Interview: Emil Pagliarulo – Lead Designer and Writer for Fallout 3

30 05 2011

Few months ago, I collaborated with the Girls of War on an interview about Fallout 3 with the game’s lead designer and writer, Emil Pagliarulo. It was an incredible opportunity to finally ask what I had in mind regarding the game’s narrative and its revolving issues. I contributed with the four final questions (9,10, 11, and 12) and opted to focus on morality, character development, real life reflection, and modding; respectively.

Special thanks go to Vivi Werneck and Rebeca Gliosci for the opportunity. If you haven’t played the game yet, be warned: spoilers ahead.

1) First I’d like you to introduce yourself to our readers. Please, talk a little about your job, since when do you work with games, the other projects you were involved and what you´re doing nowadays.

Well, my name is Emil Pagliarulo, and I’m a senior designer at Bethesda Game Studios. Currently, I’m doing a lot of design and writing work on The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I served as the lead designer and writer of Fallout 3, and before that I was a designer on The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. My first design job was with Looking Glass Studios, working on Thief 2.My job is pretty amazing, I have to admit. I find that when I tell someone what I do for a living, and they respond with, “Wow, that sounds awesome,” I usually find myself grinning like an idiot and telling them they’re right. I’ve been having a ton of fun lately on Skyrim, doing everything from writing guard dialogue, to working on quests, to coming up with the the Dragon Language (which was featured on the cover of Game Informer). It’s something new every day.

2) Talking about the gorgeous Fallout 3, what was Bethesda’s goal when it first acquired the Fallout license and how do you manage to work in a game previously developed by other studio?

Back before we had the license, we had talked about what old game franchises we might like to revive, and Fallout was at the top of that list. It was never really a matter of us wanting to make a post-apocalyptic game; we wanted to make Fallout. So when we did get the license, it was like a pipe dream come true. Then our minds started racing – Oh my God, we can make a Fallout game the way we make games. We can make an immersive, first-person Fallout experience. We’ll be able to let players live in the Fallout world. Because that’s what we feel we do with our games. We make worlds, and allow people to live in them. So knowing we were going to be able to do that with Fallout? It was an honor, plain and simple. That’s how we saw it, and screwing it up wasn’t even an option.

3) Has the original Fallout team been involved in Fallout 3?

Very early on we did get input from some of the original creators of Fallout, but it was a much more of a friendly, casual interaction. Actual development of the game was done solely by the team at Bethesda Game Studios. What you have to remember is that there are handfuls of people who could claim to be the “original Fallout team,” and they’re spread all over the place, at different game studios, if they’re even still in the industry at all. So we felt very comfortable taking on the challenge of making a new Fallout game on our own.

4) Create a sandbox and give the player unlimited options to tell the same story, making each new game experience something unique without losing the main focus, is a big challenge for a game designer. How did you had developed this concept? Did you have any references from other games?

With each new massive role-playing game we make here at Bethesda, I think we get better and better at defining the type of gameplay we specialize in. So we’ve learned a lot; we’ve tried out a lot of things, and have a lot of experience to draw upon. Ultimately, we’ve found that players love to explore our worlds. You know, we craft the game’s central story, what we refer to as the “main quest,” and we hope players get invested in that – but we know people love to just go off and get lost in the environment, and do whatever it is they’re going to do – so we fully support that. What we always do, though, is provide players with a means to get back on track. In Fallout 3, if you leave Vault 101 and take off into the Wasteland, that’s totally cool. But you’ve always got an objective in your Pip-Boy that point back toward your quest to find your father. So we allow you to explore… but we never really let you get lost. That’s the important distinction.

5) I’m a big fan and really addicted (in a good way, of course) of the Elders Scrolls and Fallout series. After 3 years playing Oblivion, and then playing Fallout 3 later, I’ve noticed many similarities in the mechanics of both. The buttons were similar, the HUD, the movement of the characters… Some people said that Fallout 3 was a kind of “post-apocalyptic Oblivion”. I’d like to know what the benefits and the greatest caution that you had to take using mechanics so much alike?

There’s an old adage about writing: “Write what you know.” That basically means your best creative endeavors are ones based upon experience and personal familiarity. The closer you are to the subject matter, the better your art will be by default. You could say the say thing about video game development, especially when you’re creating a title in a genre in which you’ve previously succeeded. With Oblivion, Bethesda really showed the world that we know how to make giant, open-world, single player RPGs. And as we developed that game we learned a lot of lessons. So it only makes sense that those lessons were applied when we made Fallout 3. We feel, at this point, that we have a good understanding of what our players not only want from the RPG genre, or from a  large open-world game, but from a Bethesda title as well.

