If you started gaming after 1988, you might not know just how much you owe to the original American, post-nuclear Wasteland. Gamers in their teens, twenties and even thirties will remember throwing dice on New Vegas' tumbledown Strip, pilfering munitions from Fallout 3's burned out White House, the jingling slot machines and distant gunshots of Fallout 2's New Reno - maybe even running with the caravan traders in Fallout's Hub.
But for all their adventures in world-saving and mutant-slaying, those players were born after the bombs fell. While the post-apocalypse has given us modern gems from Rage to The Last Of Us, it'd all be so much static without the quasi-text adventure that was Interplay's Wasteland.
A quarter century later, Wasteland 2 is finally nearing the end of its Beta test. Its post-nuclear American Southwest is no less full of raiders, murderers and cut-throat opportunists. Its deserts are no less barren, its mutants no less gruesome. Twenty-five years on, we're still grimly fascinated by what the world might look like scorched of humanity - and how we might carve out an existence in it.
"It’s all about conflict and nothing evokes that more than life or death situations," says Brian Fargo, creator of Wasteland, founder of its developer Interplay, and director of Wasteland 2 tells Red Bull. "One of the things that I think makes post-apocalyptic fiction interesting is that it all seems so plausible - that we are just a button push away from a nuclear wasteland. There is no denying the chord that strikes."
The original Wasteland for PC, Apple II and Commadore 64 set the tone for post-apocalypse games when it released, putting players in command of a group of former US Army troops called the Desert Rangers fighting to reclaim and defend a post-war America. But after losing the rights to the franchise, Interplay would go on to make the first two celebrated Fallout games in 1997 and 1998. Wasteland was left buried in the sand, until Fargo finally wrestled the rights to the franchise back years later.
But even with the rights in hand, when the time came to make a sequel publishers just didn't seem interested. Either there was no market, or their ideas of what a modern Wasteland would look like were so divorced from those of Fargo and his team to be hardly worth countenancing. Wasteland 2 looked doomed to exist either as cash-in on an old name, or not at all.
Kickstarter was the its last chance - a gamble that whatever the suits and marketing figures might say, the world really was still waiting for another Wasteland game. And where 2010's Syndicate - a semi-remake of Syndicate Wars, another classic top-down action game of the Fallout era - was given the once over with HD paint brush, a first-person perspective and a de rigeur co-op mode, Wasteland 2 stuck rigidly to formula. Environments would be viewed from above, letting players take in the grim beauty of civilisation in retreat all at once. The flavor text box would return, filling in details about characters and locations not represented visually. InXile's vision wasn't a reimagining, but a concentrated shot of nostalgia: the sort of classic, isometric, choice-driven RPG experience that made Fargo's Interplay famous in the first place.
"From the very beginning we wanted Wasteland 2 to be squad based and to bring back the isometric gameplay of those classic RPGs," Fargo says. "Moving a squad of Rangers into tactical positions via [an isometric view] made sense for our design goals. Even outside of combat, top-down perspective ties in better with controlling and viewing a whole party as opposed to a single character. These types of games simply have a different feel from when we pull the camera closer to the character, and it’s good to bring that back."
The Kickstarter campaign was a thundering financial success, but also gave Wasteland 2 more than just the cash it needed to get into production. As one of the early Kickstarter successes (the game smashed its original goal of $900,000, pulling in more than $2.9m by the end of its funding period), the game's story was followed closely by games media outlets the world over, with readers curious to see whether crowdfunding really could work in the realm of professional game development. The underdog story of a small developer spurned by publishers only to rally fan support and march off defiantly beating its own drum was compelling, even for gamers with no prior knowledge of the Wasteland brand.
But the game's crowdfunding success did more than just generate free publicity. With more than 60,000 backers on Kickstarter (and still more who pledged to support the game through PayPal on its website), inXile had a pool of enthusiastic fans to draw on for criticism and inspiration. The official forum has, to date, more than 70,000 posts by fans (many of them backers) discussing what they'd like to see in the final release, as well as providing feedback on the regular blog and e-mail updates posted by the inXile team. By opening up the game's development to the masses, the team haven't just created a fanbase for a game that doesn't exist yet, but a free focus group as well.
Those fans have played an important role in shaping the game as it now stands. Fargo gives the example of Wasteland 2's user interface - the on-screen buttons and maps through which players control their squad of Rangers. "[The fans] have really helped us hone in on the right look and given us all this great input before the game ships," he says. "We also got a lot of good feedback based on our updates on the character system. Now that they can actually play [the Beta], we’ll have much more to work with in terms of reactivity and location design."
