An Analysis of Fallout 2 with Callois' Classifications of Play and Garneau's 14 Forms of Fun
As a side note and word of warning, this essay is written with a reader familiar with Callois' Classificiations of fun and Garneau's 14 Forms of Fun in mind (namely, my prof). However, neither of these are noded about here. While I will node them soon, I don't have the opportunity to describe them here. If you're interested in the meantime, Garneau's Forms can be found on www.gamasutra.com.
Fallout 2 is a post-apocalyptic RPG set in what remains of northern California with a pseudo-50’s ambience mixed with the iconic wasteland atmosphere of films like Road Warrior. It was released in 1998, published by Interplay and developed by the inimitable Feargus Urquhart and the sadly now defunct Black Isle Entertainment. It is the sequel to 1997’s Fallout, naturally, but, in my mind, Fallout 2 is the greater of the two and is a game that really helped define North American RPG’s as they are today by incorporating elements of earlier interactive fiction like Zork with new technology and ideas. As the story, and the game, begins, you are the Chosen One, the greatest hope for your tribal village. Your village is dying, and you are sent forth to find the Garden of Eden Creation Kit (GECK), a technological relic from before the nuclear war that is basically a limited-scale terraforming kit. During your travels, you must journey across a vast area of terrain that stretches from southern Oregon to San Francisco, from the Pacific Coast into Nevada, all in a free-form, non-linear, ‘sandbox’ mode that was really a breakthrough at the time. Not to mention the fact that it takes several game-years to explore the entire game world, and even then, all your actions have repercussions, so it is impossible to experience everything in a single game, or even after dozens. As you search for the GECK in the remains of the fallout shelters, called “Vaults”, you must interact and deal with all manner of people and creatures from the mutants of the wasteland to the gangsters in New Reno, the yakuza and techno-cults in San Francisco to progressive, socialist settlers in east Nevada.
The entire game is turn-based, though it really only shows during combat, and 2D, presented in an isometric format. Things that modern games like Neverwinter Nights (and, indeed most RPGs and MMOs) have as selling points, like character customization and armour and clothing that your character actually wears, Fallout 2 has as a matter of course. The influence of interactive fiction is very plain, as the game has literally hours of well-written and highly characterful and entertaining dialogue that you must navigate in order to progress. Also, detailed blurbs describing each area you enter and things you perceive, similar to the room descriptions in text-games or MUDs, are displayed in the HUD, and though are not mandatory reading to gameplay, they provide that extra level of detail and immersion by letting the player receive information through more senses than sight and sound, a feature which is sorely lacking in modern games. The game contains a vast and varied array of weapons, armour and equipment that spans historic and invented. At the same time, the game forces you to think very carefully about what the PC and his party are equipped with, as ammunition and health resources are scarce and resources limited, and each party member has specific strengths and weaknesses which must be taken into consideration. Beyond the technical and game mechanic features, the writing is the true strength of the game. Not only are the core ‘quest’ and plot-advancing encounters truly compelling, but the game is filled which reams and reams of extra detail, from entire towns with specific stories and opportunities (and interdependencies from other towns) that are not only not required to advance the story, but are actively hard to find. The game uses its post-apocalyptic setting as an opportunity to provide endless bizarre, exceedingly dark humour, socio-political commentary and a list of ‘Easter-eggs’ longer than War and Peace. As an example, while you wander the wasteland, you periodically enter random encounters, as exemplified by the Final Fantasy series, most of which are hostile (and which force you to choose between hoarding your precious ammo and gaining XP and loot). However, very, very infrequently (on an average of less than once a game) you come across ‘Special’ encounters. These include such bizarre experiences as the Monty Python gang as King Arthur and his knights on their quest for the Holy Grail, to a crashed Star Trek shuttlecraft (which grants you a hypospray and a phaser), to the Café of Broken Dreams, where you can mingle and interact with the NPCs and PC models from Fallout 1 in a highly surreal setting that rather thoroughly destroys the fourth wall (but only while you’re in there).
