Brian Fargo has been involved with so many incredible franchises, it’s hard to list them all. Let’s try: Bard’s Tale, Battle Chess, Wasteland (which led to Fallout), Clay Fighter, and, of course, Torment: Tides of Numenera, upcoming descendant to the lauded CRPG classic Planescape: Torment. We spoke to Fargo about his fascination with the apocalypse, lack of risk-taking in the game industry, creating a VR game with infinite resources, and… wait a second, did he just say WASTELAND 3? FUUUUUUUHHHHH *HEAD EXPLODES*
Existential Gamer: You were 20 years old when you single-handedly designed and marketed your first game, Demon’s Forge. At a time when there were a lot less resources for self-publishing, can you tell us what the process was like? What did your life look like in 1981?
Brian Fargo: Navigating the uncharted waters at a young age was my biggest challenge as I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. But like I tell everyone who wants to get into business, just jump in and learn on the job. Anything beats sitting back and talking about it. Obviously there was no internet back then, but neither were there sections at the book store to find information. All of my education came from a few magazines and visiting computer clubs. Never did I think I could make a living creating games, I would have been happy just getting a programming job.
EG: If you could pass your younger self a single message, what would it be?
BF: I would have told myself to stay focused on games only, and to never deviate away from my core roots. Blizzard is an example of someone who understood that.
EG: What’s the relationship between your life experiences and the way you write, design, and create characters, storylines, and games?
BF: I draw almost all of my inspiration from my personal life experiences, reading about others or stories that people share with me personally. Authenticity resonates. I was in Croatia recently and met a local who told me about his grandfather the hunter. He said that he has owned 4 four dogs in his life, each with the name Jackie. Apparently one day he was out hunting and shot a wild boar, but his bullet only grazed the animal, causing it to enter a frenzy. As the boar was charging to kill the hunter, his trusty dog Jackie jumped out and took the hit, dying in the process. His Grandfather dropped his rifle and ran to the doctor but was unable to save the dog. According to the hunter’s wife, it was the only time she ever saw the man cry. After that he named every one of his dogs Jackie. These kinds of stories are powerful, and you can bet you’ll find some part of this one in Wasteland 3.
“As the boar was charging to kill the hunter, his trusty dog Jackie jumped out and took the hit, dying in the process.”
EG: Personally, what draws you to the end of the world as a theme?
BF: I find the post-apocalyptic compelling as it feels like the most plausible of the science fiction worlds. Also I’ve always been drawn to the darker side of mankind. I’m fascinated by prisons, war history and areas without law and order. For all the progress we’ve made, I always know we’re just a small step away from mankind reverting to its more base instincts. I also think that the world has a way of re-balancing itself through disease, disaster and war; one way or the other we will have cataclysmic events.
EG: What’s your favorite outdoor activity?
BF: I used to love fishing as a kid and I still enjoy doing it when I have the time. It’s relaxing and then suddenly becomes intense when that big fish strikes your lure and the line starts spinning out and everyone scrambles. Good stuff.
EG: Contemporary cinema and entertainment, more so than that of the 70s, often seems to involve sentimental narratives, overt explanation, and a focus on ‘relatability’. I find this often comes at the cost of idiosyncrasy. Do you think that the same shift towards creation by way of ‘focus group testing’ is happening in gaming? What are your thoughts on the matter?
BF: Hmmmm, interesting question. In the 70’s people would greenlight films based on instincts and that helped create wild diversity and experimentation. These days you do see more concern for pandering or making sure merchandising can chime to create opportunities for toys, etc. As the budgets and publishers’ overhead have grown, they’ve little choice but to sequel-ize and pound on existing genres. I don’t fault them for this, but I do think a little more risk-taking on the smaller-budget projects is in order. Where do you think the biggest franchises of today came from? GTA, Fallout, Tomb Raider… none of those games had big forecast numbers. We are very lucky that our audience helps to fund our games, which allows us to integrate random and odd things that happen to strike us.
“As the budgets and publishers’ overhead have grown, they’ve little choice but to sequel-ize and pound on existing genres. I don’t fault them for this, but I do think a little more risk-taking on the smaller-budget projects is in order.”
