Back to the Retro Future
Issue: Volume: 32 Issue: 3 (Mar. 2009)

Back to the Retro Future

The year is 2277, and the US has been laid to waste for two centuries now following a global nuclear war with China. But what remains of Washington, DC is no ordinary postapocalyptic nightmare. Set in an alternative universe that split from our own after World War II, Bethesda Game Studios’ Fallout 3 imagines what America might have looked like had the 1950s idyllic “world of tomorrow” actually come true. It then takes this advanced, retro-futuristic world, with its robot butlers, nuclear-powered cars, and tape-driven computers, and drops an atomic bomb on it. Everything is reduced to a radioactive wasteland, albeit one that retains the aesthetics and design sensibilities of the ’50s, and remains firmly entrenched in the stilted, cultural norms and proprieties of a Leave It to Beaver episode.

The new Fallout game, released in late 2008, continues the series’ story line. One of the more intriguing aspects of the property continues to be its retro look, created mainly with Autodesk’s 3ds Max. And for this title, the setting adds an emotional element and more.

According to executive producer Todd Howard, placing the story in the seat of American government for this release allowed the group to explore fascinating ideas about those in control and how the government would transform under these circumstances. Also, the imagery of the Washington Monument, the Capitol, and other iconic structures reduced to rubble would evoke an immediate visceral response about the power and magnitude of the enemy. Moreover, Washington’s neoclassical architecture would commingle perfectly with 1950s design aesthetics, while DC’s Metro subway tunnels would provide a scary, dungeon-like atmosphere and an elegant means of connectivity between the levels.

The Story
The adventure begins in Vault 101, an underground fallout shelter that hasn’t been opened in 200 years and whose inhabitants are largely oblivious to the outside world. Here, life begins, as your father, a doctor and scientist, is shown delivering you into the world. Afterward, you can shape the look of your character by choosing your DNA through a Gene Projector system. Cooler still, the final genetic makeup that you choose will affect your father’s DNA as well, so his appearance becomes remarkably similar to your own.

Mom is absent, but Dad is around to shepherd you through 19 years of life in the vault, all of which unfold like milestone moments from childhood. On your 10th birthday, you’re presented with a Pip-Boy, a device worn over the arm that acts as a Geiger counter and radio. On that same day, a group of bullies crash the party. Your decision to intervene here (as well as other moral decisions you make throughout the game) affects your Karma, the game’s sliding scale of ethical judgment. Rewarding amorality, or even immorality, is a gaming philosophy Bethesda has been perfecting not only in the Fallout series, but also in its Elder Scrolls: Morrowind and Oblivion.  
Fallout 3 is set in a retro-futuristic version of Washington, DC. The artists spent a good deal of time familiarizing themselves with the city so they could re-create it, then destroy it, so it looked believable.

A game-changing moment occurs on your 19th birthday, when your father mysteriously disappears. Though you’ve been warned never to leave the vault, you abandon safety and security to search for him. You join up with the Brotherhood of Steel and your ally, Dogmeat, to face a nightmare landscape overrun with freakish super mutants, feral ghouls, and military robots.

Although the world outside the vault is clouded in a pallid, ashen haze, the terrain will seem strangely familiar to many. That’s because the artists spent days wandering around and surveying the city, measuring the distances from point A to point B, and taking pictures of major landmarks. This enabled them to faithfully re-create the Washington Monument, the Pentagon, and the National Mall, for instance, and then destroy them as credibly as possible. While the virtual Washington compresses the scale of the city considerably, the general spatial relationships and flavor of key landmarks have been retained.

Visually Speaking 
While the retro-tech aesthetic of the Fallout universe is incredibly advanced in some ways, it is also old-fashioned in its design because of the primitive manufacturing techniques of the 1950s. Hence, a lot of the technology and machinery within the vault and the city share many qualities with 1950s-era military and consumer/­industrial design, such as vented metal boxes, the preponderance of rounded edges, large indicator lights, and so forth. “We tried to demonstrate this contrast between the technology’s capabilities and the primitive nature of the manufacturing processes and miniaturization,” says lead artist Istvan Pely. “An example of this is the Pip-Boy, a wrist-mounted PDA of sorts that has far more features than any modern smart phone, but uses an antiquated glass CRT screen, knobs for the interface, and is quite bulky and heavy.”

According to Pely, color was crucial to evoking the deathly atmosphere throughout the game. The desaturated palette of the wasteland emphasized the harshness and bleakness of the world, while certain locations subtly shift that palette to draw attention or signify passage into a different environment.

