Fallout’s Forgotten Revolution

Written by Sol Invictus | June 11th, 2010 |


Games like the The Witcher and the critically acclaimed Dragon Age have been touted as revolutionary to the role-playing genre for their freedom and multilinear narrative experience. In some ways, they deserve the praise as they have done a lot for the genre.

In other ways, they don’t.

Examining Dragon Age, 2009′s RPG of the Year, it becomes quickly apparent that it is a game that thrives in its dialogue. Every word, spoken or written, is wrapped up in an intricate system of choices and consequences. Sadly, the choices frequently lead to little variance in outcome.

An encountered guard may be made to flee, be bribed to leave, or give up his life in a fight against you depending on the chosen dialogue option. One of these choices might merit disapproval from Morrigan, while another could earn you a shiny new sword. However, while the narrative vehicle differs, the end result is that the guard is removed–he is no longer an obstacle in your path and you are free to proceed to the next checkpoint of the game.

Once in a while, major choices will have long-term and tangible effects as they impact the end-game. For instance, players can have either Elves or Werewolves to fight as allies alongside their party during the final battle against the Darkspawn depending on the choices they make in the Brecilian Forest.

Although rare, this is arguably impressive–few games offer such choice with such a direct outcome. But while it is impressive, it’s been done before. You probably just don’t remember.

Or maybe you do.

Designed by Interplay in 1996 and released in 1997, Fallout remarkably comes to mind. Released more than a decade before Dragon Age saw the light of day, Fallout is the groundwork from which modern RPGs are built. Richly engrossing and exceedingly deep, Fallout creates a world that the player defines.

Simply put, Fallout offers choices. A lot of them.

Set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland–one where survivors sift through cans of expired food just to stay alive–these weakened men have banded together to create society and order once more, but they are threatened. Raiders, intent on violence, roam the wasteland for hapless prey and threaten to upset the resurgence of civilization.

The game highlights this conflict when Tandi, the adolescent daughter of Aradesh, leader of the wasteland town of Shady Sands, is kidnapped by one such group–the Khans.

Helpless and vulnerable, Aradesh needs someone to save her and you are there. It is up to you, however, if you want to save her or ignore the opportunity completely. The latter would not yield a positive outcome for the player. He’ll hate your guts and expel you from the town, and unspeakable things will happen to Tandi, but it is an option. You can opt to save her out of your sense of justice, or you can be mercenary and make it an opportunity to earn a few bottlecaps.

Let’s say you choose to save her. After making your way to the bandit camp after a several mile long journey through the dead lands, the game offers you even more choices, this time strategic ones. You may approach the raiders boldly in broad daylight or choose a stealthier approach, slinking in the shadows after nightfall when the sentries are fast asleep.
Approaching the camp during the day yields the choice to converse with the leader of the Khans. This conversation can lead to several possible immediate outcomes. If your Speech skill is high enough, you can either intimidate (through Strength) or persuade (through Charisma) the Khan to release Tandi under your charge. Lacking these skills, you can choose to bribe the Khan with some bottlecaps, knowing you are outmatched, outgunned and that you’ll likely receive compensation for it from Tandi’s father.

Armed with your companions Ian and Dogmeat by your side, you can kill him in broad daylight and offer the rest of the Khans a similar fate as you fight your way through the camp to rescue Tandi. Through force, you can raid their safes and loot their corpses as you emancipate Aradesh’s lost daughter.

The other option is to proceed alone through the camp at night, and open the cell in which Tandi is kept, freeing her. Escaping the notice of the sleeping Khans, you can make it back to Shady Sands under the cover of darkness without spilling a single drop of blood. A more brutal approach would have you murdering each and every one of them in their sleep, slashing their throats as they remain blissfully unaware to your presence as the grim reaper. An even crueler option would be to plant cooked grenades on their sleeping bodies, timed perfectly with your escape for an explosive and gory mix.

