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What Fallout Has To Say
by Taekwan Kim on 11/25/09 12:02:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Today, I want to talk more explicitly about the “authorial voice [working] through the system” in games by examining Interplay's original Fallout. This title was chosen for its age (over ten years old, which demonstrates that such an authorial voice has existed in games at the very least for that long) and for the absolutely concentrated and deliberate fashion in which it delivers its message.

Player Experience as the Message

I argued in my last post that we focus so much on the narrative aspects of games when attempting to discern their message that we fail to perceive those messages which games have already succeeded in delivering. But I want to emphasize once again that narrative does indeed play a crucial role in the formulation and delivery of the authorial voice. For instance, the meeting with Ryan in Bioshock specifically colors the entire preceding experience in a significantly different light—it informs the player’s “decisions” post facto, and makes the player consider the illusion of agency in a game.

My point is that it is not so simple that we should mistake narrative to be the only aspect which produces an authorial voice in games. Again, in the example of Bioshock, the revelation towards the close would have far less meaning without the tasks of the game that comes with, and came before, it. Without the inseperable interplay of both narrative and game—without the actual experience of playing the game—objectivism’s thesis of the primacy of individual liberty would not emerge as forcefully as it does (if indeed, at all).

This emergence is forceful because the player himself has encountered the concept in a fundamentally experiential fashion. One could even argue that Bioshock delivers this idea better than Rand herself ever did—Bioshock’s presentation is, due to the very ambiguity which arises from the player’s interaction, far more intellectually nuanced than, for instance, the Fountainhead ever was (I’ll probably receive a lot of flak for that…).

Unraveling the Message in Fallout

The above is already a pretty good example of the authorial voice in games. But to drive the point home, I will go ahead and continue with the examination of Fallout.

The central message of Fallout is that “no man is an island”. Actually, the entire line by Donne referred to by this partial quote is quite useful for the purposes of this discussion, so I will reproduce it in full:

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee. (Donne, Meditation XVII)

Donne, here, denotes a dialectical reality. If the conclusion of the above (that losing any individual is the same as losing a part of oneself) can be termed the external attitude towards society, its opening premise contains an internally directed attitude towards the self. Accepting that one is a part, that one cannot be the entire, also means accepting that, “In order to make a real accomplishment one must sacrifice a number of other potentialities… To be something in reality one must give up being everything in potentia” (Edinger, 14). This, then, is the essential point of Fallout as well: in order to survive (quite literally), one must venture out into society and engage with it; but exposing oneself to, and thus becoming a part of, society also means giving up the illusion of omnipotence.

How the Message is Delivered in Fallout

The above ideas should be recognizable straight away in the narrative arc of Fallout: the Overseer at the end denies the Vault Dweller’s return to the vault because he is living proof that one can venture outside and actually thrive. That is, engagement with external society is entirely feasible, but an exodus from the vault would mean that the Overseer loses his omnipotence. This desire to be an island of omnipotent wholeness or “entireness” is equally reflected in the Master’s plan to literally make everything in his image and absorb the entirety of society unto himself.*

Looking beyond the narrative, however, the theme is also profoundly reflected in every aspect of the game’s mechanics, and indeed, as with the example of Bioshock, the narrative arc would lack gravitas without the player’s concurrent struggle with the mechanics.

Fallout, by many standards, is a difficult and unforgiving game which borders on being well nigh inaccessible for many players unfamiliar with its mechanics and the kinds of strategies the game requires. This is part of the message, and the difficultly serves a specific “narrative”—that is, “authorial”—function.

The S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system in Fallout (which differs significantly with that in Fallout 3 due to the frequency of perks and the Intense Training perk) forces the player directly from the character creation screen to make choices which determine the efficacy of the player for the rest of the game. There is no respec option and methods by which a player might increase his base attributes are extremely limited, to the point that a bad character roll can make the game unplayable (hence the three pre-rolled characters). In other words, the difficulty of producing an effective roll requires the player to immediately surrender the illusion of omnipotence and recognize that certain types of play simply will not work.

