Say you’re hired by a gang boss to assassinate an important man. You’ve done something like this before in many games. Most of these scenarios take place in a level where you’ll have to bypass security and kill some guards. In some games, you might have the option to take a stealth route. A select few might offer a creative solution, maybe involving a non-lethal option. The vast majority of games will just put a gun in your hand and all you’ll have to do is point and pull the trigger. Fallout 2 gave you several options. One of them was that you could plant a timed explosive charge on a boy, the important man’s son, and ask him to tell his father you were there to meet him. The boy ran inside where his father was and both died in the explosion.
The brutality itself may seem trivial today after twenty years of carnage in games, but this cold-blooded ingenuity is probably unique to Fallout 2. There are other examples of it, and the Nukapedia is dedicated to cataloging these and other details. It’s not the only reason why both Fallout and Fallout 2 stand the test of time, but any fan could go on and on about why these clunky games are great; better than many games released today. We wanted to celebrate its legacy of two decades not only with our own thoughts, but also through the memories of its developers. We reached out to Designers Chris Avellone, John Deiley, Colin McComb, and co-Lead Producer Eric DeMilt, and they shared their memories and insight.
Slacking and Crunching at Black Isle Studios
Sequels are expected to be bigger and better. As Lead Designer and Producer Feargus Urquhart mentioned years later, Fallout hadn’t even come out when Black Isle Studios set to work on the sequel, but this was a business decision rather than foresight on how special and unique the IP was. “Management didn’t think Fallout would do well,” says Chris Avellone, “they thought it would do 'okay,' it was considered a B-product by marketing vs. say, an A-product like Baldur’s Gate, or a C-product like Planescape: Torment, so it was more a business decision – but here’s the kicker – even if the game didn’t sell all that well, the sequel could be a different story.”
The sequel was a "no-brainer," says Avellone. Fallout’s engine and toolset were ready, with a ton of art assets fresh from the oven. The team was familiar with the engine and the toolset, which in theory made for better production planning. So it was “a developer’s (and publisher’s) wet dream because it removes a lot of the X factor in game development, which is schedules, timing, programming issues, etc. This assumes, of course, the engine works, the toolset works, and you’ve tracked the time it took to build assets for the first game (no one really had, and the engine and toolset was a delicate beast, but it was stable enough).”
John Deiley, who says he wasn’t aware that the development of the sequel started before the release of Fallout, is very candid about the poor time management at Black Isle Studios. “You have to realize the mentality of the game designers, artists, and programmers that were working back then. We had, let’s say, a 5-year schedule to produce a game. That’s a long time. Most people, not all but a good portion of them, would slack off for the first 3 years. Suddenly, when it was nearing deadlines, everyone would finally get busy and try to rush the game out. I saw this a lot at Black Isle.”
This is also confirmed by Chris Avellone: “I remember getting angry at people who wanted to cut off the late night (and sometimes, afternoon) work hours by playing co-op games (especially Shogo, the bane of anyone actually staying late and crunching, to you know, work, and hearing “anyone up for Shogo?” which drove me insane). I remember T-Ray (Tramell Isaac, one of the senior artists) giving the team an impromptu lecture about putting their noses to the grindstone because we had to get the game out.”
Camaraderie in the Post-Apocalypse
Chris Avellone was juggling the design of both Fallout 2 and Planescape: Torment at the time, and “there wasn’t a great management structure in place to help support developers putting in the long hours… even our producers seemed to want to put in their 40 and go home, even though doing so would put other people in the company at risk of layoffs if the game didn’t ship on time… it was amazing how many people (not all), simply couldn’t be bothered because they felt their job would be secure no matter what happened to anyone else.”
Even though it seems like it was every man for himself both at Black Isle Studios and Fallout’s ruthless universe, there was still a sense of camaraderie among developers. “I remember Gary Platner (now at Blizzard) making beautiful art,” says Chris Avellone. “He still makes beautiful art. Now he does it for Blizzard, and he seems very happy.” Colin McComb, who was responsible for the Broken Hills and San Francisco areas as well as the super mutant Marcus, says that “the best part was working with Dan Spitzley on Broken Hills situations. He kicked in a ton of great (and hilarious) ideas.”
