Deconstructing Fallout 3: Difficulty Curve

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When I first played Fallout 3 on my Xbox 360 way back in 2008, I found myself drawn to the hubs and the quests. Exploring the wasteland was fun, but ultimately I was looking for structure and a story. I’ve recently booted up Fallout 3 again, but this time on the PC. With extreme (but lore friendly) modding, I’ve found the exploration aspect far more enjoyable and the quests frankly lackluster. I want to deconstruct the quests in Fallout 3 to think about how they work in relation to an open world map and the player character’s development choices.

Let’s start with the basics. Not counting the three childhood quests, Fallout 3 has a total of 66 quests in the base game: 10 story quests, 18 side quests, 22 unmarked side quests, and 16 repeatable fetch quests. Again, I want to briefly break down each of these to see how they’ve made use of the new environment and the RPG elements.


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Fog of war stifles exploration and strongly encourages player to discover locations through dialogue

From a design perspective, one of Fallout 3’s biggest hurdles was managing the difficulty curve in an open world. Fallout and Fallout 2 addressed this by placing Vault 13 and Arroyo in the far north while crafting a narrative that relied on unlocking the location of new, more difficult settlements. In terms of structure, these games also benefited from a timer, discouraging players from exploring the vacant wasteland in favor of following the story.

Fallout 3, on the other hand, placed Vault 101 in the center of a fully explorable, fully lootable wasteland. Because there’s no urgency to follow the story, players are encouraged to march off in any direction from the start. As players can reach any location in the Capital Wasteland within 40 minutes, the developers had two options:

  1. Make a difficulty radius in which the center of the map has the easiest enemies and skill-checks while the edges of the map have tougher enemies.
  2. Make most of the wasteland accessible to any player with any build at any difficulty while sprinkling in a few difficult skill checks and tougher enemies.

Overall, Bethesda went with a cross between the two. Difficult enemies are basically relegated to corners of the map, but its inconsistent. Harder areas have harder skill checks, but most ruins feature at least one difficult science or lockpick opportunity.

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The overall dungeon difficulty can be broken into three categories based on enemy type:

  • Easy: Raiders, ghouls, ants, roaches, bloatfly, mole rats, dogs
  • Medium: Mirelurks, low-tier robots (protectrons, robobrains), mutants, radscorpions, Talon Company
  • Hard: Yao guai, deathclaws, high-tier robots (mister gusty, sentry bot) Enclave soldiers

While human enemies receive equipment relative to the player’s level, creatures have leader variations such as giant radscorpions, mirelurk kings, and glowing ones who add some much-needed spice to enemies with biological weaponry. Basically, you have three tiers of infantry (base, veteran, elite) for three tiers of difficulty (easy, medium, hard). Despite the apparent enemy diversity here, players still wanted more (after all, combat is the core of Fallout 3’s gameplay) which is why add-ons like Mart’s Mutant Mod are so popular.

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The Broken Steel DLC addressed this shortcoming by adding feral ghoul reavers, albino radscorpions, and super mutant overlords. These enemies appear when the player has reached a sufficient experience level, adding some variety to normally easy and medium dungeons by essentially adding randomly generated mini-bosses. Fallout 4 would develop this even further with power armored raiders, Skyrim-style enemy tiers, and mutating enemies. The base game of Fallout 3, however, overwhelmingly adheres to the easy, medium, and hard tier structure, with the player rarely witnesses interfaction/interspecies battles. One major exception is The Enclave, who bridge this gap with mind-controlled deathclaws (bringing top-tier melee power to an otherwise ranged army).

So how are these three dungeons tiers spread out across the wasteland and how does that effect pacing? Let’s take a look at a map. I’ve circled “easy” dungeons in green, “medium” dungeons in yellow, and “hard” dungeons in red. Mutant and Talon Company camps are marked with yellow stars. Enclave camps (only appearing after the “Waters of Life” quest) are marked with red stars.

Difficulty Map

Using this map, we find that most of the Capital Wasteland falls under the easy difficulty tier. Indeed, only the top left and the bottom right of the map fall within a medium-tier wilderness zones. You’ll immediately notice that while there are medium-tier wilderness zones, there are no hard-tier zones. There are 5 permanent hard-tier zones in the base game: Yao Guai caves, Deathclaw sanctuary, Old Olney, Fort Independence (hard-tier enemies, but won’t attack unprovoked) Raven Rock (only for a quest and you gain hard-tier allies midway through), Jefferson Memorial (only for a quest and you have hard-tier allies). The National Guard Armory and National Archives may also fall under hard-tier, but tiered robot enemies spawn based on character level.

Notice that two of those locations, the locations with ranged hard-tier enemies, are only for quests and the player is accompanied by heavily armed NPC allies: sentry bots and The Brotherhood of Steel respectively. So that leaves three permanent “difficult” dungeons, all of which are filled with melee enemies, either yao guai or deathclaws.

Look at how many Enclave camps are around the Megaton area. This gives good/neutral characters the illusion of a larger Enclave army while evil characters living in Tenpenny Tower may hardly notice them. The Enclave camps enforce the narrative of invasion and their increased difficulty and enemy/equipment variation offer something more for the late-game player. The problem is after the Enclave appears, player will spend far more time exploring the far left side of the map for story quests (specifically the area between Little Lamplight and Fort Constantine), but there are hardly any Enclave camps in what should arguably be their territory.

