How do we build a better Fallout 5 while recapturing the magic of the Fallout series? This is a question that Bethesda Game Studios will no doubt ask themselves as they set out to design the next installment in the franchise. My own feeling is that we need to look at the broad thematic strokes in order to best answer this question. The most important thematic strokes for a roleplaying game are naturally those concerned with the protagonist. Across the series, the protagonists of the Fallout IP have all had a few qualities in common. In the early installments from Interplay, the protagonists begin with people depending on them. Both these protagonists must save their people from an environmental threat. Along the way, this environmental threat brings them into conflict with a greater monolithic political threat and they must become world builders in order to defeat it. These two protagonists are also chosen for their tasks - they are not volunteers.
Keep in mind that the first two installments in the series were written during the Nineties: a glorious time when the bad guys wore black and plucky heroes with spunky companions rose up to oppose them, usually with a dog alongside them. Audiences were generally more enthusiastic about single handed hero stories than they are now and the protagonists of the first Fallout games reflect this. The Vault Dweller from Fallout (Feargus Urquhart, Tim Cain) must venture into the wasteland where they will find a water chip and save their vault community from thirst. As they make their way across the wasteland they eventually discover the Master and his Super Mutant Army, and must defeat them to save the wasteland. Fallout 2 (Tim Cain, Chris Avellone) gives us the Chosen One, a wasteland tribesman who must seek out some miraculous technology called the 'GECK' in order to save their people from a terrible drought. This leads the Chosen One into conflict with a shadowy government known as the Enclave and they must destroy this would-be government in order to save their tribe and the west coast.
They also share the same undies.
The next installment comes from Bethesda Game Studios and mostly cleaves to the model which Interplay first set down. Fallout 3 (Todd Howard, Emil Pagliarulo) presents a protagonist who must overcome an environmental threat and a later political threat but their genesis is different. Rather than being selected to complete some task which will benefit their community, the protagonist in Fallout 3 instead leaves so they can find someone close to them. They go on to inherit the environmental conflict from this person at the start of the second act and then must address the political threat as in previous installments. The Lone Wanderer must flee the vault that has always been home in order to find their dad. Upon finding him, they are told about Project Purity and his quest to bring clean water to the wasteland but the Enclave rears its head once more and threatens this cause. It ends in fire. This is a step away from the original model but it is one which invests the series with new gravity and Fallout 3 went on to win significant critical acclaim for the series as a result.
No other baby simulator has won so many awards.
Fallout: New Vegas (Josh Sawyer, John R. Gonzalez) and Fallout 4 (Todd Howard, Emil Pagliarulo) can be discussed in parallel because both deviate from the model of their predecessors in similar ways. The protagonists in both games do not initially set out to overcome an environmental threat in the first act. They also do not face a monolithic political threat in the final act, at least not one which is consistent across play experiences. Both protagonists instead set out on manhunts which are driven by a need for revenge. These manhunts lead them to endorse one of several factions as an ultimate force in the wasteland - mostly to the exclusion of the other available factions. What the protagonists from these two games do have in common with the first three protagonists is this: they are called to adventure by factors beyond their own control. Neither one is specifically chosen to address the issues presented in their stories but they are essentially chosen by their circumstances. They elect to pursue their antagonists but they are not exactly volunteers.
Fallout: New Vegas offers up the Courier - who survives being shot in the head and buried in the desert before setting out to find the man who shot them. Courier Six soon ends up embroiled in a political conflict between two foreign armies and a third local interest for control over Hoover Dam and must decide which of these three factions to support. Fallout 4 puts its players in the role of the Sole Survivor and attempts to deepen the emotional landscape of its protagonist by establishing them as a parent whose spouse is murdered by a man who abducts their child. The Sole Survivor eventually reconnects with their child but are then pulled into a conflict between four rival factions who each have a different vision for how the Massachusetts wasteland should be governed. Unlike the protagonists from the first three games in the series, these two protagonists are not world builders. Instead these two are kingmakers. So what should an eventual Fallout 5 do?
