When Obsidian CEO Feargus Urquhart told John Gonzalez in February 2009, "Okay, so you'll be the creative lead on the next Fallout," the designer appeared calm, and thanked his boss for the opportunity.
But on the inside, he was thinking "holy shit!" Gonzalez recounted during a talk at GDC Online's Game Narrative Summit on Wednesday. On one hand, he thought the responsibility was amazing. On the other hand, as a fan himself of the classic PC-derived RPG series, he wanted to hide under his desk.
"For me it was like God came down and threw the bible at me and said 'hey, write another chapter,'" he said.
There wasn't much time for hiding under his desk, though, and Gonzalez and his team began taking the steps towards formulating the story for Fallout: New Vegas, which is due out later this month.
At Obsidian, the first step was extensive research. Gonzalez played through the first two Fallout games, originally released on PC in the 1990s (he said the games still held up), and revisited Bethesda's 2008 game Fallout 3. The Obsidian team watched movies that captured the Fallout tone, like Dr. Stranglove, and also Vegas-themed films like Casino and 1960's original Ocean's 11.
Books like The Last Honest Place In America by Marc Cooper and The Green Felt Jungle by Ed Reid and Ovid Demaris also gave the team inspiration during the research process.
And even though Fallout: New Vegas is a fictional game, Gonzalez said that non-fiction books are particularly helpful when creating a new world. "You'll just uncover an incredible wealth of stories that will inspire content for the game," he said.
After the bulk of the initial research was done, it was time to create the Fallout: New Vegas world and deal with the practical issues that come up when multiple writers are working on a project. This begins with the write-up of a story brief, with extensive commentary and suggestions in the margins, and then the rewriting process.
"[Rewriting] might as well be step four, five, six, seven, eight…." said Gonzalez of the task. But it's during this step that the story for Fallout: New Vegas really began to take shape and themes began to emerge.
The writing team didn't establish themes in the game until deep into the writing process. "I think it's best not to [establish themes too] early," said Gonzalez, because writers need to familiarize themselves with the world first. Themes that that emerged within Fallout: New Vegas were greed and the idea of not luck -- which is often associated with Las Vegas – but rather that the "machine" is rigged.
"Don't have more than two or three themes at the most," Gonzalez suggested. "…Try to frame the choices that the player is given so that the player is directly participating in these things."
One other practical tip when a team of writers is working on a single project is to define dialog standards, or create essentially what writers call a style guide.
"This seems really boring," said Gonzalez." You know what also seems boring? A parachute when you're packing it. But it takes on a whole different dimension [when you need to open it]."
He demonstrated using the example of the health item used in the Fallout series, asking attendees which was the correct spelling: stim pack, stim-pack, stimpack, stim pak or stimpak.
Answers were all over the place, and Gonzalez said, "Actually it's a trick question, because it's 'Stimpak' with a capital 'S'."
And with over 60,000 lines of dialog in Fallout: New Vegas, dialog standards are particularly important. "It's not especially exciting, but it will save your ass," he said.