So sure, when you play Fallout 3, a lot of things are going to feel familiar. The trick as a developer is balancing that familiarity with enough new and exciting elements that your next game feels unique, and not stale. Part of that for us, of course, is iterating on our technology so we can do all the awesome things our games are known for, but offering players plenty of new elements as well. During the Fallout 3’s development, the joke around the office was, “Is Fallout 3 Oblivion with swords? Only in the best ways.”

I would like to point out, though, that I think gamers can sometimes have a bit of a skewed memory when it comes to this kind of thing. I challenge anyone to play Oblivion, and then play Fallout 3 – there’s a sense of familiarity there, yeah, but the differences between the two are pretty staggering.

Emil Pagliarulo – Lead Designer and Writer for Fallout 36) What are biggest differences between the original Fallouts and Fallout 3 (and now Fallout New Vegas)?

When you go back and look at Fallout and Fallout 2, you’ll notice there are a lot of differences between the two, in terms of tone, fiction, and humor. Fallout tended to be very serious, whereas Fallout 2 started to veer into more comedic territory, with a lot of pop-culture references, sex jokes, that sort of thing. So when we started developing Fallout 3, we knew we wanted to emulate the darker, more serious tone of the original Fallout as closely as we could. That’s not to say we didn’t want the game to be humorous – we did. But for us, the Fallout humor is much darker. It’s finding the funny in the insane; it’s laughing because, if you don’t, you’ll cry.

Fallout: New Vegas is obviously similar to Fallout 3 simply because it’s based on our engine and systems. But, as it was developed by Obsidian Entertainment and not by Bethesda Game Studios, it’s got its own fiction and tone, and doesn’t have much to do with Fallout 3.

7) Some criticisms were made about the engine used in Fallout 3 (the same one used in Oblivion). Fans were expecting a new engine for Fallout New Vegas, but it remained the same. Why you didn’t change it in New Vegas the way it has been already done in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim?

The plan was always for Obsidian to develop their own standalone game, based on the technology and fiction of Fallout 3. The tech used in Skyrim was developed by and for Bethesda Game Studios, and was continually evolving during the course of Fallout: New Vegas’s development. So Obsidian using the Skyrim tech was never really a feasible option.

8) Is there a “limit” of how long a game can be explored in its post production, speaking of the DLCs, without harming the original storyline?

What I love about this question is that it’s one that can only be asked in relation to video games. Because in any other medium, I’d say the answer is usually a resounding “yes”… but games offer such unique experiences to their consumers, that I don’t know if this always applies.

Look, Han shot first, right? Everybody knows it, everybody loves it. So when George Lucas changed that scene in Star Wars, when he went back and basically rewrote history, he angered a lot of his fans. Wasn’t the movie “done”? Couldn’t he have left it alone? If Monet were alive today, would he want to add something to The Garden at Giverny? And if he did… would the world let him? Probably not. Because there’s a sense that non-interactive pieces of film, or art, or literature reach a point where they’re “done.” And then then become part of the public consciousness. And people generally don’t want you going back and screwing with them.

Now take video games. In Fallout 3, the game ended. You play your 30-60 hours, and you’re done. That’s it. We felt like we wanted to end the player’s story. So at the game’s finale, if you want to do the right thing, and save the purifier, the only way to do that is to sacrifice your own life in the process. We loved the emotional resonance of that. The finality. And then a funny thing happened… The game came out, people played it, and got to the end… and a great majority of them were disappointed. They wanted to keep playing. They wanted to live in the world we had given them. So we did something completely unexpected, and we actually changed the fiction of the end of the game. We gave the player a stay of execution. So if you have the Broken Steel DLC or Game of the Year Edition of the Fallout 3, it actually changed the ending: you survive, it’s two weeks later… and you get to continue living in the world. The moral of this story is that in a video game – in an interactive experience – that experience is more important than the static fiction you’ve created. Gameplay trumps story.

As long as you’re providing experiences people want, so long as you, as the creator, are happy with any changes to the fiction you’ve created, there will always be room for things like Broken Steel for Fallout 3, or Undead Nightmare for Red Dead Redemption.

9) When it comes to moral choices, Fallout relies on its traditional Karma meter. Do you think the manichanism inherent to the meter eliminated the viability of “gray moral choices” and what do you think these moral dilemmas offered to the player in terms of experience?

Great question. This is something that came up a lot during Fallout 3’s development, and something I personally agonized over.

