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The time has come for Wasteland 2 to repay a $3M debt

Wasteland 2 represents a swirling Doctor Who-style time tunnel, a connection between the late 1980s and today.

It allows its creator, Brian Fargo, to travel back to the formative days of game design, when he and his peers believed that anything was possible, to recreate the glowing firmament when games were whatever people wanted them to be, before 'genres' and 'categories.' This was a time when the original Wasteland graced now-antique formats like Commodore 64 and Apple II.

And it allows Fargo's younger self (1980s coif intact) access to the modern age, a time dreamed of by video game design pioneers of the Reagan era, when powerful computers might allow the creation of hugely complex fantasy narratives.

This time tunnel is a loan bestowed by the gaming public, via the magical Tardis of Kickstarter. Now, as Wasteland 2 nears completion (it's out in September) the time to repay the debt has arrived. Much is expected.

Nobody can seriously accuse of Fargo and his development team at InXile of shortchanging with the cash, and the trust, that has been placed with them. The Kickstarter may have raised almost $3 million, but the game's development cost is double that, boosted by income from Early Access and from Fargo's own pocket.

With an estimated play time in excess of 60 hours, this is a heaving opus of a game. There are 500,000 words included, which are delivered through audio and via the bizarrely retro mechanic of actual on-screen text.

Fargo, in an interview with Polygon last week, talked also about how he has salted the game with entire sections that many players may miss. In order to open up certain sequences, you must explore the world, interacting and chatting with a host of non-player characters.

In the era of hand-holding game design, of AAA budgets in which every scene must pay its way, this is generally considered to be heresy. Fargo doesn't care.

"I created an overly ambitious game, but I wanted to over-deliver," he says. "It's an epic sized game. Anybody who gave us their money, they'll get the value of the century on this thing."

In Wasteland 2 players control a group of rangers as they explore a colorful post-nuclear civilization, formerly known as Arizona (and, later in the game, Los Angeles). As the characters face down variously hostile factions, combat is played out through an XCOM-style mechanic of strategic movement, positioning and use of RPG abilities.

It's in those deep tangles of role-playing stats and abilities where players will be able to explore different tactics.

But this game seeks to be much more than a progression of rote military encounters. It's an adventure in the sense that it's a story, with multiple characters who can be bolted onto the exploration party and who affect narrative outcomes. There are various endings to Wasteland 2, but there are multiple ways of getting to those endings.

In a hotel suite high above the streets of San Francisco, Fargo demonstrates one scene between the party and a faction of monks. He is at pains to point out that the opening dialog salvos are unique to this party, because of the people who have been chosen to tag along in preceding sections.

When we play, the cause and effect can either mean a few moments of chit-chat, a fairly challenging combat scenario or a few hours of hardcore battling through a difficult section of the game.

"What makes this innovative, I think, is just the sheer amount of the choice and consequence that you can make throughout the game," he says. "We've made a big commitment to creating so much content that people will never see. It comes with the territory."

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According to Fargo, sandbox games in which you can mooch about and do a bunch of cool stuff are common fare. But Wasteland 2 offers freedom-of-story, not merely freedom-of-action. It is, he says, a "sandbox narrative."

"With a Grand Theft Auto, you can pump weights, get tattoos, but the structure of the story is exactly the same. Ours narratively changes. You're changing things and they ripple all the way throughout.

"We have to account for all of those different nuances. It isn't just a game over, you're dead. You've killed this guy, well okay, we've still got to push the story along. But this guy was the only one with the clue or the password and what happened to the story by killing him? What's another way around this situation? There's no algorithm that's going to handle all of that. So it's a real pain in the ass."

Humor is also part of Wasteland 2. Jokes hark back to the original Wasteland, which was a precursor to the later Fallout series of games. There are lots of buried references to popular culture and, through the weird cults that the player meets, social and political thrusts and parries.

Jokes also play out in the gameplay. A character joins the rangers as a fresh-faced acolyte with a sunny disposition. He encounters a grisly scenario deep into the game, and changes drastically for comic effect. The joke is only delivered if you played the game in such a way as to allow all those things to happen.

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The idea is not to place obstacles in the player's path, or to elongate potential play-paths, thus producing what a AAA game publisher might describe as "value." For Fargo, it's about constructing a world built up of layers. Your party might spend a fair amount of time walking down paths, but InXile wants those paths to feel like the sinews of a believable, complex universe.

Fargo is not known for splashing his development resources around recklessly, and refers repeatedly to his obligation to those fans who invested their money in the game's Kickstarter, and their time into its Early Access. The intro movie to the game, for example, cost less than $30,000 to make. Players and fans helped with much of the international localization. So, isn't it deeply reckless to be creating a game featuring tons of content that many players will pass by?

"I had a very well known game developer in my office recently," says Fargo. "He asked me, why would you do that? But that's the charm of these games, that's what you have to deliver. Every time you go in, things are just opening up. It makes it more immersive.

"You'll think, I did that whole scene, but what if that woman wasn't with me? I didn't even mean to pick her up, and then you start thinking. What if she wasn't with me? How does it play then?"

Fargo is banking on players being charmed by this notion of multiple narrative potentials and deep RPG-statistical complexity. These are design approaches that have been left by the side of the road by larger companies making games with way bigger budgets. But, after three decades in the business, he is nothing if not a believer in his own ability to design games that people want to play.

"Our players like complexity, they want to dive in, with the story, the characters, the world," says Fargo. "If you want to dive in deep, it's all there for you."

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