulnerability that Fallout inspires is apt, because it does what good games do: it uses mechanics and gameplay rules to create a sense of character. All the aimlessness and danger make you feel dislocated, out of your element, and this is exactly how your protagonist must feel after emerging from a life of tight-knit isolation from the outside world. You feel like you share an experience with your character, this experience of being thrust into a world you barely understand, one that is unpredictable and promising at once; and sharing an experience is the beginning of a relationship.