If there is one mantra Bethesda Software seems to live by, it's big. Big worlds, big adventures and big ambition. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Fallout 3 were both massive games defined by their enormous, fleshed out worlds and concentration on player choice. Working on Oblivion and serving as the lead designer of Fallout 3, Emil Pagliarulo is a man fairly acquainted with the big. We recently had the opportunity to ask him a few questions about Bethesda, Oblivion and Fallout 3.
TNL: A simple one right out of the gate. Mothership Zeta has been cited as the last DLC for Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas is being developed by Obsidian. Can you give us some clues as to what's next for Bethesda? Can we expect a new Elder Scrolls game, another Fallout or something entirely different?
Emil: Well, in the short term we’ve got the Fallout 3 Game of the Year, which is the base Fallout 3 game with all five DLCs rolled into it. So we’re still actively working on Fallout 3 stuff. Beyond that, everything is super exciting and super top secret, and if I told you what it was, I’d be amongst America’s unemployed tomorrow. So I’ll leave it at that.
TNL: When it was first announced that Bethesda would be making Fallout 3, many gamers were convinced it would just be Oblivion with guns. I'm curious as to what you thought of that. Also, with the success Fallout 3 has enjoyed what, in your opinion, did it do better then Oblivion?
Emil: Yeah, the whole “Oblivion with Guns” criticism was hurled our way so long ago. But it’s funny, because in order for that to resonate with you, you have to sort of feel that Oblivion isn’t a good game, and “Oblivion with Guns” would be a bad thing. Well… we think Oblivion is a damn good game. And so did millions of people who bought it. And scores of reviewers. So, you know, we started to realize, “Hey, that’s more a compliment than an insult, isn’t it?” So for us, Fallout 3 is “Oblivion with guns” in all the right ways. Meaning, you wander around a huge world, and talk to lots of interesting characters, and get lots of quests. But instead of killing them with a magic sword, you kill them with a gun that shoots teddy bears.
But, of course, we learned a lot of lessons making Oblivion. And there were certainly things we wanted to do better. Our tech on Fallout was far beyond what we had on Oblivion – the game looks better, load times are faster, etc. So there’s certainly that. But we also really upped our game with the writing, and quest design, and player consequences. So, in all, I think Fallout 3 is a more cohesive experience than Oblivion.
TNL: Conversely, I'm curious as to what you think Oblivion did better then Fallout 3? Was there anything you missed about Elder Scrolls IV?
Emil: Interestingly, what the game did better and what I miss aren’t necessarily the same thing. As much as I love the Fallout world, I love fantasy just as much, if not more, so part of me really missed that. I love the whole thief/assassin vibe, and delving into ancient dungeons. The 12-year-old dungeon master in me just craves that stuff like candy. As for what the game did better. Hmmm… You know, one thing Oblivion really did well was provide the player an opportunity to join all these different factions. You could become a member of the Mages Guild, or Dark Brotherhood, or what have you. And each had its own story, its own set of quests. In Fallout 3, because we spent our resources differently, we really weren’t able to do that. And it sometimes feels like a missed opportunity.
TNL: Looking at other open world games out there, are there any that you liked personally? What elements, if any, would like to draw on in your future endeavors?
Emil: I’ll tell you, I am a sucker for a good open-world game. I will try every single one I hear about, regardless of platform. I think Bethesda’s been very fortunate in that we’ve been able to successfully bring these giant, open-world games to consoles. It’s not easy, as I’m sure Rockstar and Volition would attest to. So most of the time when I find a good open-world game I like, it’s on the PC, where the developers aren’t limited by space, or memory. Sometimes I’ll luck out and find a really unique single-player game, something like Boiling Point, but, more often than not, I find myself sampling MMOs: Lord of the Rings Online, WoW, Warhammer Online, Age of Conan, whatever. I actually think there are a lot of lessons to be learned from MMOs. In a lot of ways, Bethesda’s games are "massively single-player" – I think the appeal is very similar. You want a giant world you can get lost in, a place you can live another life in.