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Now look at the map again and notice the placement of the medium zones. Because only the top left and bottom right corners generally fall under medium-tier (due primarily to super mutant enemies), you can almost cut a diagonal line of easy-tier from the bottom left to top right. Why is this?
I think it has to do with the pacing of quest placement. From Megaton, right at the start of the game, you receive three of the game’s 16 marked quests. Players may stumble upon an additional quest, “Big Trouble in Big Town”, while completing the first three quests. “Big Trouble in Big Town” actually has a really nice pacing because it serves as a difficult encounter for the low level “Megaton bubble.”

Because nearly 1/5 of quests are given in the game’s first town, they all have to be accessible to low-level characters. Just look at “The Power of the Atom.” But another problem with “Power of the Atom” is that low-level characters must be able to claim their reward after destroying the game’s central hub. This means that the path between Megaton and Tenpenny Tower must have low-tier enemies so as not to alienate players with nowhere to stash their loot.

To extend the idea of a “Megaton bubble” and quest-area bubbles further, look at Rivet City, which contains two marked side-quests and two story quests. These quests, again, have a nice pacing to them as they send players into medium-tier environments during the middle of the story. We don’t really see this same pacing with the final hub, the Citadel, because it has no side quests. The Citadel is connected to five of the game’s 10 story quests, but these final quests hold the players hand because, again, the storyline is designed to be completed by any player, with any build, with any equipment, at any level, at any time.

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Look at the map one more time and you’ll find another location that sticks out as having poor geographical pacing. Old Olney is a tight quarters deathclaw dungeon in the middle of an easy-tier bubble. It rests between The Republic of Dave (a community made from a handful of low-level characters), the Temple of the Union (a community made from a handful of low-level characters), and Vault 92 (a quest location populated with medium-tier enemies).
The problem of Old Olney’s unique location is exacerbated by its surroundings; on numerous occasions I’ve seen wild deathclaws wander into The Republic of Dave and slaughter the entire village. In my opinion, for the purposes of pacing, Old Olney should have been the center of a medium-tier environment, like Deathclaw Sanctuary, rather than a high-level stronghold in the middle of a peaceful region.
What I don’t understand is why the other two corners of the map don’t have medium-tier bubbles with difficult strongholds as this would leave designated zones of difficulty.

In all of this, it’s important to remember that there is another kind of difficulty: skill checks. While enemy tiers determine if the player is capable of reaching the end of the dungeon, skill checks determine the loot they’ll bring back. Unfortunately, in my opinion, Fallout 3’s skill checks are very poorly geographically paced.

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Let’s take a look at some of the game’s recorded lockpicks, as per the Fallout Wiki. You’ll immediately notice that Megaton has four “Very Hard” locks and an additional “Hard” lock. This is an example of good pacing. Megaton is the central hub of the Capital Wasteland and, in most cases, the player’s most visited location. It’s actually a good idea to pace the unlocking of Megaton itself because it gives the player a small motivation in upgrading their skills to unlock known goodies. Additionally, a few of these Megaton’s locks can be opened by finding keys.

However, look at some of the game’s other lockpick opportunities. Many low level locations (Grayditch, Dukov’s place, Minefield) have a “Very Hard” lock. I understand that in an RPG not every location and piece of loot is accessible to every character. However, even if you created a character who only exists to pick locks, you’d still never level up your skill in time to align with your exploration.

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So you come back to Minefield at 100 lockpick skill to find…junk food!

That leaves two options: Either ignore what is obviously rare loot or mark locations with very hard locks so you can come back at a higher level. If you ignore the loot, you’re missing out on something the developers wanted you to find. If you come back later, you’re exploring an already vacant dungeon just to discover a single piece of loot. Neither option bodes well for pacing or player enjoyment and the hacking minigame is subject to this same dilemma.
The original Fallout games overcame this issue by making skill checks tied to the relative difficulty of the location, allowing players to attempt the lock pick regardless of skill, and adding the lock pick item (with its own tiers based on location). Disallowing players an opportunity to attempt the lock without the proper skill is a bad design move for everyone. FO1_Lockpicks

What we see with Fallout 3’s bizarre difficulty curve is a result of Bethesda’s take on pacing and world design. If you look at their other open world titles, namely the Elder Scrolls, you start to see a pattern. Oblivion had the game’s main hub, Imperial City, in the center of the map. Skyrim had the game’s main hub, Whiterun, in the center of the map. Fallout 3 follows this trend by having Megaton, the game’s main hub, in the center of the map. This style of map design gives the player a sense of scale by allowing them to march off in any direction from the start of the game.

Fallout and Fallout 2 on the other hand didn’t really have a main hub. Ironically, the Hub from the first Fallout is a medium-tier area; you’ll find no plasma rifles or power armor there. Fallout 2 required the player to engage in political intrigue, encouraging constant travel between NCR, New Reno, and Vault City to complete trade agreements. All of this is the result of pacing based on tiered equipment and a timed storyline. It doesn’t mean that Fallout 3’s map design is inferior, it just means Bethesda approached it with a different design philosophy, one that fits their standard of huge explorable worlds.

