When Fallout 3 was announced, the widespread joy at the resurrection of a beloved and largely forgotten series by a developer of as much established talent as Bethesda was huge. But it was matched by an equally fierce backlash from one of the most notoriously fanatical, difficult-to-please fanbases in the gaming world. Most Fallout fans were adamant that the series ought to be left alone, that the limited technology that the games were built upon was an integral part of what Fallout was, and that any attempt to modernise the series could only result in the bastardisation of one of the most fondly-remembered game universes in the history of the medium.
Practically nobody bought the Fallout games. Lifetime sales in the UK, for instance, barely topped 50,000 units for the pair of them. Commercially, they were utterly disastrous. But if you can find one person who did play them and talks about them with anything other than near-rabid devotion, it'd be quite a feat. Few games inspire such passion, but embarking upon a search for its source, it's difficult to find anything that's not worth loving about Fallout. From the unrelentingly bleak, darkly ironic tone to the novelty of the open-world, post-apocalyptic setting, from the inspired, cerebral turn-based combat system to the immense degree of variety and personality in the character-customisation, the superbly-written quests and characters and the gallows humour that underpins the games without lessening their emotional impact, even the well-placed, gritty violence; there's very little about the games that doesn't command as much respect now as they did a decade ago.
The genesis of the series lies in Wasteland, a beloved post-apocalyptic adventure by Interplay, a developer already famous for Brian Fargo's The Bard's Tale trilogy, and released in 1988. Elements of Fallout's humour are evident in its colourful text descriptions ("Thug explodes like a blood sausage", "Rabbit is reduced to a thin red paste"), and the experimental open-world setting paved the way for Fargo and Black Isle Studios to develop a much more expansive, developed post-apocalyptic dystopia for Fallout, Wasteland's 'spiritual sequel', which was released almost a decade later in 1997. (Interestingly, Fargo has subsequently bought the Wasteland IP back from Electronic Arts and is working on a long-overdue sequel at his current developer, inXile. But that's another story.)
Fallout started life as a computer-game implementation of GURPS, a pen-and-paper role-playing system invented by Steve Jackson Games. Contract squabbles caused Interplay and SJG to part ways, but there is still much of the pen-and-paper RPG about Fallout. The open-world freedom and the extent of Fallout's character customisation both owe a lot to the game's original aim of emulating a tabletop RPG as closely as possible.
The SPECIAL character-creation system - Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck - in combination with a hugely varied selection of possible skills and character-defining Perks, ensured that it was possible to play Fallout in pretty much any way you could imagine. It was genuinely possible to create any character - a silver-tongued ladykiller, a meat-headed, giant-gun-toting thug, a sharpshooting scientist - and take them out of the safety of Vault 13, sealed from the inside since the onset of devastating nuclear war, and into the surrounding wilderness, and attempt to make it your own.
And once you got out into that wilderness, you found yourself surrounded by unrelenting devastation. There's no helpful town situated nearby, just raiders and scavengers and a motley assortment of unsavoury characters struggling to survive in a world that no longer has room for things like compassion. The closest thing to a settlement, Junktown, is a ramshackle assortment of buildings inhabited by grasping despots, killing each other for guns or drugs or money. Fallout throws you into a genuinely destroyed world, and there's nothing about it that's heartening. It's all the more disquieting for how realistic it is. One of the most striking things about Fallout's imagining of post-apocalyptic America is how accurate it could well be; all the positive aspects of human nature fall away in a grimy and pointless struggle for survival.
Scott Bennie, a designer who helped to write and design Fallout along with Chris Avellone (who later wrote Planescape: Torment and is now the creative director at Obsidian) and Fallout 2 hero Chris Taylor, felt that Fallout's bleak setting struck a particular chord with audiences of the time. "After years of generic fantasy RPGs, Fallout was a shock to the system, both for the designers (who got to cut loose after working on fantasy projects like Stonekeep and Descent to Undermountain) and for the audience... There weren't that many post-apocalypse games out at the time we did Fallout," says Bennie. "Wasteland was excellent, but it was severely hamstrung by the limitations of the textual display. Origins' Bad Blood was designed to be an action game. The less said about EA's Fountain of Dreams, the better. As a result of the genre's scarcity - and the appropriateness of graphic violence, harsh language, and a gritty theme - it was easy for Fallout to stand out. Being christened the 'spiritual successor' to Wasteland, one of the most beloved RPGs up to that time, made it even easier to get noticed."
