Fallout: The first modern role-playing game

This is a weekly column focusing on "Western" role-playing games: their stories, their histories, their mechanics, their insanity, and their inanity.

It wasn't supposed to be Fallout. After the role-playing game genre crashed in 1995, new models for the style began to appear. Smart money would have been on the wildly popular Diablo to become the trendsetter, where Fallout was an underdog from the start. At the 2012 Game Developers Conference, Fallout's lead producer, Tim Cain, described its creation: he was the only Interplay employee assigned to the game for months, it was almost canceled twice, and when it shipped Cain was told it was a "risk" despite the low level of company investment.

Despite all that, the original Fallout has become widely known as one of the greatest and most influential games of all time, and the model for the biggest RPGs of recent years. Several weeks ago I argued that Ultima was the most important game series of all time, but Ultima's influence through new games was almost gone in 1997. Fallout was its replacement; it was the first modern role-playing game.

The defining characteristic of the post-1995 western role-playing game is the attempt to let the player choose how they want to play the game. This takes two exciting forms: first, you, the player, can customize your character's mechanical development. Second, you control their behavior and moral development. Fallout was not the first game to attempt these things, but it was one of the best -- and the one which provided the model that many later games followed.

Fallout was originally developed using the GURPS format, a tabletop role-playing system which avoided the use of classes, and instead let you develop your characters based on their statistics. Fallout lost the GURPS license when the people behind it decided that the game was too violent for their tastes, which almost led to Fallout's cancellation. Instead, the team decided to build a new, different, but still classless system, which became known as SPECIAL (Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility, Luck).

More importantly, the single-character model was integrated into the game from the beginning. Fallout's "companions," as Cain described, were simply non-player characters given a script to help the main character. They weren't supposed to finish the game, either. None of them had armor which could stand up to the weaponry enemies used late in the game. It was the story of the wanderer from Vault 13, who started his or her journey alone, and ended it alone.

Because the game was a lone character's story, the choices you made in developing that character mattered more. You couldn't build a jack-of-all-trades. You had to focus on a few key stats and skills, and that meant ignoring others. When I've played, I've usually made a fast-shooting, fast-talking scientist, but there's nothing stopping you from making a stealthy, blade-wielding ninja, or, famously, from making a character who can finish the game without ever entering combat mode. But this comes at a cost. You won't see parts of the game if you don't have high lockpicking, or high speech, high luck, or badass combat skills. Making one choice eliminates others.

The game is built for this. Cain described how for every major quest, the team had three different options: combat, stealth, or speech. There was variance within these: the natural variance of different modes of combat, stealing/sneaking/mechanical skills, or barter/charm. Cain said that side quests didn't necessarily have all three, but many did, with almost all including at least two options. You could play how you wanted within that system.

This, more than any aspect of Fallout, keeps it special. Virtually every one of its successors has added stronger companion or party systems. In Knights Of The Old Republic, your character may not be able to open a locked chest or door, but because they can't you'll probably have brought Mission Vao along with you to do so. Only Deus Ex has really matched the first Fallout in terms of individual, statistical development and choice.

Happily, the reverse is true with Fallout's morality system -- its been improved upon since its release. Like the statistical development, virtually every quest in Fallout had a few different options for good guys and for bad guys. It would keep track of which you did with a karma system, so people would react better or worse to you depending on your prior behavior. One specifically violent act, killing a child, caused an automatic, permanent negative reaction for the rest of the game (including getting the "evil" ending no matter how nice you were otherwise).

This has been tweaked essentially since Fallout's release. Fallout 2 attached different reputations to its different towns, so you could be good in one place, evil in another. Planescape: Torment attached it to the old-fashioned Dungeons & Dragons Lawful/Chaotic/Neutral/Good/Evil scale. I have issues with this model being overused and overestimated, but I cannot deny that it was amazing when Fallout started it, and has proven fruitful since then.

Cain mentioned other influences that Fallout had. It was one of the first role-playing games to use famous actors for most of its voiceovers, for example. It was also one of the first to include "called shots" where you could attack specific enemy body parts. Cain also mentioned that it was an open-world, "sandbox" game. While Fallout certainly gave you freedom of movement, I don't think this was uncommon in western RPGs, though Fallout's popularity did reinforce the open-world model, and perhaps tilt the genre away from Diablo & Daggerfall's randomly generated geographies.

Most every major western role-playing game released in the past 15 years has some kind of connection to Fallout. Any modern game with a morality or reputation system, obviously, has a connection, but Fallout also helped bring more specific skills and perks into RPGs -- something which has spread through both single and multi-player games. This is what modern role-playing games have come to look like, and this can be traced to Fallout's influences.

Fallout is fairly easy to find nowadays, thanks in large part to the success of Fallout 3. It's available on Steam or Good Old Games for download, and in many budget packages in stores. One warning: Fallout is "modern" in scope and goals, but decidedly old-fashioned in terms of interface, so be prepared to research some of its quirks. And save your game often!

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.