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Washington's Role in Fallout 3 -- Radioactive

Washington Post editors

Todd Howard, executive producer at Rockville-based Bethesda Softworks, spoke to us last week about the video game studio's latest release, Fallout 3.

For gamers, the new Fallout game -- which is a revival of a computer game franchise that was originally popular a decade ago -- is one of the most anticipated new titles of the year.

Like the previous Fallout games, Fallout 3 is set in a retro-futuristic version of the world that has been turned mostly to rubble by a nuclear war with China. The original Fallout games were set on the other side of the United States, on the West coast and in the American Southwest. But when Bethesda bought the rights to revive the game franchise a few years ago, the studio decided to put its own twist on the series by setting it close to home, in the Washington area.

In the new game, players take on the role of a young person who has spent his (or her) entire life growing up in Vault 101, just outside Washington. Mom's out of the picture, unfortunately, but dear old Dad is always around -- until one day, he leaves in a hurry without any explanation. The Fallout 3 storyline follows our protagonist as they venture into the outside world for the first time to try and solve the mystery of what happened.

For game fans who live in the Washington area, the terrain will feel a little familiar. Howard talked to us about using the city and its environs as the setting for the new game's world.

Towards the end of the conversation, Howard refers to a Metro Center ad campaign for the game, which I blogged about here

Q: How did you choose Washington, DC as the setting for Fallout 3?

Howard: Obviously, we're from D.C., so that immediately jumps to your mind: "Maybe we should do the game here." The previous games were on the West coast and part of it was to tell our own story and separate the game and make it its own thing from the previous games.

I think there's this interesting idea with a post-apocalyptic world: Who's in control? What's the government like? And so, just the immediate visual of the Capitol and the Washington Monument and things like that, they tell a story immediately. The imagery is really evocative, these American icons, these big, epic structures kind of destroyed. It has the feeling of, what would you do? How did it get that way and what would you do in that world?

It came up over and over when we talked about locations that [Washington] hadn't been done a lot in games and, who better to do it than us, with the way we put our games together and being from here. We go down to the Mall often, we go to DC often, it just became perfect source material.

Q: How close did you try and stick to the real-world map?

Howard: Not that close.

When it comes to really high-level geography, we did that, but the timeline in Fallout splits after World War 2. We did a lot of studying of D.C. and the history of D.C. and how it was built. We wanted to do the big things [like] the Mall and we did Dupont Circle and various other sections of the city in the flavor they are. Georgetown, the Key Bridge, the Pentagon -- but the Pentagon is now this big fortress that the Brotherhood of Steel lives in, they're kind of like the knights of this world.

The problem is, when you get into a game, when you're actually playing and walking around, the scale doesn't work. It doesn't feel right. So we would go down [to Washington] and walk around and see how it felt and translate that to an appropriate scale in the game. So it has a similar feeling but it's dramatically compressed in some places, and some places are opened up a bit.

Q: So you guys, your team, would go down and time how long it took to walk from point A to B in the real world?

Howard: We never timed it. You don't want the real numbers. Some of us would just go there and hang out. How does it feel? How does the space between there and there feel in the game? And then take some pictures and look at other reference things that people had taken.

A number of us got in trouble taking pictures. [Laugh.] Evidently you're not supposed to get really close to buildings and take pictures of them.

Q: What buildings?

Howard: One of our guys got thrown out from around the Capitol. I think that was just a misunderstanding. I think you need a permit, which we didn't have.

Q: Were there any advantages or disadvantages to using D.C. as the backdrop for a game?

Howard: I think there were a lot of advantages to using D.C. We used the Metro System as a great connectivity piece and a scary dungeon. The Metro by itself, the architecture of it -- the big curved halls have this retro feel to them automatically.

The other thing is, you have this nice mix, in D.C., of neoclassical architecture that we could mix with 1950s stuff that we assume they would've built, that would've been even bigger in the Fallout world.

It really helped, because it really has its own unique flavor that we could mix with this sci-fi stuff. So, you have the Jefferson Memorial but it's been turned into this giant industrial site with pipes coming out of it. So it's, really, really cool imagery.

Q: For people who aren't familiar with the previous Fallout games, what's with that 50s retro look?

Howard: The world of Fallout, the world that got blown up, was this retro-futuristic world. It's like if you take the 1950s and what they thought the future was going to be, with laser guns, this "world of tomorrow" with nuclear-powered cars and robot butlers, but they still sit on these very 1950s style sofas watching Leave it to Beaver-style shows and things like that.

