Obsidian reflects on Fallout: New Vegas

GDC Online 2010: Obsidian Entertainment writers reveal the months of preparation required before any one of the game's 60,000 lines of dialogue could be put to paper.


Who was there: Obsidian Entertainment's storytellers came out in force, as Fallout: New Vegas lead creative designer and lead writer John Gonzalez delivered the main presentation and senior designer Eric Fenstermaker and game designer Travis Stout assisted with the question-and-answer session.

Obsidian's writers found
Obsidian's writers found "much cooler" inspiration from real life than from postapocalyptic fiction.

What they talked about: Gonzalez started by recounting February 12, 2009, the day Obsidian CEO Feargus Urquhart told him he would be the creative lead on the next Fallout, a revelation that had him thinking, "Holy ****" in both the excited and terrified ways. Obsidian's origin (it sprang from original Fallout developer Black Isle Studios) had been one of Gonzalez's big reasons for trying to get a job at the company, and he compared getting Fallout: New Vegas to God throwing down the Bible and telling him to write a new chapter.

The first question Gonzalez had was where to start. He started by playing through the first two Fallout games and diving back into Fallout 3 with a game guide to familiarize himself with all the side quests. Then it was time to research filmic inspirations from both the postapocalyptic and Las Vegas parts, from Six-String Samurai to Casino.

There was a list of required reading as well, including books like Cormac McCarthy's The Road. However, Gonzalez said it was the nonfiction books he read that provided the best inspiration. Books like The Green Felt Jungle and the Time/Life series on the Old West provided Gonzalez with ideas about the enduring traits that needed to be reflected in New Vegas. Just as the original Fallout games played with a futuristic retro world of 1950s America, so too does New Vegas play with the Las Vegas of the same era. Gonzalez said that he spent roughly four months heavily researching but that it was an ongoing effort throughout production.

Next he looked at the key parts of the game: the city of New Vegas, the series' open-world exploration, and the reactivity of the world. The first two elements convinced Gonzalez that he would have to part with authorial control, instead just creating a world of interesting people that the player carves a unique path through. The developers also wanted to let players go about their gaming however they wanted, killing everybody or nobody as they saw fit. That made quests tricky, as they couldn't be sure gamers would let non-player characters live long enough to give them a quest. (However, there is one NPC that players can't kill, though Gonzalez said it was handled in a way that makes sense to the player within the story.)

With all the research conducted and the goals set, Gonzalez set about creating the story brief, an overview of the game's events and characters that gets heavily commented on by other members of the team. Those comments in hand, it was time to revise the story, creating pockets of side quest content, drawing out recurring themes. Gonzalez said it's best not to settle on themes too early. While some are obvious (New Vegas would doubtlessly deal with greed), others may seem right but wind up not fitting on further reflection. For example, Gonzalez said he stayed away from the theme of luck.

"New Vegas isn't about luck," Gonzalez said. "It's about having a rigged game."

Gonzalez also stressed the need to define dialogue standards and create a style guide for everything in the game, from capitalization to the use of ellipses. As an example, he brought up a slide with five different spellings of the word "Stimpak" (none of which were correct). While it's very boring to deal with at first, Gonzalez also noted that a parachute is boring when one has to pack it. But when the time calls for it, it can be a saving grace just the same.

Quote/Takeaway: "It's very difficult to survive the apocalypse, but if you prepare well and have the right equipment, I think it can be done."--Gonzalez, explaining the importance of everything that happens before a writer starts writing.

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