Last week I made the argument that Fallout 3 could have had much more interesting and effective writing while still appealing to its desired audience. One criticism I received was that New Vegas received a lukewarm reception from some of the most ardent F3 fans—and what was New Vegas, if not Fallout 3 written more interestingly and effectively?
Well, quite a lot. Let me be as explicit as possible: in this exercise, I am not trying to write New Vegas. That was a game that didn’t appeal to F3‘s broader audience simply because it had no interest in pursuing Bethesda’s design sensibilities. Obsidian wanted a morally-ambiguous political meditation explored through a basically linear zigzag through its curated gameworld. Bethesda wanted a tightly-linear main storyline with a baroque good-versus-evil narrative that serves as a tour guide to an otherwise totally open gameworld full of little disconnected vignettes to explore. There was no reason either game had to be written well or poorly based solely on development goals. You can argue that Obsidian’s priorities attract a better class of writer, or that Bethesda settled on the approach it did for want of strong narrative designers, but I’d argue success or failure in either case is hardly baked in at the conceptual stage.
If we’re taking one Obsidian-y action item on board, it’s the idea that a story’s conflicts should all reflect its theme. Last week we settled on a major theme to explore: it is good for the powerful to give strength to the weak. This week we’re going to mix in a theme to accompany, complicate, and inform this idea: there’s no free lunch. Whenever we feel tempted to boil a conflict down to “Should you give bread to the hungry because you want to be a good guy or just jack up the prices for evil karma points,” we can complicate the choice to a greater or lesser extent by asking something like: “If you give that bread away, how will you get everyone more bread?” In an Obsidian kind of game, we’d be asking that question constantly; the intense dilemmas would be half the point. In this Bethesda-style game there’s no reason to put that much pressure on the player, who’d probably rather make a straightforward choice and get on with the story and exploration, but being able to at least point to that tension and acknowledge the existence of scarcity will go a long way towards making characters and factions more interesting.
Speaking of “making characters more interesting,” I think it’s time we had a serious talk about the main character of Fallout 3. That would be James, aka Liam Neeson.
It’s hard to deny that James is the central character of at minimum the first half of the game. James makes a choice that sets the story’s events in motion. James has identified the main problem in the Wasteland and made a machine that can solve it. The player is frequently called on to learn more about him and his motivations, to the point where a major story reveal is where you learn a detail of either.
Since I constantly bang on about player agency, you might be bracing for me to dress this down as a terrible idea. Actually, I think it’s pretty shrewd. This is a really good way to start the player down a linear narrative in an open world; calling on the player to respond to their father’s choices lets them learn about the world and gather context for grander moralizing while keeping things neatly on rails. I also really like it when games let you shadow a character and unravel their inner mysteries by studying their actions. Which brings me neatly to what I do need to dress down.
James is an extremely weak character. He withstands no study whatsoever. There’s no “mystery” to his choices, in the sense of a tantalizing lack of connective details; for a long time the player is totally clueless as to why James vanished, then the answer is provided and overlaps perfectly with his one character trait, “being a good and selfless person.” All of the answers to James’ nebulous mysteries are either dully straightforward (“I left the Vault because I thought you were old enough to take care of yourself”) or predicated on convoluted twists the player couldn’t have begun to predict (“I’m actually a genius engineer as well as a medical doctor, and I was building a water purifier before your mother died having you and I decided to take you to the Vault”). When you rebuke the mild flaws you are allowed to discover, he offers no passionate defense—that might make him unsympathetic—but squelches the drama instantly by apologizing. He rarely modulates his tone from meek but earnest concern. He is boring, boring, boring.
And there really should be more to him here. He leaves rashly and unexpectedly, abandons his only remaining family member to the wrath of a dangerous unhinged madman Overseer without leaving so much as a warning, and carelessly fills the Vault with murderous radroaches in the balance. You’re allowed to bring this up, sort of, but it feels like even the writer’s trying to say that all of that wasn’t his fault. James isn’t allowed to actually be a reckless idealist who doesn’t weigh the consequences of his actions; that wouldn’t suit Liam’s soothing tones, and so it must be papered over with excuses and omissions.
