"There was this one moment in Fallout 3, when I came across a prisoner at some raider camp," I said. "She was still tied up, but all the raiders were gone. Maybe they were dead or something, I don't know. The game gave me a choice: I could take her supplies and leave her there, or set her free."
I was sitting across from Brian Fargo in a hotel room on the Upper East Side of New York City. As I narrated this moment from Fallout 3, he reached for his laptop and pulled up a new save file for Wasteland 2, an upcoming post-apocalyptic role-playing game that he's been working on since 2012.
That's the game we were actually talking about. It's a sequel to his 1988 cult classic Wasteland. But Fargo is better known for creating Fallout, a now legendary series of RPGs and a spiritual successor to the original Wasteland. Any conversation about his work swaps back and forth between Wasteland and Fallout because of the DNA they share. He often refers to the two as siblings that were separated at birth. Now he only has custody over one of them, though.
"I thought that this was such an interesting moment," I continued. "But it was frustrating at the same time, because the game was clearly telling me that I could only do one thing if I wanted to keep being the 'good guy.'"
I made scare quotes with my hands. Fargo kept nodding to indicate he was listening. Finally, he interrupted me to say that he'd found what he was looking for. He opened the game up to what looked like a standard moment from the game: a ragtag group of four characters stood on the edges of a burnt-out looking city. Fargo inched them forward to reveal an unpleasant scene that was unfolding. Some Mad Max-style gangsters were standing over a lineup of prisoners, who were kneeling on the ground with their hands bound behind their backs.
Fargo moved the characters forward another inch for a proper view, then stopped. And waited. He didn't have to wait long.
The gang executed the prisoners, one by one. As I watched, it seemed like it was happening slowly. But maybe that was just because standing there, doing nothing, accentuated the pause between every gunshot.
Once the last of the prisoners was lying dead on the ground, the gang walked off.
"At any moment there, you could have stepped in and intervened," Fargo said to me, gesturing with his long arms towards the screen hanging above us. "You could have started a gunfight. But then you also have to consider: this is an important faction in the city. These people will remember who you are. If you get in a fight with them you'll be making some powerful enemies for the rest of your time there."
I was hesitant going into this meeting, scared to finally see what Brian Fargo's new game was like now that it's so close to release. That was the moment that sold me on Wasteland 2.
See, for certain gamers who preferred PCs to consoles in the late nineties, the first two Fallouts aren't just good role-playing games. They're the role-playing games. These two games combined everything morbid and fascinating in post-apocalyptic fiction with tense, turn-based combat and stealth. They made an entire generation of PC gamers realise that "role-playing games" didn't need to be synonymous with high fantasy and Dungeons and Dragons. They also showed how, when put in the hands of talented writers and designers, video games could tell stories that involve copious amounts of drugs and sex in a way that was compelling, even when it was still unseemly.
Other RPGs have come and gone, but nothing has been quite like the revelation that was Fallout. Fargo, meanwhile, lost control of his creation after he left Interplay, the company that actually owned the franchise, in the early 2000's. Other developers tried their hands at the series with varying degrees of success. Originalist fans like yours truly devoured these new games as fast as they could, knowing that they weren't a proper meal. Fallout: Tactics was an interesting and ultimately underrated attempt to introduce real squad-based tactical combat to the franchise in 2001. By the time the console-based action-RPG Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel came out in 2004 and broke the hearts of the approximately five people who played it, gamers had had enough: where the hell was Brian Fargo?
They never got a satisfying answer. Bethesda ultimately took charge of the series when it acquired the rights from Interplay, and rebuilt the game in a similar vein to its Elder Scrolls series. These games were good. Great, even. But for the originalists out there, a promise still remains of a Fallout 3 that never was.
Wasteland 2 is't the next Fallout, necessarily. But Fargo knows what he's up against in making a sequel to one of his lesser-known works. Gamers have been far more eager for any hint that he might be working on his next big Fallout-style act for well over a decade. His name is the first thing you see at the beginning of Fallout's iconic opening cinematic. Before these fans even knew what was in store for them, they knew that Fargo was the person to thank. His name means Fallout for many people.