TNL: What do you think are some of the limits of open world games? A lot of people have expressed that shorter, more linear games lend themselves better to strong narratives. Do you agree? What do you think are some of weaknesses of the open world format and what are some linear games that you personally respect?
Emil: I can certainly see how some people would think a shorter, more linear game would naturally present a better narrative than a larger, more open-world game. I mean, you’re on a straight path, and that’s really what a narrative is – a straight fictional path. But just because not a lot of large, open-world games have successfully pulled off strong narratives doesn’t mean it isn’t possible, or even better, in an open-world game.
See, for developers, the trick is being smart enough to recognize the player’s need to have a straight narrative, even if your game world is open and sprawling, and even if some of your fiction is open, and dynamic. Let the player get out there and experience your giant world, sure. Let them tell their own stories. But there’s really no reason why a developer shouldn’t also provide its players with a great story, and the direction they need to get back on track fictionally.
In Fallout 3, you can leave Vault 101 and take off into the Wasteland, but you’ve always got an objective pointing you back toward the main quest. The main story is always there for you to follow, if you want. And even though a lot of Fallout 3 is about exploring this huge, post-apocalyptic world, it’s also about a child coming to terms with the decisions of their father. It’s a pretty strong narrative – at least I hope it is – and, just as importantly, it’s easy for the player to get back to at any time.
Now, as far as linear games I personally respect, well, there have been tons of them. I still regard the original Thief: The Dark Project as one of the best linear action games ever made. Half-Life 2 is completely brilliant. But for me, Call of Duty 4 is the crème de la crème of linear games with strong narratives. The story is told through the gameplay; the player experiences the story from a first-person perspective in ways that no other games have really offered. I think CoD 4 marked something of an evolution in video game storytelling, and most people never even realized it; they just thought they were playing an awesome action game. But it’s an awesome action game partly because of the way it presents its narrative through the gameplay, so effortlessly.
TNL: There have been some nasty things said about Bethesda concerning the PS3 version of Fallout 3. Looking at the problems the PS3 version suffered from and the anger many feel for the delayed arrival of DLC. What are your thoughts?
Emil: The reality for us is that, not only are tons of people playing the game and loving it on the PS3, but they’ll also be playing the DLCs soon, too. Everything we’ve been hearing from the fans is that they want as much Fallout 3 on the PS3 as possible. If anything, PS3 owners were upset because they couldn’t play the DLCs. As a developer, there are worse problems to have than someone wanting to play more of your game. So long as people want to play our game, so long as there’s that demand, we’ll do everything we can to accommodate those people.
The reality of the situation is that the difference in hardware between the Xbox 360/PC and the PS3 is pretty significant. Significant enough that it’s not just a matter of us throwing a new label on the disk, changing a couple of things, and shipping it to stores. There’s a lot of work we need to do be able to support multiple platforms, whether that’s dealing with texture management, or memory optimizations, and that stuff takes time. We realize our PlayStation 3 fans have been incredibly patient, and we can’t thank them enough for that. We just need them to hold on a little longer – the content they’ve been wanting is right around the corner.
TNL: One thing I've loved about both Oblivion and Fallout 3 were the presence of celebrity voices in addition to professional voice actors. Patrick Stewart, Sean Bean and Liam Neeson were all great. I'm interested in who, if you had your choice, you'd love to incorporate into a game in the future? I'm a huge fan of Sean Connery myself.
Emil: You know, I usually find myself watching something, a movie or a TV series, and getting attached to a character, and then daydreaming about having that actor in a game I’m working on. It’s a combination of wanting to meet a cool actor, but also wanting that particular voice, that particular type of performance, for a character I’ve created. The top of my list right now, I think, would be Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Morgan Freeman, Kate Winslet, and Stephen Moyer.