The problem with Fallout 3 is that they wrote a game about the idea of a father—an icon whose principles and passion and stubbornness are virtues beyond reproach. That’s how you see your father when you’re a child. Eventually, you have to learn to see these things as the imperfect human qualities they are.
The other missed opportunity in the first half is how uninteresting the actual features of James’ trail are. Considering his prominence in the story, it’d be nice if he left a little more impact on the gameworld. This is chiefly because letting your father make decisions and lead the narrative for the first half of the game could have allowed the developers to model some of the moral dilemmas of the world through the lens of his actions. This isn’t to say players wouldn’t get their own choices—quite the opposite—but it would allow the story’s themes to be presented and put in context fully by the second half, when the player will be the primary driving force. Plus, it’d be a way to characterize him further and thicken the mystery of “why did James leave.”
I won’t get into more detail about “my” James yet. For now, let’s just keep on following the main storyline.
Morning in the Vault
The alarm awakens you the next morning. The overseer’s bland morning speech plays over the intercom, transparent yet chilling propaganda that references an “incident” the following evening and asks eyewitnesses to debrief with the security office. A quest appears: get your work assignment from labor office.
You come out to find your father’s room empty. The tables are cleared of experiments. In the living area is a table with an empty bottle of whiskey and drinking glass that weren’t there the night before. One of the medical lockers is unlocked and empty. A note on the exit door says simply, “I love you.”
All of this is probably weird enough that the player will probably notice it, and may even figure out something’s amiss. But there’s nothing to do about it yet.
Security bots and vault dwellers pass by windows as the player proceeds to the labor office. The atmosphere is subdued. It’s clear, from overheard dialogue, that resources are a little scarce; people pine for “luxuries” like bottled whiskey from when synthgrain “wasn’t so rationed.”
Amata, the overseer’s daughter, asks the player if something seems unusual. The player may confront her with the knowledge that a man injured by security bots arrived for treatment at your father’s office last night. Amata will not take kindly to these insinuations and will counter defensively that the resources he stole were not his to take, nor were the medical supplies your father provided; everything in the vault is necessarily the Overseer’s to distribute. Otherwise, reasonably comfortable life inside the vault would fall apart.
You arrive at the labor office. Apparently your file in the system was scrambled that morning, as was your father’s: you need to re-fill out your form and “give this one to your father to fill out when he gets the chance.” You get to assign “priority” checks to various duties, like “try to fix all the broken heating coils to make the furnace room bearable” or “help blast rocks out of the collapsed tunnel with high explosives” or “help break into the supply closet that the key got lost to.” These, naturally, fill out your tag skills.
You’re on your way out of the job office when the scanner shrieks. Laser turrets hone in on you. A voice declares:
Present yourself at the Overseer’s office immediately.
The Overseer’s Office
The Overseer is vanilla Fallout 3‘s first villain, and the bad news is, he sets the tone perfectly. He’s typical of the game’s antagonists in that he has no redeeming qualities and no interesting bad ones. For most of the intro he’s a comically vain, officious, joyless tyrant. Then a switch flips off-camera and with extremely little foreshadowing he and his security team go from “irritating bullies” to “berserk, murderous, family-torturing thugs.” There’s no sense of proportion, limits, motivation; the Overseer is bad because he’s a snide buzzkill, so when the drama switch gets flipped he’ll be a butcher too. Let’s see if we can’t do better.
The Overseer should contrast your father, providing a thematic counterpoint…but just because our father is a man who will selflessly give his strength to aid others, doesn’t mean the Overseer should be a merciless petty autocrat by way of balancing him out. As long as we’re presenting our themes, this is the perfect chance to explore why someone might not believe in giving up power.
The Overseer’s office is calm, if not friendly. He has a picture of his daughter on his desk; behind him are a row of plaques commemorating all of the Overseers who came before him. Some of their reigns were conspicuously short. He’s surrounded by security robots, but they’re not flashing red lights right now. He asks you to sit down.
Then he says:
Do you know what it takes to keep men alive in a tin can?