The vault in Fallout 3 adheres to the same design philosophy set by the underground shelters from the two previous games. However, the new shelter is far more realized and immersive than the previous two, given today’s more advanced technology. “Back then, they literally had a handful of pixels in which to illustrate the sort of details that needed to flesh out the world in a 3D, first-person perspective. Now, we could really up the ante in terms of realism, to have the vault be a believable environment that felt authentic in terms of design and construction,” says Pely.

To ensure that the urban ruins shown throughout the game are as convincing as possible, the group analyzed various war movies featuring realistically gutted cityscapes.
Many of the changes can be found in the walls lining the hallways and rooms, which are now poured concrete, with heavy metal bulwarks and structural reinforcements throughout—an engineering staple of actual underground fallout shelters of the time. In the previous titles, the player never saw the ceiling, but for this release, a low ceiling is designed to make the person feel claustrophobic and conscious of the weight of tons of earth above. “Nevertheless, in the designs of the doors, the vents, and the air-conditioning units in every room, we tried to remain as consistent as possible with the originals. The same goes for the furnishings and general color palette—elements that should help create a sense of familiarity,” says Pely.

Like the vault, the wasteland was another iconic environment that had to feel authentic to the Fallout brand. Because of the change in setting from West to East, the team simply couldn’t replicate the barren and flat deserts that were a staple of Fallout 1 and 2. “We needed to reinterpret the landscape so that it was not only recognizable as a classic wasteland, but believable as the remains of suburban Washington,” says Pely. To that end, the team retained the series’ signature dry, dusty, and arid landscape, with lots of brownish hues forged through copious amounts of dirt.

The cavernous Metro tunnels provide the player with connectivity between the various urbanized world spaces that make up the city. “We closely replicated the architectural cues of the actual stations, including the waffle-patterned arched ceilings and the second-story mezzanines,” says Pely. The team also tried to make these spaces interesting from both a visual and gameplay perspective.

Since urban ruins are a popular venue for many action titles, creating a convincing destroyed city that exceeded the already high standard set by other games and the expectations of the player was a constant challenge. The team studied its competition extensively, and then analyzed such war movies as Saving Private Ryan and Full Metal Jacket, which have inspiring and realistic gutted city settings. To create the rubble piles in Fallout 3, the group lined the polygonal blocks and chunks of concrete with normal-mapped decals that had rough, chewed-out edging to make the rubble more realistic.

The city itself, Pely says, was loosely modeled after the layout of the real-world Capital, capturing major streets and landmarks while taking liberties with spatial relationships. “It was more important that the spaces played well and were visually interesting than they be geographically accurate. It’s an alternate history in Fallout’s timeline, so it made sense that there would be plenty of locations and architecture that were unrecognizable in today’s world.”

In its perpetual state of disintegration, the downtown core is suffused in dust and a fine spectral soot, casting a smoky shroud over the world that greatly impacted the lighting design. “We sought to create a thick, dusty atmosphere to enhance the sense of space and depth, or simply for dramatic effect—something lighting alone can’t do,” explains Pely. Using aggressive, non-linear fog-ramp settings, along with copious amounts of subtle particle clouds, the artists could simulate this smoky effect cheaply from a rendering perspective.

For the god rays that blind your eyes upon first stepping out of the vault, the beams of light knifing through the thick dust of the city, and other glow effects, the artists used geometry. Specifically, they used flat planes applied with subtle, additive gradient textures that were arranged so that when viewed from any angle, they’d create the illusion of volumetric fog or mist glowing from nearby intense light sources.

The Fallout universe stands apart from the world of Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls titles because it is far less populous, having only a few hundred non-player characters (NPCs) versus more than 15,000. Trimming the population allowed the team to spend more time with all the characters, fleshing out each one more fully by using unique texture maps; 30-plus voice actors gave them an individual look and vocal identity. “Reducing the NPC count allowed us to write dialog trees with far more depth, yielding a much greater variety in the voice acting,” says Pely. “In terms of the art, we were able to spend more time on particular NPCs’ facial features so that they have their own individual character.”

The artists created all the characters, including sheriff Lucas Simms (shown here), using 3ds Max, Photoshop, and Zbrush. For characters’ faces, they employed a version of the FaceGen SDK.

