Getting Fallout 3's quirky combat and non-linear narrative to work would be hard enough without having to please the famously picky fans of the series, alongside those won over by Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. We caught up with Bethesda's vice president of public relations, Peter Hines, to discuss how he learnt to stop worrying and love the bombs.
Eurogamer: Fallout 3's ravaged setting is hardly a departure for videogames. Is it a challenge to put a fresh spin on post-apocalyptic wastelands?
Pete Hines: It's a challenge in the sense that it has been done. We had to do something that was not only cool and good, but it had to be true to Fallout. If it was just Washington DC as it was two years ago and we were just blowing that up, that's actually substantially easier: You just look at everything and go, "Okay, blow all that up and then we're done." But this is a different world from the one we know, with a different timeline.
You have to ask, "What would have been in the Fallout universe? What would have existed before 1950, where this universe splits off from our own and goes in this different direction?" So, creatively, you are spreading your wings a little bit and asking what DC would have looked like with the future that these people had envisioned rather than the one that we know. What that does is make it both a little bit familiar and a bit quirky. A gas station looks like a big rocket, for example: you can do stuff that makes things both familiar and, "What the hell is that?" at the same time.
Eurogamer: A lot of the humour in Fallout 3 revolves around ironic juxtaposing of cheerful utopianism and grim reality. Is there a line at which that becomes trite?
Pete Hines: If it's overdone and it's not in the right tone, it absolutely does. Our lead designer is Emil Pagliarulo, and one of his key functions is to go through and do the humour check. You're trying to get gradations and you're trying to be careful about how many times you're presenting something to the player. I'll use an extreme example: swearing, when used appropriately, is really funny. If it's in every sentence you read it's just annoying; you're just trying to hard to be edgy. You have to ask, "How much are we using this, and is it appropriate for the person who's saying it?"
Eurogamer: Do you think there's a reason games avoid humour so much?
Pete Hines: A lot of times it ends up being a distraction. Done poorly, it is horribly and terribly destructive to the vibe you're trying to set. Humour gone bad is worse than just about anything else you can try and do in a game. Even violence gone bad can still be almost comical in its execution. But humour? Nothing sucks the soul out of an experience than somebody who's clearly trying to be funny but is not. So I hope we've done a great job of balancing that and not going over that line.
Eurogamer: How much of the design for Fallout 3 is a reaction to your work on Oblivion as much as your ambitions for the Fallout series?
Pete Hines: The reaction to Oblivion is very much a case of, "How do we do this better when we do it in Fallout?" opposed to, "Oh we always wanted to do this in the Elder Scrolls, but now we're doing Fallout we'll just put it in Fallout." There's none of that. Fallout's already such a rich series, such a great playground to work in, with the vibe and the tone and the moral choices.
What we really brought from Oblivion is just stuff like feedback on levelling. People didn't like the way the world levelled with the player, so we're going to do this differently. It's things like working out how to sculpt the experience for the player in terms of quests and giving you choices. We want to give you more choices in how to finish a quest rather than fewer choices and a lot more quests.
Eurogamer: You've gone for a very traditional dialogue system. Did you consider trying something new?
Pete Hines: It's old school. After a certain point, when you're taking on a project of this magnitude, you've got to pick your battles, and you can't pick them all because you just end up trying to be everything and not being anything. Dialogue wasn't a battle we wanted to pick. It is a bit old-school, but it works well for what we're trying to do, and there were other things that were more important for us to spend time and energy on, like trying to incorporate VATS into a real world combat system and still incorporate the stats and not unbalance the game. That's a big undertaking, and spending time from a development standpoint on the actual dialogue and the camera angle it's being presented on - we just don't have unlimited monkeys and typewriters.
You just have to put everything up on the list and decide this is the stuff that's most important for the kind of experience that we want.
Eurogamer: Were you tempted to make the Karma system a little more morally ambiguous?
Pete Hines: One of the things we really tried to avoid is surprising the player with whether they've been good or bad. We wanted to be clear to you that you're making a conscious choice to be one or the other. I've played games where I made a choice and I thought I was being the nice guy, and then it's, "Wait, wait, why is he upset?" We didn't want it to be a surprise. Sometimes it's a surprise in terms of how a person reacts if you are being a jerk, but it's not a surprise as to whether you're good or bad.
Eurogamer: Is this true for the choices in the wider game, and making sure people know what they're giving up when they make a crucial decision?
Pete Hines: There aren't many decisions where you're locking off a whole part of the game. We're trying to remove the surprises, which includes having parts of the game that are suddenly unavailable, completely unbeknownst to you. "If you told me when I picked this dialogue option I wouldn't get to do any of that, then I wouldn't have picked it in the first place!" That's a bad experience. We don't have to tell you when you blow up Megaton early in the game that all of those people are going away: it's a very obvious situation and if you really are evil enough to do it because you want to know what happens then that's okay. You can live with the consequences because you knew what you were doing when you pressed the button.
Eurogamer: In terms of combat, are you worried that VATS is so much more powerful than real-time combat that it could unbalance the game?
Pete Hines: Not if it's fun. It's about giving the player the choice on how to play the game. We don't want VATS to be so overpowered that people are saying, "I finished the game in five hours because of VATS." It is balanced. We do have people who play the game heavily using VATS making sure those numbers and stats line up with the experience we're trying to provide and you can't just blow through everything.
Eurogamer: Talking of balance, with a game as wide as this, how do you balance the main narrative and the side-quests?
Pete Hines: It's just always been our approach to make big, open, go-where-you-want games. This is just another version of that. We like to try to do big epic scope, big world stuff. But I think with Fallout it's adjusted differently to how it was with Oblivion, because Oblivion had so much extra content.
Fallout doesn't have quite the same amount - it's not eight cities filled with guilds and all that stuff. It's more sparse, there's fewer locations, fewer people. You have a smaller scope of stuff, with more ways to do it, and as part of the overall, the main quest is much more or a presence than it was in Oblivion, because you don't have two hundred hours of stuff - you have seventy or eighty hours, which is still a stupid amount, but it's not in the same proportion.
I think the main story's going to be a lot stronger, and a lot more people are going to want to play it this time around.
Fallout 3 is due out on PS3, 360 and PC this October.