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Revitalizing a Heritage: The Writing of Fallout 3

September 4, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

During development of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Bethesda Game Studios designer Emil Pagliarulo was tasked with creating the game's "Dark Brotherhood" scenario, which he says is "for those players who have jumped over [the] moral fence and never want to look back."

The experience of designing that kind of quest surrounded by a high fantasy world may be part of what prepared him to take the lead on the bleak, post-apocalyptic and darkly humorous Fallout 3.

In development for four years and subject to the vocal scrutiny of longtime series fans all along the way, Fallout 3 must both live up to Black Isle's classic 1997 PC RPG Fallout as well as differentiate it from Bethesda's own classic PC RPG setting, The Elder Scrolls.

The closest area of scrutiny for those expectations is likely the game's prose, and so for the first time in the studio's history, it assigned the title of lead writer -- a duty Pagliarulo considers parallel to his role as lead designer.

During the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle, Pagliarulo sat down with Gamasutra to discuss Fallout 3's lengthy development process, which will culminate in an October 28 release for PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3; his challenges in finding the right tone for the game; his thoughts on video game writing; and how his early days at now-defunct Looking Glass Studios were "like a crash course in good game design."

You previously worked on Oblivion, which has more of a standard fantasy backdrop compared to Fallout's cynical post-apocalyptic world, although your Dark Brotherhood quest in Oblivion has been singled out for its quality of writing. As a writer, how do you approach the change in tone between those games?

Emil Pagliarulo: You just hit it right there. The toughest thing at first -- the very first thing I wrote for the game was the Ron Perlman introduction. If there's one thing you don't want to screw up, it's that.

[I was] listening to the original Fallout introduction with Ron Perlman, then trying to emulate that, but do our own thing too -- what kind of story do we want to tell with our introduction?

Going from that into writing for the game, the biggest hurdle to overcome was that in Oblivion, it's not only fantasy, but it's an empire at the height of its power. The Oblivion Gates are opening up, and hell is breaking loose, but everybody's pretty well off.

2K Games/Bethesda Softworks' The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

The world is thriving.

EP: It's thriving, exactly. But in Fallout, people are living on the fringe of existence -- it was trying to get that tone. Myself and the other designers started writing, and you're still writing with the voice of those other people in your head. 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.

I'll give you an example. Lucien Lachance, from the Dark Brotherhood, is evil, but he's sort of sinister -- deliciously evil: "Mua ha ha." Mr. Burke, the guy who wants you to blow up Megaton [in Fallout 3], is a real prick. He wants you to blow up a whole town.

It's more raw.

EP: That's right. There's a rawness there. Being Fallout, we needed some level of profanity. Boy, you've got to be careful. Later on in the editing pass, I did a profanity pass, cutting out half the profanity in the game.

Unless it's written well and voice acted well, it comes across so cheesy. You know, you play games where you hear it, and it's just, "Ugh." Even the most innocuous swear word has to be done just right for it to sound well. That was one of the challenges too.

Those are the challenges -- finding the right tone. It took a while, but I think we got it pretty well in the end.

So that's Oblivion versus Fallout, but what about the separate challenge of writing for a sequel that is being made by none of its original creators, and that has gained something of a mythical status, even among a lot of gamers who never played the original titles?

EP: Being completely honest, you don't. You don't try to. When you try to, you're setting yourself up to fail. You have to be confident in your own abilities and do the best you can do. We looked at Fallout 1 as our model.

It's interesting to me. I will lurk in a lot of forums -- never post, but see -- and one of the things you hear a lot is, when we've released a couple dialogue screenshots, "Oh, those dialogue options are so short!" Well, if you look in a lot of --

Todd Howard, executive producer: (Pokes head into interview) Emil lies!

EP: It's all true! I swear! I created Fallout.

But really, if you look in Fallout, there are a lot of short dialogue options. So you're right, there is a bit of a mythical quality there.

We really looked at Fallout 1 as our model. It's all about giving players a choice and giving the player the voice they want to use. We backed away from the stuff in Fallout 2, the more campy, pop culturey stuff.

We tried to stay away from trying to emulate anyone specifically. You know, [Fallout 2 co-designer] Chris Avellone -- fantastic writer; those are huge shoes to fill. You can't think about that too much. You'll become paralyzed.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Sande Chen
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Definitely, I'm a fan of brevity in dialog and I don't appreciate those "lore bombs." In every writing genre, a writer needs to learn how to handle exposition.

And glad to see mention of The Witcher!

Lorenzo Wang
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This was an excellent interview, thanks. It reminded me of how short-sighted that "Case Against Writers" article was. I'm thrilled, as a Fallout fan, that Emil and his team understood that Fallout wasn't about "lore-bombs", it was about the unimaginable consequences you could get yourself into in a world that was open-ended in design, but also in theme. It was that dance around (or for) transient in-game authorities that made the game unique, and what really sold the post-apocalypse.

Writers as experiences-designers is really the right way to look at game writers, not just people who pump out characters and plot. Crafting an game experience doesn't even necessitate a narrative. The magic lies in exposition through player involvement, and I see no reason why that role should be antagonistic to that of game designers.

Sion Williams
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I must admit i'm really quite looking forward to Bethesda's take on this game. I consider Fallout my favourite game/s and although im dissapointed the original creators aren't making the 3rd installment - I am quite intrigued, and looking forward to the Bethesda approach. The decider for me will be its likeness to oblivion - I dont like the Elder scrolls so the moment I feel like im playing a re-skinned version its going on Ebay!!

Bobby A
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Great interview! I'm looking forward to Fallout 3 above any other release this year.

I'd like to see an interview with Bethsoft's audio guy/team for Fallout 3

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A "heritage"? Is that what they call it when they're too scared to do something that isn't entitled [Insert Franchise Name] 3,4,5,6, (etc)... milking it for all its worth? That's laughable.

Chris Remo
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A heritage is what they call it when you're talking about something that has a prior history, generally a respected one.

Nick Halme
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Very honest interview. The Dark Brotherhood was such a great series of quests for me in Oblivion that once I finished them I stopped playing the game. It was the only thing that grabbed my attention and really, genuinely played with my emotions when I had to go about killing all of my brothers in arms.

As the Megaton quest seems to suggest, there should be even more of these 'heavier' types of quests in Fallout 3 -- I can't wait :)

Jose Teran
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One of the most important task as a game developer is to inmerse the player in a unique and creative story. As Emil says, is not about reading tons of text, it's about how the user is going to "feel" the story and, finally, understand it and experience it.

Great article, keep on the good work.

Tyler Shogren
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Very noble of you to abandon "lore bombs" when the game doesn't support dialogue texts longer than 80 characters.