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What do you think about the pacing Fallout 3’s difficulty curve? Too easy, too hard, or just right? Tell us in the comments!

Wastelands: “The End of the Whole Mess”

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As stated on Twitter, I recently picked up “Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse” an anthology of post-apocalyptic shorts. The series includes many notable authors, some of whom were recommended to me. With this series, I want to look at each story to get a better grasp on the plot, characters, and the apocalypse itself. This promises to be one of the few times The Rad-lands will be breaking away from specifically post-nuclear fiction.


134-stephen_kingOur first story is “The End of the Whole Mess” by Stephen King. Truthfully, this was the first time I read King. He didn’t disappoint; the prose has a nice flow and is both easy and pleasant to read aloud (so easy, they chose Matthew Broderick to narrate the audiobook).

So what kind of apocalypse is this anyway? Well, we only get hints about the outside world. The story is a cross between stream of consciousness writing and character establishing flashbacks. The apocalyptic setting is really just a framing device to carry the irony. That said, the cause of this apocalypse is Calmative, a water additive dispersed across the entire planet that first made humans docile and later resulted in dementia, cognitive failure, and death. That’s certainly a unique apocalyptic scenario, almost like a reverse Planet of the Apes.

It was certainly a bold editorial choice for the first story in an anthology titled “Wastelands” to recall the backstory of an apocalypse while simultaneously avoiding the portrayal of a traditional wasteland. The reader’s only insight into the present situation is something to the effect of “all the plants are dead.” The reader learns more about the events leading up to the apocalypse than the apocalypse itself. This is a stylistic move by King in which the narrator purposely spends too much time describing the foundational events, leaving little time to describe the actual apocalypse.

“The End of the Whole Mess” has a strong framing device in which the narrator, Howard, injects himself with the water additive, leaving a limited time to tell the story before he loses all cognitive function. From a writer’s perspective, it makes me wonder if King challenged himself to write this story along the time line or if each individual spelling mistake was placed with purpose. King refers to this device several times, giving the narrator opportunity to reflect on the last few pages of writing while describing how the chemical has taken hold of him. Thought this shows the reader the effects of the water additive, it raises two glaring questions.

Since the story is framed as a journal, who is it being written for? Apparently, the plants are all dead and every human infected with the virus eventually loses all mental function. The narrator addresses his story to you (if there are any “you” later on to read this), but it seems the planet is practically dead already. There’s no clear opportunity for a post-apocalyptic society to form as the entire atmosphere has been poisoned by Calmative. So why leave a record?

Second, and to me most confusing, why did Howard inject himself with the chemical? He claims “I never could work without a deadline,” but that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. We’re told this story could take up thousands of pages, yet the plot device of the drug causes a purposefully rushed ending. Surely, if all rain water is contaminated, the narrator must already be infected. Ultimately, the actual apocalyptic aspect of this story doesn’t matter, because this is really a character study of the narrator’s brother, Bobby.

Bobby is a child prodigy who eventually grows up to be a super-scientist in Texas. Personally, I found his archetype and character arc to be reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West: Reanimator.” Through flashbacks, Bobby is shown to be a child prodigy proficient in all realms of scientific discovery. As an adult, Bobby is confident, condescending, and most importantly insistent on the value of his research. Reading the text aloud, I found myself imagining Jeffery Combs reprising his role as Herbert West.

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How I imagined Bobby

I would have enjoyed seeing Bobby progress on his character arc throughout adulthood. The tension between brothers, with Howard as a reluctant accomplice, again calls back to Herbert West. Although it’s a stylistic choice to meet the demands of the framing device, I thought too much was missing from the ending.

The final part of the story feels like the Wikipedia plot summary from a larger novelette. We never know if Howard had second thoughts about deploying the Calmative or if he truly believed in it. The journey to the volcano and the construction of a delivery device are conveyed in a handful of paragraphs. Perhaps I’m in the minority, but it seems like there should have been a greater emphasis on character development before deploying a super weapon that would permanently alter the minds of every person on Earth. Instead, the framing device demands we rush toward the ending as Howard goes from a few spelling mistakes to complete incoherent gibberish within a page and a half.

That question of character development aside, “The End of the Whole Mess” succeeds because of an interesting concept, a good message, and effective use of an untraditional writing style. While I felt that the story stumbles in a few places, it was obviously chosen as the first anthology in “Wastelands” for a reason. I believe that reason is the fantastic character development we see as a maturing super-scientist matures overcome with the grief of a world gone mad. Overall, this is a strong introduction to what promises to be an insightful post-apocalyptic anthology.

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Ron Livingston as Howard

Why did Howard inject himself with Calmative? Tell us in the comments!

 

Deconstructing Fallout 3: Tenpenny Tower

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When I first played Fallout 3 on my Xbox 360 way back in 2008, I found myself drawn to the hubs and the quests. Exploring the wasteland was fun, but ultimately I was looking for structure and a story. I’ve recently booted up Fallout 3 again, but this time on the PC. With extreme (but lore friendly) modding, I’ve found the exploration aspect far more enjoyable and the quests frankly lackluster. I want to deconstruct the quests in Fallout 3 to think about how they work in relation to an open world map and the player character’s development choices.