And yet, without having played the game, there is no means for the player to know which skills are essential and which skills have no use whatsoever (besides, to limited utility, looking at the pre-rolled characters). This is compounded by the fact that there are simply not enough points to go around for the player to attempt fulfilling “everything in potentia”—one must specialize in a select set of skills and play the game to those skills. This, of course, is true of any CRPG, but the strictness of the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system specifically and intentionally denies the player leeway for experimentation within a single game.

This restriction on both the player’s developmental capacity and room for experimentation is carried over into the time limits built into the game. While ostensibly the time limits (at least, the original water chip time limit) are there to prevent the player from “breaking” the plot by manually combing through the map and stumbling across locations, this task is accomplished by the fog of war and difficulty walls, not to mention random encounters, anyway. And the presence of hidden time limits dealing with game endings further indicates an ulterior purpose.

The “authorial” purpose of the time limits in Fallout, then, is to prevent the player from farming caravan runs and spamming skill books in order to maximize character stats. And even disregarding the time limits, there is still a twenty level cap which prevents further progression. These mechanics once again obligate the player to abandon potentialities for the sake of actualities.

The enforced commitment to the style of play determined at the start, the pervasive pressure of hidden and unpredictable dangers (random encounters, radiation, the time limits themselves), the "there and back again" oscillation between the unnameable dangers of the wastes and the palpably relieving safety of the settlements—all of these serve to reinforce a strong sense of mortality, limitation, and attachment which, if to a far lesser degree, must at least in character be similar to that which inspired Donne to come to his conclusions.

The last straw, then, in which it turns out the Overseer is really the same as the Master fully disabuses the player from the fantasy that there ever was an original, self-contained and isolated omnipotent wholeness to which the player could return—the player must once again submit himself to exposure to society and recognize that no man is an island.

The Archetypes, Once Again

I mentioned before the concept that the player experiences the activity of gameplay through the dual process of playing (immersion) and gaming (engagement). This was indeed why I stressed so heavily that focusing solely on the immersive aspects is losing sight of the engagement aspects—because neither can fully produce the experience of gameplay by itself. Without both, one is merely receiving a recitation on the one hand, or a conducting one on the other (hence, my use of the phrase “invested interactivity” in my last post).

At any rate, I bring up concept of the archetype once again because, if the above understanding is correct, this psychological, quintessentially experiential mechanism is quite often the means through which the message of gameplay is delivered (and for those who are interested, the archetype in question here is that of the puer aeternus**). And, as I quoted previously, “the archetype represents the ‘possibility of representation.’ The content is dependent upon the organism’s interactions with the environment,” (Gray, 46). In other words, the proper "narrative" of a game does not even emerge until the moment of interaction. There’s no story contained in a high score in Donkey Kong per se, but there certainly is one contained in the experience of pursuing that high score.

To rephrase once more, we would be making a mistake to concentrate exclusively on the subjective structure of the experience of gameplay (the “narrative”) when attempting to discern its authorial voice—a mistake akin to describing a genotype without understanding its phenotypical expression.


* This actually makes the Overseer the same as the Master (once again, the theme that one is what one hates [and thus fears] presents itself). The similarity of titles and the obsession with preventing contamination from the outside or obtaining uncontaminated DNA further cements this equivalence.

** It would be interesting to conduct a comparative study on the differences in the expression of this archetype in Fallout, The Road Warrior, A Boy and this Dog, and Wasteland

Works Cited

Edinger, Edward F. Ego and Archetype. Boston: Shambala, 1992.

Gray, Richard M. Archetypal Explorations. London: Routledge, 1996.

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Kevin Reese
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Interesting post. A couple of thoughts if I may.

First off, I personally don't think that the central message of Fallout would be "no man is an island." Of course, this is subjective matter -- but nonetheless. I really don't think that was a big part of the narrative or the authorial voice.

Before I support that last claim, let me bring up something else that disagreed with me: "In other words, the difficulty of producing an effective roll requires the player to immediately surrender the illusion of omnipotence and recognize that certain types of play simply will not work. "

First off, I don't think in hardly any other RPGs that the player, from the character creation screen (at level 1 in the game), has any feeling of omnipotence. I think more often starting a new RPG can feel like walking into the unknown.

