Interview

Fallout 3 with lead designer Emil Pagliarulo

Bethesda plans to set the world on fire...

Fallout has been one of the most respected series for design, writing and plotting ever made. Rumours of the franchise's resurrection, fuelled by no small amount of wishful thinking, have been waiting for this new instalment for a long time. Bethesda, a small bedroom coding team that have managed to shift a few copies of their 'Oblivion' game at the odd car-boot sale, have lucked into the franchise, and are remaking it as a first-person free roaming extravaganza on PS3, Xbox 360, and PC. Fellow Fallout fans, I propose we start bouncing up and down in our chairs forthwith, and commence apace we can buy beg borrow or barter for a copy. Here's a gentleman (Emil Pagliarulo, lead designer of Fallout 3) with the scoop on the stuff our post-apocalyptic dreams are made of....

The game has gone from isometric view, squad based strategy to a mix of first-person RPG. How has the spirit of a turn-based strategy game been preserved in an engine that more closely resembles Oblivion than the original Fallout? Does the presence of this new title on Xbox 360 and PS3 reflect the swing towards action rather than RPG?

You know, I think there's somewhat of a misconception concerning the original Fallout, and the type of gameplay it offered. Fallout wasn't a turn-based strategy game... it wasn't a turn-based RPG for that matter. It was real-time RPG with turn-based combat. So capturing the spirit of Fallout really has nothing to do with where you put your camera. It has nothing to do with your engine. It has everything to do with the way you approach the setting, the characters, the ironic humor, that sort of thing. Fallout 3 with lead designer Emil Pagliarulo

Now, talking about combat specifically, that's when the original Fallout switched to turn-based mode. In recognition of that - of the player's wish to think and act tactically - we have V.A.T.S., the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System. Using this system, you can pause the action and make important tactical decisions. So in this regard, it's sort of the best of both worlds: you have the excitement of a real-time game, but at the push of a button you can pause the action, take a breath, survey the situation, and then resolve combat using your character's skills.

As for a perceived swing toward action, I honestly don't think the platform has anything to do with it. Bethesda's games - even going as far back as Arena on the PC - have always had a strong action component. Oblivion is a pretty fast-paced game, by traditional RPG standards. I mean, that's one of the things that sets Bethesda's games apart all others. And there's a reason for that - those are the games we like to play. So, you know, it's only natural those are the games we prefer to make. And our previous successes have shown us that we're not alone - there are multitudes of gamers out there who enjoy more action-oriented RPGs.

The comparisons between Fallout 3 and Oblivion are easily made - will there be a similarly vast landscape to explore, stuffed full of NPC's and little incidental dungeons? Can we wander the land as carefree as a sociopathic, heavily armed cloud again? How scalable is the setting of the nuked cities.

You certainly just described the hallmark of any Bethesda RPG - a large, freeform world filled with NPCs to interact with, "dungeons" to visit (in Fallout 3, these run the gamut from old subway stations to entire ruined towns), plenty of NPCs to interact with, and the ability to be as good, bad, or morally ambiguous as you'd like. Fallout 3 with lead designer Emil Pagliarulo

Tell us more about the combat mechanic that mixes FPS and RPG. The Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System has been compared to the mechanic in Knights of the Old Republic. How does this work, and will the gameplay be able to play to both the FPS bullet monkey and the RPG stat worm?

With V.A.T.S., you can pause the game at any time, assess the situation tactically, and target opponents and their limbs, weapons, etc. You queue up moves, and when you leave V.A.T.S., you see your actions played out in a sort of cinematic third-person mode. We always wanted V.A.T.S. to feel like the evolution of the "Aimed Shot" in Fallout, and we love how far the system has come (and continues to improve) throughout the course of development.

Interestingly, what we've found playtesting the system is that V.A.T.S. sort of has this dual role: it's the skill-based targeting mode, but because of the third-person playback stuff, it's also very much a "my character is a complete badass" mode. Using your character's skills to get take out an opponent's arm is awesome; but then seeing your character unload on the guy, watching his arm explode in third-person... oh man. So the tactical and the visceral really do complement each other very nicely.

