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Conceptual Design is a Fallout 3 development blog published in 2007.
I’m Adam and it’s my job to design for Fallout 3. Establishing the big picture for the Fallout universe as a pictorial diary, was my first task. Myself and the rest of the team poured over the lore, related our experiences playing the original, and researched everything 50’s we felt enhanced the drama, black comedy, and rich vintage sci fi that make this a truly unique game. At the end of these jams, as I liked to think of our discussions and debates, I did my best to put on paper what we had reached as a consensus. For my part, I like to feel I initially brought to the table a design sensibility that also favored ridiculous rocket flanged nuclear powered automobiles, and martini swilling characters who fight mutated horrors without scuffing their sharkskin suits. When the dust clears, I hope what you see is a mutated beast stamped indelibly with its inimitable origins. Whew.
Visualizing all of the aspects of a make believe world is quite an educational experience. On any given day I could be simultaneously learning about multiple topics, from motorcycle engines to 50’s fashion design. It’s kind of like writing and filming a National Geographic documentary film for an actual sci-fi world. For this job, I think the more you read on a wide variety of subjects, the better equipped you are to create depth and realism, especially for a fantasy setting. The fantastic that’s grounded in real world elements and then elaborated and exaggerated upon, seem to work the best, and create a solid jumping off point. This often creates fertile ground for generating additional story elements that can influence costumes, machines, and even motives for the various personalities inhabiting a made up world.
Seeing Syd Mead lecture in SF was an incredibly profound lesson on design. During the Q&A I asked him how far he went on a design to make it technically believable. His advice was ‘to design with the story in mind and stay consistent with it’. Hence I learned that the Sulacco from Aliens is essentially a massive gun in space with a big nuclear reactor at one end which beautifully fits the theme of space marines exploring a planet infested with deadly hostile aliens. That answer freed me obsessing over minutiae that diverges story-wise, and focus on the broad strokes that propel the story. The addition of ensuing consistent minutiae would give it richness.
To say I have kindred spirits here at Bethesda in that factor is a vast understatement. The attention to detail is unrelenting to the point of exhaustion. It is always worth it to see the end product of those hours of debate and obsessing when a world comes together. Even with the inevitable hitches and lurches I can still see through the emerging racecar through the primer paint, so to speak. The process is exciting, fun and highly collaborative. All of the designs evolve through contributions from the whole team, I like to feel that it’s my job to instigate the process with a cool drawing that inspires everyone else here into making something really cool, and worth the effort. That being said, I’ll start talking monsters.
Designing The Super Mutant
“Don’t shoot him, you’ll just make him mad.” The famous line from Blazing Saddles describing Mongo, was my guiding inspiration for these guys. I wanted them to look like they would step into a tree shredder, for relaxation. Their musculature was to be straining at the bone structure underneath, creating a hyper jacked up caricature of a person in the throes of radioactive testosterone poisoning, and liking it.
This led to a lot of visual gags costume wise too. Not only did they wield parking meters like police batons, but they carried their victims caged in shopping carts strapped to their backs. You know, just in case they got peckish after a fight, and wanted a snack.
Their armor is total salvage yard, car hoods and fenders resourcefully but crudely pounded into chest plates and pauldrons. Lawn mower blades welded onto helmets. I wanted recognizable elements twisted to a more violent purpose to reflect a sinister resourcefulness to surviving in a highly dangerous world. This “junkyard wars” approach to their armor and weapons generated whole categories of unique and often hilarious Homemade Weapons that I’ll speak about next.
I wanted these to look like they’d actually work. Emil gave me a list of ingredients for each particular homemade weapon. It was my job to stick em’ together and make the whole thing look deadly. The parts themselves were innocuous enough. Old toys, mason jars, a crutch, refrigerator parts? Tricky. For each one I was purely and truly stumped. I made piles of drawings that never looked menacing enough, or even mechanically sound. Each failed design had me yelling “This would never work!”
To solve this design quandary I tapped my inner 6 year old. The inner six year old who saw a parents’ garage and its contents as a potential chemistry set. When I started laughing my ass off, I knew I was on to something! All those years of building slingshots, and melting plastic airplane models have apparently paid off.
As a disclaimer from reading dismal police blotters in the future, I do not recommend anyone building, or attempting to build any of these contraptions in real life; especially not if your protective gear consists of materials that could melt and adhere to your skin. As in, Speedo swim goggles, polyester snorkel jackets, plastic rain coats, or those horrible jellies brand sandals made out of that clear nylon embedded with sparkles.
Which is kind of a nice visual segue for talking about the costume design for Fallout 3.
Post Apocalyptic Fashion, in a Post Apocalyptic World
Fashion is all about accessorizing. Fallout 3 is no exception from both a technical aspect and a story vehicle. The costume designs became a statement on scavenging the remains of the past in a way that would combine civilian garb with a more warlike, survivalist sensibility.
This would allow us to quickly clothe a large number of actors by mixing and matching tops and bottoms with often hilarious yet menacing effect. A tuxedo jacket takes on a whole new feel when paired with combat boots and a cracked motorcycle helmet. It also allowed us to dress up our more affluent characters in a piecemeal, yet ominously decadent manner befitting some cracked despot surveying a ruined empire with a cracked martini glass in one greasy fist. And, having lived in industrial warehouse spaces for many years myself I’d wager I’m mining my own past for ideas. The usual attire for those days often involved awesome thrift store finds, old sombreros, welding goggles, gas station jumpsuits, Shriner fez’s, pretty much anything with a beat up vintage flavor that cost less than ten bucks.
