Friday, 24 March 2017

Fallout Retrospective - Time

  P r e a m b l e  

What is the greatest cRPG of all-time? Fallout. Write off, drive out and deride anyone who attempts to devalue its greatness and legacy.

Fallout's influence has been incalculable; for example, there would be no Arcanum, no Planescape: Torment, no KotOR II, no Mask of the Betrayer, and no New Vegas or Alpha Protocol without it. IOW, there would have been no reactive greatness (the designers of the above cut their teeth on Fallout, and its sequel). In itself, Fallout is notable because it's the first RPG to seriously attempt to simulate PnP/tabletop gaming; you know, what computer RPGs are supposed to do. Before Fallout came along, role-playing a character in the genre was almost unheard of. In this post I cover one aspect of its reactivity, in-depth: its implementation of the passage of time. But Fallout flaunts heaps of stat-, kama- and quest-based reactivity, too. 

In addition, Fallout's aesthetics were ground-breaking; post-apocalyptic theme aside, think of the amount of pre-rendered frames employed in the "talking heads" and death animations (literally, thousands). Sprite-wise, not only were they much more detailed, but Fallout employed many more anim cycles and many more frames per cycle than the subsequent Infinity Engine games. The sprites get blown up, vaporized, melted, dismembered and cut in half. In addition, your character actually crouches to pick things up and can even be seen climbing ladders! Only Jagged Alliance 2 did more in this respect. Couple its reactivity and aesthetics with its open-world design and impeccable pacing, and Fallout is inarguably the greatest pure RPG of all-time. Again:

Now, to the matter of time:

   I n t r o d u c t i o n   
Remember that assassin who poisoned you in Baldur's Gate? And if you didn't jump through hoops to get the antidote you would die of its effects in a ten-day? "Oh yes!" I hear you say. "That quest sucked! I take great delight in dispatching him before that flag can be set!" Well yeah, me too. Love the Eagle Bow. But that's not the point: the point is that the quest is timed. It's do or die.

Now, while there are numerous examples of timed quests in many of our favorite RPGs (mostly companion/stronghold/minor quests), it is rare that you see one that employs a time limit that effects a major event in a campaign or the outcome of the campaign itself. One of these rarities — in which the passage of time is integral to the campaign — is Interplay's Fallout, the only RPG I unhesitatingly place above all others, and that ranking hasn't changed since it came out in 1997. But in this post I won't be covering its multi-faceted merits (that demands a series of posts); instead, I'll just be covering one facet of its greatness: how it employs the passage of time.

We all feel time. Sometimes we feel like we don't have enough of it, especially as we grow older. On the other hand, some people feel bored and time becomes a massive burden to them. We often ask ourselves how we should spend our time, when we should really be asking ourselves how we can best use it.

Hah! I'm only mucking around. Those are pseudo-philosophical ramblings that are best left to real thinkers, such as the writers at InXile who crapped this out. So let's get on with Time in Fallout, shall we?

   F i n d  t h e  W a t e r  C h i p   

Ok! This timed quest represents the first of two main phases of the campaign. I am only covering this first phase. The quest is given to you by the Overseer of Vault 13, during the opening FMV. The situation is grave indeed:

Ah! You're here. Good. We've gotta problem. A big one. The controller chip for our water purification system has given up the ghost. We can't make another one, and the process is too complicated for a workaround system. Simply put, we're running out of drinking water. No water, no Vault. This is crucial to our survival, and frankly, I... I think you're the only hope we have. You need to go find us another controller chip. We estimate we have four to five months before the Vault runs out of water. We. Need. That. Chip. We marked your map with the location of another Vault. Not a bad place to start, I think. Look, just be safe, ok? - The Overseer of Vault 13.

The Vault Dweller (you, the protagonist) exits Vault 13 to arrive in a tunnel system. She relieves a corpse of some much-needed gear and shakes off some rats en route to the tunnel exit and world map.

To the west you can see a natural light. For the first time in your life, you are looking at the outside world.

So here we have the Vault Dweller stepping outside the confines of a clinical, controlled environment (Vault 13) and preparing to enter into the harsh, post-apocalyptic world known as the Wasteland. Those bones resting at the entryway to the tunnel aren't exactly reassuring, are they? On closer inspection she thinks they may be the remains of a horned kangaroo, but she is unable to determine the cause of death. (Dehydration?)

