With the October 28th release of Fallout 3 less than a week away, we spoke to Todd Howard of Bethesda Game Studios about the company's latest epic RPG. Our conversation touched on the game's post-apocalyptic setting, Bethesda's approach to tackling game projects of such monumental scope, and the challenge of creating a wasteland environment that's lonely enough to have emotional impact but doesn't grow boring to players.
Paste: Let’s start by talking about the game’s retro-futuristic aesthetic. In Fallout 3, you're dealing with a grim, post-apocalyptic world but it's still saturated with this naive sort of 1950s howdy-neighbor, Leave It To Beaver peppiness.
Todd Howard: The world that was destroyed when the bombs fell was kind of the 1950s version of Tomorrowland. What did they think their future was going to be like? You know, did they have robotic butlers and nuclear-powered cars and laser guns and things like that? So when we started the game we became very interested in the world that got left behind, and so the whole thing, once it's all destroyed, this post-apocalyptic stuff, you mix in some of that sci-fi as well and it creates a really charming flavor for the whole game.
P: Games like 2K’s Bioshock have adopted a similar approach, taking an unbelievably grim setting and wallpapering its environment in cheery marketing messages.
TH: Well, we kind of need it, you know? We need the happy, cheery stuff to offset, because if it were all just destruction, it would be a big downer. So we find they work really well together for the story. You see a destroyed school and you walk in and there are bad people living there now, it's like an elementary school. There's one right outside the vault. And you're going through it and there's the poster with the "Duck and Cover" and the turtle telling you to get under the desk. And you laugh a little bit and then you're like, 'This is bad, like they were really naïve,' so that kind of works on multiple levels.
P: Your last project, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, had reams of dialogue and an epic story that kept most players engaged for over 100 hours. The scope of Fallout 3 appears to be just as immense. How do you approach a project of this magnitude without getting too overwhelmed?
TH: I'm kind of used to it because that's what we do at Bethesda Game Studios. But we try to have some common themes. We usually start with a big map of the world and discuss: who are the people there, what are the settlements, what are the factions and then what are their goals? And a lot of the individual quests and scenarios come out of that, but we usually start with designing the world, as opposed to the particular narrative thread running through that world. You know, like what's the coolest world to play in, and then we kind of go from there. So, at the end of the day, when the game is done, everything feels connected in some way as opposed to a bunch of random elements that don't really tie together.
P: Was there a fundamental question or filter that you used to determine whether or not a gameplay feature or story element belonged in Fallout 3?
TH: Art-wise, design-wise, we typically have a design aesthetic for why would they build this and how would they build it. And then when it comes to story stuff and the people, our big themes were sacrifice and survival. What are these people sacrificing to survive? How are they surviving in a unique way so that each town or settlement has their own kind of belief system? Each one has to be bent in some way, they need to be sacrificing something to survive at the level they are and we hope that the player feels the need to make similar choices in what they're going to do to survive.
P: Also, you have the quest of trying to figure out your father’s motivations for abruptly leaving the vault, which takes the narrative from a massive scale and makes it very personal.
TH: That's the hope, yeah. Because the game is so wide open, we wanted to try to do something that is personal to you and not just 'deliver this' or 'go here.' We wanted to make it, you know, a really kind of driving curiosity. Like ‘why would he leave me? Why would he do that to me?’ The player can have different emotions about that. You know, curiosity, anger or wanting to help their father, assuming there was a very good reason he left.