"This is like running for political office," Fargo joked when I first arrived. He was referencing the Kickstarter campaign for Wasteland 2, which raised almost $US3 million from more than 61,000 supporters back in 2012. "Sixty thousand people are just saying: 'we trust you, here's the money.'" inXile Entertainment, the studio Fargo founded after leaving Interplay, ended up doubling that already hefty investment. Other game developers, meanwhile, are imploring him to "please not fuck this up."
How does he not fuck this up? Another thing that Fargo has often said about Wasteland 2 is that this is the game he's been trying to make for twenty years at this point, the only thing holding him back being the arbitrariness of the game industry's corporate interests.
"I always knew people wanted it," he told me of the game. "They wanted to play it, I wanted to make it. I just couldn't get there."
Fargo finally got there, it seems. So what comes next, now that he's finally freed himself to make the game he's always wanted to? The stakes are high for Wasteland 2.
I dove into our meeting with a question I'd been waiting to ask since I first arranged this interview, not bothering to wait for Fargo to start showing the game at hand. "How much does Wasteland 2 have in common with your Fallout games," I asked, "as opposed to the original Wasteland?"
He paused, taking his hands away from the laptop and placing them on his lap.
"It's definitely a mixture of the two," he said. "If you're a fan of Fallout 1 and 2, this scratches that itch."
I remained wary. Maybe Fargo noticed this, because a moment later he made another, much bolder promise.
"If you close your eyes, it's like you're playing Fallout 3," he said.
Not that Fallout 3. Not Bethesda's Fallout 3. The real Fallout 3. The one we've been waiting for for the past 16 years. The game that Fargo's never actually going to make so damn it, Wasteland 2 you better be the next best thing. Or maybe even something better.
This is a tall order, even for a game developer of Brian Fargo's stature. And that's why we were talking about my most random of random encounters in Bethesda's Fallout 3: because I wanted to see if he really meant it.
The longer-winded explanation of the prisoner scene from Fallout 3 that Fargo interrupted was that it summed up everything I loved and hated about Bethesda's reboot. It was a gorgeous game, and a technical feat miles beyond what Fargo and his co-developers could achieve in the nineties. You could spend hours just walking through its barren landscape, listening to the debris crackle under your feet. Its world actually felt open...until it didn't.
One of the most controversial features in Fallout 3 was the way it implemented a "karma" system, a moral code that told players whether their actions were good or bad at any given moment. Out of instinct, I usually chose to be a good guy. But when I ran into this stranded prisoner, my character was beleaguered and low on supplies. I felt tempted to do something I normally wouldn't. The game raised an interesting moral dilemma, then: what do "good" and "evil" even mean if nobody is around to judge you?
It raised the dilemma. But it didn't actually ask the question. Because once I took her supplies, my karma rating slid down a notch towards evil. Not wanting to mess up my ranking, I reloaded and made the other choice — the one the game was telling me was the "right" choice. Fallout 3 showed me its potential to provoke legitimate ethical quandaries, and then it stepped on its own toes by turning it into a simple black-and-white issue.
Fargo cut me off when I was describing all the issues at play with the prisoner in Fallout 3 because he knew where I was going. Morality systems are nothing new. Fallout 3 wasn't the first game to implement one, and it won't be the last. But the karma system was especially disappointing because it was a betrayal of the game's heritage. The original Fallouts had a karma system, but they didn't use it to create a disembodied set of morals that ranked your every action. They just had choices and consequences. Your reputation changed depending on what you did, but that was just your reputation. It was specific to different towns and relationships. If you killed one character or befriended them, that played out independently of anything in the game telling you that you'd made a solid choice. This is something Fargo is eager to bring back into the mainstream of RPGs.
Fargo: "That's what makes choices meaningful in games. When you can't just reload and try again."
After showing me the execution, he described a number of other unseemly things you could do in the portion of Wasteland 2 that's set in Arizona. Most involved killing people. Those choices stay with you in a certain sense, he explained. If you killed everybody in a particular area (which you're free to do, as long as you survive), people will start to recognise you as a mass-murdered. But as you venture outside of that specific territory, these consequences resonate less and less directly in turn.
"If you've done something evil in Arizona, how would they know about it in Nevada?" he asked. "We try to keep the game realistic in that regard."
