Assistant Editor, News
Fall in, Fall out
Journalists are supposed to be objective, but the departure of J.E. Sawyer from Black Isle Studios got this reporter downright depressed. It wasn't just that J.E. was one of the more talented and interesting figures in the development game. (By "interesting" I mean slightly nuts, like most top-quality creative types are.) More importantly, the speed of his departure points to something going very wrong behind the scenes of "Van Buren," the official code name for Fallout 3.
Anybody who's perused the Interplay forums recently knows the studio is in trouble. Its forthcoming Dungeons & Dragons title, code-named "Jefferson," was canned earlier this year, reportedly a casualty of a legal tangle with Atari. A host of top-quality talent has fled the studio, including legendary producer Feargus Urqhart. Even worse, Black Isle's parent, Interplay, is hemorrhaging money, having lost over $20 million so far this year.
With Black Isle's bank account and staff shrinking at an alarming rate, there's more than a small chance that Fallout 3 will never make it to a PC near you. For me, that would be a personal tragedy. Although Greg Kasavin already gave it the maddest props possible in his Greatest Games piece, the first Fallout and its more expansive sequel, Fallout 2, rank alongside Knights of the Old Republic and Deus Ex as my favorite sci-fi RPGs. In other words, they're two of my top games, period.
Together, the first two Fallouts had more story than the whole Mad Max film trilogy combined. Yes, the graphics weren't the greatest, but their narratives were winding and twisting, like a novel--if that novel had multiple endings and hidden chapters. The games brimmed with thought-provoking concepts like neoprimitivism and man-machine symbiosis, and they had a cheery, antiestablishment skepticism I wish more people shared (especially nowadays). Plus, Fallout and Fallout 2 also had some of the coolest side quests in memory. How many games let you be a postapocalyptic porn star who shoots beach-ball-sized holes into opponents with the .223 pistol from Blade Runner? Not many. Certainly not Fallout Tactics, the franchise's squad-combat bastard stepchild.
When it finally ships for the Xbox and PS2, the Snowblind-engine-based Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel should make a nice action RPG cousin to the first two Fallouts, just as Dark Alliance was to the Baldur's Gate games. (Although having a ghoul as one of the three playable BOS characters seems like a serious mistake.) But there's no way it will match their dramatic depth--that task was to, er, fall to Fallout 3.
Seeing how the game may now never see the light of day, I can't help fantasizing about what might have been. So, if you'll excuse the shameless fan fiction, here are a few possible scenarios that would have been fun to see in the sequel. (Cue harp flashback music, start wobbly video dissolve.)
Fallout 3: Mojave Mob--One of the endings in Fallout 2 had the Chosen One siring an illegitimate son with a New Reno crime boss's wife. That boy went on to unify the four families in New Reno and become the capo ti tutti capi alberino-nucleare. This sequel's story picks up with the Chosen One's grandson, now a mob scion, and his quest to expand the postnuclear rackets. With a multispecies crew of thugs, he muscles into the underworlds of the Den, Redding, and now-decadent Vault City. But he comes up against some stiff competition in the form of the Mutant Mafia, a group of incredibly burly criminals led by an intelligent deathclaw named, appropriately, Spike.
Fallout 3: Radioactive Jihad--One hundred years after the end of Fallout 2, the Chosen One's tribal descents have multiplied, absorbing other isolated vault-dwelling communities. The result is a fragmented, deeply religious desert civilization much like Dune's Fremen. While powerful in numbers, the tribes lack a leader and are being picked off one community at a time by a newly resurgent, racist-dominated New California Republic. The only thing that unifies them is a prophecy--that one of their own will retrieve a "weapon of light" from a "mountain of fire." The "weapon" is a remote control for a still-functioning laser-cannon satellite (think the Sol platform in Akira) hidden in a bunker at the now volcanically active Mount Rainier base outside Seattle. Guarding the control are some rather disagreeable cyborgs. The borgs' biological components are the pickled, psychotic brains of rich software tycoons who had their heads cryogenically frozen when the bombs started dropping. For bodies, the cyborgs have lumbering power-armor exoskeletons that make the Enclave troopers look like sensitivity trainers.
Fallout 3: East Is West--Borrowing a page from Frederik Pohl's classic novel Black Star Rising, this game sees an expeditionary force from China--whose nuclear war with the United States fricasseed the planet before the first Fallout--occupying San Francisco and rebooting the president-mainframe of the Shi, which becomes their leader. Under the president-mainframe's guidance, the Chinese begin to expand eastward, installing governor-servers in every town they conquer. Forced to flee, the Chosen One's descendents travel to the Rocky Mountains. There, they encounter a variety of strange alpine communities dominated by their own cybernetic governor--a supercomputer in the former NORAD fortress in Colorado Springs, Colorado. They must convince the supercomputer to give them access to its vast arsenal of shiny new power weapons so they can reclaim their homeland.
Of course, as fun as it is to toy with a game's possibilities in your own mind, it's much more fun to actually play it. Hopefully, Fallout 3 will be more than just another RPG freak's fantasy. Games are like Coke-- there ain't nothing like the real thing.
GameSpotting: Stealth Kill
This week's GameSpotting is indisputable proof that the folks who work here are not actually human beings, but rather the results of some botched experiment where someone attempted to fuse a human with an Atari Jaguar or something.