It's something I often see overlooked by most folks despite the obvious amount of attention and passion poured into it. I'm specifically talking about the actual "style" of the menus in 3, New Vegas and 4, and not the act of navigating them or their readability. That's something I've seen conflicted reports on so it's debatable whether it's good or not, though personally I've never had issues getting the menus to work how I want in these games.
Bethesda-published Fallout games have all featured the same main user interface element, the Pip-Boy, with the iconic Vault Boy acting as a visual representation of the various perks, skills and whatever else Bethesda wants to communicate to the player easily. While these elements stem from the first two isometric Fallout games, and were certainly charming and much appreciated even back then, I think Bethesda's UI designers took the fun, cartoony way of presenting game mechanics through actual in-world properties that Interplay came up with and really ran with it.
The first thing that comes to mind is, of course, the Pip-Boy. Diegetic (when a UI element is something that physically exists within the game's world rather than being an abstraction that serves the player alone) menu design is something pretty much everyone loves as long as it's done well and doesn't needlessly obstruct navigation. I remember back in ~2010 when I first played Fallout 3 and was introduced to the Pip-Boy, I was so in love with the concept that I tried to make a papercraft replica to wrap around my wrist because I just thought as a device, the Pip-Boy was awesome (yeah, I was a stupid kid). In all three 3D fallout games, the Pip-Boy makes sense for the story, explains VATS and how the player character often has better logistical and technological capabilities than most NPCs, and is just a cooler way of displaying info to the player than just popping up a 2D menu on the screen would ever be, at least in my opinion.
While most RPGs are content with simply illustrating what their skills and unlockables do through text, small icons or sometimes in-game videos, Fallout manages to do the same with simple but easy to understand and often darkly comedic drawings of Vault Boy. Despite how tragic and serious some stories in the Fallout world are, overall, the entire series has been coated in a delicious layering of irony and black comedy, something the skill and perk drawing follow to great success. The juxtaposition of a cute, cartoonish character design like Vault Boy and the grit and violence of a post-apocalyptic world is timeless to me. Some of my favourites are the images for Bloody Mess, Mister Sandman and Sneering Imperialist, but there are tons of charming illustrations to be appreciated across all 3 games.
But where things REALLY stepped way the fuck up was Fallout 4. I dunno if it's the increased budget or a bigger push for including animations and drawings in the UI but it makes me so happy it's there. The Pip-Boy has been given a dandy visual update with a more ergonomic design and snappier animations that actually show how the player character uses the device. I love how holotapes and Vault door activation actually have animations associated with them now, further adding to the immersion that the Pip-Boy has always been pushing for.
And my god, the ANIMATIONS! Adding limited 60s-era computer animation and primitive sound effects to the perk images is such a wonderful addition that greatly adds to the fun of getting new perks and looking through them. I'm pretty sure I'll never get tired of hearing the Gun Nut sound when reviewing my perks, or the speech check success or critical hit animations. Some of the funniest little bits of classic Fallout humour can be found in the quest animations as well, with two of my favourites being the Dangerous Minds one where the Vault Boy cheerfully picks up and tosses Kellogg's rotting brain, and the Here There Be Monsters one, which is just so cute that I want to hug whoever thought of it.
Overall I just think the franchise's style in general is so unique and creative that I can't get enough of it. I feel like every other company who wants to create a post-apocalyptic setting is just looking at Bethesda and thinking "damn, how can we top that?" It's just such a perfect amalgamation of cartoonish violence and genuinely poignant world-building and satire, of art-deco architecture and 50s culture co-existing with demented killer robots and laser guns. It's so varied that it can tell stories of any genre while still not feeling out of place, which we've seen with Dead Money's dark heist aesthetic, Old World Blues' and Mothership Zeta's shlocky sci-fi B-movie schtick and Honest Hearts' take on post-apocalyptic tribe culture (even if I find focusing on tribal stuff in a setting as fun as Fallout's extremely boring).
I just feel like people don't give enough credit to the UI designers for their part in keeping up the style and themes of the world even when you're slogging through the busywork of managing your items and planning your progression, especially when such a huge amount of work has been poured into it.
So thanks Interplay, for getting this whole ball rolling with the creation of every iconic thing we associate with the franchise. May you rest in peace.
Thanks Obsidian, for contributing even more charming art to the perk roster and adding more fun stuff like the Pimp-Boy.
And thanks to Bethesda, for absolutely perfecting it with the Fallout 4 and other contributions stemming from Fallout 3, like the radio and 3D Pip-Boy models.
I love all of you.
(and yes, I'm probably way too obsessed with menu design in games and I'm likely rambling to no one in particular. I'd totally become a UI designer too if I actually had any talent for it.)
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