You can definitely play the game without ever going into V.A.T.S., and if you do, the combat is pretty similar to other first/third-person RPGs, like Deus Ex, or stat-based action games like No One Lives Forever. It's definitely not a straight first-person shooter; your character's skills are going to determine your effectiveness in combat, even outside of V.A.T.S. Personally - and I know this sentiment is echoed by most people at the Bethesda offices - I can't get enough of V.A.T.S. I love the non-pressured feel, the playback stuff, everything. Fallout 3 with lead designer Emil Pagliarulo

Player's actions will result in a change in their Karma, which will define how NPC's react to you. This has been pretty clumsily implemented in some titles - how is Fallout 3 enlightened?

For us, it's a matter of making sure all different karma paths are meaningful and viable. Being good, being evil, being somewhere in the middle - all of those offer unique positives and negatives. The fact that we're fully supporting that gray middle ground is really important to us. Fallout is not back and white, and the decisions you make aren't always black or white. You can be the sinner or the saint, sure, but we're also allowing you to be something in between, which I think is rare in the RPG genre. It's one of the things that defined the original Fallout, and we aim to uphold that tradition.

Fallout wouldn't be the same without stomping around the cursed earth with a posse under your command. What is the system for henchmen? How many of the cannon fodder will we have in our thrall, and how useful are they?

There's been some misinformation concerning this issue, even after E3, so allow me to clear the air. Like the original Fallout, Fallout 3 is not a party-based game. You control your own character. It's about you finding Dad, and discovering what's going on in the Wasteland. That said, like the other games you can have some help along the way. You can recruit different NPCs, depending on you karma. You can give them some instructions and orders, determine their combat equipment, that sort of thing, and then they act autonomously. It's like it worked in the original Fallout, and the NPCs are similar to NPCs in Oblivion, although we've expanded on that system pretty significantly for Fallout 3. Fallout 3 with lead designer Emil Pagliarulo

In keeping with the radiated and mutated 1950's Americana theme from the previous titles there is even a radio station with over 20 period tracks to play. What tunes are included, are these really that good in a gunfight, and tell us more of the radio-messages feature.

Right now we're not talking about the licensed music, beyond those we played in our demo - Tex Beneke's "A Wonderful Guy," Bob Crosby's "Happy Times," and of course the Ink Spots' "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire." I have to say, honestly, that listening to these songs in a gunfight is all kinds of awesome. Because, really, that's the essence of Fallout's sense of ironic, dark humor. You're in this crazy firefight with Super Mutants, bullets and laser beams are whizzing past, heads are exploding... and it's all set to the dulcet tones of someone like Tex Beneke. You really have to experience that to truly appreciate the hilarity of it all.

As for the radio feature, you can also use your Pip-Boy's radio receiver to pick up frequencies from the Wasteland. You'll get quests this way; you'll be able to listen in on some enemy transmissions, stuff like that. So it's entertaining to listen to the music, sure, but there's also some pretty compelling gameplay in there as well. Fallout 3 with lead designer Emil Pagliarulo

What kind of PC muscle will we need in order to keep up with the Xbox 360 and PS3?

We're still pretty far off from determining the PC requirements. We're pretty adamant about making sure the game runs with or without DX10, though, so players don't have to upgrade to Vista.

Ron Pearlman's voice over is reminding us that war still never changes. What hopefully is all-new is the plot. What sort of overarching plot is there?

Fallout 3 is really strongly character driven, and we really concentrate on the relationship between the player character and his/her father, voiced by Liam Neeson. Dad has raised you in Vault 101 your whole life, and then one day, he takes off. He leaves the vault. Nobody has ever done that. Why did he leave? Where did he go? So you leave the vault in search of your father. Along the way, you learn about the Capital Wasteland, the plight of its inhabitants, and Dad's connection to this "outside world." Fallout 3 with lead designer Emil Pagliarulo

Was it always the intention to go for a full 3D world or was consideration ever given to continuing the top-down tradition?

There was never any question that Fallout 3 would first/third-person, fully 3D and interactive. For the first time, we're allowing Fallout players to fully enter into the universe they love so much. It's what we do best, and we're immensely proud of that fact.