Let’s start with the basics. Not counting the three childhood quests, Fallout 3 has a total of 66 quests in the base game: 10 story quests, 18 side quests, 22 unmarked side quests, and 16 repeatable fetch quests. Again, I want to briefly break down each of these to see how they’ve made use of the new environment and the RPG elements.


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You know what? “Tenpenny Tower” is a good quest. It’s well structured, it’s got some great roleplaying options to expand your character, and it has three major endings, each of which has a noticeable impact on a prominent trading hub. Unfortunately, the entire quest falls apart after it has been completed.

 

Gameplay:

Whether you like it or not, the Fallout franchise is now deeply entrenched in combat mechanics. Every story mission requires either combat skills or no skills at all. “Tenpenny Tower” finds a comfortable position between the new gun-based gameplay of Fallout 3 and the old character-based gameplay of Fallout 2.

The quest has a nice start. You meet ghoul leader Roy Phillips at Tenpenny Tower’s gate, but surprisingly he’s not the quest giver. Instead, the quest begins by asking you to exterminate the ghouls. If you’re playing an evil character and are nuking Megaton, this is likely your second ghoul encounter. Taking Gustavo’s quest to kill the ghouls, regardless of who they are, probably fits into your character. Good bit of synchronized story telling there.

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After exploring the metro tunnels and killing a few dozen feral ghouls you can either kill all the sane ghouls or convince Roy Phillips you can get him into Tenpenny Tower peacefully. This is where the quest gets interesting as Tenpenny himself will allow the ghouls in so long as a handful of VIPs agree. Already this feels like a Fallout 2 quest.

You can convince the VIPs in a number of ways. You need to convince an ex-slaver, a rich couple, and both shopkeepers to allow the ghouls entry. You could just kill these anti-ghoul protestors, but because Tenpenny Tower is entirely indoors and swarming with guards, you’d need to be stealthy or use Mister Sandman.

Aside from speech options, the shopkeepers are unique in that they have a stealth based trigger. If you steal from their stores, they will leave Tenpenny Tower citing a lack of safety. Although it’s a nice variety of gameplay, the narrative doesn’t make any goddamn sense. Two wealthy business owners were willing to drop everything, exile themselves to the wasteland (where the ghouls are) and hike all the way to Megaton (without any weapons) because someone stole their stuff?
Do you, the player, really believe that?

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The Wellington couple also has an interesting option. Ex-slaver Susan Lancaster sleeps with every man in Tenpenny Tower (and the gameplay reflects this. She actually sleeps in a different man’s bed every night). Mrs. Wellington is worried Susan is sleeping with her husband as well. If you engage in a little stealthy investigation, you’ll find Mr. Wellington wrote Susan a love letter. Like stealing from the shopkeepers, this breaks away from the standard “combat skills, lockpick, hack, speech.” It’s refreshing to see so much player choice and character building in the quest. If the entire game had been like this, Fallout 3 would have been right up there with Fallout 2.

In a nice bit of world building, Susan Lancaster is wanted for the “Strictly Business” quest, allowing the player to knock out two birds with one stone. Lancaster could have been a generic Tenpenny Tower NPC, but someone had the great foresight to include her in both quests. Additionally, Susan Lancaster will move to Mr. Burke’s apartment if the ghouls are allowed in. Not that it matters since she and the rest of Tenpenny Tower’s original tenants will inevitably be murdered.

 

KarmaF3Moral Choice:

Let’s make one thing clear:
The ghoul bigotry was justified.
Wait. That’s not strong enough.
The ghoul bigotry was completely justified.
Hold on. I think this point needs a little more emphasis.
The ghoul bigotry was completely 100% justified.

Fallout 3 tries to shoehorn themes of ghoul racism into several quests, but it never quite works. It never works because on the whole Fallout 3 treats mutants as enemies instead of characters. The problem is twofold:

First, every Fallout 3 ghoul who uses the word “bigot” is universally violent and dangerous. Roy Phillips and Mister Crowley both claim they just want to stick it to some “bigots”, but they really just want an excuse to kill smoothskins. Roy Phillips (who has good karma) takes it about 100 steps further. He has no issue with nuking Megaton so long as the blast kills a lot of smoothskins.
Second, the issue of integrating ghouls doesn’t work as racial commentary in a world where feral ghouls are more prevalent than civilized ghouls and humans combined. Fallout 1 had crazed ghouls, but they were non-aggressive and under control of Set, the leader of Necropolis. In Fallout 3, almost every dungeon has feral ghouls. There are hundreds of ghouls. The entire Capital Wasteland is saturated with them. Tenpenny residents fearful of ghouls turning feral were absolutely justified. There’s no indication as to when or how a ghoul turns feral.

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Racial commentary doesn’t work in this instance because in Fallout 3, ghouls are dangerous. Sure, there’s a handful of sane pre-war ghouls, but the vast vast majority of ghouls in Fallout 3 are feral. Remember Travis the chimpanzee? He was an animal actor who mysteriously snapped and lacerated a woman’s face. Those are the stakes of the “Tenpenny Tower” quest. The gameplay (dungeons full of feral ghouls) doesn’t match the narrative (ghouls are just people with a skin condition).

