For years, No Mutants Allowed, a news site and message board, hung in a happy obscurity. It's the largest Fallout fansite on the internet and was founded back in the late '90s under the shadow of the first two games in the franchise.
It's difficult to remember now, but the late 90s' Fallout 1 and Fallout 2 established themselves as some of the best games in the history of isometric computer role-playing. However, in 2004, Interplay closed Black Isle Studios and focused on profoundly forgettable spin-offs like Brotherhood of Steel. The No Mutants Allowed community were united in sorrow but never abandoned their love for the once short-lived Fallout universe.
About a decade ago, Bethesda purchased the licence, and the hype-cycle for Fallout 3 started to churn. The 2008 game got stellar reviews and sold millions of copies. Seven years later, Fallout is one of the most recognisable franchises in gaming. A 2010 sequel followed, and then came last month's massive announcement of the upcoming Fallout 4. At this point, it's hard to imagine anything being a bigger release this year. That little isometric CRPG has finally taken the world.
But No Mutants Allowed will not give up the ghost.
The oldest fansite in Fallout history, a community that loves the Fallout universe more than anything else in the world, has thoroughly rejected Bethesda's take on the fiction.
One NMA user writing under the name Mobucks just listed out some of the supposed sins of the Bethesda take on Fallout: "The 200 year old food. The abandoned, wood-framed, blown-in-half houses which would have rotted to dust in 50 years. The existence of wood-framed anything still standing 200 years after a nuclear assault leveled the area. [Fallout 3] is a completely grade-school level of thinking of what a post-nuclear society would be like. All flash, no substance."
And another: "[Fallout 3] made me lower my standards in gaming just so I could play through this bloody thing, and it still ended up disappointing me," wrote Autonomousoblast
"I am still not convinced that you can be empowered by a game that refuses to acknowledge your agency, to take your actions into account," wrote Naosanno. "In the end, no matter what you do, you will be prisoner of what the developers expected you to do."
Posts like this that have earned No Mutants Allowed notoriety as one of the most cantankerous communities in all of video games. They complain because they love, of course.
"The thing I noticed when I first played Fallout 1 and 2 was the developer's subjectivity," a gamer named Sean who posts on NMA as The Dopamine Cleric recently told me over the phone. "It was a game that had a sense of humour more than anything else. I wasn't exactly a CRPG nerd. Statistics were alien to me. But the art, the post-apocalyptic ideology, the '50s sci-fi pulp comic fiction ambiance, it all resonated."
Sean had been having trouble with a questline and looked for walkthroughs on the internet. He stumbled into No Mutants Allowed, and he has called it home ever since.
"It's a community dedicated to the idea of Fallout, but also any other risque avant-garde RPG of that time, like Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines," he said. "It was a different type of environment than just a standard gaming website. There's very few places on the internet where you can find a philosophical debate on how to make video games."
Sean says his favourite period in No Mutants Allowed was after Fallout 2 but before Fallout 3. During that stretch, the Fallout licence was tangled up, its future was up in the air. That all changed on June 5, 2007, when the first trailer for Fallout 3 was released.
"At the time I was giving them the benefit of the doubt," Sean said, "but there was some heated debate in the community. 'Bethesda couldn't make a game to save their life!' and so on and so forth. I held out until I saw the preliminary artwork. It was very Battlestar Galactica, and it just wasn't what Fallout was about. It was dark and grim, and I was like 'oh, now I understand how they're going to implement humour.' They're not going to try that sarcastic, subjective writer's touch that earlier Fallouts had, it was just going to be dick jokes. And dick jokes are funny! But they aren't Fallout."
