When the United States is busy electing a president this fall, the developers at Bethesda Softworks will be hoping that gamers are enjoying their time in a nuked Washington, D.C.
And, no, there's no connection.
I spoke with "Fallout 3" executive producer Todd Howard recently about his team's game, a sequel to the beloved top-down role-playing game PC series that is getting a first-person/third-person "Oblivion"-style treatment from Bethesda.
No political statement intended, according to Howard. The timing of the release of "Fallout 3" so close to a national election is "all a coincidence," he told me. Development of the game started in 2004 without any sense of when it would come out. For all the opportunity of staging a post-apocalyptic action role-playing game in a bombed-out Washington circa 2277, Howard maintains the game "has nothing to do with the current state of affairs."
During our half-hour interview, Howard could be more affirmative about some other stuff, though, like how the game's dog behaves, why his game will finally do justice to the nation's capital, and what his favorite perk is in the game's humorous upgrade system:
This guy in a trench coat just goes -- BAM! -- and kills somebody. And you go: 'Where did that guy come from?' It's really funny."
"I think leveling up in this game can be funny and you always get kind of cool [abilities]," Howard told me, as we discussed the franchise's Perks system. "My current favorite one -- and this was one of my favorites in the old games -- it's called Mysterious Stranger. And what that perk is is basically a mysterious person comes and helps you every once in a while. In the early games he would just pop up behind a barrel and shoot somebody. He's a guy in a trench coat and a fedora. The way we do it in this game is: you go into VATs, and you go to shoot somebody, and if you miss for some reason and you have the perk, the mysterious stranger may show up. This guy in a trench coat just goes -- BAM! -- and kills somebody. And you go: 'Where did that guy come from?' It's really funny."
I only played part of the first "Fallout," so while interviewing Howard I had to ask some scatter-shot questions to make sure I was doing justice by fans of the old games. For example, I remembered the dog, Dogmeat, and wanted to be sure he's back in this new game. "He's one of the followers," Howard said, referring to allies who can join you. He's actually really fun. He's not crazy-powerful. You use him more as a distraction tool. ... You can also go up to him and tell him, 'Hey Dogmeat, go find the ammunition' and he'll run off. Find me food, find me weapons. You need to be careful because if you do that in a dangerous area he'll run off and get killed."
Unlike the first game, the new one will require players to play a bit of their character's life in the vault before venturing out.
They've got the mysterious stranger. They've got the dog. What else was on the "Fallout" essentials checklist? A vault. The new game had to start with a vault, Howard told me. In fact, unlike the first game, the new one will require players to play a bit of their character's life in the vault before venturing out.
What wasn't essential to keep from the earlier "Fallout" games was the camera view or the setting. The top-down camera of old was replaced with a 3D view that can be controlled from first or third-person. Howard said the camera can be positioned to allow for a top-down view but is hopeful longtime fans will accept the new view. "This kind of presentation excites us more," he said of his team. "Hopefully a lot of gamers feel the same way. 'Fallout' is so cool that it deserves this kind of treatment."
The setting is new too and explores a region most video games have neglected. The previous games were on the West Coast. This one's on the East Coast, in D.C. Few games have been set in the area. Howard could only recall a racing game level and some real-time-strategy game missions that involved blowing up the White House. His game's Washington is full of ruined monuments and references to real-world D.C. museums, like the Air & Space, which manifests itself as a museum of unusual technology produced in the alternate timeline of "Fallout"'s America. "Fallout 3" has the Washington Monument, the National Archives, the Capitol, and the Lincoln Memorial. As for the White House, Howard says, "We have it, and we don't have it." How else to describe the giant irradiated crater where 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue should be?
A note about how the game plays: it can be controlled as an action game, with twitch-based wielding of pre-made weapons and ones assembled from wreckage found in the game (combine a wood-chipper and leaf-blower and you get…?). The game can also be controlled through a stat-driven combat system called VATS, which allows a time-slowed targeting of enemy body parts that keeps the gameplay somewhat tied to the dice-rolling action of the original "Fallout" titles. The VATS approach is a little more potent than free-aiming -- the developers had initially let the two be even and then tweaked it -- but VATS uses action points and needs to regenerate every few uses.
"He kind of sound like his brother but there's some remorse -- I hear that in him."
Howard dropped some other bits of info for me. I asked him about novel weapons and the obligatory tactical clichés like melee and range weapons. He mentioned that they removed one tried-and-true video game offensive technique: freezing. It didn't play very well. We talked about the game's 500-something endings and he confirmed that they are generated by the game, which assembles a quick sequence of scenes that correspond to a handful of key choices players will be forced to make along the way. We talked about music and he regaled me with examples of licensed 40s music that sounds amazing, like a sad-sounding song called "Happy Time" sung by Bing Crosby's brother Bob. Said Howard: "He kind of sound like his brother but there's some remorse -- I hear that in him." Gamers can also anticipate listening to singer Roy Brown's "Butcher Pete" which is about a serial killer but is also a euphemism for sex and is, according to Howard, "really fast, peppy song and the refrain is: He's chopping up all the women's meat."
The last thing I wanted to ask Howard about before wrapping up the interview was the name of the game's first town, Megaton. It can be blown up. It's the result of a bombing. Surely the town's name is related to all that. But if "Fallout 3" isn't secretly political, could we at least assume that the town's name is secretly a reference to the gaming message-board meme about "Megatons," which are over-hyped announcements? Nope, Howard told me.
Clearly I kept seeing things in "Fallout 3" that weren't there. But does it count that I can say that from what Howard showed me and told me, the game is looking good? It's set for release later this year on PS3, PC and Xbox 360.