Wednesday, January 29, 2014

You Shoulda Been a Movie: Fallout

[I put finishing touches on this post on February 6th, just over a week after this went live. I had some extra points to make, and it's tough finding every typo in an entry this long.]

The first Fallout game starts with the logo of the developer studio, Interplay, which recalls an old Flash Gordon serial. The screen fades to black, we get the title credits, then the sound of a record player starting up. The classic Ink Spots' song "Maybe" is incredibly sad, and the wordless images that pass across the screen make everything depressingly, devastating clear.

First, a brief 50's-style ad for people to live in a "vault" inside a mountain, then an old news-reel style clip exclaiming the big news of the day - the US annexed Canada (with robot-suited soldiers!) - then after a few ads, we learn how it all worked out:

Yes, that's the great Ron Perlman laying out the backstory.
Maybe... you'll think of me when you are all alone/Maybe the one who's waiting for you/Will prove untrue/Then what will you do?/Maybe, you'll sit and sigh/And think of me/When you are all alone/Then maybe I'll say "maybe"/Maybe I'll say "maybe."
These sentimental, moribund words kick off the opening to Fallout. It's clearly an old recording - singing style aside, the audio is scratchy and tinny. Added to the old-timey video reel and a glimpse of an ruined American city, and you get the horrifying idea that "the future" has itself become an antique.

The very next video immediately presents your character's motivation: your secluded people have survived in an underground vault for almost a century since China and the US broke the world. Now, your home of metal floors and walls will break down unless you repair their self-contained water system. Fixing it means you must venture outside, into unknown territory, to find what you need - with a 150 day time limit.

Fallout is grade-A movie material. It has a great story, a unique and authentic setting, and no fixed character. This series is RPG-based, so you create an avatar to play through the game. Your evolving character might be brawny, quick, incredibly smart... And, as with many PC greats, you can choose to be male or female, so anyone from Michael Fassbinder to Rachel McAdams to John or Jane Doe could portray the lead for this narrative.

Like a lot of video games, the protagonist is on a vital quest. Straight out of a heroic saga, a simple "fetch this" mission spans months and terrain. You traverse a wide expanse of SoCal/Nevada, searching for what you need, meeting and interacting with tons of people all the while. Actually, you could just describe this as a mythological adventure, equal to Perseus nearly dying, then fighting a Gorgon to rescue a princess.

I hope anyone can understand the appeal of playing a game with all these elements. You get to learn what comes after the apocalypse, with a person as untrained as s/he is ignorant. If you succeed, you'll pick up more information, as well as better skills, clothing, weapons, and even (optional) companions. Fallout's already a 4-game series, with bigtime cross-platform sales lately.

Fortunately, the game isn't like old school Zelda-type RPGs, which drag you through every square inch of the terrain. The world here is one big foggy map whose features (forests, rivers, circles that represent cities) become clearer as you travel from one square grid to another. Clicking on a spot in each grid will make you appear in an outdoor location in that grid, from which you can access indoor portions of that area.

I know that's all very dry, but you should know that you can go anywhere from moment 1. You may be wiped out in less than 3 turns of a battle because your level is too low, but you can still go anywhere. Some people can beat this game in 12 minutes, without cheat codes.

When you travel, it's as a line crossing the map, like Indiana Jones. When you move from one location to another, you might suddenly stop because you've run into a fight - where combat or running are the options. Interplay also created a large number of "random encounters," many of which are for humorous effect.

You might see a blue police box which disappears before you can reach it. Or a stranger in desperate need of help. Or you might find giant scorpions fighting Uzi-toting raiders out of a Mad Max film. No matter what, it's all exploration - and every encounter might get you closer to increasing the player's statistics or equipment, to finding a new tool to help you save your people.

If you want to play this game (it's available on Steam), don't watch the whole video.

One of the most distinct atmospheric elements of Fallout is that it all feels so old. The player's role, ignorant of what the outside world became after radioactive annihilation, is like a revived museum exhibit. But this isn't some whimsical kid's flick, this is Pygmalion's Galatea coming to life on our barren, meteor-stricken Moon. It may be the year 2161, but this post-ruin universe feels utterly ancient.

And when that feeling does break, it's due to the active life that sprang up in WWIII's wake. Unfortunately, most of that is hostile mutated animals - like dog-sized rats and roaches as big as a hog. Some of it is human (or used to be), but even that is varied: settlements of varying economic and military strength, in addition to roving gangs of vandals. One thing is clear: life in mid-22nd Century California is f--king harsh.

All of these elements have made their way into cinema: A Boy and His Dog, Mad Max, Hardware, Escape From New York, Delicatessen and zombie films like 28 Days Later all ventured, to some degree, into the territory you'll find herein. You even own a cool gadget - the Pip-Boy 2000, a wrist-mounted computer that maps your progress, tracks inventory, and records mission-related info that you learn. I'm sure that toy-happy execs would be happy to put an element like that in their movies (sadly I can't link to that Cursor character from Tron).

The gameplay clips I've added here might seem antiquated or boring, but trust me: those in-your-face game conversations carry a lot of weight, too. The new-at-the-time vids of voices, with accompanying facial expressions, pull you right in...

The RPG elements also work nicely at telling the story. What do I mean? Well, in 2 rounds of combat, you might shoot at a bull-sized "radscorpion" 8 times. 3 shots may miss, 2 may cause extra injuries that change the fight (like crippling one of its legs), and the last 3 may just do standard damage; it draws nearer all the while. This messy hit-or-miss violence can have a big impact on the audience, like watching Indy give his best in a brawl, yet still come up short:

And, in addition to random creature attacks while traveling through this world, there were tons of more natural confrontations. Some can occur because an old building still has working robotic defenses. Others spring up through dialogue tree conversations wherein you try to learn or gain something - only to find yourself at a major, lethal impasse. Sure, Fallout was loaded with combat, but it gave you a good reason to be fighting - be it mindless monsters, slavers, or diabolical geniuses...