Second point on your quote above: Fallout 1/2 perhaps is at the top pinnacle of RPGs ever made (I'd say.) One of the game's biggest strengths was allowing for tremendous flexibility in the character creation system. Thus, your line " that certain types of play simply will not work" I flat out disagree with.

More than almost any other RPG ever made, Fallout made unusual characters viable. For example, you could have a character with a charisma of 10 and be able to viably win the game through diplomatic means. Or you could have a character with an intelligence of 1, and hardly even be able to speak to characters, yet finish the game. Etc ; etc . Fallout 1/2 allowed for an almost unheralded selection -- before, or after -- of viable character builds. It perhaps allows for more "types of play" than any other RPG, I would argue.

My thoughts on the character creation system goes back to how I'm not sure I agree with your premise that Fallout's central message could be construed as "no man is an island."

"Accepting that one is a part, that one cannot be the entire, also means accepting that, “In order to make a real accomplishment one must sacrifice a number of other potentialities… To be something in reality one must give up being everything in potentia” (Edinger, 14). This, then, is the essential point of Fallout as well: in order to survive (quite literally), one must venture out into society and engage with it; but exposing oneself to, and thus becoming a part of, society also means giving up the illusion of omnipotence."

A few things concerning the paragraph above. The flexible character creation system allowed you to make a character that was a anti-social, uncommunicative maniac, if you wished. Yet you could still win the game. You did not need to become part of society -- you could actually play as an anti-hero, anti-society guy who creates a trail of devastation through the Wastelands, if you'd like. And also, regarding 'sacrificing potentialities' -- again the flexibility of design allowed you to play as an all-around character, if you like -- it was viable, you did not need to specialize (even with tag skills, you could have all skills even and still be fine); also, the player character -- I would argue -- actually realizes his full potential, and strengths himself in all ways, through his voyage through the Wasteland. I could see how you could argue that the 'omnipotence' was the full knowledge of life, as contained by the Vault, at the exclusion of the outside world -- but I don't think that works for me personally.

Personally I'm not sure I even really buy into this 'authorial' voice thing (for games.) I think it would be more productive to examine the examples you cited (such as time limits on the quests) from a perspective of game design, not from a perspective of narrative design. In my mind, you are suggesting incorrectly that 'the authorial voice' determined some aspects of the game design; I would argue that what you see as the authorial voice actually was a byproduct of the fundamental design choices made for the game.

While it might be true for some other games, I really don't think any sort of conceivable one thrust, or any sort of message, was a seminal factor in the creation of the game. Any messages as we see them, are subjectively generated from our personal reaction to the game. Not to knock your premise unfairly, but I think I could as easily support a thesis that the central message of Fallout 1 was actually about, uhh.. 'the quintessential Neitzschean ubermencsch player character' or something more inane, such as 'Fallout 1 was actually about relationship between man and dog, as shown with Dogmeat.'

(Note I don't mean any of these comments as inflammatory. I thought you made some interesting points, certainly. I just like a good discussions :] )

Taekwan Kim
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Mr. Reese, thank you for a well considered response; I do enjoy a good discussion myself. First off, I want to note that, as you mentioned, the message one receives from a work is, unless the author specifically comes out and objectively indicates an actual message, subjective. I mean to say that the point of the post was not so much what exactly that message is in Fallout (though I presented one in order that I may discuss its systemic presence) as it was that there is a message which is being delivered systemically. While the meaning I extracted from Fallout may be debatable, I think it’s rather more difficult to argue that Fallout does not contain any meaning at all (perhaps I am going in circles here...).

Secondly, I very much agree that Fallout is "at the top pinnacle of RPGs ever made (I'd say.)," I would say the same. But in my point about omnipotence, the key here is "omni." I'm not debating the range of capabilities allowed across multiple playthroughs. But the very fact that you only have 10 points to spend on stats (unless you use gifted), and that stats directly determine your skill points, means you have to specialize (specialization being the whole point of that "giving up potentialities" thing). Yes, you can have an intelligence of 1 and finish the game, but that's because then you can have 10 strength. But you can't have 10 strength and 10 perception and 10 charisma (well, you *can*, but a woefully low endurance and luck would certainly make the game unplayable for those unfamiliar with the game). Either you're an agile fast talker, or you're a dim witted ham fister, that sort of thing.