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The moral issue of mutant racism worked in Fallout 2’s Broken Hills because super mutants are just big green (usually dumb) humans. Other than lingering racial tensions from the Master’s war, there’s no imminent danger of living next to a super mutant. New Vegas revisited this idea as well. The writers of Fallout 3 completely misunderstood the point.

Tenpenny Tower residents were terrified of being murdered by ghouls. Those fears were completely justified since all three methods of ghoul integration end in the massacre of every single human resident of Tenpenny Tower, even those who were pro-ghoul from the start. Turns out Roy Phillips, the violent psychopath who advocated violence throughout the entire quest, was…surprise a violent psychopath. Too bad there’s no option to kill Roy Phillips but still allow ghouls or otherwise reveal his plan to kill the smoothskins.
If you (justifiably) murder Roy Phillips and his ghouls, you get bad karma and Three Dog vilifies you on the radio. It’s as if the quest writer and the Tenpenny Tower hub designer never spoke to each other.

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Questions:

At the end of the day, there are three unanswered questions behind this quest:

Why did the ghouls want to live in Tenpenny Tower? Why would you force yourself into an exclusive club that doesn’t want you and is actively afraid of you? Just to prove a point? Proving a point or setting a precedent only works in a world upheld by law and government. It doesn’t work so well in a violent world populated by isolated tribes.

Where did all these rich ghouls come from? Tenpenny Tower is supposed to be for rich wastelanders. Herbert “Daring” Dashwood made his fortune from years of exploring. Susan Lancaster made her career in the slave trade. Where did an entire hotel of ghouls get their fortune? Where did they come from? We don’t find out, most of them are generic NPCs. Roy Phillips says he has the caps to get into Tenpenny Tower, but that’s either a lie or a developer oversight.

Why didn’t the ghouls just refurbish Warrington Station? Roy Phillips uses Warrington Station as a base, but the place is a dump. Why not turn Warrington Station into a haven for wasteland ghouls and have ferals as guards? In this manner, Gustavo and Tenpenny would hire the Lone Wanderer for fear the ghouls were building an army, rather than because the ghouls were annoying. Instead of trying to integrate, the quest could have been solved by establishing a trade agreement. This would also explain where all the ghouls were coming from.
Side note: To put into persepctive how much Gustavo wanted the ghouls dead, he was willing to pay 500 caps, the same as Mr. Burke’s compensation for detonating Megaton. In Tenpenny Tower, killing three ghouls has the same value as procuring a one-of-a-kind fusion pulse charge and blowing up an entire town.

 

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“If you bigots don’t let us in, we’ll kill you all! We’ll also kill you all if you do let us in! You PRIVILEGED SMOOTHSKIN BIGOTS!”

Like so many other quests in Fallout 3, “Tenpenny Tower” is a story of missed potential and unanswered questions. It’s not a bad quest by any means. The gameplay offers a lot of non-combat options and even breaks the mold of “combat, lockpick, hack, speech” that defines the main questline. Unfortunately, the moral choice was poorly conceived and the ending ruins the entire quest. You either kill the ghouls and are labeled a racist or you let the ghouls slaughter every human in Tenpenny Tower, even those who were pro-ghoul from the beginning.

Such is life in the wasteland.

Desert Law: School Bus Mounted Howitzer

desert-law_w1010.pngMy Steam library is filled with post-apocalyptic games. Generally, I’ll pick up (or at least wishlist) any apocalyptic game I come across. Desert Law has been in my library for about two years. I picked it up on sale, played it for 10 minutes, and then uninstalled it. However, enough time has passed that I thought the game deserved another chance. Unfortunately, the game aged about as well as a bloated corpse in the wasteland sun.

Desert Law’s narrative makes Wasteland Angel look complex by comparison. After the apocalypse, tribes of road warriors kill each other over booze and car parts. What kind of apocalypse is this? We don’t really know. The entire world is a desert and some places are populated by angry sentient zombies napping beneath the sand.
Here’s the story: Generic wastelander Brad wants to woo a girl for mating season, but rival tribes of gangsters and pre-apocalypse military keep mucking up his plans. Brad convinces his tribe to kill everyone in their way until Jane (the love interest) notices him.

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The Postal Dude shoots Gengis Khan

The story is told in comic-book format. Make of the art style what you will. Speech bubbles appear and pages turn automatically. I personally found the speed of these sections to be a little too fast. I wasn’t able to read all the text before the page change. However, considering the prevalence of misused and misspelled words, it’s clear the game doesn’t care about the story and the player shouldn’t either.

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Gameplay revolves around commanding a handful of buggies and armored hotrods with swivel turrets. In an interesting twist, drivers can exit vehicles and continue on foot. Hero units drive standard cars, but grant slight bonuses to different vehicles. Like Starcraft, there are a few infiltrator style missions where you abandon your convoy and explore ruined settlements on foot.