Through booby-traps, a wealth of varied threats (human, inhuman, or even subhuman), and nicely-scaled combat, the game oozes tension. The exploration, then, does all of the heavy emotional lifting - and I don't mean just for my character. Believe me, I love that you can wear a tracksuit, leather armor out of Mad Max, or even Robocop-like gear; I adore that I can attack with guns, laser pistols, rocket launchers, sledgehammers, grenades, or flamethrowers.

The exploration elements serve to give you, the player, a real reason to care about what you're doing. Better still, the game has a wonderful sense of humor - lots of smart or silly pop culture references, as well as dark jokes, and a demented sensibility that tells me the creators really love Monty Python and Rocky Horror. Wondering what unexpected comedy you'd find next was just as exciting as finding a locker full of ammo and weapons.

Best of all, Fallout featured a unique design sensibility and careful attention to the details of its universe. The result is that the player feels like they're in an engaging, living world with its own history, and offers endless opportunities to learn about this post-collapse setting. As with any movie - A Nightmare on Elm Street, Children of Men, Brazil - establishing a credible locale is key to engaging the audience. For all the technical limitations of the time, the first Fallout game pulls this off in style.

Most locations provide you info about your quest, while also offering new missions, but they also flesh out what happened during the war or its aftermath, or the fates of fellow present-day travelers. It's just icing on the cake that you juggle this raw information and enjoyable combat in an environment that is still lethal because the radiation has only faded in certain places. The tension is high, and the stakes of your quest are very high, but - just as in real life - there are still distractions...

Yeah, that's what old-school game play was like.

The running counter reminds you that you must hurry to save your vault. You may well end the game early by failing that quest. However, after that plot is resolved, you discover a new threat to your home - a bigger danger that you're also given a limited time to handle. Better still, rather than just spontaneously generating this new problem, you've already received a lot of contextual information for how it arose. You genuinely understand that this new wrinkle has become your next quest, and you know why it must be stopped.

If you play Fallout through to completion, you will get a final development in the ending. It touches each player differently. Some get a sense of resignation, while others feel anger. You're left with one final decision, the circumstances of which pull you in even further (no matter which choice you make) and you realize that the person you've been playing has been given both (a) a very cool story to play through and (b) an actual character arc - something which many actual movies manage to lack.

As the game ends, we return to the melancholy song that opened it. The sense of loss - of the world before the War, and all the people and things that died with it - builds again, making you want to shed a tear for this fictitious universe. The events in this game weren't far from actually coming to pass, and all of us have longed for better times, days in the past.

It's a sense of real loss that Fallout does such a good job of building, and it's what makes every minute spent playing it a success, instead of a mere electronic diversion or waste of time. From aesthetic design to dialogue and story, this is one of the best games ever, and I think it is a great candidate to become a major motion picture. I could only hope that some filmmakers could actually do justice by it...


  1. Wow. Nice write up. That intro, with the Ink Spots song, still gets me every time. The intro to the sequel, set to A Kiss to Build a Dream On, is almost as good.

    Fallout featured one of the most memorable moments I ever experienced in a video game. As you note, the game featured open exploration--you could just wander around the map. About halfway through the game, I wander into an abandoned town.

    Now, it wasn't unusual to get killed in Fallout, and every time you did, the game would end with a picture of your skeleton, half-buried in the desert, and Perelman mournfully intoning a phrase like "Not even the carrion-eaters will touch your irradiated corpse" while you waited for the game to reload from your last save.

    But what happened in this town was different. I ran into an unbeatable opponent. Every time he hit me, my character got knocked down and stunned, so I couldn't even get a shot off against him after the first hit. And at the end of the fight--the beating, really--instead of the skeleton and Perelman, there was a cutscene. Not to spoil a 16-year-old video game, I'll just say that in the cutscene you see something horrible happen to your character, and then you watch helplessly as something extremely awful happens to your Vault. The guilt that moment brought on was amazing: every time your character died, there was the implication that the Vault was depending on you and they'd be doomed if you failed. This time, there was a sense that you hadn't simply failed, you'd brought doom upon them.

    That's a pure video game moment, and I wonder how or if something like that could survive in a film or TV adaptation. My finding that town before my character was ready to fight that opponent was unplanned and essentially random (later in the game, as part of the main storyline, you come to that town, but by that time your character is a higher level and much better armed). My emotional response to the scene was much greater than it would have been if Fallout was just a story I was passively watching unfold--when something bad happens in a movie, you seldom feel like it's your fault.

    Regardless, I'd love to see someone try this adaptation. If millions of people tune in each week to watch the Walking Dead, you'd have to think there is an audience for this.

    1. I'm so happy you liked the post, DJ! Yes, above all, the game immerses you in the importance of your main mission and the dire consequence of failure. I didn't experience the set-back you did, but I know that the failure cut-scenes bothered the hell out of me, too.

      I agree that something as thorough and engaging as the first Fallout would not be easy to bring to the big screen - I suspect TV might be a better medium - but I think it's possible, at least. And I would love for someone to get a good creative team behind a film version of this exceptional story...

  2. It's worth noting as a post-script that, in fact, there already has been some work on a Fallout movie.

    This link is on general Fallout-related film efforts

    whereas the following link actually takes you through one whole prospective script for a Fallout movie

    And yet I still cannot understand how a serious effort hasn't progressed to the casting or principal photography stages...


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