It’s more options than anything Dragon Age has to offer, and I haven’t even mentioned how your decisions affect the endgame. Interplay designed the game in 1996, and released it in 1997 — over a decade before Dragon Age saw the light of day. Fallout is the name of the game.

Against the choices you had as a player a decade ago, RPGs today are miles away from offering the same freedom and lack of narrative restriction as the aforementioned Fallout. Of course, not every game was like this. Fallout was one of two games offering this much freedom. The other was Fallout 2.

Morrowind, a “revolutionary” game, offered a large world and an expansive setting, but the player never had any real choice in how the story played out. You had the option to venture into any number of dungeons, and equip your party with any number of classes and equipment, but the narrative was always restricted by its linearity. Death was always on the plate for Dagoth Ur.

Deus Ex, another game often touted as revolutionary, featured a multilinear storyline forking at the game’s finale into three separate, yet wholly unfulfilling endings. The choice felt cheapened by the fact it happened literally moments before the credits rolled. To the game’s credit, you could choose to save your brother Paul or let him die, but the option had no bearing on the ending.

I am not saying Deus Ex and Morrowind are not good games. I am saying that it is simply difficult to call them revolutionary. They are RPGs hampered by the lack of any meaningful choices. Featuring a system of choices and repercussions, Dragon Age is a forward leap in terms of player agency, but it still lacks narrative freedom.

Fallout is only linear in the sense that the sun will always rise in the east, and set in the west. In the same sense, the player will always have to retrieve the Water Chip to save Vault 13, and The Master’s supermutant army will always threaten to overrun the wastes.

But what happens during the day, between the time when the Vault Dweller walks out into the wastes and returns home thereafter is completely up to the player. The player’s footprint has a visible impact in the wasteland sand. In the protagonist’s shoes, your choices are only ever limited by objective reasons within the narrative, which are never arbitrary.

If anything, Fallout is a forgotten revolution, and it’s about time that someone else picked up the torch. After so many false revolutions, the genre deserves a new champion.

  1. what about fallout tactics? :) that was the only one I had the chance to play at that time.

    • Sol Invictus says:

      Fallout Tactics is almost completely linear in terms of narrative. It didn’t offer the player very any choices, apart from the decision at the end to kill General Barnaky or side with the AI. Most of the game consisted of killing every enemy in sight. There were really no other options.

      • omg spoiler! u know I never got to finish it and that’s why I recently bought it from gog.com. but since I know the ending now.. u owe me 5$ or something. ;p

  2. well said, well written..

    pity we never got to play the ‘original’ fallout 3

  3. Dale James says:

    I commend you on your writing prowess.

    Modern games are their own worst enemies. Too much focus on graphical advancement and voice acting is causing them to drift away from this Fallout style of gameplay. Writing and acting out the same scene over and over with different outcomes is time consuming, expensive, and difficult.

  4. Mindtaker says:

    Include Arcanum. It followed in Fallout and Fallout 2′s footsteps. Came out in 2000. As expansive, if not more, than Fallout and Fallout 2.

    Might also be worth investigating Vampires The Masquerade: Bloodlines as a possible “last” installment in this forgotten revolution.

    Ultimately they are all products of the same brilliant minds moving from one company to another as they go out of business. Now I am le sad.

    • Ian says:

      “Ultimately they are all products of the same brilliant minds moving from one company to another as they go out of business. Now I am le sad.”

      At the start of it all there was one mind that changed everything. Way back when Fallout lost the G.U.R.P.S. rights and had to start almost from scratch. From those hectic day came the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system and perks. Party play rather than just your character vs. the wasteland. These did not come from the high and mighty developers. But a single lowly scripter. His touch can still be felt even in fallout 3.

      His Gaming theory is epic. He has never really gotten the credit he deserves. Interesting that Arcanum and White Wolf were brought up. The first being one of his favorite games. The second being a company he worked for. If you truly miss the awesome that was Fallout, Start demanding that the various gaming companies bring him on board. His touch is almost like magic.


