Greatest Video Game Openings: Fallout
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. – A Tale of Two Cities
That is my favorite opening line in literature, introducing my second favorite book by my all time favorite author. And that was an opening line to a post that used the word “favorite” three times. I’m guessing my line was much less intriguing than Dickens, which was a, erm, totally planned means of getting to the point: introductions matter.
For our inaugural Story Day post, there’s no better place to start than the beginning. The opening line of a book, scene of a movie or first few notes of a song can make or break the experience. Only the true reading junkie will keep turning the pages if the author doesn’t lay the foundation for a compelling story from the start. There are thousands of books in the world, if the story is starting off dull, why take the risk of investing your time on the off chance that it will get better?
The same can be said for video games. Especially now, when oftentimes the opening level is available for people to try before deciding to purchase the game. Personally, I’m not going to lay down $60 for a game if I give the first level a go and I don’t see an interesting story being laid out. The days are gone when a game gives us a simple “press start” title screen, only to find that pressing start merely tells us about a kidnapped princess before dropping us directly into the Mushroom Kingdom with voiceless goombas trotting slowly back and forth before us.
A game can survive a mediocre intro. I thought the opening scene of Arkham Asylum dragged too much and really slowed the pace of the first part of the game, but there was enough in there to intrigue me. (Plus, you know, Batman.) There are tons of promising games that have nearly killed the experience for me by stopping the opening scene to flash “TUTORIAL” or “HINT” across the screen. I need to be immersed in a good story from the start, or I’m going to get bored and try something else.
But a great opening scene… a great scene can take the rest of the game and multiply it. There are plenty of video games that have powerful opening scenes. Uncharted 2 begins with Nathan Drake dangling from a train car, nothing to tell you how or why he got there. Metal Gear Solid 2 has an entire opening level full of epic cinematics, callbacks to the first game and slick action before immediately twisting the story around and dropping you behind the controls of a character previously unseen in the MGS universe. I haven’t had a chance to play it yet, but based on my fellow Schmamer’s reactions I’m guessing they could do another four hours of podcast just on the opening of Bioshock Infinite.
But for my money, there is one opening scene that stands above all the others, just like Dickens’ opening line works better than all the other great literary openings. Without further adieu:
The Fallout games all contain surprisingly dense worlds, but one of the most compelling things about the game to me has always been their aesthetic that blends together dark humor, satire, faux nostalgia and a grim message. The opening cinematic of the game showcases this brilliantly and really sets the tone for what’s to come. The trailer really exists in two halves, and both pull us into the world of Fallout.
In the first half, we start out seeing some opening credits over a blank screen while we hear a vinyl record begin to crackle, starting the The Ink Spots‘ (a band featured heavily in the Fallout series) “Maybe”, which reached #2 on the U.S. charts in 1940. After a simple title screen shaking as if it were being played from a reel of film, we see a very 1950’s looking cartoon showing the game’s iconic Vault Boy. Everything seems set to show us a mock PSA explaining the vault system, but before we can settle in the scene suddenly changes to two U.S. soldiers in futuristic armor executing a Canadian citizen. This leads directly into a T-51b helmet in front of an American flag (with only 13 stars) as the viewer is encouraged to purchase war bonds. As more ads begin to play, the camera zooms out to show that we are watching this entire spot on a television that sits among the rubble of a building, backdropped by the ruins of a city.
This first half has very subtlety gives us a deep introduction to the world of Fallout. First we see a pattern that’s followed throughout the game, where we see something comical quickly turn into something violent and brutal. The citizens in the Fallout world are bombarded from all sides by pieces of nostalgia – nuka cola signs, Mr. Handy robots, early 20th century songs on the Galaxy News Network – but the truth is the world can never go back to these times. Instead, life is now full of fear and struggle as even those lucky enough to have earned a spot in the coveted vaults eventually find themselves required to venture out into a desert wasteland (ironically to look for water). Symbolically, the TV we see in the intro loses power as the camera pans out, one of the last vestiges of the antebellum world fading into just more broken junk, more destruction.
We also see how the world has fallen into chaos, before the second half spells it our more directly for us. We see that the threat of nuclear war was considered serious in America (hence the advertising of vaults). But we also see that America’s hyper-aggressive military complex was behind the march to war: annexing Canada, waging war against another country and bombarding the American people with propaganda selling war bonds to fund the effort. We also see that America has been restructured as there are only 13 stars on the flag (later the game divulges that America now consists of 13 colonies).
Then we hit the second half of the opening cinematic, which is much more direct than the first. Ron Perlman begins to regale us with a tale of what happened as the war escalated. His speech begins with a line that becomes iconic for the Fallout series:
War. War never changes. The Romans waged war to gather slaves and wealth. Spain built an empire from its lust for gold and territory. Hitler shaped a battered Germany into an economic superpower. But war never changes.
Perlman’s speech is simple exposition, explaining that the player’s family was one of the lucky few accepted into Vault 13, and a generation has passed without anyone in the vault seeing the outside world. At the end of the opening cinematic, we’re shown the door of Vault 13 – the door that we now know the player has never opened. This is the final piece of brilliance in the title sequence: we’ve been shown a rich world, full of any number of revelations of what life after a great war would be like, of what led humanity to this point, of what characters have made their home in this apocalypse – and then we’re invited to open the door. Invited to explore it.
The sequence ends with a final bit of intrigue:
Life in the Vault is about to change.