WATER. Reminded of her quest (the rats threw her off), she checks the status of her Pip-Boy 2000, which says she has 150 days to find the water chip and deliver it to Vault 13, before everyone dwelling in it dies of dehydration: an awful fate.

Ok, so. Assuming the player is attentive and acting logically on various leads that point to possible locations of the water chip, the time limit of 150 days is more than enough to complete most content in the campaign - including side quests and a bit of aimless wandering - but the new player certainly won't know that, unless they read a walkthrough. Ergo, they will feel a sense of urgency. And even completionist veterans who average 70-80 day campaigns always have the time limit in the back of their minds, believe me.

   B u r n i n g  T i m e  o n  t h e  W o r l d  M a p   

The lead given by the Overseer is Vault 15, several "squares" to the east. This represents about a ten-day hike, so you can see how time is a factor already, especially since some players will return to the Overseer in an attempt to inform him that the water chip is not there (from memory, you can't actually explicitly inform him but you can milk some items and sympathy from him, at least, before you head back out to look for the chip, elsewhere.) 

Left circle: Vault 13 (where you start), Center circle: Shady Sands (the first "hub" of the campaign. It's important for initial questing and picking up your first companion who can mark Junktown and The Hub on your map, but it's not important in regards to your primary quest), Right circle: Vault 15.

Now, let's put the Wasteland into perspective. This is the world map in its entirety, showing only the relevant locations the player is likely to visit in their search for the water chip (nothing is stopping them heading farther south or west, but it is dangerous and there is no logical reason to do so at this stage of the proceedings). Anyway, when you compare the above journey with the distances shown below, you can see it's going to burn a fair bit of time getting to these places let alone moving back and forth between them. You really want to keep backtracking to a minimum because travelling on the world map is by far the most time-consuming activity in Fallout. It's also worth noting here that speed of movement is affected by terrain (i.e, it may be quicker to go around a mountain range than over it). The Pathfinder perk also reduces world map travel time by 25% per rank.

(World map manually extracted, converted and annotated by me. Sorry about the big, ugly annotations but I just wanted to make things clear.)

The Hub is a necessary visit because it gives you two leads that pinpoint the location of the water chip, which turns out to be a vault under the ghoul-inhabited Necropolis.

Interestingly, if you "fail" to visit Necropolis before 110 days have passed Set and his ghouls will have been invaded and slaughtered by a super mutant force, and you will miss out on some quality content (though you will meet the super mutants and all that entails).

This is a prime example of how the landscape of the Wasteland changes over time. It blew me away when I first discovered this time-based reactivity. Not just that, but I couldn't believe there was another way into the Military Base, all those leagues away. It was a complete campaign-changer. You don't see much of this in RPGs, past or present. This, as I said earlier, is one facet of Fallout's greatness. But then, we're talking about 1997 here - when people knew how to make an RPG.

As time runs down the player receives messages from their RemindBoy; namely:

• Water supplies running low in Vault 13. Find the water chip quickly. (50 day mark);
• Water supplies near gone in Vault 13. Situation critical. (100 day mark); and finally:
• Water supplies exhausted. Vault 13 dead. Mission over. (150 day mark = GAME OVER -> back to main menu.)

These are presented as FMVs that cut in as you play. Such quality of presentation, still holding up after all these years.

   T i m e  E x t e n s i o n   

Yeah, I'm not really a fan of this. Once you reach The Hub you can pay the water merchant to transport water supplies to Vault 13, thereby giving you an extra 100 days to find the water chip. This is a real luxury, actually. Too generous. Still, it's possible many players won't even find the merchants - I didn't on my first run.

   O t h e r  W a y s  T i m e  P a s s e s   

Aside from travelling on the world map there are other time-burning factors to take into consideration, but they are nowhere near as severe. 

Time basically passes in real-time when you are exploring within an area (for example, a town or dungeon). However, there are a few ways it can pass quicker within an area:

• Using medical skills and studying textbooks to skill up eats an hour each time.
• Waiting until a certain time of day, obviously.
• Resting Until Healed can burn significant time (use stimpacks).
• Some quests can time-lapse you; f.e, Refugee Irwin's quest (.223!) eats two days and one plot-critical journey can eat two weeks.
• Caravan runs go from hub to hub and can take a couple days, though they are much quicker than hiking to the destination.

So yeah, not many surprises here. These are just things to keep in mind.