Gameplay innovations went hand-in-hand with the game's unique and dark setting. Fallout was a genuine role-player in that it was impossible to succeed in the wasteland without taking full advantage of every ability that your created character had. If you came across a heavily-guarded compound and just didn't have the firepower to get inside, you had to start hacking computers and looking for pass-codes, or talking to people around in an effort to find someone who could get you inside, or scavenging or thieving better equipment from wherever you could. There were always so many ways to approach a given situation, so many different directions to go in and so many random events, characters and quests to stumble upon, that almost everyone who played Fallout got something different out of it.
There is perhaps no greater illustration of that than Fallout's final showdown with the Master, a sprawling mess of computer, mutant and human led down a twisted path on his search for humanity. By the time you reach him, you've experienced the darkest that Fallout's wastelands have to offer, met its most hopelessly forsaken characters and become embroiled in the struggle for power over what little the world has left to offer. You'll almost certainly have the necessary firepower to storm in and take him down. But instead, you can embark upon a philosophical conversation with him, challenge him on what makes humanity worth preserving. You can persuade him to see the darkness in what he is doing, and if you succeed, he commits suicide, taking his entire mutant enclave with him.
"I think that the one thing that Fallout did better than almost any game that I can remember was that ineffable quality called 'heart'," says Bennie. "How many games out there gave you a scraggly, scrappy, and quietly loyal sidekick named Dogmeat? When you met Richard Dean Anderson's Killian and began to unlock the secrets of the world, how many people ached for the people in that world? How did you feel in the first moment when you realised the Master wasn't some generic ranting villain like Ultima's Guardian, but had thoroughly good intentions that sent him down one of the darkest imaginable roads to a personal hell, and didn't deserve his fate?"
And that is the truly, enduringly great thing about Fallout - it does with text and dialogue and sheer atmosphere what it could not do with pretty pixels. Like many RPGs of the time, technical limitations fed a necessity for good writing. "Chris Taylor's writing for the original Fallout, while not the most polished in the industry, did something remarkable," Bennie says. "It made you care, deeply, about people who were only a few moving pixels and sentences of expository text. And if that's not good writing, I don't know what is."
The more you put into Fallout, the more you get out of it. Originally the game constrained you with a time limit, but this was soon fixed with a patch when Interplay realised that players were desperate to get everything they could out the game, see everything that the wasteland had hidden away. Fallout 2, released just a year later in 1998, offered an even bigger and more populated wasteland, and painted a picture of a new power struggle going on in the wilderness 80 years after the events of the first game. Though its tone and practically everything about the game engine stayed exactly the same, the themes were more adult; drug addiction and the sex industry were much more obvious here than in the original game, and perhaps less subtly disturbing as a result.
Fallout 2's open-world was as punishing as it was rewarding. Though it was never easy to survive in Fallout 1's wastes, it took even more hours of scavenging and scrounging in Fallout 2 before the plot really kicked in and the player was able to take command of the wastes. But Fallout's chilling realism would suffer if the games were easy. Their portrayal of a forsaken post-apocalyptic world makes no compromises for the player's comfort, in terms of gameplay or emotionally.
Fallout 1 and 2 are bastions of the Western RPG, for sure - the combat and SPECIAL systems were inspired, and far from its only innovations - but what they really brought to the medium was an illustration of how atmosphere and writing and soul can change how games move us. Fallout and Fallout 2's world, often heart-rending in its desolation, well-written and ironic, is still one of the most believable and moving in videogames. They are games of fundamental importance to anybody who cares about how good writing can transform interactive experiences, and that's one of the reasons that they've proven so enduring; because Fallout's impact wasn't dependent on its technology, you can play them now and experience the exact same emotional impact that they had when they were first written. And you should.
Alternatively, you could play Fallout 3, which is due out for PS3, 360 and PC on 31st October. Our review of the game goes live tonight at midnight EST, which is 4am GMT on Tuesday morning.