I believe it's much easier in retrospect to consider how to make a certain play in Fallout viable once you know the game, where to get certain items (i.e. power armor), in what order to do what, etc. But for a player unfamiliar with its mechanics, once again there's just simply no way to know what skills are useful or not. If you dumped all your starting points into Doctor, Barter, and Outdoorsman, well... you're probably not going to get very far. I should note that the only kind of "all around" build I was able to find viable was the good ol' high perception/agility/charisma/gifted build, but even this requires considerable trades offs in strength and endurance and really was not something I would be able to intuit without having played the game (it also occurs to me that perhaps you are equating the character system in Fallout 2 with that in Fallout 1--the level cap and especially the time limits make the system in Fallout 1 significantly more restricted; I would also argue that the two games are fundamentally different in many ways). Bear with me on this point for the argument of this post as it is considering the game from the perspective of a player new to the mechanics.

But the (ok, debatable--to a degree) fact that you need to skew your points towards a certain direction means there are some things you simply will not be able to do through a single playthrough, which in itself isn't anything particularly special to CRPGs and I'm not proposing that it is either. However, Fallout is somewhat particular in that the stat points are both so limited in number and *fixed* for the whole game, with the exception of the enhancements for some of them that you can get at Lost Hills--but those are bought at considerable cost to time and money (this is why drugs were introduced; they serve the very real ludic function). Again, nothing unique, but these points differentiate Fallout from, say, games like Mass Effect or even Dragon Age (to a lesser degree) where there's enough of points to go around in character development that you're not prevented from being both a persuasive communicator and a combat juggernaut at the same time, or where you can start off with one kind of play style and end up with something else entirely. And in the context of a completely classless system where all distribution choices are direct trade offs... once again, potentialities for realities.

Finally, there's a symbolism which I failed to make explicit in the post: it is the Wasteland, not the settlements, which represents society. This would seem contradictory considering the noted danger/safety split between settlements and the Wasteland, but this fits with the notion that there is no fully self-contained isolation which can claim to be immune to the dangers of the wastes. The settlements might be zones of safety from the dangers of random encounters, but all of them are in one form or another under attack from the encroaching Wasteland--they are, indeed, a part of the Wasteland, and the presence of the Wasteland cannot be denied. And more often than not, despite the initial relief, further exploration reveals an internal danger within the settlements themselves. (I hope this clarifies what I was indicating when I stated "self-contained and isolated omnipotent wholeness").

As for the interpretation that the post was a statement on narrative design--that's rather interesting to me as the whole point was actually to consider experiential design pursued in a systemic fashion (and really, mostly the ludic aspects in this case), and that the authorial voice isn't just narrated, it's experienced. It's interesting in that, I keep insisting we can't simply divest the narrative mechanics from the game mechanics, and vice versa, but this keeps getting interpreted as either I'm coming down for one side or the other. Perhaps the problem is the very concept that the two are inseparable within the experience of gameplay--that the experience of gameplay arises from the mechanism of the archetype which produces both mechanics and narrative.

At any rate, I would say that you could very well be correct that the authorial voice in Fallout is a "byproduct of the fundamental design choices", and it was absolutely not my argument that design choices were made in order to serve an overriding message. But the two purposes are not mutually exclusive, and these points don't necessitate that a message isn't there. And if it were the case that the voice is a "byproduct of the fundamental design choices", that's actually further supporting the argument that the message is systemic. The authors may not have consciously pursued a specific message an sich (though, of course, this is debatable), but they certainly and deliberately pursued a specific experience. And again, the key point here is the concept of the archetype: an archetypal interaction or experience inevitably produces a symbolic or narrational understanding, which we can, in this case, term the "message." I'm not saying that the message in a game is accidental; it's hard to argue that, in crafting an experience, the authors were blind to and inconsiderate of the experiential products of it (at the very least in terms of emotional or psychological impact--and this is particularly true in this case, given the deliberate force of the expulsion from the vault). But my argument, once again, is that the experience itself produces the message, and that the resultant message has a specific meaning which can be interpreted.