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Exploring A Devastated World: Emil Pagliarulo And Fallout 3
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Exploring A Devastated World: Emil Pagliarulo And Fallout 3

April 24, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

At the Game Developers Choice Awards during GDC, Fallout 3 picked two highly impressive awards: Game of the Year and Best Writing. In the wake of that, Gamasutra was able to sit down with Emil Pagliarulo, lead designer and writer of Fallout 3.

Pagliarulo, who worked at Looking Glass Studios and Ion Storm Austin before moving to Bethesda -- where he has worked on the Elder Scrolls games prior to Fallout. As he explains in the interview, his PC roots run deep -- and that appreciation for the classic tenets of computer RPG design has served as a guiding light for development at Bethesda.

Fallout 3's evocative post-apocalyptic wasteland and nonlinear gameplay has captured the minds of gamers, and here, Pagliarulo discusses the design decisions that lead to the game's choices, as well as the processes that the team has solidified since moving into the DLC portion of the game's life cycle.

You just won best game and best writing at the Game Developers Choice Awards.

Emil Pagliarulo: Yeah! We did. The shock that people saw was legitimate. I'm actually really shocked at the writing award. I'm shocked at all these award shows where GTA IV hasn't won. I expected them to win. I think the writing in GTA IV is awesome. For us to win over GTA IV, I can't get a bigger honor than that.

And as far as game of the year, we were coming from the DICE awards a couple of months ago, and LittleBigPlanet swept all the awards including game of the year. We were expecting that. So yeah, it was great.

On the note of recognition, I recently spoke to Jason Anderson, who was one of the original Fallout designers and is making an RPG at inXile. He said he played Fallout 3 and really liked it, but what I found particularly interesting was that what he most appreciated is how Bethesda is to an extent proving the viability of the large-scale single-player Western RPG. It's not the most ubiquitous genre.

EP: Yeah, I couldn't be happier that he feels that way. We certainly do. The talk these days is that if it's not massively multiplayer, it's at least multiplayer. Some people have been really saying that single-player is dead. For us, winning that award, I hope it sends a message that's, "Guess what? Single-player isn't dead."

Obviously, we're doing something that people want and they like. I'm really psyched he said that. I totally agree. I'm glad we get to do what we get to do.

A number of facets of Bethesda games are not particularly in vogue in a broad design sense -- lots of text, a relatively low proportion of scripted sequences, and so on. How do you know that stuff will work?

EP: That is true. I think about that a lot, actually. For a lot of console games in particular, it's all about level of polish. We know sometimes that our games don't have the production values of Metal Gear Solid or something.

We don't have those kinds of production values. That's just a fact. But what we do have with our games, partly because we're an older company and we've been working together for a long time, are very strong PC roots at Bethesda.

If you look at Daggerfall and Arena, those were both PC games. We're all sort of old-school PC gamers that added consoles. I think a lot of our sensibilities are based in old PC games. And I think that Fallout 3 shows that.

There are a lot of PC game sensibilities in that game. I think what that means for gamers is that there's a lot of inherent depth there. It's not just systems, it's not just graphics. It's like there's a little bit something extra.

Our goal, anyway, is to capture a little bit of that magic of PC games. I think a lot of our audience is in that same category. They see what we do and appreciate it. I think there's definitely some of that going on. There's not a lot of that on the console, so it's almost like we have that novelty quality, too. We have those niches -- the giant open game niche, and also this PC game novelty niche, too.

There is that classic PC game goal of immersing the player into a systemic environment with a high degree of agency, as opposed to the more traditional console goal of immersing the player into a carefully-constructed experience. Obviously, there are exceptions to both, and both approaches have a lot of merit, but I think there's some kind of abstract vibe that traditionally separated the two.

EP: Yeah, that's very fair, yeah. In those PC games, the pacing is controlled by the player a lot. And when you immerse the player in a world, you want them to explore it at their leisure. In Bethesda games, you're not going to find a lot of timed sequences, or a lot of linear levels where you're beating up the bad guys.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Kelly Kelleway
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It's interesting that, in a game that seemes so invested in an ethical mechanic, the idea of "moral ambiguity" would coalesce so late in the game's unfolding. When will game mechanics afford the kind of nuance and indeterminacy we experience with ethical situations on a day-to-day basis?

Steve Griffin
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You must be talking about the main quest because there's plenty of moral ambiguity available in many of the other quests. Blood Ties, Ten Penny Towers, Those, all offer choices that can be ambiguous depending upon your POV.

David Tarris
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Though the karma system seems black and white, the choices themselves are often ambiguous in nature. Still though, I think Deus Ex still reigns supreme as the champion of morally ambiguous decisions.

Kelly Kelleway
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Steve -- I should have been clearer; I was commenting on Emil's comments towards the end of the interview where he talks about the team getting a "feel for" moral ambiguity or shades of gray only towards the end of development. It is an interesting comment because I felt as you do, that there seemed to be many situations in which the choices avoided a simple binarism.

Jason Bakker
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As you develop a game you never really know how something is going to play out until it gets close enough to the final version - when you can step back from it a bit and really find out what the player is actually going to be experiencing, versus the idealized image in your mind of what you're working towards.

I have a feeling this is what Emil meant - when things were coming together near the end of development, they found out that they successfully pulled off the morally ambiguous choices that they were hoping for. They realized what works and what didn't within the context of the game and could then use that knowledge for future reference.

That's a big part of the reason that games are so sequel dependent - you only learn certain important things once the current game is finished and in the hands of the players. But now, as Bethesda are showing us, DLC can work to counteract this... we live in exciting times :)

Kelly Kelleway
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Thanks Jason -- that puts things in perspective