When we first started development of Fallout 3, we were really focused on the good and the evil, and tracking that with the Karma system. You know, at that time, the good and evil thing had been done in a few games, and we figured that was the way to go – it was easy to track, easy to handle from a design perspective. But as we got deeper into development, and the quests started to get more complex and take on varying shades of gray, we realized, well, that the black and white nature of the Karma system really wasn’t working for us. So we started thinking more and more about this nebulous “neutral” area that really no other game had featured before. Before long, we found we had embraced it as a core element of the game. But that, of course, led to a lot of internal discussions, even disagreements, about how to track this type of behavior in the game, with the Karma system. Killing someone is evil, right? Well, is killing someone evil… evil? The mind boggles at the moral conundrums we were faced with. In the end, I think we struck a really good balance between all those elements, and you really can play the game as good, evil… or something in between.

10) Because Fallout 3 has a plot in which the player accompanies the main character ever since his/her birth, the game allow for better emotional engagement. The first time the character gets to see his/her father is also the player’s first time. Do you think this is important to story development in games and player motivation when trying to complete certain objectives, like having to save or sacrifice yourself for your father?

Well, first of all, thank you for “getting it,” because that was certainly one of my ultimate goals – to get the player invested in the relationship with the dad character from the very beginning. I figured the best way for that to happen was for you to actually start the game from the period of your birth, and to see your father at every step of the way.

A lot of that stuff, the genesis of it, came from conversations between myself, Bethesda studio director Todd Howard, and Marketing and PR guru Pete Hines. At the time, we were all fathers of very young boys. So we shared this bond of fathership, and were all very deeply affected by the special relationship that a father has with his children. Also at that time, completely coincidentally, Cormac McCarthy released his amazing novel The Road, which chronicled a father escorting his young son through post-apocalyptic America. Well, we all read that book, and it only strengthened those feelings.

So yeah, from the very beginning, we wanted the player to feel a really strong connection to his or her father. To feel betrayed when he left the vault, and sad when he died. I thought this type of dynamic also worked incredibly well in Heavy Rain… and I was glad we got to map out some of that territory first.

11) “War Never Changes” is perhaps the most famous Fallout quote. How do you think this concept is intertwined with the game’s main/side quests and how do these quests help the player reflect or ponder about the aspects of real life war and society?

You’re right, and it’s a pretty depressing sentiment, isn’t it? But it’s also central to the entire Fallout 3 experience, as you pointed out. The Capital Wasteland is a dreary, desolate, dangerous place. It’s been two hundred years since a nuclear war wiped out the planet… and human beings still haven’t really stopped trying to kill each other! Hence the “War Never Changes.” So why is that important? Well, I think it makes you realize just how precious the little things in life really are. In the game, when you think about it, what are you ultimately trying to accomplish as part of the main quest? You’re not slaying an ancient evil, or destroying an alien civilization – you’re trying to give fresh water to a few hundred people. Fresh water! Life is so depressing, fresh water is the best they can hope for. But they do hope for it. They need it to live. And, ultimately, only the player can provide that (by securing the Project Purity water purifier). So something that simple – something we in “real life” take for granted every day – seems monumental in a world that is completely ravaged by war. I don’t know about you, but that certainly helps put things in perspective for me, when I think about the comforts I have, compared to people in some parts of the world.

12) Modding is a incredible method of using a game as an inventive storytelling tool. Have you seen any mods that created interesting Fallout stories and would you hire a talented modder?

Well, answering the second part of that question first, we would absolutely hire a talented modder, if we felt they were a good addition to the team, and had the talent to make really great stuff for one of our games. It’s surprising, sometimes, where you find the best people for your projects or company. In the end, what matters is that the person has the talent, personality, and passion to make the types of games we specialize in. So long as they meet those requirements, and can do the job, where they came from is sort of secondary.

Now, as for Fallout 3 mods – wow, yeah, I have seen some pretty amazing ones, actually. Which is exactly what Bethesda wants. Remember, we put our tools out there for the community to make the most of, and these are the same tools the actual developers of the game use to make the shipping game. But what’s great about the mod community is they’re not limited by budget, time, copyrights, or any of the other restraints that comprise the harsh reality of professional game development. So when I see something like Warhammer 40K Space Marine armor, or a motorcycle, or the ability to play the game as an Enclave commander… all of those things just put a smile on my face. It’s an honor that someone would want to spend the time enhancing a game I helped create.


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3 responses

30 05 2011
Lala

ai ai….vidinha chata a dele neh?

1 07 2011
Entrevista: Emil Pagliarulo – Designer e Roteirista Chefe de Fallout 3 « Vagrant Bard

[…] Gliosci pelo convite. Se você quiser ler a entrevista no texto original (em inglês), ela está disponível aqui e se você não jogou Fallout 3, fique avisado que há spoilers da história […]

4 07 2011
I WANT HIS JOB | Game Design = The Geeky Dream

[…] Interview: Emil Pagliarulo – Lead Designer and Writer for Fallout 3 […]

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