Unfortunately, Desert Law is difficult for all the wrong reasons. A great source of difficulty comes from bugged pathfinding. Without micro-management, units will drive directly into scenery. Exciting chases are impossible because cars regularly bump into each other. Destroyed units act as physical barriers. Although the monster-truck unit can smash through concrete walls and small buildings, it cannot drive over destroyed cars. This makes defense missions incredibly difficult as your army is quickly boxed in.

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See the one car facing the opposite direction? The pathfinding made it crash into friendly units.

Units disobey orders and tend to chase enemies, making command options (stand ground, ambush, etc) completely useless. There’s no UI feedback to indicate you’ve given a unit orders. On multiple occasions, I’ve set up a defense line around a stationary turret. Despite being set to “stand ground” my weakest unit rushed into the fray before enemies entered the turret’s range. Even worse, this was a hero unit.

The game enters a fail state whenever a hero is killed. This wouldn’t be a problem in most RTS games, but in Desert Law hero units make up the majority of your army. Take, for example, the first real mission of the game. You start the quest with five units, three of them are heroes. As you progress through the quest, you’ll pick up another three heroes. You have a total army size of eight, but only two of your units are permitted to die during the quest. In most RTS games, hero units are exceptionally powerful, giving them enhanced survivability. In Desert Law heroes grant slight bonuses to standard vehicles. All these problems are only exacerbated by generally squishy units.

Enemies are comparable to player units, but are far more numerous. Units can be repaired by the mechanic hero, but there’s a catch. First, the mechanic doesn’t appear in every mission. Second, reflecting the post-apocalyptic setting, every unit has a set amount of ammo per level. The mechanic has no guns, but uses ammo by repairing vehicles.

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See the tiny health bar under the monster truck? That’s a foot soldier.

Just to recap, Desert Law is a strategy game where you instantly fail if any hero unit dies. The majority of your army is comprised of heroes who are only slightly better than standard units. You’re outnumbered 5:1 by enemies who are just as powerful as you. You can repair your vehicles, but can only make 3-4 repairs per mission. The game has no base building, but reinforcements occasionally appear after completing objectives.

There’s not a lot to say about Desert Law. It’s a single player blitzkrieg-style strategy game with an irrelevant story, no voice acting, and poor optimization.  Fortunately, the game is only $2.99, frequently goes on sale, and includes 29 missions. If you’re looking for a cheap distraction or compulsively buy post-apocalyptic games, give it a look.

If you’re interested in Desert Law, you can get it here

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Tales from the Whatpad: Fallout Survivor

Wasteland legend tells of a tumbling pad of pallid paper filled with horrors beyond comprehension and meaning. Those who stumble across this legendary “Whatpad” rarely live to tell the tale…

“Tales from the Whatpad” is an dramatic reading of terrible post-apocalyptic fan fiction.

Fallout Survivor: www.fanfiction.net/s/12353653/1/Fallout-Survivor
Music by: www.bensound.com/

Smegma Crazies, Gayboys, and The Golden Youth

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On the surface, The Road Warrior is a fine action movie that defined the post-apocalyptic genre and put everyone involved on the map. If we put aside the action and go a little deeper, we start to see some interesting clues about the Humungus tribe. As we already saw with Lord Humungus and especially Fury Road, George Miller loves adding cryptic details into his films. Perhaps the most discussed and yet mysterious of these details revolves around the Humungus tribe’s not-so-subtle homoeroticism.

At the beginning of the film, we see Wez, his companion, and a few mooks engaged in a fast-paced pursuit. When the scene slows down to give Wez his fist close up, the audience immediately notices Wez’s companion, a young man credited as The Golden Youth, wears a black leather bondage harness. What I’ve always found more interesting is the chain and padlock dangling from his neck.

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While Wez is removing the crossbow bolt from his arm, the camera is positioned such that both The Golden Youth and Wez share the frame. In fact, The Golden Youth remains shares the frame throughout the shot, even as the camera pans up to focus on Wez’s twisted expression. George Miller could have done a simple close up of Vernon Wells followed by a reverse reaction shot of Max, but it seems he wanted the viewer to take notice of The Golden Youth, especially since this is the opening scene and the audience’s first encounter with the Humungus tribe.

Early drafts of The Road Warrior suggest The Golden Boy was originally meant to be female, but the writers (Miller, Hayes, and Hannat) wanted to demonstrate that gender roles were meaningless in the post-societal world. This motif comes through with another character who is practically The Golden Youth’s opposite and was originally supposed to be male. The Warrior Woman has agency and character, while The Golden Youth remains silent and submissive until his sudden death.

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Would Wez arm a slave?

Some have suggested The Golden Youth was a sex slave, but I think there’s more to it than that, especially since he can be seen wielding a baseball bat. The Golden Youth’s death adds another layer to Wez’s character, who would otherwise be a mass murderer without motivation. Alarmed at his partner’s death, Wez erupts into a violent rage. The focus of the scene switches from Humungus’ speech to Wez’s outburst. Humungus knows something about the relationship between Wez and The Golden Youth as the bandit king calls Wez’ name while he kneels next the corpse.

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When Wez screams for the murder of Papagallo’s entire tribe, Humungus tries to sooth him, saying “We all lost someone we love.” I believe Lord Humungus’ immediate concern for Wez combined with that additional line provides a little extra insight into the relationship between these characters, particularly since The Golden Youth’s death serves as the motivation for Wez’s unrestrained (and later physically restrained) hatred of Papagallo’s tribe.