EG: I loved the game for many reasons, but one of my favorite aspects of Wasteland 2 is that certain narrative strands are left unresolved. Do you value non-resolution in video game narratives, and why?
BF: Mystery is a big part of a universe to me and I don’t feel the need or desire to wrap up every loose end. Life doesn’t work that way and I like leaving the player wondering about certain things, it sparks the imagination. And sometimes in a sequel we decide to resolve or explain a few of these nagging mysteries. Wrapping everything up in a bow each time is dull.
EG: Everyone seems to have their own little way of surviving the wasteland. If he were one of its denizens, who would Brian Fargo be, and what would he “do in life”?
BF: There is always strength in numbers so the first thing I would do is gather a group and make sure we stood firm to survive. I would hole up around a very defensible position and then learn to start trading so we could get what supplies we needed without leaving our safe place. I’d like to be in charge of Barter Town.
EG: As somebody so closely involved with the birth of Wasteland, the original Fallout and Torment: Planescape, does it ever get surreal to play a game you weren’t involved in that was profoundly influenced by the aforementioned classics?
BF: I haven’t really had those moments playing other games but I sure do when I see an billboard or TV ad for Fallout. To think that this little game called Wasteland would turn into Fallout which would then turn into a billion dollar worldwide franchise is awesome. It’s probably my biggest contribution to pop culture.
EG: Have you been playing Fallout 4? If so, are you enjoying it?
BF: I did put in a few hours and I certainly appreciate the level of detail and incredible sound design. I’m not much for action games so it was a bit twitchy for my taste but the overall tone was nice. I’m excited that I am still making Post Apoc games and get to show off my own particular approach.
“To think that this little game called Wasteland would turn into Fallout which would then turn into a billion dollar worldwide franchise is awesome. It’s probably my biggest contribution to pop culture.”
EG: Do you deal well with criticism? How do (the oftentimes heated) online discussions of these treasured franchises and genres affect you?
BF: I like to think I’m pretty self-aware when it comes to the faults of my games. I’ll admit that I can get frustrated if a criticism was incorrect or missed the point due to a misunderstanding of particular events, but I do try to keep my cool. I love having Early Access because I can receive that criticism early on, a point at which I can actually do something about the feedback. The most difficult part about dealing with the older franchises is that we often end up competing with the memory of players’ experiences rather than the actual gameplay itself. This happens mostly because people played some of these old games at a certain special time in their life.
EG: Torment: Tides of Numenera seems like a hugely ambitious project, one that aims to redefine what a CRPG can be. As it enters open beta, what would you say to a player going in without having played the original Torment? What about a hardcore fan?
BF: I would want anyone new or old to prepare for a literary experience as they begin playing Torment: Tides of Numenera. The quality of its writing and the bizarre universe it established were what made Planescape: Torment wonderful. These are the focus of this game as well. It is not a game that works if your mindset is to rush towards victory. It’s about enjoying the experience of this world crafted for you by the writers. Sitting back and taking it in like you might with a book trilogy. With Torment: Tides of Numenera, we have hung our hats on the words themselves.
“With Torment: Tides of Numenera, we have hung our hats on the words themselves.”
EG: What’s the game people would be most surprised to hear you enjoy?
BF: I play so many odd games to experience different techniques in storytelling, UI, monetization, etc. There are probably quite a few that would surprise people. But in the line of games I enjoy that would be surprising… perhaps those I play on my mobile devices like Hearthstone or Clash Royale. I’m a very competitive person, and those games really get me fired up. But who would have thought I’d have so much fun playing a time-traveling teenage girl in Life is Strange?
EG: You seem to have a knack for finding small, talented development teams (I’m thinking in particular of Silicon & Synapse, which later became Blizzard). What kind of personal and professional qualities do you find the most important and interesting?
BF: It’s hard to put my finger on it, but when I meet talented people, they tend to have an air of authenticity and passion about them, and this is usually backed up by a deep well of knowledge. I’m proud of the internal talent we found and cultivated within Interplay and I do enjoy knowing that we gave companies like Blizzard, Treyarch and Bioware their first shot. I would say that one of my favorite parts of playing this role is finding people with potential and teaching them about the game business while simultaneously learning new lessons from them.