We got very interested, in designing the game, in what was the world that existed before it was destroyed.

Q: So you had to build a world first, then destroy it?

Howard: On paper, we definitely had to do it twice, yeah. We did a lot of studies on what it would've looked like. What would a neighborhood look like? How would they mow their lawns and clean their streets? You have this crazy car with a nuclear engine that's probably unsafe. There's dad smoking his pipe.

We looked at a lot of 1950s advertisements, there's some great books on that stuff and they're really unintentionally hilarious.

Q: What sort of audience are you trying to reach with Fallout 3?

Howard: Ourselves? [Laughs] I think, it's people who are really into video games. We cut a pretty wide arc among people who are gaming fans.

It's got a lot of depth to it, it's fairly easy to pick up and play, if you play video games. But I think people who don't play a lot of our stuff, or things like this, are very shocked at how much you can do in the game and how much depth there is and how big it is. There are very few barriers, compared to other video games.

Q: Do you think a casual audience picking up your game might be intimidated by the number of decisions you have to make?

Howard: Potentially at first, yeah. Yeah, I think they would. At first, people want to be told, well how do I win? And so there's this moment of, well, it's really up to you,
Some people just want to know how to win, but I think the game does a pretty good job of teaching itself. But there is definitely a hump to get over... they need someone to push them and say, you should try this out.

Q: You've sometimes talked about how you'd like people to see games not just as toys but as a new medium of entertainment. Can you talk about where you think status of games are right now in popular culture?

Howard: It's getting better, but it's still not close to where I think it needs to be for 2008, honestly.

I think the Metro Center ads we've done are a good example, I think people look at them. First, they're like, 'Whoa! What is this? Why are these [Washington landmarks] destroyed?' Then they immediately assume this is a television show or a movie. The ads don't jump out and say this is a videogame, so people find that out a bit later. I think that's good, that's how we try to approach everything.

I think [video games are] getting good in the fidelity of the visuals. Most Joe Public looks at the visuals of an Atari 2600 and it's very toy-like, blinking dots... but when they see a game now, OK now maybe they're more interested, because it doesn't look like a kid's plaything, it looks like the sort entertainment like they're used to looking at.

Then they have to get used to the controller in their hand, and I think that's where the barrier-intimidation factor is.

But I definitely think it's getting... better. I don't have a "here's what's need to happen."

Q: Some analysts have put it out that they think video games are recession proof or recession resistant? Any thoughts?

Howard: I don't have inside information or anything like that about it.

If someone's going to Best Buy last Christmas they might be splurging for an HDTV, where this year ... maybe their big present will be a video game, so they'll trade down to the $50-$60 things as opposed to the thousand dollar things

I think there's some truth to that. I was reading an article about the Great Depression how well movies did, people were going to theaters as a relatively cheap way of having some fun. And I think, particularly with the games we do, there's so much value, so much time you can get out of your money there.

And we have a lot of hype as a top-tier game. I think the top ten games will get their percentage of the money pretty well, I don't know about the games below that. I don't know if people will be buying multiple games this year.

Q: I have to say that playing a bombed-out, depressed, bleak version of D.C. has felt strangely topical for me...

Howard: Yeah, and it's coming out the week before an election!
Like, you'd think we would've planned this four years ago, but no, we really didn't. It was like, oh! When it came time to [plan] the Metro ads, that kind of came up.

[Howard mimics an office conversation]

'You know we're doing this we're doing this in October 2008, right?'
'Yeah, so?'
'Before the election...?'
'Oh! Oh yeah. Huh. Wonder how that will go over...'

Q: How did the Metro Center ads go over?

Howard: [Laughs] Well, people definitely stop.

Previous Bethesda Softworks coverage:

Fallout 3 Hits Metro Center

Bethesda Softworks Parent Goes Global

ZeniMax Goes Virtual With New Game Studio

An Inside Play To Sway Video Gamers

Bethesda Softworks Hires Liam Neeson for Upcoming Game

Oblivion Game Rating Changed To Mature

To Oblivion and Beyond

Out of the Dark and Into the Spotlight
From Basement Operation in Rockville, Video Game Maker Finds Its Way to Fame

By Mike Musgrove  |  October 26, 2008; 6:00 AM ET  | Category:  Mike Musgrove
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