   O t h e r  T i m e  L i m i t s   

• To my dismay, there was a time limit that Interplay removed in a patch: that of completing the campaign within 500 days or there would be a super mutant invasion on Vault 13! It's a real pity that they removed this because it's a logical consequence of the campaign. (The invasion can now only be caused by revealing the location of the Vault to the enemy, which is not timed reactivity.)

• The 13 year time limit for the entire campaign is just a technical limit put in place by the coders. Players should not be concerned with it at all. If you manage to exhaust it nothing special happens; you're just presented with a game-over screen and that's it.

• There are quite a few quests and other landscape changes that are based on time limits (Tandi being kidnapped by the raiders a couple of days after leaving Shady Sands, perhaps being the most famous), but they are comparatively minor. Lots of other RPGs have this sort of thing, so it's not that notable.


I've always loved the time limits in Fallout, even though they're not perfect. I don't get why people complain about time limits because they add a layer of depth and urgency to the campaign, giving them a sense of pacing that they otherwise might not have (Fallout's pacing is impeccable). Anyway, I'd like to see more RPGs employ major time-based reactivity in the future, rather than just run of the mill stuff like companion quests and the like.

And this concludes Time in Fallout.

Special thanks to ElDudorino of GameFAQs fame for taking the time to give me some constructive criticism on my writing style. Cheers, ElDude!

Other retrospectives: Old School Cool.



  1. Time limits are very rarely exploited in RPGs and when they are 99% of them are for side quests. One thing that time limits unintentionally bring to the table is the actual passage of time. Events have to trigger, otherwise the time limit feels artificial. Fallout does this in very moderate terms - mainly the FMV cutscenes when the time starts running out or the Necropolis ghouls being slaughtered by the super mutants. I would've preferred more things happening.

    Some adventure games have taken advantage of this, and also Majora's Mask, where time is one of the gameplay mechanics. At the top of my head, The Colonel's Bequest and the Dagger of Amon Ra have time specific events which you can miss. I'm sure there are more.

    Whether the time limit enforces any kind of urgency is debatable, at least for me. I guess it depends on how much time you actually have and whether it's possible to fail in any reasonable amount of time. You basically have to spam the wait button in Fallout to go near the limit, even in my first ever playthrough I noticed that it's not restrictive enough. Maybe that's because I knew beforehand that the water chip is not the "main" quest and you can continue playing after that, but I'm not sure.

    Either way, time limits for the sake of time limits = bad, time limits in which time passes and events happen beyond your control = good. I also posted an unrelated impression of mine on the 'Dex, which I feel is interesting.

    1. Actually, it doesn't take much real-time to exhaust 150 days on the world map (30 mins to trigger end-game, if that); spamming wait is manual labor. Not being attentive and following the logical course, and instead wandering around aimlessly looking for the chip, can easily exhaust the limit.

      And yeah, I made it pretty clear in the post that the time limit wasn't perfect. We all want to see more time-based reactivity, and reactivity in general, that actually counts for something. But then, Fallout and Fallout 2 did a better job than most RPGs.

      And Fallout is GOAT cRPG. Except in the addled minds of some edgy 'Dexers, who don't count for shit (I refer to an awful thread from a few years ago).

    2. Yeah, I was referring more to normal play, very few people are going to randomly roam the overland map on their first, or even second, playthrough. Props to Fallout for even attempting such a thing, I guess. Is there another RPG out there where the main quest has a time limit?

    3. Who knows what a new player will do after Vault 15? Maybe they didn't discover how to get Junktown followed by The Hub map-marked? There are no journal updates. No hand-holding. Could cause them to try and discover other places on their own, thereby burning time.

      I did a half-assed Google before starting the write-up; didn't really discover anything notable with a time-limit. Wracked my brains briefly trying to think of a NWN module that employed time limits, too. I knew about Majora's Mask, ofc, but it's not an RPG. Great game, though.

    4. I actually have a willing victim to experiment on regarding this. A first time RPG player who has no knowledge of anything related to RPGs, doesn't even know what Fallout is. I'll get back to you with the results.

    5. One NWN module employing a time limit is "Revenge is a Dish Best Served Cold" ( AFAIK, it is the only one employing such for the main plot, though of course there are a number employing time limits for particular quests.

      From the comments (including what I remember of those on the old vault), I gather this approach was not terribly popular. It certainly requires many players to ignore their usual habits, since most modules/RPGs reward one for being a completionist who explores everything, but in that module it is impossible to simultaneously beat the time limit and do all the side-quests: you need to pick and choose.