“Who would have thought I’d have so much fun playing a time-traveling teenage girl in Life is Strange?”
EG: As someone who struggles with being an introvert, I found it interesting to note the entrepreneurial spirit at the core of your career path. Do you find the relatively solitary pursuit of game development to be at odds with your public persona? What would you say to the creators out there who might be less socially inclined?
BF: When I was in high school we had an assignment that involved speaking in front of my entire class and I took the ‘F’ rather than get up in front of my peers, so I fully appreciate the challenges of overcoming a tendency towards introversion. Today it’s my job to communicate our company’s mission and get money to pay the bills, so I was forced to overcome this tendency or perish. This didn’t happen overnight. It started slowly: Interplay only had a few employees and it was when the company grew bigger that my position became a sort of public performance. To be honest, I would be perfectly happy to recede more into the background, but people expect me to be the rainmaker. And there is a certain part of my outgoing personality that can be helpful to other developers, so that makes it all worthwhile. Surviving in the games business takes persistence.
EG: In our interview with him, Vince D. Weller of Age of Decadence mentioned inXile as the most interesting studio out there. Who are you most excited to see pave the future for RPG’s?
BF: I’ve always been excited to see how small Indies like Vince push the envelope of what makes an RPG. As companies acquire overhead it becomes more difficult to take risks and therein lies the opportunity for the small guy to shine. My whole life I’ve been asked who my biggest competitor is. My answer remains unchanged: it’s a person I’ve never heard of. Someone who is dying to do better, to show the world what they are capable of.
EG: What’s the game you’ve spent the most time playing over the course of your life?
BF: By far and away it was Shiny Entertainment’s Sacrifice. That game was so creative and the multi-player aspects really hooked me. In fact I made a real-life friend through playing it. It was just enough twitch and just enough tactical strategy for my taste and the built-in editor had the community continuously creating clever maps. It was one of the most overlooked games I’ve been involved with.
EG: If I say: “amazing game that nobody knows about.” What do you think of?
BF: Funny… it’s the same game I just mentioned above. Sacrifice.
EG: VR will undoubtedly be in the spotlight this year. If you had infinite resources and access, what kind of game or experience would you be interested in designing for the platform(s)?
BF: Infinite resources can be a dangerous proposition for developers. That aside, I’d probably want to create a Post-apocalyptic world that people could actually live in. I’ve spent a lot of time with VR recently and it is definitely as powerful as its reputation purports. We throw the world “immersive” around a lot, but VR truly is exactly that. If you’ve seen those videos of people lying on the ground crying after experiencing horror games, it reminds you that games played on a monitor cannot evoke that kind of emotion. I would love to create a world like Second Life, but ripe with storytelling, economies, factions and battle.
“I would love to create a world like Second Life, but ripe with storytelling, economies, factions and battle.”
EG: What about as a player? What would you most like to experience in VR?
BF: I’d better get to be a player in this infinite-resources VR game! Otherwise what was the point of getting that opportunity?
EG: You have been designing games since the days of the Apple II. Have you come to think of technological limitations as a barrier or a boon when it comes to creating great games?
BF: There is no such thing as having zero technological limitations, regardless of budget, so it will always be another variable to reckon with. In the early era, we could barely play a musical note without halting all performance, and disk space always came at a premium. Our issues now are different, and perhaps not as stark as they once were, but I always find us bumping up against some barrier or other. We are working with VR now, and the need to keep 60 frames per second in both eyes certainly does limit the amount of characters we can feature onscreen, so limitations never really go away.
EG: If you weren’t designing, writing, and producing games, what would you be doing?
BF: It’s hard to imagine what else I would be doing after a long career of doing this one specific thing, but I suspect I’d be managing teams in some capacity. I really enjoy working with and helping to direct smart people towards a common goal.
EG: When do you think the world will end, and how?
BF: I am afraid that we have accumulated technology and firepower at a greater rate than we have evolved and it’s not likely to end well. If the world ends it will likely be our fault for having ruined our atmosphere and planet through greed or war. Well that’s a sobering way to end an interview. 😉