The Golden Youth isn’t the only homoerotic aspect of Humungus’ tribe, but it is the most obvious. While Max is eating dog food and watching the warring tribes from the ridge, Humungus can be heard commanding “Smegma Crazies to the left. The gate! Gayboy Berserkers to the gate.”

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Gayboy Berserker

These two lines, barely audible in the movie, provide a little extra context when set against costume design. The Road Warrior’s costume department divided Smegma Crazies and Gayboy Berserkers into two distinct styles. Smegma Crazies wear tan jumpsuits, hides, and masks. Gayboy Berserkers wear police outfits, like Max’s uniform. Other members of the Humungus tribe wear black leather bondage gear.  Additionally, while the main Humungus force drives muscle cars, Smegma Crazies drive carts and Gayboy Berserkers drive looted police cars.

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What does this little detail add to the story? That depends on how you look at it. Some have theorized Smegma Crazies and Gayboy Berserkers are two separate tribes dominated by Lord Humungus. Others say they’re just ranks within the tribe. George Miller is a stickler for little details. The script could have had these characters listed as anything (Wallabeaters, Madboys, etc), but ultimately, we got Gayboys and Smegma Crazies. This tiny detail, combined with Wez’s relationship to The Golden Youth, raises the question as to whether the entire Humungus tribe is homosexual.

I tend to think that, following the post-societal deterioration of gender roles, the Humungus tribe will probably act on any sexual gratification they can get. For example, when Papagallo sends scouts into the wasteland, the couple are immediately captured and raped by the marauders. Similarly, although it may seem that Humungus’ tribe is made entirely of men there’s a handful of female marauders in the background of Humungus’ introduction.

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If there was any doubt, there’s also the infamous “tent scene” where the presence of women in the Humungus Tribe is undeniable. These details might lend some credibility to the theory claiming Gayboys and Smegma Crazies were added to Humungus’ fold after the initial founding. Since gender roles only fell apart after the fall of society and since Gayboys and Smegma Crazies are based on military and police, it stands to reason those tribes would be exclusively male and (as their name implies) homosexual.

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Standard Humungus Marauders

So what about the bondage gear? While it might serve to subtly separate Humungus’ main force from the sub-tribes, it seems to be a product of the costume designer, rather than the writers. As the story goes, costume designer Norma Moriceau got her inspiration for the Humungus Tribe’s costumes by living next to an S&M shop. Because of that anecdote, whether these outfits say anything about the tribe or if they’re just an odd piece of inspiration seems a little ambiguous, especially since Papagallo’s mechanic also wears studded leather. However, because The Road Warrior defined a genre, it led to the rise of fetish clothing and homosexual marauders in the post-apocalyptic setting.

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As I’ve often said, The Road Warrior spawned a slew of b-movies trying a cash in on its success. We recently looked at Warriors of the Wasteland, where the antagonists were an explicitly homosexual tribe of nihilist men bent on ending all human life. This twist on Humungus’ tribe adds an abstract element of decay to idea of post-apocalyptic raiders.

By their nature, raiders only destroy. They are vultures, feeding off the old world without putting anything into it. Once the last can of dog food is gone, once the last settlers are tortured and killed, once the last can of guzzolene used up, they will have nothing left. This specific type of raider, first popularized by The Road Warrior, actively seeks to eliminate any chance of human reconstruction. If, as in the case of Warriors of the Wasteland, these raiders are also incapable of reproduction, they become symbolic of horsemen (or motorcyclists) of the apocalypse, looting and murdering until the entire planet is dead.

Do the Smegma Crazies and Gayboy Berserkers matter? Why include such a small detail? Tell us in the comments!

Deconstructing Fallout 3: Andale

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When I first played Fallout 3 on my Xbox 360 way back in 2008, I found myself drawn to the hubs and the quests. Exploring the wasteland was fun, but ultimately I was looking for structure and a story. I’ve recently booted up Fallout 3 again, but this time on the PC. With extreme (but lore friendly) modding, I’ve found the exploration aspect far more enjoyable and the quests frankly lackluster. I want to deconstruct the quests in Fallout 3 to think about how they work in relation to an open world map and the player character’s development choices.

Let’s start with the basics. Not counting the three childhood quests, Fallout 3 has a total of 66 quests in the base game: 10 story quests, 18 side quests, 22 unmarked side quests, and 16 repeatable fetch quests. Again, I want to briefly break down each of these to see how they’ve made use of the new environment and the RPG elements.


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Andale is a microcosm of lazy game design. The settlement’s associated quest, Our Little Secret, feels like a scene from a hat. It’s a neat idea, but it’s not developed enough to become anything interesting.

The quest begins when you walk a short ways south from Fort Independence. You’ll find three houses and a child playing outdoors. The child tells you he never has a chance to talk to new people because his dad always takes care of them. You’ll then meet an old man who claims the town’s other residents are crazy. If you talk to those other residents, you’ll find out they’re all related and believe they still live in Virginia.