Artists created all the character faces using a tweaked version of Singular Inversion’s FaceGen SDK. The procedural system, says Pely, allowed the team to dynamically create many unique faces quickly and flexibly. This technology was the secret sauce behind the DNA sequencing at the beginning of the game, forging the family traits in both father and son.

The same level of control is also afforded to the main character’s clothing and armor, which come in two parts—for the head and the body, respectively. Players, for example, can choose a pair of mechanic’s coveralls to improve their repair skills. Heavier armor may provide better shielding from enemy fire, but could also leave the player encumbered and struggling under the weight. Invoking the game’s “quality versus quantity approach,” the team scaled back the clothing selection and modularity considerably from previous titles.

“This allowed us far more artistic freedom in costume design,” says Pely. “The player can mix and match helmets, hats, and other headgear, but the rest of the apparel comes as one piece. This greatly simplifies inventory management and doesn’t impose as many limitations on how we draw and model the apparel. Every costume is a ‘character,’ and, therefore, has a certain personality that works because of the combination of elements and the details in that particular ensemble.”

Due to an aggressive production schedule and the desire to keep the game space from becoming overly complicated, the team also avoided unlimited destructibility in the environments. Rather, they are not destructible beyond bullet impact decals that are automatically applied to any mesh when struck and pockmarked by gunfire. These decals vary based on the material of the object, such as concrete, glass, and so forth, and are somewhat randomized in terms of scale and rotation, which help with visual variety. The textures themselves use parallax mapping, an enhanced version of bump mapping, which gives a convincing 3D illusion of depth. “It really looks as though the shot-up concrete has a deep cavity dug into it, thanks to this technique,” says Pely.

Humanoid Characters
In the Capital wasteland, it is unwise to approach the wildlife, grown hostile and grotesquely mutated by the radiation. Along with feral ghouls and three-foot ants, also stalking the area are centaurs (a four-foot hybrid man/squid/spider), 11-foot super mutants, and 30-foot super mutant behemoths. For modeling and texturing all the characters, the team used 3ds Max, Adobe’s Photoshop, and Pixologic’s Zbrush. Artists also used Autodesk’s Mudbox for some organic modeling of environmental objects, including the rocks and the trees of the wasteland.

For the humanoid characters, the artists built standard base meshes for men, women, boys, and girls. All of them share the same textures except for the ghouls, which are mapped with a heavily mutated skin texture that resembles a burn victim, and the raiders, a roving gang who wears a very dirty and sweaty custom skin texturing befitting their grizzled, battle-scarring lifestyle. Adjusting skin color and tinting, as well as body height, were the primary methods of differentiating among the NPCs.

In keeping with the look of the series, the artists retained the dry, arid, dusty look of the landscape, with brownish hues mingled with the dirt and debris (top right). To create the organic objects, such as trees and rocks, the artists used Mudbox.
“There’s a lot more variety among the heads because we created unique facial structures for each race,” says Pely. “In addition, we made custom textures for older males and females featuring heavily wrinkled normal maps.”

On average, the base character meshes comprise 7000 polygons depending on the complexity of the armor and helmet combinations. All the characters can shed thousands of polygons in an instant through brutal dismemberment and decapitation, which has reached surreal proportions in Fallout 3 in the ever-escalating game of one-upmanship among developers. As a result of this violence, the artists had to model and rig the character bodies for various states of disintegration. This pertained to all the armor and clothing, as well. Because the Fallout series is known for pushing the depiction of gore and violence over the top, the artists invested an enormous amount of time in creating stylized character deaths, focusing more on exaggeration than realism.

Men of Steel, Mutants
The heavy-duty, hermetically sealed helmet, gas mask, and body armor worn by the player and the Brotherhood of Steel were the first art assets designed at the start of production, and they presented the greatest modeling challenges. Bethesda used this so-called “Power Armor” as a test case for how the group would update or reinterpret the iconic look of the franchise. “As such, the armor was designed as a high-poly mesh with one purpose: to look like a hulking badass in futuristic armor,” says Pely.

However, the proportions and design details initially were made without regard to how it would be adapted to the in-game skeleton that was used. This became an issue when it came time to bring the meshes in-game. “Modifying the armor to work with a skeleton designed for rather normally proportioned humans was quite challenging,” says Pely. “We had to maintain the bulk and sense of scale of the armor, but still have it work within the limitations of the rig that all our NPCs shared.” These issues were addressed through a combination of tweaks to the animations sets, the creation of some unique animations for the Power Armor, and the slowing of the animations to create a sense of greater weight.”