I know how many drops of water a man must drink to live, and how few we produce. I know how many injuries our dwellers suffer every year and I know how little medicine our synthesizers produce. If I could give my people one luxury, it would be waste. Two luxuries, it would be choice.
Where is your father?
The player is allowed to express ignorance, agree that their father seems to be missing, or provide a refusal to help. The Overseer continues:
What I know is that my doctor seems to have stolen precious supplies and left my Vault. He left me a letter full of excuses he seems to think I’d want to read. He told me you wouldn’t know anything about where he’s going or what he’s going to do.
So let me ask you again, politely. Where is your father?
Once again, the player’s response doesn’t particularly change the flow of the conversation. The Overseer is a stern man. Since the player can’t actually offer him what he wants, he’ll move forward to his preplanned next move.
Maybe you know where he’s going, maybe you don’t. Maybe he was reckless enough not to tell his own flesh and blood the where and why of it. Doesn’t matter; I can’t spare him. And I can damn well spare you.
You’re going to go out there into that wasteland, you’re going to find your dumbass father, and you’re going to bring him back to my nice safe tin can. Do I make myself clear?
The player’s choice of options don’t include an outright refusal, but they do make it clear that cooperation isn’t the only possibility–that the player can be motivated to find the father, but not necessarily to return to the repressive Vault. The Overseer replies to this:
Tell yourself whatever you want. One night out there in that Hell and you’ll curse your father almost as much as you curse me. There’s a reason no-one ever leave the Vault.
On the player’s way to the Vault entrance, they may talk to as many vault dwellers as they’d like about the missing father. Some details are filled in here: why the father is so important (“Not only was he the best doctor, he was one of only three people in this Vault who knows his way around the water system and the food synthesizers. He was such a caring man. What could possibly be out there that he’d abandon us like this?”), where they think he may have gone, or why the wasteland is so rough (“There’s no Vault-Tec food generators, no cozy radiation shields. Even the water is poison. I don’t know how people are still alive out there.”). A few seem to want to say more, but don’t. The security robots follow the player closely wherever they go.
In the final chamber the player’s given some bobby pins, bottled water, food, a baseball bat, and a pistol by the security officer.
Listen, I liked your father. I think we both know that if he left this place, it’s because he knew there were people out there who needed him more. If I were you, I’d look for the first sign of trouble.
Good luck, kid.
Then the vault door is opened, and the player is allowed out into the winding tunnel.
If I had my druthers, this is about where the bright light would blind the player and the world would open up in glorious pea-soup and sepia. But I did say I’d try to make this an acceptable treatment based on Bethesda’s vision of the game, and we all know perfectly well that the Bethesda version needs to have some controlled tutorial combat right about now. So let’s extend the intro just a little bit longer.
Wouldn’t you know it—the tunnels outside Vault 101 are crawling with crappy-ass enemies. At first they’re infested with radroaches, providing simple tutorial-combat adversaries for the player to chew through. When the player reaches the upper level, however, they hear a conversation around the corner. The tutorial prompt for stealth appears, just as the player sees a mobile of bones dangling from the ceiling.
Well, what if they’re ALL leaving? Could be another nice soft fat vaultie coming down here any minute…
Another voice snarls:
Tooth-Tooth’s right. Let’s not let the next one get by, eh? Eyes open!
Around the corner is a camp. There’s tin cans and bones and ratty old tents everywhere. Three raiders sit by a fire, armed to the teeth. They’ve got a tripwire set up away from them, toward the exit that leads to the wasteland. The player can either sneak by, sneak into battle, or approach openly; doing so will prompt Tooth-Tooth to declare that she’s going to kill the player, which gives the player the option of Speech-checking a billy-goats-gruff situation where the player insists that a noisy firefight will alert the dozen vault-dwellers who will be arriving shortly with picnic baskets.
Once the blockage is cleared, the player finds themselves in the Wasteland. They don’t know quite know it yet, but they’re Megaton bound.
NEXT WEEK: MEGATON, MR. BURKE, AND SUPER MUTANTS