As for why I personally like Fallout 2, the things stated above form the lion’s share of it, but there are several more things that I think really make it for me that might not be immediately evident. First of all, the holistic approach and the success of that approach is really the key factor in my enjoyment of this game. While the player is on the typical RPG ‘save the village’ overarching quest, the game takes place in a truly ‘sandbox’ world where you are free to wander as you will without time limits or being artificially forced in certain directions (save for the climatic ending, where events happen so quickly and in such enormity that you have little choice but to deal with them immediately), and that big world (which probably consists of over a dozen discrete communities, with numerous more organizations within or across those towns), for the most part, neither knows nor cares about your quest and have their own problems and plans that you must hinder, help or simply avoid. They really succeeded in giving the player the sense of living in and interacting with a living, breathing world that is so much bigger than them and their quest. This is a major break from most (perhaps even almost all) RPGs, where the player is the center of an entire world, which exists only to facilitate his aims, and makes for refreshing play. The other thing that really makes the game for me is the writing. From the incredibly tight dialogue to the grand design of the world, nothing is left out, nothing is missing. You can be forced into a shotgun wedding in one town, then sell your spouse to slavers in another, and then proceed to the third and work your way up the ranks of a gang family and help them rule a town, all while acting in porn flicks and boxing matches on the side for some extra cash. And then, your chosen gang affiliation has much wider implications on the surrounding world, as the flow of certain foodstuffs and resources can cause one town to prosper and another to slide into decay. This wide range of options truly allows for a variety of gameplay styles. The player can act as the typical ‘knight in shining armour,’ wandering the world righting wrongs, or they can be the brutish thug, interested in only what he can pry out of others’ cold, dead hands. And that’s only two possibilities. Full-on combat monsters and sly thieves, negotiators and evil villains are all possibilities for the player, and the game not only allows this variety, but encourages it.
Fallout 2 is not heavily, if really at all, within the realm of Agôn, simply because the point-and-click, turn-based structure of the game eliminates any application of skill player the player, especially when it comes to things like dodging fire, shooting at enemies or the need to quickly and efficiently complete ‘twitch’ or reflex puzzles. There is a heavy need for the player to think strategically and logically, both about combat, puzzles and quest solutions, but there is no real application of any physical (or any other kind of easily quantifiable) skill. Also, the complete lack of any kind of multiplayer mode eliminates the competition or contest of skill qualification of Agôn.
Fallout 2 has strong elements of Alea, especially in the combat and skill system. Much like D&D, indeed all PnP RPGs, combat and skill-based ‘tasks’ are based on a random number modified by the character’s statistics and skills and then compared to an arbitrary number, which then gives the success/fail response, and the degree of each result. Unlike shooters or even real-time-combat RPGs like Morrowind, wounding an enemy is not dependant on the player’s ability to press the mouse at the correct time to intercept a moving enemy with a projectile or melee weapon. Rather, the player’s weapon statistics, Perception and Agility statistics and appropriate Skill are combined with a random number and compared to the target’s statistics, skills, armour, distance and other appropriate modifiers, and a hit or miss can result, based on the comparison. Also, each enemy slain drops a random (within certain arbitrary limits) amount of loot, which can drastically impact a player’s future success. No loot means no ammo, and no ammo means death. Also, while wandering the ‘world map’, all enemy encounters are randomized, thus leading to potentially very different play experiences between different games. However, the game is not fully Alea, because the player has a fairly large amount of control over the random elements, especially through the ‘level up’ process, where they can increase skills and abilities to increase their chances of success. Also, the game is very rules-based, which eliminates a great deal of chance. For example, in a shooter, there’s a chance, however small, that you could get a fatal headshot on that really distant enemy with your sawed-off shotgun, but in Fallout 2, that same short-ranged sawed-off will always miss beyond a certain range.
Mimicry is a very strong, possibly the strongest element of Callois’ classifications in Fallout 2, as is obvious from the fact that it is a true Role-Playing Game. This is more true over other games, like Final Fantasy, because the PC’s actions, attitudes and choices are entirely up to the player. If you’d rather massacre a village than listen to their pleas for help against the bandits, go for it. Thus, you can truly choose your role in the game world, while a more linear, story-based game like Final Fantasy straitjackets you into a given role and allows no deviation, beyond a few token conversation options (if even that). In Fallout 2, the conversation trees are so fluid as to seem like a real human-to-human interaction where you can decide whether to play for favour from the mob boss, or lip him off, or just be non-committal and wander off.
Beyond a few isolated (and usually Easter-egg) encounters with fourth-wall breakers or, for example, talking plants, Ilinx really plays no role in Fallout 2. The laws of physics are always working, people always act in character, and nothing tries to bend your brain. The only thing that might qualify as Ilinx is the innumerable plot-twists and all the people who quite merrily lie and manipulate you.
Ludus / Paidia:
Fallout 2 is, in my opinion, fairly evenly balanced between Ludus and Paidia. However, this is likely on true when the game is looked at in a holistic, ‘averaged’ way, as some elements of Fallout 2, like the combat system, are very strongly Ludus because of the complete control of the game mechanics. There’s only one way to shoot a 9mm pistol at a guy, and the game manages it without require more input from the player than target selection. However, on the opposite end of the spectrum, the ‘social’ interaction with the NPC world is incredibly Paidia, as the game provides a vast array of choices, all of which intermingle and co-exists, so that interacting with the world on the ‘dialogue’ end of things is really like poking a spider web. You can do whatever you want, wherever, whenever.