Decay can be found everywhere outside of the protected vault, with the environments steeped in a pallid, ashen haze.
While the Power Armor constituted the greatest modeling challenge, the super-mutant behemoth, a walking mountain of muscle, was an incredibly complicated texturing task, requiring a unique skin texture that was made to look almost translucent, with muscle tissue and veins visible beneath the surface. The texture artists used a multilayered approach. First, they painted the raw muscle tissue as a base, referencing slabs of raw meat from the supermarket for the right quality. Then, they painted another layer, featuring a network of veins, over the base. Next, they overlaid a greenish skin, allowing the details of the veins and muscles beneath to show through with varying levels of opacity.

A complex relief of cuts, lumps, ridges, snaking venous cords, and other 3D details were added to the skin through a normal map created from a highly detailed Zbrush sculpt. After the artists combined the maps, they capped off the surface with a glossy, specular map to give it an appropriately wet and slimy feel.

When it came to modeling and texturing the non-bipedal characters—the mutants, giant ants, gorilla-like Deathclaws, and rat scorpions—the overriding goal was to make them as scary as possible. This was achieved both through design and animation. In the case of the Deathclaws, the team slightly updated the design from the early games. The creature was all about speed and power; to emphasize this, the group created animations of a lightning-quick lunge and an explosive swipe of its 12-inch claws. The giant ants and scorpions capture the campy B-movie hallmark of oversized insects, while the centaurs succeed on the creepy “ick” factor alone.

Rendering Intensity

Players who find the real-time battles too intense or would simply like to indulge in the full Grand Guignol gore of the game can make use of the Vault Tech Assisted Targeting System (VATS). Once VATS is activated, the game pauses and the camera zooms in on the enemy, highlighting his exposed areas and showing the chances of hitting them. A successful hit can merely knock a gun from an enemy’s hands or have more devastating, bloody effects.

“Our VATS sequences are cinematic in style,” says lead artist Istvan Pely. “We did a few camera tricks to enhance the scenes, which are played in real time at a reduced camera speed. Sometimes we’ll accelerate and decelerate the playback for stylistic effect.”

HDRI and color-tinting effects were added at times for flavor, as was depth of field and motion-blur effects. In order for these scenes to be visible in darker areas, a temporary light was added near the enemies to call them out.

While Fallout 3 uses a version of the Emergent Game Technologies’ Gamebryo engine, used for Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Bethesda made significant improvements to increase its ability for real-time rendering of large numbers of on-screen objects for VATS sequences and other cinematic scenes. This was essential for creating a world that existed in a perpetual state of disintegration and destruction.

“We made many little tweaks to both the engine and our art creation pipeline to facilitate this,” says Pely. “One of them gave us the ability to dynamically group individual objects under a single larger object that shared a subset of textures. This allowed us to reduce the amount of objects rendered by the engine while still allowing the environment artists the flexibility to construct scenes from a highly modular and flexible set of kit pieces.”

Other enhancements include the ability to layer image-space effects to the final rendered output. This allowed the artists to dynamically adjust the brightness and contrast, color tinting, various HDRI, and other cinematic effects to individually stylize each game location. The team also implemented a Master Particle System to manage common particle effects, to dynamically scale the number of particles on screen at a time depending on the current render load, thereby avoiding unwanted frame-rate drops. –Martin McEachern

Recession Era Gaming

Highly anticipated, Fallout 3 made the top-10 PC game list in 2008. Though released late in the year, expectations had been higher than the sale figures delivered—a situation befalling many titles, no doubt due to the economic downturn. Is this a signal concerning the durability of the gaming industry in an economic era currently as bleak as its post-apocalyptic landscape. Executive producer Todd Howard remains optimistic about the recession-resistant powers of the industry, as do many, drawing parallels with the ability of the film industry to weather, even thrive, in a recession. Instead of splurging for HD TVs this year, he says, people likely will find the $50 and $60 price tags of games more appealing.

“Movies and video games are a relatively cheap way of having some fun, and particularly with the games we do, there’s so much value, so much time you can get out of your money there, that I think the top-tier games will get their percentage of the money.”

However, Howard is quick to caution that since people may be too cash-strapped to buy multiple titles in the months to come, the games that fall below the top-ten tier may struggle for their economic lives. Indeed, it’s these smaller, fledging games that will ultimately pay for the Wall Street woes, with a casualty rate that may end up being as great as in any of these body-count games themselves. n

Martin McEachern is an award-winning writer and contributing editor for Computer Graphics World. He can be reached at