      Personally I like an occasional module (or game like Fallout) with a time limit well enough, as it makes for a different sort of challenge, but I would not like to have to worry about something like that in every game I play.

    6. Time limits are of course very popular in other genre, such as platform games.

      Thanks for the heads-up on that NWN module. I doubt I'll get around to trying it because there are quite a few bug reports and I'm not sure if its time-based reactivity makes complete sense, from what I've read of it. Plus the readme had lots of spelling mistakes and that just makes me think the overall quality won't be high.

      I look at classic cRPGs as puzzles in themselves and things to be replayed and gain mastery over, so I don't mind missing out on content on first runs.

  2. Whoa, one of my favourite games! Here time limit wasn't really an issue, since there's enought time to explore and do everything... so I think it's fine.

    Fallout 2 had a limit of time too... 13 years! (pretty hard to reach)

    1. Yeah, as I said in the body of the post, I wish the time limit was more of an issue. But Interplay were too generous and even took out the 500 day limit in the patch, which sucks. There is probably a mod to reinstate it, and you could always play an unpatched version, though.

  3. I preferred FO2 to FO1. But I love both. And the time limit did add drama to the game.

    And in defense of the 'generous' extension (which I did use my 1st time). SPOILERIFIC:

    If you avail yourself to it, you'll likely screw the Hub over, as the Super Mutants trash it on day ~120, IIRC. OTOH, Vault Dwellers who connect the dots with alacrity will get the best ending. So there's a double-edged sword to the water merchants. Sure, it essentially ensures you can wander aimlessly and still save the Vault. But you've condemned pretty much the entire region outside Shady Sands in the process.

    1. Good point. I completely forgot about that.

  4. AbdulwaheedMarch 25, 2017

    I wish Fallout 2 had more time-based reactivity. The only time-based quest in Fallout 2 was the main quest. You could visit it from time to time to see the changes(animals dying, starving children, etc.) but there was nott any time limit at all.

    1. Chip's spleen comes to mind. But yeah, that's just a minor quest.

  5. Very insightful post, as usual. The first playthrough of Fallout was really refreshing and I remember that even though I was't rushing to find the chip, I always had that time limit in my mind. Then, while doing some quests around the Hub I had this thought "Dammit, where's this water chip. Did I miss some areas?", and what a relief it was when I finally found it in the Necropolis. This place is so creepy, I also managed to meet the Lieutenant, but reloaded the save, because I thought it would basically mean game over - awesome encounter by the way.

    1. Thanks, Tuth! The Glow is my fave area in Fallout. Deserves a full write-up. Maybe after I'm done with Underrail, which so far seems like a decent clone.

    2. Oh my, the Glow, this place is amazing, definately one of my favourties as well and fully deserves an in-depth write-up. It has that dense atmosphere, sense of urgency and the biggest danger is not even visible at first. Of course, I screwed myself over while visiting it for the first time, even before I entered it "These couple of Rad-Aways are surely enough, right?". That was a hard lesson that tought me to never underestimate the wasteland itself.

      I'm still to play Underrail, I have it on GOG and it's waiting for its turn. I'm definately going to try it soon. It may be the Fallout 3 that I was waiting for all these years.

  6. Man I love Fallout 1, Fallout 2 is epic, but the tighter narrative in Fallout 1 really grabbed me along with the sense of urgency. In Fallout 2, I could fart-around forever with no penalties. The only thing as good for me as Fallout 1 is a modded up Fallout New Vegas. For me it's Fallout 1, Fallout New Vegas, Fallout 2, in that order. Could care less about Fallout 3 and 4, they're just too different than 1 and 2. Just my opinion :-) I always love some good Fallout content Lilura, thanks!

    1. As good as it is, I can't place NV above Fallout 2. The Bethesda engine is awful. :P

  7. Good point! I wish Bethesda would upgrade that engine for Fallout 5 or whatever is next in the series.


    hey guys thats my fallout collection :D

    if you're wondering this is my first post on lilura's blog ^_^

    if you're also wondering i keep my fallout 1 and tactics manuals INSIDE my fallout 2 box because it's so big :D

    if you're wondering where my fallout and fallout tactics boxes are i have NO IDEA

    thanks for all your love and support

    1. Good on you, Micormic. I only have the original CDs; the boxes are long-gone.


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