How Fallout Taught the Video Game Industry the Meaning of Role-Playing

In the harsh wasteland of Fallout, a generation of gamers discovered who they are.

Who are you? Before you answer that question, really take the time to think about it. The question isn’t “Who do you think you are?” or “Who do you want to be?” It’s “Who are you?”

Some may say the answer to that question requires some deep soul searching in order to really figure out what defines you as a person. It doesn’t. At the very least, it doesn’t have to.

No, the question of who you are is one that you answer every day. You answer it with what you say and what you do. Though the question can be influenced by outside factors, it is ultimately one that is answered by the role you create for yourself. If it seems almost impossible to truly answer, that’s because it is. After all, who among us plays a role so often that we are comfortable defining ourselves by it?

This is a lesson that takes many people years to learn and fully appreciate. Yet, Fallout taught it to the entire gaming industry on September 30, 1997.

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In the 1980s, a group of developers led by the likes of Ultima creator Richard Garriott and Dungeons and Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax helped develop or inspire the first wave of computer role-playing games (CRPGs).

These games are rough by just about any modern technical standard, but at the time, they were a minor miracle. They allowed players to participate in the kind of adventures previously limited to the pen and paper format. Sure, many of them lacked the depth and multiplayer elements of D&D, but who was going to balk at the chance to participate in an epic fantasy adventure whenever they wanted to do so?

Despite an overwhelming influx of all-time great games, the CRPG industry began to experience a serious sales decline during the early-to-mid ‘90s. Its fall can partially be attributed to oversaturation and consumer fatigue, but others blame its declining fortunes on CRPG developers’ inability to adapt to the CD-ROM age fast enough. It certainly didn’t help that many developers were still relying on the increasingly familiar D&D style of rules. Innovations in that field may have helped make up for shortcomings elsewhere.

What’s truly fascinating about the stagnant nature of CRPGs at that time is that a viable alternative had already emerged on the tabletop scene. It was called the Generic Universal RolePlaying System (or GURPS). You would do well to look past its odd name and slightly disgusting acronym because GURPS forever changed the fortunes of RPG video games by serving as the foundation of the Fallout franchise.

GURPS was an RPG ruleset alternative that’s marketing centered around the fact that it wasn’t solely designed for fantasy adventures. It wasn’t the first ruleset to make that promise, but GURPS’ clever use of skill points helped separate it from the competition.

Yes, if you’ve ever stared at a character creation screen trying to decide whether or not you should spend that last point on intelligence or strength, you have GURPS to partially thank for your dilemma. Its skill-point system – along with some innovations in regards to the effect of dice rolls – allowed for an unprecedented level of player decision-making in role-playing games.

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These innovations inspired Interplay Entertainment to strike a deal with Steve Jackson – creator of GURPS – that would allow them to make games based on the official GURPS license. Given the “generic” versatility of the system, Interplay decided that their first GURPS game should be a spiritual successor to the thematically innovative – but mechanically flawed – 1988 post-apocalyptic RPG Wasteland. At some point, that project became known as Fallout.

In its earliest days of development, Fallout was defined by a line in designer Chris Taylor’s mission statement: “This is the wasteland. Life is cheap and violence is all there is.”

That sentiment didn’t sit well with Jackson. According to Fallout executive producer Brian Fargo, Jackson objected to the game’s violent nature and didn’t want GURPS associated with it. Interplay backed out of their deal and requested that a new ruleset be quickly developed to replace it. This is the origin of Fallout’s iconic SPECIAL system.

“Special” is the best way to describe Fallout’s approach to character building. On the surface, SPECIAL is simply a GURPS-style skill point system that requires players to assign points to their character’s strength, perception, endurance, charisma, intelligence, agility, and luck. It wasn’t a huge deviation from GURPS – Interplay almost canceled the game twice because the Fallout development team wouldn’t switch to a D&D ruleset or Diablo-style gameplay – but the brilliance of SPECIAL lies in the way that Fallout’s designer’s utilized it.

Some of the least important contributions you will make to your character’s identity occur on the initial creation screen. Yes, your base stats matter – and the ability to dictate them down to a point beats the old dice roll method in terms of personalization – but Fallout wasn’t the only game that would play slightly differently based on whether you were stronger or smarter.

Fallout, however, was one of the few games that took all of your attributes into account and used them for more than just odds-making in combat. For instance, there comes a point in the game when you will be asked to invade an enemy stronghold. If you haven’t built a combat-oriented character, you’ll have to rely on your hacking skills to get past security systems or your charisma to smooth-talk your way past security. Such logic is fairly common by modern standards, but the impressiveness of Fallout‘s methods goes well-beyond their historical significance. In fact, you can argue that Fallout implements organic choice making better than most modern titles. 

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The quality of Fallout‘s intuitive role-playing can largely be attributed to the quality of the game’s writing. Aside from a “good/evil” karma system, which really only affected a few dialog options, most of the moments in Fallout that involve you truly developing your character are subtly implemented in ways that many players will not be able to prepare for.

If you play a low-intelligence character in Fallout, they will be treated like a fool by nearly everyone around them and will largely speak through grunts and moans. On a quest to rescue a kidnapped girl, a male player with high luck and specific gear can trick the kidnappers into thinking they are their leader’s father. A character with high intelligence will be prompted to make a charisma check, which may allow them to willingly perform this deception.

The best example of this system occurs towards the end of Fallout when players confront the game’s “Big Bad,” The Master. Combative players will soon discover that The Master is significantly tougher than any other enemy in the game. Those who take a more subtle approach – or those who simply stopped trying to beat The Master – will find that there are ways to avoid combat entirely by planting a nuclear weapon or by convincing The Master that his plan is foolish and that he should end himself.

It’s also possible to join The Master. Given what a convincing argument he makes regarding the status of humans in this new world, it’s a surprisingly enticing alternative.

The most impressive aspect of Fallout’s choice system aren’t the options made available to you; it’s the options that aren’t. What modern developer – aside from the likes of CD Projekt Red – would fill a game with so many creative moments that the majority of players will never see and have no way of knowing they exist? Fallout was a game designed to bring true role-playing to computer gaming.

Fallout casts you as a wanderer in a harsh wasteland. As cruel as this world is, it’s also a blank canvas. There’s a real sense that your actions can make a difference. Granted, it’s not clear which actions can make a difference, what kind of difference they will make, or if it will mean anything in the end, but the first time that you realize that your actions can lead to a “unique” scenario is the moment that you realize you really are in control of your role in this world. After all, what good is a canvas if each artist cannot convert it into his/her own vision?

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In an ideal world – preferably a pre-apocalyptic one – such qualities would have made Fallout a global gaming sensation. They didn’t. Nearly everyone who played it considered Fallout to be a tremendous leap forward in game design, but that praise didn’t translate into record-breaking sales. Fallout sold reasonably well and was beloved by nearly everyone who played it, but its success paled in comparison to so-called “role-playing” games like Final Fantasy VII.

Yes, even industry figures like Tales of Symphonia producer Makoto Yoshizumi admits that many JRPGs are not role-playing games in the truest sense of the word. For that matter, neither were many of the early CRPG games. Famed designer Warren Spector once noted that many famous CRPGs’ reliance on randomization in combat, dialogue, and character building often made them feel more like “roll-playing” games.

Fallout was different. It was a true role-playing experience that didn’t ask “Who are you?” and trusted you to honestly answer that question. Instead, it offered a world where actions speak louder than any dialogue tree or chromatic karma bar. A world where the character you set out to create may not be the same character that you ultimately become. Regardless, the role you ended up playing was always one of your own creation. 

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