      He is a amazing person and a wonderful mind. It is a true shame that no company makes use of the talents that he has.
      I might be a little biased. But truth be told I would say all of that even if he had not written me into the game.


      • Bradford says:

        Hahahaha, stop shooting me in the back with an SMG!

        Pretty interesting story. Would love to hear more over a beer if you’re in Seattle or the SF area :P

  5. Huffers says:

    “”"the player will always have to retrieve the Water Chip to save Vault 13″”"

    Actually, you can complete Fallout without retrieving the water chip. Just go straight to the final objective. See this speed run for example:

    • Sol Invictus says:

      I wonder how many reloads that guy took to avoid the raiders and supermutants on his way to pick up power armor. I don’t consider it a really feasible strategy of playing the game when it involves several dozen reloads.

  6. Lonethar says:

    I havent played a game as many times as Fallout. Both games in fact. I absolutely loved them and hope that SOMEONE finds the time to finally make on that offers exactly the points you have made here in a future video game.

    • Yup, stop focusing on todays technology only, and focus on both the old and new ways of gaming. Combine the old ways of awesome story telling and gameplay with todays new tech, to make the ultimate game of today. To know what you can do, one mustn’t forget the past, the history. In gaming, look back at what worked, and merge it with what we have now, bringing you the best of what it can be, instead of the best it can be now. Create the next game, that we can call a classic which will still be played in 10 years time :)

  7. Anthony says:

    Deus Ex I tend to think is a game with a great deal of *tactical* variety, even though the story arc is not deeply effected by your actions until the final three choices. It was most definitely revolutionary in the ability to play a shooter with a wide variety of different tactical approaches, something that only RPG’s had offered previously.

    While I get what you’re trying to say, try not to sell one of the greatest games of all time *too* short :)

  8. NotSigningUp says:

    I agree Deus Ex couldn’t be called a revolution as far as an RPG goes.

    But as far as video games go, no other game has even been able to come CLOSE to telling a grand story like Deus Ex did.

  9. Deadeye Fred says:

    I agree with the article, but I’d also like to mention that although it is an FPS, Metro 2033 is also a game with choices that change the outcome of the story, having you decide whether or not to kill the intelligent mutants at the end. And it’s not blatant about it either. Although some of the choices are given to you outright, I’m still unsure as to how to differentiate between the two endings, and how to actually obtain them-basically, it’s still random for me. Maybe I’m just naieve, but hey, it’s still cool to have choices.

  10. Mike Dunbar says:

    Great post. I don’t know if you know about it, but the VIntage Game Club recently started a play through of Fallout, and there’s a fair amount of interesting discussion on it there if anyone’s interested:


  11. Cheese says:

    i have to agree with anthony in that deus ex offered varied gameplay based upon how you executed that rather linear storyline, as did morrowind. both games allowed the player to do a few different things that the developers intended but because they weren’t heavily scripted it allowed the player to just as easily do whatever they wanted, there were very few times in deus ex (and even less so in morrowind) in which i felt pigeon holed into doing only 1 thing. i especially loved the fact that morrowind had so many routes that it really wasnt viable to experience the game in its entirety without a third party source.

  12. Mangoose says:

    I agree with the premise of the article, but the Tandi example doesn’t really feature many consequences. Many choices, yes, but you should’ve picked a better example, especially as you criticize DA with the line “Sadly, the choices frequently lead to little variance in outcome.”

  13. Droniac says:

    I don’t think that the existence of Fallout detracts from the revolutionary status of Deus Ex and The Witcher in any way.

    Deus Ex was revolutionary as a narratively driven RPG that knew the story it wanted to tell, but offered many different ways to experience the narrative. It wasn’t trying to present a world with some meager background storyline pushing the player forward (Fallout), but a story that build itself up around the player’s actions, with the world playing second fiddle. Both games are revolutionary achievements in entirely different ways.