Will Dogmeat make a return?

Amazing how often this question comes up! We do love to please our fans, so who knows...

Will there be a wide variety of voice talent for Fallout 3? Oblivion suffered from a paucity of different voices so although there were numerous races and faces they all wound up sounding very similar indeed. Or will we see a repeat of the cloning accident joke from FO2?

In Oblivion, the NPC voices were defined by a character's race. Nords had the Nord voice, Khajiit had the Khajiit voice, etc. Fallout 3 uses an entirely different system, and we've got upward of thirty different voices types. So yeah, there's definitely a lot of voice variety in Fallout 3, much more so than in our previous games.

It's been a long time since the last Fallout and this will be the first appearance on a console of a proper Fallout RPG. How will the world be introduced to players who are completely new to Fallout?

From the start, Fallout 3 has been designed so that you don't need to have ever played any previous Fallout games to understand or enjoy it. If you have played the previous games, there are obviously plenty of things you'll appreciate - little nods and inside-jokes, a deeper appreciation and understanding of some of the factions in the game (like the Brotherhood of Steel), etc.. But Fallout 3 definitely stands on its own. Setting the game in Washington D.C. after the events of Fallout and Fallout 2 has really allowed us to tell our own story without treading on all the great fiction from the previous games, which were set on the West Coast.

On a related note, what sort of changes can old PC fans expect and will there be any significant differences between the PC and console versions? For example, will the PC control system take into account the existence of more than eight buttons?

All versions of the game offer completely identical gameplay. For PC players, we're planning on more robust interface options, something we feel was a bit lacking with Oblivion on the PC.

Have all the problems with the Radiant AI been sorted out to the extent that you are confident that the quantity of NPCs will not create unforeseen problems?

Depends on what problems you mean. If you're talking about NPCs becoming semi-sentient and completely screwing up the game world, then yeah, those problems we've got a pretty good handle on!

You know, using a system like Radiant AI, you really have to ask yourself, "What does it mean to have 'smart' NPCs?" And, an even more important question, "Does having super smart NPCs make for a better game?" Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes the answer is no. In Oblivion, sometimes it was fun to walk into a town and have a huge brawl going on, because the NPCs were acting of their own accord and got into some kind of no-holds-barred rumble. Other times, the player's lack of feedback in these situations could be frustrating. What's going on? Why are they fighting?

In Fallout 3, what we're really trying to do is use the Radiant AI to put NPC behavior in front of the player, onscreen, in scenarios that are easy to understand and add life to the game world. NPCs that are talking to one another realistically, Brotherhood of Steel soldiers practicing in their training ground, a burned-out Wastelander accosting his ex-girlfriend, stuff like that. It's all about making the world come alive.

What steps are being taken to ensure that players cannot exploit zoned in areas by returning to them when levelled-up and more powerful?

Well that's the key term right there, isn't it? Exploit. Video games always have been, and always will be, an imperfect medium. If a player wants to use exploits or power game, if they're bound and determined to beat the system, there's usually little you can do to stop them. Now, with that in mind, we're doing everything we can to ensure that the player's challenge level is consistent and balanced throughout the game, and we've spent a lot of time any energy re-evaluating Oblivion's creature levelling system to find just the right balance for Fallout 3.

It's a completely different team working with a different set of procedures and outlook. How hard has it been to retain the Fallout atmosphere and humour when you take that into consideration? When you factor in the change in combat system and graphical perspective it must have been a daunting prospect at the start of the project. At this stage how satisfied are you that you have managed to create something new while retaining enough of the essential Fallout elements to 'keep it real?'

On a personal level, I'm incredibly proud of how well we've been able to nail the "soul" of Fallout. It's not something we took to lightly. From the earliest days of the project, we took great pains to make sure Fallout 3 had the right tone and feel. This thinking has penetrated every single element of Fallout 3, from the sound design to the art direction to, of course, the quests and gameplay. That was the Fallout legacy we really wanted to preserve.

You know, E3 was a big vindication for us. For those who saw the game, for those who experienced firsthand where we've taken the series, it became clear that we may have put Fallout into a bionic body, but it's the same old heart beating inside.

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