Eric DeMilt also has fond memories of how Fallout evolved from this camaraderie and this sense of fun and discovery. “I don't think Interplay had the idea that Fallout would become what it has become... I think all of us were super stoked on it. It's like my favorite game of all time by far. Tim [Cain] and I are friends, I spent a long time in his office, just talking with him, watching that game evolve, playing it from time to time, though I wasn't actually on the team. But there was nothing strategic, like, we're gonna do Fallout 1, and then Fallout 2, and then move on to the PlayStation 2... There was nothing like that. It was more like hey, here's a bunch of guys who are super nerdy about this thing...”
Intelligent Deathclaws Dream of World Peace
All of this carried into Fallout 2, but the developers now agree that it lacked a strong direction. This caused a good deal of creative differences that changed the world of Fallout in substantial ways. One of these was John Deiley’s personal creation: the intelligent Deathclaws. “I wanted so much for them,” he says, “and I was looking forward to having them evolve into a playable race in Fallout 3. [...] They would eventually contact the vault survivors and try to make peace with them, offer their services as ‘protectors’ from the creatures of the wastes and organizations such as the Enclave and the Brotherhood of Steel.”
Chris Avellone says he could “write a treatise” on why he thinks making Deathclaws peaceful and friendly was a fundamentally bad idea. “IMO, if you want to build a strong franchise, you focus on the elements that make it work, and regulate all the “wouldn’t it be interesting if…” ideas that don’t fit to Special Encounters. I’ve always hated aliens in Fallout, for example, and as I’ve often told Tim Cain, I was pretty fucking pissed off he thought including ghosts in Fallout was a good idea. It’s like you’re opening the goddamn door to the spirit world in a post-apoc game, and that’s a whole separate aesthetic detour in a franchise that’s already been placed in danger of losing its direction by being given to a bunch of newbs.”
Eric DeMilt wasn’t involved in that discussion since the intelligent Deathclaws appeared in the second half of the game, which was out of his jurisdiction. His opinion is more ambiguous about the whole matter of creative differences: “Everybody was like, ‘how do I take this to the next level?’ In the sequel we didn't have the same vision of what Fallout would be. [...] Tim [Cain] and Jason [Anderson] had a vision for Fallout. Should there be talking Deathclaws, yes or no? Like that was an easy binary choice for them? [...] Short answer? I don’t know.”
A Process for Deranged Design
This loss of vision and consistency in direction would turn Fallout 2 into a hodgepodge of goofy pop culture references, fourth wall bits, and narrative oddities. Years later in Fallout: New Vegas, a specific trait called Wild Wasteland was included, which echoed the noncanonical Special Encounters of the original games. This added some replay value, but it was considered something that should be set apart from the base game—something that could impair the maturity of its worldbuilding.
Fallout 2 didn’t have this separation, and the contrast between its maturity and its silliness was apparent throughout the game. That didn’t stop its mature parts from being taken to their most extreme conclusions, with some shocking bits full of gallows humor. “Bottom line, we didn’t care,” says John Deiley. “The more shocking, the better. I don’t mean to give you the idea that we were uncaring or unsympathetic assholes. That’s not the case. However, 99% of the design staff were men of questionable maturity. It’s one thing to come up with this kind of humor in the office, surrounded by your peers. It’s a completely different matter when it makes it into a game. So, what was the process for designing content like this? Don’t engage brain; don’t engage any filters; if it makes you and everyone else in the room laugh, include it; hope management doesn’t catch what you did and ask you to take it out.”
Colin McComb confirms this: “It was definitely deliberate. We were a team of young (mostly) men with a whole lot of energy and not a lot of supervision, and we wanted to be shocking. It was a great way to be noticed, but more, it was just fun as hell to propose ideas and see how far we could feasibly take them. I don’t know that there was a specific design process to it - it was more along the lines of daring. My favorite moments for these were Avellone pieces - becoming a pornstar, killing people with Jet, or using the kids in New Reno to kill their families.”
According to Chris Avellone, there was at least some method to this collective madness: “Some quests (especially in the Den and NCR) were designed for players to struggle with the fact they wouldn’t want to be associated with gaining certain negative Reputation tags – like 'Childkiller' and 'Slaver.' These negative Reps were purposely orchestrated that way to create moral dilemmas – these negative Reps became role-playing landmines for players.”
"Who are you, that do not know your history?"
From the player perspective, morality systems in RPGs are often too binary and simplistic. Usually you get to play as either a boring goody-two-shoes or an over-the-top bad guy. With Fallout 2 there was at least some attempt at breaking the mold and establishing some nuance. While you could play a Super Evil Childkiller character as well as a Savior of the Wastes, there was also some moral ambiguity in how you could solve certain quests and deal with some factions. In areas like Broken Hills, Klamath, and Vault City, there were plenty of side quests where solutions and outcomes weren’t quite so black-and-white.