But for all its benefits, the Kickstarter process wasn't as easy as many early backers hoped. During the game's development, several other prominent Kickstarter projects publicly stumbled. Tim Schafer's Double Fine Adventure (since renamed Broken Age), which had been Kickstarter's most successfully funded gaming project, suddenly ran out of money, prompting Schafer to announce that the game would be split into two parts, with revenue from the first, Kickstarted half used to fund the second. The Ouya, an Android games console and currently the second-highest funded project on the site, launched to decidedly lukewarm reviews after promising nothing less than a gaming "revolution". Finally, a delay of Wasteland 2's initial October release date raised questions about the future relationship between crowd-funding and gaming.
But while cynics assumed the worst at the time, Wasteland 2 has made it to its Beta testing stage and been positively received.
"Kickstsarter is tricky in that you must set a date on your game before production begins or before you know the scope of the game," says Fargo of the delay. "No publisher in the world would set a street date the day they started the game, but we, by virtue of Kickstarter, needed to.”
"On top of that we raised three times the money [we asked for, and had] to make the game bigger, which we have. So it’s not like I can point to a particular surprise as to why the date moved from October. But rest assured we are using the extra time wisely."
The results, going by officially released screenshots and Beta footage, aren't exactly pretty - but then, neither is nuclear war. Wasteland 2 has the savvy visual design you'd expect of its pedigree - improvised bridges made from collapsed billboards, a Fallout-esque interface complete with tangles of exposed wiring - but graphically, it's a notch or two down from, say, 2012's XCOM: Enemy Unknown. According to Fargo, that's in large part down to the decision to build the game on the pre-existing Unity engine, which gave the team access to hundreds of pre-built in-game models and allowed them to focus on Wasteland 2's story.
"We have always tried to stay away from creating too much technology so we can focus on game creation and design," says Fargo. "Having use of the tools and assets of the Unity store had us sprinting out of the starting blocks."
But where Wasteland 2 hopes to shine is in its storytelling and its breadth of choices. Scenarios will play out in different ways based on any number of variables, from actions and dialogue choices down to your squad's gender balance and whether or not your Rangers are wounded.
"Some of the choices and their impact are quite obvious and easy to understand how they would be different on another playthrough, but we have many nuances that creates more options or dialogue," says Fargo. "I can’t imagine how many play-throughs it would take to experience all the content."
Where many games pretend that having saintly options and cartoonishly evil ones constitutes a system of moral choice (with a strong underlying sense that being good is the 'proper' way to play), Interplay's games classically let players walk a finer line. How bad is stealing, really, when you're trading family heirlooms for medical supplies? Would you murder someone for their weapons cache if it would tip the balance for control of a whole town? It's that swatch of moral grays that Fargo aim to have you flipping through in Wasteland 2.
"A decision that results in only a good or bad outcome is not really much of a moral choice," says Fargo. "[We have] choices where you choose between two evils and you have to decide which one is less bad, like saving one town or the other, or having to do bad things necessary to reach your goals or to help good people."
That willingness to push players into hard choices is in Wasteland 2's DNA. For all its moments of tongue-in-cheek pop-referencing, the Fallout series in particular took players to some very dark places, where even the noblest of intentions could play out with horrible consequences. In the plans for the original Fallout, helping a town sheriff topple a local crime boss and casino owner would originally result in the town's stagnation, where siding with the crooks and thieves led to its economic boom. The outcomes were reversed for the final release, on the grounds that the outcome felt unfair.
In a scene that actually made it into the final game, a gang leader scoffs at your bravado as you attempt to join his crew, and orders you to gun down two unarmed prostitutes to prove your loyalty. Kill the women and you're in. Refuse and you're dead. And while killing prostitutes is exactly the sort of media-baiting that earns Grand Theft Auto headlines, according to Fargo the inclusion of scenes like these isn't just good storytelling, but something that fans demand.
"We are not pulling any punches in that regard," says Fargo of his previous games' darker themes. "My audience is older and expects a brutish post-apocalyptic world. The Road Warrior films certainly held nothing back from their universe and we don’t intend to do so from Wasteland. This is another great aspect of crowd funding as it allows to make such a game without an outside force trying to tame it.”
"Perhaps it is a bit twisted but I actually quite enjoy when the most noble of actions ends up with a dire result. Life is not black or white and neither should good fiction in my eyes. Isn't that what makes Game of Thrones so riveting? So you can certainly count on similar scenarios happening, or characters making you think back on some of your actions and whether they were actually good."
That lack of publisher constraint might be Wasteland 2's biggest promise; with tens of thousands of copies already sold through Kickstarter and pre-orders, a vocal fanbase already in place and no external forces to rein in the game's darker side, inXile are free to craft an experience that's as savage as its fans demand. But after 25 years in the wasteland, is Fargo's vision of an irradiated Southwest something he could survive himself?
"My plan would be to find the fans of my games and hope they gave me a hand," he says.