    A similar case can be made for The Witcher, but the more important factors to note here are morally grey dilemmas and consequences to player actions. Fallout rarely offered morally grey dilemmas, with most falling squarely in the black & white field such as your example and most RPGs (Dragon Age and Mass Effect included). The Witcher rarely offers such black & white choices, with nearly every scenario offering a bleak, yet realistic, outcome either way.

    It also attached consequences to nearly every player action. This is something Fallout does to an extent, but it rarely impact the driving narrative. In The Witcher, it actually builds the driving narrative, which is the key reason as to why it deserves to be called a revolutionary RPG. Nearly every decision you make has far-reaching consequences and even if they do not impact the ending directly they will dramatically change your experience along the way.

    Simply letting a group of Elves go with an ‘aid shipment’ early on has massive consequences later on in the game. It determines how NPCs interact with you, which dilemmas you’re faced with in later chapters, what scenarios you encounter along the way and can even lead to the death of certain characters. It’s an intricate kind of cascading cause-and-effect system that hasn’t been seen in games before The Witcher, or at least not to anywhere near the same extent.

    Interestingly many of these effects aren’t even noticeable until a second playthrough with different choices or a conversation with someone who played the game differently. This actually results in a entirely different narrative, even with similar endings, contrary to most modern RPGs and even Fallout to an extent.

    • Ashelia says:

      I am so happy to see you here–this isn’t my article so I have a lot less to comment on, but it’s awesome you are still around. You were one of my favorite GDG readers.

  14. YiggyPow says:

    OK that makes a lot of sense dude, love it.


  15. Seth says:

    Fallout 2 turned me on to Louis Armstrong. I still remember the song, “A Kiss to Build a Dream On” as the credits rolled. Fallout and Fallout 2 are two of the best games I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. “Cult of Personality” is the best perk ever and I was so let down it didn’t make it into the third game. Fallout 3 is ok, but just doesn’t have the spirit of the others.

  16. foobar says:

    you seem to not mention Fallout3 – it has just as much, if not more, extensibility and non-linear story as F1 and F2. Why no mention of that? you wonder why no one has picked up the torch yet seem to have missed the fact that F3 picked it up and ran to the tune of >4.7 million copies: http://kotaku.com/5078237/fallout-3-moves-47-million-copies

    • Retlaw83 says:

      Bullshit. The “choices” in Fallout 3 had little or no effect on the endgame, and Fallout 3 artificially restricts you with things like essential NPCs.

      If you’re a Fallout 3 fan, that’s well and dandy, but you obviously haven’t played the first two games if you claim cause and effect are the same between the two types of game.

      • Cacho says:

        “Fallout 3 artificially restricts you with things like essential NPCs.”

        Amen to that. I Follow the F3 forums until they “kick” me ;) as a “Fallout Taliban” (?!?), just to defend things like this about the originals…

  17. loonesta says:

    Why was knights of the old republic not mentioned? It was considered completely revolutionary when it came out because of its narrative was dependant on each choice and the two seperate endings were reached with lots of options beforehand. Not to mention a well done fighting mechanic. I’m not saying its the most revolutionary game but I see it being mentioned here

  18. Trevor says:

    While I agree that Fallout 1 and 2 were great games (2 moreso), I’d say that the Ultima series (namely 7) and, from what I understand, Darklands (though I’ve only read about it) started this “revolution.” Fallout 2 is definitely more fun than Ultima 7 though.

  19. Josef Bayquen says:

    Finally someone giving praise to Fallout 1 & 2. Ive played all games mentioned and nothing really compares to Fallout. I even install it on every new PC/Laptop I own and I never get tired of it. I just hope Fallout New Vegas lives up to F1 & F2

    • Relayer71 says:

      Finally? Fallout 1 & 2 are constantly praised. There have been a ton of articles, retrospectives, interviews with the creators over the years. I don’t think Fallout has never been forgotten or under appreciated, at least not by hardcore RPG fans.