The choices in Wasteland 2 only get more interesting from there. Fargo mentioned how the writing team for the new game made two different scripts for a character that can be added to your main party — one telling the story if he meets his father during your travels together, the other if he doesn't. And that's not even accounting for the third script: if you never even bother picking this guy up in the first place.
"We want players to think: 'Well, what if I do nothing?" Fargo explained. "If the player doesn't do the 'good' or 'bad' thing, that's still an interesting choice. At the end of the game, you're left wondering: 'what if I hadn't even picked this person up?'"
"That's what makes choices meaningful in games," he said emphatically. "When you can't just reload and try again. Because when you can undo everything constantly, you lose some of the drama from the story. Players should look back and think to themselves: 'God, I'd completely forgotten about that moment, it's been so long.'"
"You have to set it up so that the player blames themselves," he concluded.
Speaking to Fargo gave me the impression that there are a number of different trends in modern RPGs that he's actively working against in Wasteland 2. He's tired of games that encourage players to keep trying and retrying a given level just to make sure they got everything "right." He's tired of the notion that there's a "right" way to do things in the first place. And he seems especially fed up with self-described "sandbox" games that only end up offering a narrow range of options.
"When players think of sandbox games today, they think of something like Grand Theft Auto of Skyrim," he said. "But there are different kinds of sandboxes. What we're trying to create here is a narrative sandbox."
Part of how they're trying to achieve this is with the script — its colourful cast of characters and the familiar story about civilisation trying to rebuild itself after an apocalyptic calamity. But it also feeds into the meat of Wasteland's combat and stealth as well. One concern I had at the beginning of our conversation, for instance, had to do with the difference between playing as a single character, like you do in Fallout, and controlling an XCOM-style squad, which you do in Wasteland 2.
Fargo: What we're trying to create here is a narrative sandbox."
To my surprise, Fargo said that the single character system in the former game was actually the fluke. It was something that he and some of the other developers thought would be a fun experiment to try after making the original Wasteland, which set players up with a proper party. Fallout's model clearly stuck, but Fargo now acknowledges it had some problems. Players would spend upwards of ten hours building out a character before running into some problem they just couldn't solve.
Building out a proper squad of Desert Rangers gets around that, he reasoned. It puts less pressure on the player by given them a larger inventory from the outset. Plus, it's just more fun to be able to swap between characters specializing in stealth, charisma, and brute force — the three main ways people can get stuff done in the game — than having to settle on one for an entire 80-hour game.
To illustrate this point, Fargo showed me another passage from Wasteland 2. I didn't get all the context, but it involved a confrontation between your party and another faction that had a missile it was planning to launch. The scene began with a tense confrontation at site of the doomsday device. When you approach the faction's leader, he presents you with two choices: either let them arrest you, or they will kill you.
"There's a five minute, a one-hour, and a two-hour way to complete this mission," Fargo said. "If you choose death, you've signed up for a two-hour slugfest."
He chose death. As we continued talking, he guided the members of his party around the rusted-out landscape, placing them behind cover and shooting at the bad guys. Watching the gory scene unfold on the screen above us, I realised something else that had always bugged me about the first Fallout. The game gave you many opportunities to play as a character who got by on his wits alone. By boosting your intelligence and charisma stats, you could talk your way out of almost every situation.
Almost every situation. That was the annoying part. Because no matter what you did in the game, at some point guns were going to be drawn. And it was very, very hard to make it out in one piece if you'd only invested in your diplomatic skills up to that point.
Fargo freely admitted that Wasteland 2 is just as chaotic and violent as Fallout. But going back to his sandbox speech, he argued that outfitting players with a proper crew of raiders in the new game meant you wouldn't get stuck the same way. But that still didn't mean everything in Wasteland 2 is immediately available to players.
"There's a tremendous amount of content you're not going to see," Fargo said. He had just reloaded to the beginning of the doomsday mission to show me what would happen if he'd agreed to imprisonment. His small squad was sitting in a dank hallway, somewhere deep below the missile silo. Pretty soon, their guns were blazing again. But he assured me you could also sneak your way out of this situation.
"We want to push all the way down the rabbit hole," Fargo said. "I want players to really go there." That's what I remember loving about the original Fallout series — the feeling of picking up on a single thread and seeing how long I could tug on it.