He's definitely right about one thing: Fallout 3 is a much different beast from the first two Fallout games. In Bethesda's world you can slap together whatever mish-mash of stats, items, and perks together and still be able to shoot, talk, and VATS-cheese your way just fine. Black Isle comes from a pen-and-paper tradition that emphasises reality. You can't rest for an hour and get a full health regeneration. There are no autosaves. The bad guys that can one-shot you are prowling around the second you step out of the vault. There are ramifications. If you do something silly, like say, roll a character with extremely low intelligence, you'll find that all of your dialogue choices are replaced with brutish grunts. Your first quest has a 150-day time limit on it. You can kill children, if you're sadistic enough. There's a real primalness here. Fallout 3, on the other hand, is designed for the broadest palette possible.
The members of No Mutants Allowed often talk about the difference of tone between Fallout and Fallout 3 in some pretty severe ways. This is a far more nuanced issue than they make it out to be, but they still have a point. Take the drill sergeant from Fallout 2. He unleashes the greatest Full Metal Jacket impression of all time if you approach him without your power armour. Take The Master, the final boss in Fallout. He's a pink biotech horror who speaks in a friendly mid-atlantic accent punctuated with words spliced from audio files. Or what about Myron? The horny, pasty-faced adolescent drug dealer who comes on to you relentlessly if you're playing a female. Those characters are still vibrant nearly 20 years later. As much as I enjoyed Fallout 3, I can't remember a single face that populated the Capital Wasteland.
Sander is an administrator on No Mutants Allowed, and has been a member of the community for over 10 years. "Fallout 3 was a huge success, and a lot of people in video games still like that game, but I think it was only us, RPG Codex, and Duck and Cover who rejected it," he told me. "The community did turn fairly hostile towards anyone who saw that game as a valid sequel."
NMA's shredding of Fallout 3 was probably most savage in the period just after the game's release. Fans streamed into the bee's nest to defend the honour of their new favourite game. Here's colonelmustard in 2009: "I must say I've seen quite a bit of bashing against Fallout 3, and I don't mean to offend, but that's just stupid," he wrote. "I may have lower expectations because this is my first Fallout, but this game is amazing and the DLC is nothing to bitch about either."
The first four responses are:
- "Oh dear."
- "Have you played the other Fallouts at all? It's like comparing a piece of dented brass to God's skull in 24k jewel-encrusted gold, kid."
- "Here comes another one. Seriously people, try playing the originals before making yourselves look stupid over here."
- "What's the point coming here to tell us to remember our love of Fallout, when you yourself don't even know what that love is about?"
A 15-page, constantly-bumped thread titled "why is Fallout 3 so hated?" captures No Mutants Allowed at their worst and most mean-spirited. Between the complaints about minor minutia like the placement of the Brotherhood of Steel or the irrigation system in Megaton, you'll find some embarrassing all-out attacks.
"It is truly unfortunate that you can't tell the difference between the immersive and reactive universe of Fallout 1, and the nonsensical mishmash of schizophrenic vignettes that is Fallout 3. The world of Fallout 3 makes zero sense, blatantly and in your face, at every single step it works to destroy any semblance of believability or immersion," writes a very audacious user named shihonage. "It is also truly unfortunate that you can't tell the difference between decent and horrible writing when you see it. If anything, the sum total you should get from this, is that you should read more books and develop an actual feeling for language and taste in storytelling."
That's how you earn yourself a reputation.
The backlash against Bethesda became the dominant topic for years on No Mutants Allowed, and it's only springing back up with the announcement of Fallout 4. The same feuds are recreated day, after day, after day.
"It never ends," said Sander, who admits he doesn't participate in these debates anymore. "The argument is played out. But people identify with the products they choose, and that includes Fallout and Fallout 3. People feel the need to defend them because it's part of their identity. It's self-defence. I think a lot the anger comes from that place."
No Mutants Allowed is a bitter place. Even its most faithful members would admit that. But this community is rooted in a certain compassion. As the millennium turned over, top-down CRPGs like Baldur's Gate, Planescape: Torment, and yes, Fallout went extinct. There's been a revival lately, with indie studios producing spiritual successors like Divinity: Original Sin and Pillars of Eternity, but for years No Mutants Allowed watched angrily, as studios drifted toward profitable, console-based audiences.