  20. Jordan says:

    Another game like Fallout will never exists again, before there will never again be a market for games like that. F1 and F2 took dedication, brains, and willpower. You had to want to engage in the story, and it wasn’t a game for the lighthearted. Now, games are only made to be huge blockbusters. Insta entertainment with lots of shiny things. The original Fallout games were subtle contraptions, hardly fit for the mainstream. That’s actually the reason why we will never see games like Fallout 2 again: the mainstream of gamers have no desire to play a game that makes you think or is relatively difficult. Free choice isn’t what the mass market wants, so games with true free choice will never exist. The fact that you can make decisions you can’t take back is far too hardcore for todays gamers.

    Fallout 3 was an abomination because it gave you the illusion of free choice.

    • Avelives says:

      FO3 was indeed an abomination, it boiled my blood seeing all the rabid praise it got on release, all those new fans saying how amazing it was. I can only assume they would have exploded with joy had they played FO1 or 2…

      Hopefully the New Vegas expansion will address this as its made by many of the original developers. I think its terrible that FO3 won so many awards when its largely rubbish unless you use copious amounts of player created mods, out of the box it was a poor game by any standard let alone compared to FO1 and 2.

  21. Mike says:

    Fallout 1 and 2 are fantastic games, but another gem with as much opportunity for choices that have consequences is Planescape:Torment. Truly a classic.

  22. Zack says:

    Oh, how I loved the original Fallout. I feel it wasn’t emphasized enough that you choose to save her; you don’t have to. You can just ignore her and the Khans, you can show up and kill her along with the Khans, hell you can then go back and kill Aradesh for good measure.
    It’s a bit weird to put it this way, but I really appreciated that it was an option to kill everyone (except your damn vault leader, and I really wished I could kill him). What other RPG lets you do that?

    • Retlaw83 says:

      Well, you did have the option to kill the Overseer – just the chances of surviving the fight were slim to none and successfully doing it gave you a bad game ending.

    • SCO says:

      You can kill the vault overseer at the end.

      BTW author i quote my response on another prestigious rpg magazine:

      “The story is not exactly totally linear. You can even not kill Anna (make her run away, then she opens the door).
      This is even reflected in the dialog with Gunther. (he is not pissed at you for killing anna, but because you let him in the nsf cell, if you did, or just following orders if you didn’t, with differing dialog if you let him raid the place or not).

      Similarly it is actually possible to trank Simmons and Ghunter if you get their hp down enough. They are augmented after all. (It SHOULD be possible to do it with anna, but someone didn’t get the memo).

      Author is a moron that can’t understand a choice that is not telegraphed to him.”


  23. Relayer71 says:

    I think Arcanum is a game that deserves a bit more praise and recognition for the reasons I mentioned in a reply above: over the years there have been a lot of retrospectives and articles on Fallout and thanks to a high profile third game, the series is now known to younger gamers.

    Arcanum builds on the same Fallout design model and is even more impressive considering the size and scope of the game, even if technically the game is a bit of a mess. But sadly it’s one of those games that none but the most hardcore of RPGers have played or heard about and it wasn’t successful enough to warrant a sequel.

    Fallout is a superb game and just as fun to play today as it was those many years ago and it still deserves all the praise it receives but those other games you mentioned such as Morrowind and Deus Ex were also revolutionary in their own ways.

    I just wish modern RPGs focused more on choice and consequences and on thoughtful quest design than on production values and graphics tech.

    Bioware’s Baldur’s Gate 2 is another classic example of exemplary game design and though Dragon Age falls a bit short it is somewhat of a return to form but every other Bioware game focuses too much on story telling and presentation and too little on actual gameplay elements. Mass Effect has amazing voice acting and a long script but the combat system feels like an afterthought.

    Anyway, I apologize if I’m ranting now, hehe. Good article, nice to see the Fallout love. But let’s not forget that the torch WAS carried by later games.

  24. doa766 says:

    Dragon Age is NOT the 2009′s RPG of the year

    that’s Demon’s Souls, anyone who played it can tell you, and if you haven’t played you shouldn’t talk about RPGs

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