Overall, the outlandish garb of the wastelanders was to also provide a stark contrast to the more conformist, square uniforms of any vault dwellers unlucky enough to emerge to the surface and be forced to interact with the indigenous bohemians, benign or otherwise, which leads nicely to the Vault Suit.
The Vault Suit
Designing, or redesigning the vault suit meant adhering to canon, and updating the textures and tactile feel for the detail we can achieve now in games. I opted for a more durable denim like material, something quintessentially American and, suited to carrying out vault tasks involving heavy machinery and crawling through metal pipes.
Overall, the vault suit seems to represent an Everyman/Everywoman uniform of conformity, and a blank canvas for accessorizing once the wearer had escaped into the harsh environment of the wasteland. Preserving the retro 50’s flavor seemed to support this, and I wanted the suit to feel at home in a classic 50’s sci-fi film like Forbidden Planet. The reinforced elbows and knees seemed to introduce a bit of that flair to the otherwise oppressively Orwellian environment.
Industrial design is such an interesting thing, especially when you’re trying to reflect the projection of a society’s dreams of the future onto a…coffee machine. As a team we poured over antique magazine ads, and articles trying to capture the essence of a society quite frankly, we didn’t grow up in. The prevailing theme was an almost aggressive enthusiasm for all things future and atom powered. Rocket fins, chrome flanges and vents of any kind, the more superfluous the better. The materials list technologically, never advance beyond the 50’s aesthetic.
That meant vacuum tubes versus circuits, bakelite versus modern plastics. The most mundane objects would be tricked out as though ordered from a Googied out AV catalogue with the ensuing wide glide, streamlined fonts. In full knowledge of the nuclear nightmare this make believe society was hurtling towards, the opportunities for high parody became numerous. The trick was to not step on the toes of a personal hero of mine, Terry Gilliam, whose films are densely laden with those sight gags, but at least emulate the richness of detail that would hold up to repeated viewings and stay fresh.
By a building’s basic silhouette I wanted to connotate its prior use. Hotels and entertainment structures were certainly zippier, Googier, and space age, than the brooding bunker like civic structures. Streamline and deco would of course take a ubiquitous bow, as they figured prominently in the original and we wanted to preserve that flavor. Additionally, they created unexpected and compelling shapes when half destroyed and festooned with chromed out hood ornament valkyries and brooding senator heads. A nice counterpoint, eminently repeatable shapes came from emulating Corbusier”s “machines for living”, and other Utopian type residential structures.
I tried to learn as much about that kind of architectural aesthetic when the streets were in danger of getting too much of a campy “Jetsons” look. I learned that Googie Architecture got its name from a coffee shop designed by John Lautner. I found his other architecture quite beautiful, as well. Emulating these styles produced an impressive variety of interesting shapes that became a lego set for the level designers to build cities with. It’s always awesome to see these environments approaching that final polish, with all of the elements coming together in ways I didn’t expect. The final addition of the small details really propelled the apocalyptic grandeur of the destroyed world we are creating. As a stage for storyline and ensuing conflicts the player will find him herself in, the results are thus far fantastic. Populating this world with the various monsters, enemies and ambient critters is something I‘ll address next.
Robbie the Robot, but meaner. The parts would be vintage spaceship, that in my research provide the right metals and was inspired a hands on yet menacing array of doo-dads that invoked a retro insectoid knobbiness, hostile and slightly goofy. I always like strange details on a machine that hint at a mysterious yet sinister and efficiently harmful purpose. Mark, our sound engineer was generally enthused to create the sounds for these machines, the end results of which make me yearn for a slew of action figures and toys powered with demon electricity.
Ambient Creatures and Enemies
Nature gets uglier, bigger, and riddled with tumors, growths, hideous discolorations, excretions and where needed, extra appendages. Anatomy became a lego set, and like the weapons I wanted the new arrangements to not only look like they’d work, but also be deadly and contribute to superior speed, shielding and oversized pokey-stabby bits. Resilience to radiation would be a blessing and a curse, the curse part resulting in a perpetual state of pissed off, like someone with a body sized cold sore. The gross out factor possibilities were enormously fun and generally involved some manner of organic internal projectile or flail.
Due to these creatures common origins the old predator vs. prey relationships remained intact to create a twisted ecosystem. I imagined “Marlin Perkins Mutated Wasteland Kingdom Presents” and scribbled notes on possible encounter scenarios.
The human counterparts, the indigenous malevolent rustics, who would be merely hostile, would outfit themselves like David Lynch designing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3000. The trick as always was to come up with something unique, for a sci-fi scenario we’ve all seen many times. My aid is to anticipate the personalities to help flesh out a villain, and I‘ll often cast my favorite actors as being this type of character to invent their costume, personal effects and how they’ve been weathered. Every time they start to mutate on their own and develop in ways I didn’t anticipate, I do my best to document it in a way that clearly communicates to the rest of the team what I’ve found.
On an end note, concerning all of these drawings, the design process is never over, and if it weren’t for deadlines I could revisit any of these drawings ad infinitum. During our meetings, I think the strongest designs elicited a variety of reactions, from “hmmmmm”, or “yeeaaaaah” or “that’s not it”. An unsolicited “hell yeeeeeah!” response from the rest of the team, without me having to say anything as an explanation to sell the idea meant I had done my job. And the ones that I liked, that no one else seemed to get, got relegated to the Island Of Rejected Misfit Monsters That Might Find Another Use Someday.
“There, there, lil’ fella, just wait for a little while, some child somewhere will love you someday!” No design is ever a waste of time, even if it only serves to points you towards another possibility. So far, the fun continues unabated.