Andale doesn’t exactly make sense in this context. The lore goes that four families (now a single family divided into two houses) have been living on this bombed street for 200 years. This is another microcosm of bad writing and bad game design.
Bethesda doesn’t seem to understand how long 200 years is. Essentially its 20 generations of children. The families of Andale have been inbreeding for 200 years (imagine a single family inbreeding from 1776-1976) and have suffered no obvious abnormalities. Even if Andale’s adults were not a product of incest, their children explicitly are, yet Junior Smith and Jenny Wilson are no different than anyone else.

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Malformed jaws and smooshed heads. This is what Andale should have looked like.

Why does this point matter? Because the Point Lookout DLC got it right. 200 years of inbreeding families (more than one) and radiation creates Swampfolk. In the base game, nothing happens. This is why Andale feels like playing scenes from a hat. Someone had an idea for an incestuous group of cannibals and then stopped.

Demonstrating the inbreeding wouldn’t even require new character models. Making the children albino, giving characters the Hapsburg chin, or even giving Andale’s residents low intelligence would have connected the scenery to the lore. Instead, nothing happens. Someone thought inbreeding was a cool idea and that was it.

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Which would you say is a product of sibling incest? (ANSWER)

The lore isn’t the only place where the writing just stopped. The very concept of the quest falls into underdevelopment as well. Junior Smith says he never has a chance to talk to newcomers before his dad steps in, but we never see that. There are no visitors in Andale.

Old Man Harris claims everyone knows to stay away from Andale, but no other character in the game mentions the town. The player can spend as much time as they want in Andale without any risk of being cannibalized or attacked. The town whose premise is that they eat any wastelander who visits them will never ever attack the player unprovoked. Andale isn’t a living place, it’s a set-piece populated by cardboard cutouts.

Further, Old Man Harris (who is apparently trying to help) only provides the player with vague explanations. Harris can talk about cannibalism after the incident, but leading up to it he simply says his family is “Crazy! Crazy I tell you!” and “people who wander into Andale don’t wander back out.” If Old Man Harris is trying to help the player, why couldn’t he just say they’re cannibals? Instead, Old Man Harris tells you to look inside either the shed or the basement.

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Here we come to a big difference between Fallout 2 and Fallout 3 as a whole. In the base game,there are three options to uncover the secret of this quest.

  1. Unlock butchery doors. (Requires 100 Lockpick)
  2. Steal key from men of either house. (Random stealth check)
  3. Steal key from bedside table in either house.

Those are the only three ways to complete this quest. You literally cannot progress without taking on some bad karma, either through stealing or breaking and entering. There was an opportunity to use your perception to smell rotting meat or peep through a hole in the shed, similar to using perception to identify the sharpened spear or Brahmin brands in Fallout 2 or even using your medicine skill during the Blood Ties quest. A more interesting route would be if the families invited you to dinner and put sleeping pills in your food. Instead, nothing happens.

Perhaps the most offensively bad part of this quest is the ending. You have two choices: Either kill the cannibals…or don’t. The only difference in gameplay between these choices is if you negotiate with the cannibals, you can get a meat pie once a day. Everything else falls by the wayside, completely forgotten by the writers.

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Both old men. Same clothes. Same hair. Same moustache. Which is the result of 200 years of inbreeding? (ANSWER)

For example:

  • Old Man Harris locks his doors for the attack. If you let the cannibals live, he will keep his doors locked forever. If you go inside his house, he’ll flee and shout “Get out while you still can!” There’s no option to tell Harris you’re also a cannibal, despite that if you fight the family, Harris says he was watching through the windows.
  • There’s no option to relocate the kids. Most of the time you come across a stray child in Fallout 3, you have several choices in how you deal with them. In this case, the kids never speak to you again. If you kill the parents, they both enter the care of their grandfather, living next door to the house where their parents were massacred and butchered other wastelanders.
    How do the kids feel about losing their parents and learning  they’ve been eating human flesh? We never find out because the kids have no additional dialogue.
  • What about Old Man Harris? What will he eat? Jack Smith says “he barely eats enough to stay alive.” The Lone Wanderer just destroyed Andale’s only food source. What will he and the children eat? Harris himself established that caravans know to stay away from Andale.
  • The quest even lacks internal consistency. After learning the secret, if you use the cannibal perk to eat a dead body in front of Andale’s cannibals, they’ll turn hostile.
  • Hilariously, if you investigate the Wilson’s basement, the cannibals will still line up outside the shed, waiting for you on the other side of the street. Only Jack Smith can initiate the confrontation.
  • Though a small oversight, if you make peace with the cannibals and then tell Jack Smith that Old Man Harris is spreading rumors, Jack will act as though you don’t know his secret. Again, the only change after completing this quest is that you can get a single meat pie everyday. It’s a small touch, but it’s another illustration of how Andale is woefully underdeveloped.

I found Andale to be an important exercise in game development because it’s a good illustration of Fallout 3’s pitfalls. There’s an idea, a good idea, but its never developed past the initial “what if.” There was opportunity to utilize gameplay mechanics, present a nice story and interesting visuals, and ultimately reveal a horrific secret. Instead, nothing happens. The gameplay is limited, the story is weak, and the secret is obvious.

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