Fallout 3 lead designer and lead writer Emil Pagliarulo faced two big challenges when approaching Bethesda's anticipated sequel: how to strike the right chord after the studio's previous project, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and how to follow up on what has become a legendary game series.
Pagliarulo, speaking to Gamasutra at last weekend's Penny Arcade Expo, says he literally started at the beginning, composing the game's introductory narration to be voiced by Ron Perlman, who has acted in that role since the original game.
"If there's one thing you don't want to screw up, it's that," says the designer, who was "trying to emulate that, but do our own thing too." He described the major early problem in his area of development as "finding the right tone."
Bethesda is taking its cues from Black Isle's original 1997 offering, and not the following year's Fallout 2, which Pagliarulo describes as "more campy, pop culture-y." Still, the designer is wary of attempting to closely replicate the work of individual Black Isle writers: "Those are huge shoes to fill," he says. "You can't think about that too much. You'll become paralyzed."
Pagliarulo's role on Fallout 3 follows his work on Oblivion, to which he contributed the Dark Brotherhood quest line, much acclaimed for the quality of its writing. He cited the difference in setting between the two games as being a clear point to address early in development.
"In Oblivion, it's not only fantasy, but it's an empire at the height of its power," he says. "But in Fallout, people are living on the fringe of existence. ...Some people have gone a little bit crazy, and some people are living in their own fantasy world, and some people are just cynical and vicious."
Part of that distinction means that "we needed some level of profanity" (which is certainly confirmed by preview sessions with the game), but Pagliarulo is wary of indiscriminate use of swearing in game writing. "I did a profanity pass, cutting out half the profanity in the game," he says. "Unless it's written well and voice acted well, it comes across so cheesy."
Speaking more broadly, the writer acknowledges that video game writing is "coming from such a low place," and still has a long way to go -- but thinks it's unrealistic that "some people want to go from where we were two years ago to Hollywood level."
Rather, he believes it is more crucial to improve the way stories are told in games, avoiding what Bethesda calls "lore bombs" (when "you talk to an NPC, and they just drop 50 lines of dialogue on you"), and striving for storytelling through gameplay. Pagliarulo points to recent games like Mass Effect, BioShock, Call of Duty 4, and Valve's titles as examples of what he sees as the right direction.
"I'm much more interested in story that is told through gameplay, through the medium of games," he says. "It's the old 'show, don't tell' rule."
The Fallout 3 lead designer's comments came as part of a larger interview to be published on Gamasutra in the near future.