SummaryLife is real, life is earnest
The Good"Fallout" is a game that will survive, not matter how many others are forgotten. It will rise like a phoenix from the ashes of mediocricy and oblivion, to tell us and to show us: yes, video games can be art.
To express it the most primitive way: a certain product is considered art either because it is exceptionally beautiful, or because it tells us something important. If it is both, then it is called great art. Games still have to grow up to this title. If at all, they rather tend to belong to the first type of art, since visual beauty is one of the things that make games so fascinating. But, there's another kind of games, a more rare one, that goes for the content. "Fallout" is such a game.
It is hard to say what is the greatest thing about "Fallout": its fantastic open-ended gameplay, its unique world, or the unforgetable atmosphere it creates. Most importantly (and most amazingly), "Fallout" always remains a game, and would be an excellent one even without its deeper meaning as art. It is not an "interactive movie" with minimum of gameplay. It is a RPG that is so complex and so finely built that any other seems too linear and too shallow afterwards. But to me, a guy whose main source of entertainment have always been books, the most important aspect of "Fallout" is its actual content.
If you think games can't be about serious things, just play "Fallout". This game is real. Once you watch its intro (which is truly the greatest intro ever), you understand this is different from the usual stuff most games try to feed us. Alone this intro can be compared to such great books as Ray Bradbury's "451 Farenheit" or the recent "Kys" by Tatyana Tolstaya. It is a classic post-apocalyptic picture of the future, a macabre, grotesque distopy. But "Fallout" doesn't use this popular theme as a gimmick to attract players. No, it quite seriously presents its own vision of how humanity will look after an atomic war. The world is split into tiny societies ruled by maniacs, insane religious teachings corrupt the hearts of desperate people, and whole community live in "vaults", having no contact with the outside world. Like any good distopy, "Fallout" is not really a story about the future - it just disguises itself as such in order to force us to look at ourselves from a distance. "Fallout" is about us. Just like the books of Bradbury or Tolstaya, it contains a warning, but presents it in a popular and attractive form of a science-fiction story.
The atmosphere "Fallout" creates can be a subject of a whole review, so I'll just mention the main point here: in no place does "Fallout" use cheap means in order to impress. The entire atmosphere of "Fallout" is created by great attention to graphical detail with an addition of a fantastic soundtrack. There was no point in having music in "Fallout", at least not what most people consider as music. But a composition of sound effects and noises can also become music - another kind of music, the one we hear in "Fallout".
One more word about the game's intro: it is one of the most touching and profound ones ever to be seen on a computer screen. And yet, it is so simple. Many, many game designers should learn from Fallout team how to create a great effect without necessarily forcing the customer to spend all his money on a brand-new 3D accelerator card.
Now to the actual game behind this work of art. Even if it had a most unoriginal setting and lacked creativity in its other areas, "Fallout" would still work as a game. First of all, it was the game that started the RPG Renaissance in the late nineties, which brought as such masterpieces as Baldur's Gate series and Planescape: Torment. But it did much more that that. In fact, it re-defined the genre by showing how a RPG can be free and non-linear and closely follow a story at the same time. Of course, it couldn't have such complexity of story as in Final Fantasy or in other console-style RPGs, simply because it would be forced to reduce its open-ended gameplay in this case. But I never had a feeling I was lost in "Fallout". I always new where I had to go and what to do in order to progress the story, and I could decide at any time whether I wanted to do so or to dedicate my time to side-quests or plain wandering and exploring.
"Fallout" is true to the real spirit of RPGs. Those three letters stand for "role-playing game", but it seems those words have long lost their original meaning. Role-playing is not about killing monsters and becoming stronger because of that. Role-playing is, as the name implies, about playing a role. What does that mean? It means that you take decisions, and form your behavior according to your own views, or at least according to what you have in mind at that particular moment. In any case, it is you who must decide. Should I kill that guy or spare his life? Should I listen to this woman or to the man who accuses her? Should I be nice or should I shout at people? This is what real role-playing is about: you decide, and you bear the consequences. "Fallout" lets you decide everywhere, in any situation. You can kill every person you see in the game. You can complete the entire game without killing a single creature. I repeat: a single creature. At any time, you can decide whether to be a saint, a normal good guy, a totally indifferent person, a thief, or a murderer. This is role-playing.
Same applies to character development. It's not really about getting the masamune sword or the genji armor. It's not about having 9999 HP at level 99, be protected against status changes, and have all spells mastered. It's about making your character to what you want them to be. Feel like bullying people and solve problems with brute force? Fine, then create a physically strong idiot and hope no enemy will be too tough for him. More inclined towards diplomacy? Make your character a cunning fellow who can talk his way out of every situation, but don't cry if he gets beaten by sewer rats. Want to make a skillful doctor? Invest points in the appropriate skill, and see your characters heal himself efficiently whenever necessary. Want to hack into computer systems and understand how to inhale life into complex machinery? Improving science skill will do the trick. This is, once again, what true role-playing should look like. The skill-based system of "Fallout" captures perfectly the spirit of such role-playing, and is the most exciting and addictive system I can imagine for such games. You can enjoy it also in the sequel and in Arcanum, a RPG from Fallout school.
The BadThe only thing that slightly bothered me in "Fallout" was the lack of genuine personalities among my party members. They usually don't say much, and you don't really feel whether they are with you or not. They also weren't very smart. I ended up in fighting alone, because they disturbed me more than they helped.
The Bottom LineSome games let you wander around aimlessly in an open-ended world. Some deliver an excellent story. Others immerse you with an original setting. Few games bother to turn to serious matters and to actually tell you something. "Fallout" does everything of the above. A game to put on a pedestal and to teach in schools for game-makers.