Warning: Joseph Campbell incoming!
Decisions like these all come down to determining which elements most heighten the drama a player is made to experience - and the first three installments in the series are the most dramatic. Each game starts with an environmental threat which positions the player as one person who must act against a force of nature which has become corrupted. It is an epic conflict which lives in our psyche as a species who carved societies from the wilderness - so everyone can relate to the awesome power nature commands. Person versus Wilderness is a theme which works in literature, in the cinema and on television, in myth. It also consistently works in video games and is a major factor in what makes Fallout work as a franchise. So we can conclude that the environment must be more than a simple hazard for the protagonist to overcome: it must be an indelible motivation which drives them forward.
The first three installments then go on to provide us with a monolithic political threat. This threat is always an enemy which is larger than any sole force the player can command and it is one which might be best identified as a ceaseless machine consuming the wasteland and its inhabitants in order to further its own goals. It is another conflict embedded in the human psyche due to our long histories as both colonizers and the colonized. We are all raised on these histories and we all understand the stakes when an empire or some other massive force rises up to consume what we understand to be right. This theme is often referred to as Person versus Machine and it is an epic conflict which can only be resolved by explosive fire. Passing through this fire and overcoming this conflict makes the player feel enormous.
I think we know which fire I chose to pass through.
But we also need to consider fun when looking at how to build a better Fallout 5 and numerous players across the franchise have unanimously identified kingmaking as something they consider fun. Identifying one faction among several and choosing to endorse its agendas and methodologies may not be an epic undertaking but it allows players to make their mark on the open world. So we include kingmaking in Fallout 5 but we do not make it the source of the conflict as was done in the two most recent installments. Instead it must be the solution to the conflict. Present the protagonist with several factions who cannot cooperate and so cannot individually address the monolithic machine which threatens the wasteland. Empower the protagonist to unite those factions under the banner they choose to support. Let this be accomplished through violence or diplomacy or some combination of the two choices. None of this presents a classic thematic conflict but it makes players feel important and that feeling makes any game more fun and fashions an experience the player will want to experience again.
All this suggests a protagonist who (1) leaves their vault to combat an environmental threat which threatens their personal community, who (2) uncovers a specifically monolithic political threat which threatens the regional community, who (3) later enables one faction among several to address that threat. We can change elements beyond these in order to make the protagonist stand out as unique when compared against the protagonists from the previous for installments: the protagonist is not selected by factors beyond their control but instead volunteers to address this environmental threat. The protagonist now has an identity which springs from what makes them unique and can be identified as the Volunteer from there on out. It also cements the protagonist as someone who would actually take on the numerous side quests and misadventures which the wasteland will inevitably present to them: volunteering is in their nature.
Applied Thematic Analysis: It Just Works.
And that is that. Some basic thematic analysis provides us with a road map for what will eventually be our narrative design. We then add our specific details to that design - the who and the what and the where and the why - and there we have our game. Of course, turning a simple structure like this into a truly compelling experience requires much more work than simply nailing down a basic schema. Writers need to craft natural dialogue that is general enough to allow players to project their identities onto the conversations but specific enough to maintain the core identity of the game. Quest designers need to compose numerous side quests that can neatly fit into any identity which the player might choose for their Volunteer and they need to do so in a way that does not feel forced. Level designers need to build compelling arenas which reinforce the identity of the game world. And a strong director needs to make sure that all of this works together at every stage of development.
We can see that producing Fallout 5 would be a herculean effort requiring many creative talents. But all this effort means nothing if the next installment is not built on a solid thematic foundation which emphasizes the most effective core elements of the franchise. Fallout is probably too significant a franchise to ever really fail. Even the haters seem to pony up their caps despite their complaints. But even a Fallout title has the potential to further alienate its intended audience if its thematic foundation is not sturdy enough. This is an unattractive prospect for a game which - more than any previous installment - must recapture the magic of the franchise if it is going to win both popular and critical acclaim. Which means Bethesda has a lot to consider when it begins producing its next installment and a lot riding on its efforts.
No pressure, though.