"In it's heyday No Mutants Allowed had a real community feeling," says Sander. "The site was a place for commiseration for the games that we really liked and we just couldn't find anymore."
Maybe you're rolling your eyes at what seems like a bunch of grizzled men and women writing corrosive forum poetry about how PC gaming is ruined forever. But here's the thing. No Mutants Allowed aren't wrong. Fallout 3 is a massive departure from what that series meant in the mid-'90s. The NMA users' cynicism may be loud, but you have to remember, this is about ownership. It's a battle as old as time. The hardcores. The casuals. The blood runs deep. These people love Fallout, and they saw Fallout become something else. Yeah it's just a video game, but that helplessness is profound.
This was captured by longtime user Alec, who posted this just after Fallout 3 was released in 2008.
"Kids nowadays are developing new standards for what they think gaming should be all about," he writes. "Even though we dislike the idea, Fallout 3 will be remembered by them. As a really awesome game. And there's nothing we can do about it."
The sentiment is echoed by user Eyenixon in the same thread.
"Go look at the GameFAQs forums for a second and read some posts on various RPGs. To many people Oblivion is a standard for RPGs. It's the first major RPG release of this console generation and as such it's held in pretty high esteem by people who don't know anything about anything."
It's a losing battle, but if you listen close you can comprehend the pain. Fallout and Fallout 2 are the dying gasps of an entire generation, one where you rolled D20s for stats and drew your own maps. Maybe it's odd to miss the punishment, but that's what a wasteland is. Bethesda offers you a gift, while Black Isle gave you a world, just as savage and unfair as the real thing. How could they possibly understand?
"The Super Mutant is a great example," Sean said. "In Fallout 3 Super Mutants are just mob bad guys. It completely ruins the entire aspect of their place in the fiction. You're not supposed to meet these fuckers until late into the game when you're level 20 and have been doing some things around the wasteland. It has that escalation to it. In a Bethesda level-scaled open-world RPG, where you can just run all over the place and say 'oh look a Super Mutant,' that's kind of ruined."
(Above: Super Mutants from Fallout 3 via the Villains Wikia)
There are millions of kids who claim to be huge Fallout fans that are missing out on a foundational piece of the story. In the media, there will dozens of reviews for Fallout 4 that won't analyse its place as a follow-up of Black Isle's blood, sweat and tears. Maybe they don't have the knowledge, or maybe they just don't care. Yes it's a fact of life, yes there's nothing you can do, but amidst universal praise and GameFAQs screeds, No Mutants Allowed will forever honour what they think is right.
"Since Bethesda now owns the name, the whole purpose of [No Mutants Allowed] is to make sure that these games are preserved, and celebrated, and that people in the future know what to do and what not to do," Sean said.
I don't know if someone who was nursed on Bethesda's philosophy can sit down in front of that old top-down Fallout adventure and feel the magic. There's a chance that modern game design has permanently broken those old titles.. But No Mutants Allowed is steadfast. Decades from now the Fallout licence will have long shook off its CRPG tradition. Fallout 3 will be the origin story. Fallout 3 will be the classic. They yell, they scream, they beat down newcomers, but they need to, because no one else will. When No Mutants Allowed ends, so does Fallout 1 and Fallout 2.
"You have to understand that this community is mostly about fun and games, and when people show up they have a hard time realising that the shitstorm is a party," Sean said. "We like great storylines and dialogue and artwork and dedication. Even if it comes from one guy in his basement, the end product is what we're looking for. If you don't get it, if you don't want to listen to us about why Fallout 3 isn't the best representation of the Fallout universe and just want to say that it's the best game you've ever played, well then that's fine." He pauses. "You've become part of the joke."
Luke Winkie is a writer and former pizza maker from San Diego and living in Austin, Texas. He writes about music, video games, professional wrestling, and whatever else interests him. You can find him on Twitter @luke_winkie.