Gaming Writer Devin Birse reflects on the history and development of the Fallout franchise upon it turning 25
It feels odd playing Fallout 2 in 2023. Somehow even odder than Fallout 1. Fallout 1 is Fallout, earlier, scrappier, far more fitting of the term apocalyptic RPG than post-apocalyptic RPG with its legions of savage raiders, cults, and mutants, and its complete absence of real hope. Yet its elements are so encoded into the series’ DNA that it still feels like there is a connection. Like watching a comedy from the 60s and laughing at half the jokes.
But Fallout 2 feels weird. Like watching a film from the 60s and suddenly they start blaring Can and stripping. Like seeing a mutant strain of what you’ve been told about the era.
The first Fallout was a small affair, with a small team, a small budget, decent sales, and great reviews. The second is an entirely different beast, overblown with bizarre factions, complex side quests, mountains of cut content, and entire multi-hour story arcs resigned to optional areas the endings of which can be determined entirely by whether or not you have a condom in your inventory.
Rather than being the tale of a lone sheltered hero getting chewed up and spit back out by the wasteland that the franchise has become known for, Fallout 2‘s narrative is an epic of “the chosen one” taking down psychopathically jingoistic remnants of the United States government. It’s a ludicrous tale, fully pushing past its predecessor’s political coda on man’s destructive urges into a rampaging parody of the American government, cinema, video games, and even Fallout itself. It’s a game that simultaneously deconstructs and reconstructs all the tropes of the overloaded and obtuse CRPGs of the late 90s whilst also executing that same formula so well that it stands out as one of the best of its generation.
But Fallout 2 is not the Fallout I think most are familiar with. Its combat is slow and, in all honesty, lacking in real tactics. Its quest design is obtuse to the point I highly recommend scouring old forums for one of the many bible-sized game guides. It’s a great contrast to what Fallout has become.
That’s, of course, the pressing question. How do we go from the pseudointellectual top-down epics to first-person multiplayer survival games like Fallout 76? Many blame Bethesda entirely, if you ever go on old-school forums like No Mutants Allowed, they’ll declare Fallout 3 an abomination and share details on the legendary Fallout Van Buren, the original Fallout 3 that black isle studios were developing before they were shut down. But I don’t hate Bethesda, it was through Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas that I was introduced to the franchise. I still have fond memories of getting up early before my parents awoke and booting up my dad’s PS3 to snipe mutants and raiders whilst listening to 50s hits like ‘It’s All Over but the Crying’ via the in-game radio.
I’m even of the opinion that the Bethesda generation produced the franchise’s best work, Fallout New Vegas. A perfect RPG that truly delivers on what Fallout offers to explore. Not the end of the world but the way we use the signifiers and symbols of the world we lost to try and make sense of the new world we find ourselves in. This is in no small part thanks to it being developed by Obsidian Interactive, a studio made up of many of the original writers for the first two Fallout games.
Yet beyond New Vegas, I find contemporary Fallout hard to love. For as much as I enjoy the gorgeously rendered worlds and streamlined gameplay the subtlety is gone. Vault suits are tacked on everywhere. The same Factions’ characters and plot lines reappear across every state of post-nuclear America. It feels less like each game is a further exploration of the post-apocalyptic world and more like taking an existing location and smothering it in a Fallout coat of paint.
That’s not to say the spirit of those old games is gone. While Fallout as a franchise feels dead in the water, its legacy lives on in a new generation of burgeoning CRPGs and adventure games. Games like Citizen Sleeper, Disco Elysium, and Norco with their focus on political and philosophical themes, complex worlds, and dense prosaic writing feel like torchbearers for the first two Fallout’s. Taking their wit, inventiveness and so much more and pushing them forward into the post-internet era.
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