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.
Andale is a microcosm of bad game design, bad story telling, and bad worldbuilding. 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.
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.
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.
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.
- Unlock butchery doors. (Requires 100 Lockpick)
- Steal key from men of either house. (Random stealth check)
- 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.
- 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.
I actually felt that cannibalism played a fairly large role in the setting itself. Washington D.C. is a dying state as the Capital Wasteland shows signs of formerly being more civilized in the past 200 years but the Super Mutants, slavers (aided by Ashur’s constant demands for new meat in the Pitt), and the recently funded Talon Company mercs under the enclave have destroyed many of them. The Raiders now have to prey on people just to live as all the dead bodies and implied cannibalism show.