This moral complexity is more evident in the final stages, when the player character meets President Dick Richardson in the Enclave Oil Rig. With lines such as “Humanity’s salvation is almost at hand and the United States of America will be the progenitor of that rebirth. [...] Once again, America will be the world's policeman,” the President seems like a peculiar composite caricature of every U.S. president. Some players may find this incredibly prescient when they revisit Fallout 2 these days. John Deiley is categorical: “Yes, it was prescient and yes, that was our intent. We should have done more, but we didn’t.”
Chris Avellone disagrees in broad terms: “It’s the same old historical story, and it’s not tied to any one nation at any one time exclusively. In short, nature never really changes, but war does change – it’s the things we fight over that don’t change much. I think that’s the idea they wanted to express with the Ron Perlman lines, and granted, “war” sounds better, it’s mostly human nature and all the things we fight over as human beings that lead to things like nuclear war.”
Colin McComb’s views are similar: “I wouldn’t describe Fallout 2 as prescient - it’s just cynical. I mean, a post-apocalyptic setting is by its nature cynical, and when you take the cynical view, you’re never surprised to see a greedy, venal cabal seize power through corrupt means. Like, A Canticle for Leibowitz seems like a hopeful tale about the resilience of humanity… until humanity destroys itself again after its rebirth. The question then turns to whether this world holds the seeds of hope, or if it will consistently turn on struggles for base survival.”
The Master vs. Frank Horrigan
The encounter with the President is soon followed by the final boss battle with Frank Horrigan. In stark contrast with the final boss of Fallout, Frank Horrigan is a brute that the player character must defeat in combat, with no other option of sabotage or persuasion. “In Fallout, once they committed to the fact you could build a Stealth or Speech character, they carried that through with the quest design… all the way to the end of the game,” Chris Avellone says. “And I will say, one of the most amazing moments I’ve had in role-playing games is getting to the end of Fallout as a Speech character and getting a chance to out-argue the bad guy in terms of why his/its master plan is flawed… and then having the bad guy AGREE with you. No game ever HAS to do that, but Fallout did.”
Eric DeMilt agrees: “Frank Horrigan was not as cool as the Master. All due respect, the end of Fallout 2 was not as cool as the end of Fallout. It just didn't fit.” Fallout had a more nuanced final showdown, and it allowed three solutions, either through Combat, Speech, or the Nuke, which involved setting a countdown for a nuke found in the Master's Cathedral. Even the Speech option wasn’t just a matter of choosing a dialogue option, though. The player had to actively connect the dots and make sure to have the right information before the final encounter. All of this was sorely lacking in Fallout 2.
In a 2002 interview, Tim Cain said: “My idea is to explore more of the world and more of the ethics of a post-nuclear world, not to make a better plasma gun.” Fallout 2 definitely had its shortcomings in that sense, as Chris Avellone confirms: “It got to the point at times where it felt like production and design at the upper levels at Black Isle were more obsessed with adding more guns with higher damage values vs. making a cohesive universe, and the game definitely suffered for it.”
It seems that Fallout developers and fans have been at war from the outset. Every sequel can be seen as a degeneration of what Fallout was supposed to be. Beyond the petty squabbles over isometric vs. first/third-person and turn-based vs. real-time, Fallout always mutated into something that deviated from its original setting, while simultaneously reinventing itself with new ideas that attempted to revitalize it. Some of those ideas hit the target, and others not so much. In its more recent incarnation, Fallout has been completely stripped of “ethics in a post-nuclear world” to become a nuke-your-opponents simulator.
There is something tragic about the history of Fallout as a franchise, and Fallout 2 was the first act of that tragedy. It surpassed Fallout in terms of more interesting and fleshed-out companions, greater quest variety, darker humor, better fast travel, but, otherwise, it is at once full of great ideas and very silly ideas. It has disturbingly mature moments, but also ridiculously immature details. It seems to contain the best and the worst of what Black Isle Studios had to offer. There are no flawless games, but some games are more flawed than others. We may remember the less flawed games more fondly, but the more flawed remind us that we’re only human. And as the super mutant Marcus says at one point, “My memories of being a human aren't as clear as they once were, but I remember pettiness, hatred, jealousy... I prefer being a mutant.”