Garneau’s 14 Forms of Fun
Immersion: Unquestionably. Fallout 2 is entirely focused on immersing the player into a living, breathing world that largely cares nothing for them, expect maybe what the player can do for it, or perhaps just what they’ve got in their pockets or how their flesh tastes with ketchup. The deep and innumerable storylines, long play-time, plot twists and excellent character development draw the player right into the world and don’t let go. This is taken even further by the excellent case-by-case denouement (which few games, even RPGs, have) that detail all the effects the player had on the world during their travels, and then by going even further and allowing the player the choice to continue playing after the game has ‘ended’ and to continue existing in that world and keep affecting and being affected by it.
Problem Solving: This is a key feature of all RPGs, and Fallout 2 is not exception. Puzzles, traps, tricky inter-social group interactions and even just fighting off hungry Cthulu-lookalike mutants all require the player to look at a given situation and figure out how to bypass, solve or just come out of it alive.
Comedy: A major facet and iconic feature of the Fallout world is the incessant dark humour that pervades the games. It shows up everywhere, from the batty mad professor and his conversations with his hyper-intelligent giant scorpion, to the bizarre and incredibly fatalistic community of radiation-poisoned mutants, to the absurdity of the backwater town, same-sex, shotgun wedding.
Thrill of Danger: There’s nothing more exciting than being fifty hours into the game and reaching the point where you’re convinced your character could beat God in a slugging match, only to get jumped by a pack of ravenous aliens intent on eating your organs as a light snack, and finding that your favorite uber-gun just makes them giggle. The entire game is a prolonged act of balancing on the edge of a knife, forcing the player to choose between playing it safe and risking being outmatched in the later game or fighting anything that moves and burning through their resources and opportunities.
Creation: The character generation mechanic in the game is, to this day, one of the best. The iconic Perk/Trait system is a work of genius, allowing the player to create a character that not only fits their style of play, but evolves over time to reflect their actions. From the Bloody Mess Trait, which causes your enemies to always die in the most spectacularly gory ways, to the Kama Sutra Master Perk (which should be self-explaining), to the Slaver and Mass Murderer Traits, no two characters are the same, and each game is a new chance to create a truly unique player-character.
Power: Whether your working your way up the food chain of a New Reno mafia family or enslaving entire tribal villages, the opportunity to gain and use power over the world is always present in Fallout 2, and creates a greater opportunity for the player to really invest in their play experience.
Discovery: That map is huge, and wandering (or driving, if you can manage to cobble together a car) around it and finding what’s hidden in all the nooks and crannies is a game unto itself. Not only that, but each town has its idiosyncrasies and power structures which must be discerned and dealt with.
Advancement: The leveling process is, to be simplistic, arduous. The player really earns his XP, and gaining a new level and all the new skill points and Perks really reinforces the player’s experience and allows them to get a real sense of progression through the game.
What is Not:
Beauty, Love and Physical Activity: None of these have any place in Fallout 2, except perhaps at an abstract, player-specific level. No works of art are created (unless you considered a properly min-maxed character sheet art) and there are no Fallout 2 weddings (that don’t involve an NPC and an irate NPC father with a very large gun). As for physical activity, the turn-based gameplay and lack of ‘twitch’ sequences makes play much more sedate and physically (though rarely mentally) relaxed.
What Might Be:
Competition and Social Interaction: Because of the lack of multiplayer in Fallout 2, there is never any direct competition against or interaction with another human being. However, many of the NPCs are incredibly life-like in their conversations, and fighting against a rival gang family or mining coalition can invoke a real sense of competition in the player.
Application of Ability: As was discussed in the Callois section, the game mechanic covers all uses of easily quantifiable skills without needing the player’s input except in a general “I want to shoot this guy” or “Flip this lever” level. However, if less quantifiable skills like tactical ability, logic or mathematical know-how are included in this category, then there is definitely Application of Ability in Fallout 2.
In conclusion, it becomes evident why Fallout 2 was such a genre-defining, boundary-breaking game that gained such success and lasting reputation upon analysis through the tools provided by Garneau and Callois. Numerous and highly-maintained fan-sites can be found across the internet, and every time a rumour of the highly-elusive Fallout 3 surfaces, the fan base erupts into enthusiasm, as archetyped by ‘Ethan’ on Ctrl-Alt-Del. (see: http://www.ctrlaltdel-online.com/?t=archives&date=2004-03-01).
Node Your Homework, I did not Pipe for the Ages in this one.