Playing Fallout 2 as a child probably wasn’t one of the healthiest methods of personal development.
The wastes of southern California were huge. They contained townships as distinct as the seedy, drug-addled streets of New Reno and the pristine, manicured walls of Vault City. Villages of every kind were scattered across the landscape, and no part of the dusty desert was ever too boring or too safe. Over the course of the game, it was impossible not to arrive at something horrific. Huge, armored mutants tearing a family apart with automatic bursts from three miniguns, bloodied corpses impaled on pikes along the road, groups of bandits sliced apart by radioactive scorpions.
It was also a free-form experience full of experimentation. Although the deaths were brutal and violent, the pathways to them seemed infinite and full of wonder. The stats and skills would determine the available dialog, several hidden compartments and secret items could be sussed out or told to the player elsewhere, and although there is a single end-point, the roads in that direction were numerous and malleable. Fallout 2 is a sandbox of both execution and thought, giving players opportunity to punch, kick, and shoot their way through problems, or by thinking through plans, investigating with stealth, or picking the pockets of the relevant parties for everything needed to advance.
In many towns, there were children who run in the streets playing games of their own making. Men and women would be available in bars that could teach hand-to-hand or handgun skills to willing players. Having an illicit affair with a crime boss might result in a computer system that could raise the player’s education levels, or a bullet lodging itself through the player into the bedsprings. The options a player has to explore, poke, and wonder made the Fallout series far more game-y despite its very serious subject matter, and that kind of opportunity was a very inviting way to experience the world through the lens of its designers, giving players a nice sequence of “doing this results in that happening,” which gives the same player the opportunity to experiment and learn more. When the experiment ends in errors and blood, no one actually bleeds. All it takes is one press of the load button, and the sand box is back to being a safe, unexploded experimental space once again.
Much like the children in the street, Fallout 2 is a game of its player’s devising just as much as its pre-developed narrative. The mechanics are set in stone, much like the layout of the streets and physics, but the games that were available within those limitations seem almost limitless. It’s a child’s paradise games to play, inventing random parameters and experimenting with them to see what sticks, what’s fun, and what works.
To a child’s eyes, it’s an enormous sandbox. The bodies, the blood, the death are all symbols: visual indicators that 90s technology could illustrate to show that the player’s action was a mistake, and the consequences were big and loud to illustrate the gravity of the error. In practice, the gore was just symbolic, not really personally catastrophic. Everything awful that happened was to give significant meaning to the going-on. Text descriptions would often accompany critical hits to the same effect, to give the moments a bigger sense of consequence.
However, beyond the symbols and flavor text, the sandbox was experimental. It gave its player infinite probabilities with relatively little consequence. A player could save their game, and open fire in the middle of town, and load once the inevitable backlash became too much to survive. Or they could theorize a too-crazy-to-survive plan and implement it against an onslaught of guards in a heavily fortified combat zone. When the plan works, it’s a moment of excellence, and one that informs the understanding of how just a few points of Sneak can make the difference between success and deadly failure.
To a child, Fallout 2 was a risk-light game that splashed a lot of blood, but never really hurt anyone. It was a game about not just saying the right things, but learning how to know to say the right things. That exploration and experimentation were as much a part of the games as its setting. Nuclear war, apocalyptic wasteland, and horribly monstrous concoctions of virus and radiation were just set dressing, and the real magic of the game developed from the wonderment in getting to explore within the edges of the box unsupervised. The childish glee of the Fallout universe is something that sticks beyond its years, and is still a large part of what makes the series so enduring even decades after its creation.
The only problem with the free, fun-loving sandbox is that the nuance and gravity of the goings-on are undermined by the unfiltered joviality. The fun of freedom makes attachment more difficult, and a strictly experimental, childlike adherence to playing for play’s sake rather than appreciating the world for all of its details means that some formative memories of the series will perpetually be locked in with the idea of shooting up a town just to see if it’s possible. The men and women in the town—many with quests, stories, excellent writing, and nuance—are often just one more bullet sponge to a player with more a mind for mayhem than meditation.
As a child, Fallout 2 is a wonderful game, but very probably for only about half of the right reasons.
Written for Critical Distance‘s Blogs of the Round Table under the “Childhood” theme. If this is up your alley, go give the other pieces a read. Part II can be found here.
Taylor Hidalgo is a freelance writer, editor, and internet person. When he’s not mindlessly indulging his own interest in games, he’s indulging stupid commentary on Twitter.
I wish my computer could play any games at all lol. So old!