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Behind The Design Process Of “Fallout 4,” Through The Eyes Of One Robot

Designer Dennis Mejillones talks about how Bethesda Softworks’s commitment to detail contributes to the game franchise’s success.

Fans love Bethesda Softworks’s Fallout series for its self-aware, winky-wink atmosphere. It’s the perfect game for this emoji-packed, bobblehead-loving era we live in. But the last game, Fallout 3, came when the PS3 and the Xbox 360 limited how much nuance designers could apply to the game’s postapocalyptic Washington, D.C.

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Sure, you could see the burned-out remains of buildings along Pennsylvania Ave., but creating the true depth of the sky at dusk or the sound of fluttering pages that comes from flipping through a book proved impossible due to memory and processor constraints. When the PS4 and Xbox One came out two years ago, it gave the designers at Bethesda a chance to get elbow-deep in design cuteness, and bake it into Fallout 4, now set in Boston, which comes out Tuesday.

Dennis Mejillones is one of the designers. He says adding detail and texture to the universe are two things he could do with the new game that weren’t possible a few years back. The added processing firepower let him run wild in his design of Mr. Handy, the domestic robot introduced in the game’s pre-nuclear attack scenes, and then comes back into play decades later after your character emerges from a cryogenic sleep pod inside the fallout shelter.

Mr. Handy is like the Jetsons’ Rosie, except he’s powered by a thruster and is about six feet tall, including his glowing eyes and octopus-like legs. People who love the richness that went into 1950s design–the sharp tailfins on a 1957 Thunderbird, the smooth lines and precise lettering of a Coca-Cola ice chest, the simplicity of midcentury ranch-style homes–will love this game. It’s the first time you can see in HD clarity how cool and kooky the pre-fallout universe really was. There’s even a cold bottle of Nuka-Cola in the smooth-edged, Smeg-style fridge.

That design sense is uniquely revealed via the Handy robot, Mejillones’s pet project, when he greets you, both upon the game’s startup and when you emerge from the fallout shelter decades later (or about an hour later IRL).

You might just take for granted that your domestic robot, named “Codsworth” in this case, exists in the preapocalypse world. It’s a fantasy game, after all. Some suspension of disbelief is required, and if there’s no backstory, so be it. But no, the robot is an appliance, and to reinforce that, its box is tucked away in your home’s storage room. It’s billed as the “incredible, multi-talented Mr. Handy,” much in the same way a Whirlpool washing machine was touted as the “Surg-o-matic, with touch-button control” or a 1953 Dodge had a “three-way smoother ride.” One can imagine him wowing in the home of the future at a futuristic world’s fair.

Bethesda sent out review copies at the end of October and, fitting with the exuberant, ’50s-style callouts sprinkled throughout the game, the shrink wrap should have had an orange sticker proclaiming: “New and improved; Now with extra nuance!” As cool as they are, it’s not like all of these details are truly necessary. The game’s mission doesn’t hinge on knowing all these robots were perhaps sold door-to-door like vacuums, but fans of Fallout, who have already blocked off their November (and perhaps December and January, too) to explore the wasteland, are expecting that sort of thing. They would be disappointed without it.

It’s one thing to create a video game robot using 3-D modeling software, and just code it into the game. But that’s no fun. Instead, Mejillones took some of the Handy concept drawings he had kicking around the office and tried to reverse-engineer them using design software and a 3-D printer he had at home. Every leg, hinge, transistor, eyeball, and saw blade you see in the game’s final version started at Mejillones’s home in rural Maryland.

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“We tried to focus on how [Mr. Handy] would work in the world,” Mejillones says. “One of the things we’re most excited about is how much thought went into the functional aspects of these robots.”

The first time he tried to assemble a spec Handy, it broke. One of the hinges couldn’t support a long appendage. He has boxes of discarded parts to prove it. So he went back at the Handy models in ZBrush and made some of the faulty pieces more robust.

There’s nothing more luxurious than time in creative work, and Mejillones says he worked on Fallout 4 for almost four years, picking up his Mr. Handy models as he had time and pulling several all-nighters when his curiosity peaked.

Mejillones credits Bethesda leadership that in this “I want it now” world, he was able to work on his contributions to the game for four years. “The leadership is important,” Mejillones says. “Having the support from [game director] Todd Howard or [lead artist] Istvan Pely–these people support you but keep you grounded in reality.”

When you go years between releasing games (Fallout 3 came out seven years ago), you run the risk of making your fans so impatient they move on to other things. Or, you can hype them up so much they’re ready to devour the game as soon as it comes out.
Bethesda, and its parent company Zenimax, tucked away in a large, nondescript office building in Rockville, Maryland, don’t mind stoking the fire over a few years if it means the next game will follow through on all of the blue-sky promises that come from early idea meetings.

To get a sense of how unique it is to let seven years pass between games, a sports game like NBA 2K16 comes out every year. Call of Duty is another annual serial, but Activision coordinates each year’s release with a different developer in a three-year cycle. For example, this year’s Black Ops III was produced by Treyarch, while last year’s game came from Sledgehammer, and the year before, Infinity Ward ran the show.

Certainly the development cycles work well enough for all three franchises. The NPD Group says COD and NBA2K were in the Top 10 games sold in the first half of 2015. But there’s nothing like having years to work on the details of a domestic robot. And here’s the kicker: There’s no guarantee the player will see all the elements Mejillones created for the robot. It completely depends on what the player decides to do, whether he will stay on the rails and move the game forward chapter by chapter, or go off on some side mission.

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The cool thing about it is that Bethesda doesn’t ultimately care how the user plays the game, as long as he or she is captivated. “The more fantastical the setting, the more important it is to pay attention to the details so things feel authentic,” says Pely, the game’s lead designer. “You’re already asking the audience to make some leaps and accept what they’re seeing is real. So it’s as immersive as can be. This approach to everything in the game helps us get there so it’s not just a cartoon.”

Pely says he’s been working in the Fallout 4 universe for almost nine years, and he’s never been bored. He hopes fans who get 30 or 40 hours into the game will say the same thing. He’s not cocky about why he thinks Fallout 4 works; he’s confident.

“We make fairly ambitious games, compared to the size of our team, so a lot of our success comes from individuals going the extra mile, putting their heart and soul into something,” says Pely. “Dennis didn’t just design a robot and put it in the game; he’s like, ‘I want to make this the best damn robot I can make.’”

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