Anybody who pays attention to gaming knows that one of the biggest releases of last year was Fallout 4. The hotly anticipated fourth installment of the nuclear wasteland survival simulator came out earlier than anticipated, and it completely blew away fans and critics alike. It was no surprise to those have played the previous games: the Fallout series is one of the most popular of all time.
Yet, one has to wonder: why exactly is the series so popular? Obviously the story, theme, and gameplay is all amazing, it’s impossible to doubt that. But it’s hardly the only open-world RPG with those things, as Skyrim can attest. Still, Fallout 4 has been one of the most hotly anticipated games in years. It had one of the most present, or at least most vocal, fanbase awaiting its release of any game I’ve ever seen.
So why? What differentiates the Fallout series from other, similar game? The answer to this question isn’t as simple as the ones in my previous article and, frankly, is probably a lot more controversial. The reason we all, myself included, love the Fallout games so incredibly much comes down to two simple things. First, your story is yours. Second, the rest of the world is empty.
I know, you’re probably yelling about the second bit but give me a sec. We’ll get there, and I want to address the first bit first. That’s why I put it first. It’s a writing technique called parallelism, look it up.
Your story in the Fallout games is unequivocally yours. You start the game by either reinventing yourself. In the case of Fallout 3, you’re literally inventing yourself. From then on your story unfolds exactly as you want it to. The decisions you make represent actual, reasonable decisions a person would make in those situations. There’s even the option for you to not make a decision and just ignore it.
For example in Fallout 3 there is a small village called Andale. It is home to a few families who live a peaceful, if Spartan life. It’s quiet and out of the way, with ample access to food and water. It’s idyllic, and if you visit the village the townsfolk offer you a meal and a place to sleep. There’s almost no reason to actually come to the village unless you stumble upon it.
But staying in the village for any length of time reveals a terrible secret. The entire village is comprised of cannibals, and the old man and children in the village aren’t crazy about the idea. You can either oppose the cannibals and kill them, inform them of the old man’s attempt to gain your aid, or just leave.
And that’s it. And that’s beautiful. The short story has absolutely no impact on the main plot. It doesn’t weave itself into the main narrative, and it doesn’t force you into a sudden position of importance you didn’t want. The village doesn’t reveal itself to be a guild, with a chain of quests that result in you being the Grandmaster of the Cannibals and leave you with a group of people who care about you tremendously but whom you’ll never see again because there isn’t a reason for you to come back.
The world shapes you because of the decisions you make. You in turn shape the world, but it never makes the mistake of forcing you to have massive impact everywhere you go. Which might seem like a bad thing but really, that’s awesome.
Think about it: in Skyrim you have the opportunity to complete dozens of quests. A very large portion of them, however, involve affiliation with some group or another that results in you not only being a member of the group, but actually the leader of it. If the quest doesn’t involve joining a group, it still often leads you into a position of power and relegates you to being some quasi-chosen one.
Now I love being the chosen one as much as the next guy, but you know what the problem with being the chosen one is? You don’t get to make any choices. I mean yeah, there’s usually a binary good or evil choice thrown into the mix but that’s not really a choice most of the time. In Fallout it’s not about good or evil, though karma is always a factor. It’s about the decision itself, every one of them a beautiful spectrum of gray. It’s about how those decisions shape your character. You’re not just good or bad, you have opinions and reactions.
So onto the second of my points, the one most people are probably having a hard time swallowing. The Fallout world, believe it or not, is empty. ‘But wait,’ you say with arms outstretched, ‘what about all the things! There’s missions, and people, and places to explore. There’s tons of stuff in these games, you don’t what you’re talking about!’
Calm down there sparky. Yes, obviously the Fallout universe has tons of stuff there. Dozens of missions, tenfold that in people to talk to, and a whole bunch of places to just peak your head in. Here’s the thing, all of this stuff for you to do out in the bountiful world adds up to very few actual NPC’s, particularly few that you run into during quests.
So why is that good? It harkens back to my first point, in that it doesn’t take away from your story. Let’s keep comparing it to Skyrim for a second here. In that game, every quest you find is just some random story that doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. It is only affected by you because it drags you into it, pulling you away from the infinitely more important and time sensitive main mission. Then it puts you on a pedestal as the chosen one of some backwoods farm.
Fallout, on the other hand, has quests you find that are just some random story that doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, and that’s the point. You’re a lone wanderer, traveling around the wasteland and just trying to survive. Any interaction you have with the world isn’t because you’re a chosen one or some kind of murder-hobo-mercenary. It’s because you felt like doing something. You’re your own person, and your interactions with the world or lack thereof are your own.
But beyond that, the empty world is just more interesting. When you go to a new place you aren’t looking at yet another group of people squabbling or stealing or doing… something. You’re looking at the aftermath of dozens or hundreds of detailed stories. And then you’re piecing them together. You don’t find a silly thief locked in a closet with a broken lockpick. You find a rotted out door with a skeleton in a closet, clutching a book on lockpicking with a pack of bobby pins. There’s a story there, and that method of storytelling just feels so much cooler. It perfectly sells the lone wanderer vibe.
You know an example that sells this point even better? The Vaults. The Vaults are these dungeon-like locations scattered about the wasteland. People came to the vaults to survive the nuclear apocalypse. The thing is, a bunch of them were also social experiments. Scientists did crazy things like stick one guy with a hundred women, or give a quarter the required food ration but triple the supply of weapons. When you delve into these Vaults, the inhabitants are (usually) long dead. You’re left to wander through the abandon complex trying to put together the pieces and figure out what happened. Simply put, it is brilliant.
And that, my fearless readers, is why the Fallout games are so popular. It’s a novel setting, but it focuses on your story first and executes the other stories by letting you find them. It’s a method of storytelling that absolutely enraptures you. This universe is empty, and it is beautiful for it. In this case, less really does mean more.