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.

Deconstructing Fallout 3: The Power of the Atom

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. We’ll continue this series by slowing down and looking at one particular side quest.


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The Power of the Atom is the first side quest of Fallout 3 and easily the most famous. The player is tasked with either detonating or diffusing an atomic bomb at the center of the first wasteland settlement they visit.

I want to break this quest down into four sections.

  • Gameplay
  • Moral Choice
  • Burke
  • Improvement

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Gameplay

The gameplay of this quest has some strong points geared toward low level players. Destroying the town requires zero skills. You simply apply the pulse charge and run away.
Disabling the bomb only requires an explosives skill of 25, but the game knows players might not want to invest their precious points in an underutilized skill. For that reason, an unmarked side quest is expertly crafted into this scenario.

Someone in Megaton has a drug problem. By learning of their issue (through several different options), the player can help the settler solve their addiction. In exchange, the player gets access to a drug stash. The stash contains mentats, which raises perception, which raises the explosives skill. This is a fantastic (and rare) mix of marked and unmarked quests which also teaches the player about addiction as a gameplay mechanic.

Additionally, there’s one particular speech check in this quest worthy of mention. If you tell Mr. Burke you’re already working for Lucas Simms, the speech check demanding extra caps is more likely to succeed due to your leverage. In this one particular instance, the dialogue tree is more complex than it initially appears. Unfortunately, this never happens again.

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The Moral Choice

What exactly has Megaton done to deserve being destroyed? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. They aren’t slavers, cannibals, or even anti-mutant. The worst they’ve done is refuse to give clean water to a beggar.

Depending on the scenario, the reasoning for Megaton’s destruction is either because Tenpenny doesn’t like looking at it (even though you can’t actually see Megaton from Tenpenny Tower) OR ghoul leader Roy Phillips wants to kill as many smoothskins as possible just for funsies. Roy Phillips has “good” karma by the way.

So, your choice is: Genocide an entire civilization for literally no reason…or don’t.

This simplistic light side/dark side dynamic plagues Fallout 3 at every corner. There’s no nuance to morality choices. The majority of moral choice in this game can be boiled down to: “Do something monstrous for no reason…or don’t.”

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Mr. Burke

 Easily the worst antagonist in the entire Fallout franchise. The fact he is featured in the first hour of the game only adds insult to injury. Burke wants to destroy a 200 year old settlement simply because his boss complained about an eyesore on the horizon (in a world where 90% of buildings are crumbling or abandoned). In response to this off-hand statement, Burke procures a rare fusion pulse charge and attempts to nuke the entire town for no reason.

Somehow this isn’t even the worst part of this cardboard cutout of a character. Upon entering Moriarty’s Saloon for the first time, Burke immediately motions the player over to offer the task of blowing up the entire settlement. This doesn’t make any sense.
Mr. Burke had full trust and faith the first non-resident of Megaton who entered the saloon would not only be willing to blow up the entire city for a mere 500 caps (the value of a single Chinese assault rifle), but also that his selected person would not give the rare fusion-pulse charge to the town sheriff. Burke is a cardboard character simply so the quest has an evil option.

Additionally, because Burke is one of the few characters in Fallout 3 to have “very evil” karma, there is no penalty for killing him. You can walk into Moriarty’s saloon, throw a grenade at Mr. Burke, and suffer zero consequence. The same NPCs who will murder you for stealing a fork will then simultaneously say “Better him than me.”

Mr. Burke is a bad joke, a one-dimensional character with zero motivation.

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Improvement: There was so much missed opportunity in this quest. There could have been some fantastic storytelling and gameplay here. Instead, nothing happens.

I would fix this quest in three ways: Giving agency to the Children of Atom, adding RPG elements, and finally dealing with Mr. Burke.

As I understand it, the Children of Atom believe every split atom results in the creation of another universe. Therefore, the dormant bomb is an important part of their religion. Without the nuke, there will never be another “division.”
This leads to a handful of simple questions: How does the church feel about the bomb? Would they be upset if it was disabled? Would radical members of the church want to detonate the bomb?

I believe that last point highlights where this quest went wrong. Megaton portrays a bomb worshipping cult who believes atomic detonation will lead to salvation. This should give motivation to a radical member of the church who wants to speed up the division. Instead, nothing happens.
Despite having their own fleshed out dogma, journal entries, and their own HQ, the Megaton church has no quests associated with it. The most you get is a sub-cult outside of Megaton in the Broken Steel DLC.

By adding RPG elements, I primarily mean the sneak skill. Confessor Cromwell spends his days preaching in front of the bomb, calling for the division. When a complete stranger tampers with his holy relic (either disabling or rigging the bomb) the Confessor doesn’t bat an eye. Nobody questions the atomic bomb at the center of town making a high-pitched whine after being tampered with.

It would have been interesting if Confessor Cromwell or Lucas Simms question the player for tampering with the bomb. Instead, nothing happens. You can potentially walk into Megaton and immediately tamper with a nuclear bomb without saying a word to anyone.
Imagine if the player could only tamper with the bomb while sneaking or while Confessor Cromwell was sleeping. It would have been a great opportunity for characterization, world building, and roleplaying.

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Additionally, notice the flavor text for the bomb says it would require a “highly skilled explosives expert” to disable the nuke. The actual explosives skill required is 25, less than average. It would have been interesting if the skill required was maybe 75. Would that alienate low level players? I don’t think so.

Remember the nuclear plant in Fallout 2? Remember how you could convince one of the ghouls to do the repairs for you, but it required some clever speech options? Remember how you could reprogram a robot to do the repairs for you? Remember how you could solve a symbolic logic puzzle without using any skills?
Fallout 3 could have had that as well. Instead, nothing happens. The nuke is disabled off screen without any puzzling or thought. The two robots in Megaton have no purpose. The player could have been tasked with recruiting a real explosives expert, adding more speech elements to the quest. Instead, this quest is geared toward low level characters. The first side quest of the game sets the stakes at apocalyptic proportions. The result is ruined pacing.

Finally, how can we fix Mr. Burke, if we must have him? Simple. Add an item called “Mr. Burke’s employment contract” to either his or Tenpenny’s inventory. Perhaps add some fluff under “notes” to explain what it means to have a contract. In this manner, Charon and Burke would have the same backstory. Without any further exposition, it would explain why Mr. Burke was obsessed with destroying Megaton and why he felt the need to complete the task after Tenpenny’s demise. As it stands, Burke has no backstory and becomes an utterly dormant character upon completion of The Power of the Atom.

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Conclusion

The larger issue with this quest is that the option of destroying Megaton exists at all. Since the entire town can be destroyed within the first hour, it means the writers were forced to work around Megaton. Notice that after “Following in his Footsteps” the story line never returns to Megaton. The only other marked quest in the settlement is Wasteland Survival Guide, which is still accessible after destroying Megaton.

Perhaps the most disappointing part of the entire quest is if dad finds out you nuked Megaton. Informed his only child destroyed an entire civilization and killed dozens of innocent people, James calmly says “I can’t begin to tell you how disappointed I am. We’ll talk about this later.”  The writers of Fallout 3 saw Megaton as they saw the rest of their characters and locations: as little more than a disposable annoyance.