On a Pale Horse

On a Pale Horse
From Black Isle to Bethesda

Michael Zenke | 22 May 2007 08:01
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While Black Isle is probably best known for their work on the Baldur's Gate series and Planescape: Torment, they made a name for themselves by spurning a tabletop legend, introducing a game by shooting a man in the head and dropping Douglas Adams references into a nuclear wasteland. In its genesis, Fallout was a Biblical affair, grim, humorless and rooted in the tabletop RPG ephemera of the '80s. Out of this chaotic beginning, Black Isle created a gritty, tongue-in-cheek adventure that irrevocably changed the way we look at the End of Times. The series has recently found new life at Bethesda Softworks and a new generation of gamers raised on Halo and Knights of the Old Republic are soon to experience their first taste of Fallout's irradiated, hilarious world.

The original Fallout was supposed to be a completely different game. The developers had originally enlisted the help of Steve Jackson, whose tabletop rule system, Generic Universal Roleplaying System (GURPS), was to be the framework for their post-apocalyptic adventure. Black Isle was hoping to get Jackson's stamp of approval in order to drum up sales. However, Jackson pulled his support for Fallout after viewing the opening scene, which he found too violent. As a result, Black Isle was forced to go it alone, creating their own rule system, "SPECIAL ."

Their straightforward design hung all character actions on a series of simple attributes and skills, and nearly matched the degree of flexibility seen in Jackson's GURPS. This open-minded outlook extended to the gameplay and story, as well. The "do what you want" sandbox concept made famous by Grand Theft Auto and The Elder Scrolls series was still something of a rarity in 1997. (For instance, Fallout's competition that year was the on-rails Japanese RPG Final Fantasy VII.) By empowering players, the Black Isle developers made the game world's drama and emotion more poignant. The dystopian imagery and black humor laced throughout the game drew the player in, making him a party to a joke that was one-third funny and two-thirds horrifying. In short: it worked.

Wasteland Revisted
Fallout 2 was even more robust. The pre-existing engine allowed the designers more time to develop the second title's story, and as a result, Fallout 2's dark humor was sharp enough to cut glass. In the original game, players were charged with finding a rare "water chip", a piece of high-tech doodadery without which the player's family and friends in "the vault," an air-tight fallout shelter, might perish. The resulting quest is epic in scope, and finding the water chip begins to feel akin to searching for the Holy Grail. In the sequel, while searching through another fallout shelter, the protagonist stumbles upon boxes and boxes of water chips ... all lying around for the taking. Later in the game, the protagonist has the option to enter a portal that leads to the past. There the hero finds himself in an isolated area of the original Fallout's shelter. As he moves around in the enclosed space, the hero enters an incorrect command into a console. The system informs him that, indeed, he has broken the shelter's only remaining water chip. You gotta love a game design based on nihilism.

The series is a testament to a type of game we don't see much of in a console-focused, MMOG-obsessed industry. Literate, effortlessly funny, sprinkled with social commentary and very, very dark, the two Fallouts became cult classics, and a rabid fanbase demanded follow-ups, and indeed a third installment was planned - and abandoned. More than 10 years after Fallout debuted, Fallout 3 is still nowhere to be found .

Interplay, desperate for cash near the turn of the century, pimped out the license for the Fallout series to developer Micro Fort

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