I didn’t play Fallout Shelter when it first launched.
In fact, I didn’t play it at all until earlier this year. And then I tried it out on Steam.
I was surprised at how good it was.
I don’t know why this surprised me. I listened to hours of Idle Thumbs podcasts two years ago where Nick Breckon talked at length about all the wacky he had going on in the game.
Thing is, those narratives were largely created out of his own mind, and his propensity for naming his vault dwellers and following their virtual lives.
I don’t really like to do any of that stuff.
I get more involved in the systems. I played The Sims the same way; I’d name my character at the start, but let the rest of it play out systemically. I’m more interested in playing the underlying game than creating my own stories on top of the happenings…though I still appreciate emergent moments.
It doesn’t take long to realize that, beneath its elaborate and well-made face, Fallout Shelter is just a really good clicker/idle game. And that’s kind of cool.
In Fallout Shelter, you name your own vault, then you build various rooms and stock them with people who show up at the door. You can equip those people with gear. You can send them out into the wasteland. You can click buttons to rush the production of the different facilities they work in, and possibly encounter a minor challenge if a dice roll fails. Over time, you can upgrade those facilities and the people in them.
That’s all there is to it really. And yet it still works shockingly well.
Like other clicker/idle games, there’s no explicit difficulty to speak of. The biggest challenge is the slope of the progression ramp, which gently increases as you make your numbers go up. Sure, you can get some bonuses for strategically handling upgrades and placement of characters…but everyone is going to make progress, over time, no matter their skill level.
And hey, you could always buy some more lunch boxes if you want a little boost. ;)
The lunch box (chest) opening animations are very satisfying. This is key in a modern free-to-play game…and actually got me to stop playing Iron Blade (but that’s a tale for another time).
In fact, the presentation of the game as a whole is very satisfying, leaning heavily into the fun animated art style created for all of the Bethesda-era Fallout iconography. Character sprites are bright and well-animated, and the backgrounds are surprisingly detailed in spite of the art style.
If there’s a way to lose at Fallout Shelter, I haven’t found it.
You can set yourself back a bit if there’s a fire or if some of your dwellers are injured/die, but with enough time, you will always overcome.
From the initial marketing and what I heard on the Idle Thumbs podcast, I didn’t think it would be like this. I was expecting something more like the strategic base-building mechanics of the XCOM series. I thought that my decisions were going to matter much more to my success, and not just speed up or slow down my progression through the gently satisfying clicker-ramp.
I don’t know why I expected such brutal difficulty from a free-to-play game. After all, the game has to be just easy enough that I want to keep playing it compulsively, and just difficult enough that I might want to put some money in to get a satisfying progression push.
Fallout Shelter is very good.
But it’s not really much of anything.
It’s not as directly compulsive as the constant clicking mechanics contained in most other clickers (though I do like zooming the camera around).
It’s not as elaborate as a full-on strategy game. But it has just enough going on, and a solid-enough presentation, that I will probably keep playing with it for a while.
I downloaded it on my new phone, and I think that’s a really good place for it to live. It’s a fun little diversion to check in on every once in a while, with a whole lot of relaxing fun and only gentle consequences.
I know that lots of folks out there don’t like “Gently Fun” games, but I think that represents a vast percentage of the money-making market now.
Accessibility is more important than ever, especially in the mobile space, and it’s fascinating that one of the most hardcore games has a mobile spin-off that’s nothing but breezy fun. I like both approaches to game design, and I hope they find a way to peacefully co-exist without proponents of one constantly lobbing insults at fans of the other. I think we’re pretty close to there, if Fallout Shelter’s reception is any indication.