Deconstructing Fallout 3: Difficulty Curve

2014-03-fallout-games-wallpaper

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.


QLNffZb

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 it’s inconsistent. Harder areas have harder skill checks, but most ruins feature at least one difficult science or lockpick opportunity.

FO3_super_mutants_line-up

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.

Enclave_deathclaw

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 witnessing interfaction/interspecies battles. One major exception is The Enclave, who can 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.

Enclave-JurySt-E

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 half of the game’s story quests, but these final quests hold the player’s hand because, again, the story is designed to be completed by any player, with any build, with any equipment, at any level, at any time.

Deathclaw_attack

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 with medium-tier enemies).
This imbalance in 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 poorly geographically paced.

Good

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.

kZJm1Wk

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.

the_lone_wanderer_in_fallout_3_by_shadowgod55563

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

Deconstructing Fallout 3: Tenpenny Tower

2014-03-fallout-games-wallpaper

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.


TP Tower

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.

Warrington_Revolution

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?

Boutique_Le_Chic

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.

Roy_Philips

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).

Broken_Hills_mine

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.

Feral_ghoul_attacking

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.

 

TenpennyCorpses.jpg

“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: Andale

2014-03-fallout-games-wallpaper

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.


latest

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.

latest

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.

Inbreds.jpg

Which would you say is a product of two centuries 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.

Our_Little_Secret

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.

Compare.png

Both old men. Same clothes. Same hair. Same moustache. Same voice. 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.

hqdefault

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.


latestThe Power of the Atomlatest

The Power of the Atom is the first side quest of Fallout 3. Arriving in the game’s first town, the player is tasked with either detonating or diffusing an atomic bomb. This quest makes a strong statement in setting the stakes as high as possible right out of the tutorial.

I want to break this quest down into four sections.

  • Gameplay
  • Moral Choice
  • Burke
  • Improvement

latest

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.

index

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 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.”

burke

Mr. Burke

 Easily the worst antagonist in the entire Fallout franchise. The fact he’s 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 has a custom fusion pulse charge manufactured 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 that the first stranger who entered the Megaton 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 one-of-a-kind 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 for the first time, throw a grenade at Mr. Burke, and suffer zero consequence. The same NPCs who will skin you alive 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.

confessor_cromwell

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.

fallout-3-screen-shot-22715-12-09-am

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.

fallout3_nukingmegaton_1280w

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.

Thouhg 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.

Deconstructing Fallout 3: Story Quests

2014-03-fallout-games-wallpaper

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 start with the story quests.


Story Quests

amata

Escape! This mission is similar to killing tunnel rats in the original Fallout. It’s a simple way to teach players about combat, choices, and unlock mini-games in a tight environment. However, I think there was a lot of missed opportunity in this quest. There’s no opportunity to sneak around enemies as their bodies physically block the exits. There’s no opportunity to barter with the security guards. The Lone Wanderer must kill (or possibly flee) people he’s known for 18 years without a second thought.
The options outside of the combat are pretty weak as well. Both the key and terminal password to the Overseer’s office can be collected without so much as a speech check.  The reason I consider that an issue is because, in the main game, keys (and especially computer passwords) aren’t commonly found. They’re usually stolen or they don’t exist. In this one quest, arguably the most important quest for teaching the player how to move through the world, the player is not required to play either of the unlock mini-games.

Skills used: Combat skills (limited to small guns,melee weapons,unarmed)
Optional Skills: Lockpick, Science

following

Following in his Footsteps: This quest is surprisingly long for the early game. It involves traveling from Vault 101 to Megaton, through the DC Metro, a literal warzone, and finally engaging with a character who will either help you or ask you to complete a side quest.
This quest also has a lot of choices to it. You need to get information from Moriarty. To do this you can…

  • Go on an unmarked quest for Moriarty (with an optional speech check)
  • Coax the information out of Moriarty with a speech check
  • Hack into Moriarty’s terminal
  • Break into the cabinet where Moriarty keeps the terminal password
  • Convince Moriarty’s employees to tell you the computer password.

I wish every quest in Fallout 3 had this level of detail. That’s a ton of options just to get some basic information. On the other hand, this raises an observation about Fallout 3 as a whole. Almost every problem is solved with either combat, lockpicking, hacking, or speech. There are some exceptions in side quests though, especially Tenpenny Tower.
After finding information on dad, the player is introduced to the DC subway system. This is a natural step forward as the DC ruins can only be accessed through the metro. Then we’re introduced to super mutants and the Brotherhood of Steel.
Although it was certainly fun to shoot mini-nukes at a giant super mutant early on, I wonder if the game overplayed its hand by giving access to endgame weapons and enemies too early, even if it did establish the Brotherhood’s role.
Fallout 3 keeps a few end-game weapons lying in plain sight. However, these are always in poor condition, almost on the verge of breaking, making them no better than weapons the player is already using because damage is tied to condition. Although it’s true that items can repaired to increase their damage, it requires either a duplicate item or a merchant. Unfortunately, merchants in Fallout 3 aren’t very good at repairs. Indeed, the best repair merchants are caravans, but only after the player has traveled to the far east of the map and sunk significant investments into their businesses.
The result of all this is having rare big guns and energy weapons lying around, that don’t don’t do much damage, suffer from low character skill levels, can’t match a 10mm pistol or hunting rifle in damage output, and have a limited supply of ammo. While it gives players a taste of whats to come, it inadvertently convinces new players that energy weapons are useless when compared to small guns.

Skills: Combat skills
Optional Skills: Lockpick, Science, Speech
Optional Perks: Lady Killer

madison-li

Scientific Pursuits: This is another long quest. Unfortunately, this quest has no choices, no speech checks, no locks, no hacking, or any kind of player agency. Aside from the detective work (which is solved merely by following the guidance arrow and talking to a marked NPC), the real quest here is to find dad.
Scientific Pursuits merely leads the player to a central hub, a dungeon, and then out into the wasteland. There are no twists or turns. You don’t even need to convince Dr. Li to help you as she recognizes you immediately and offers all she knows.

Skills: Combat skills

tranquility

Tranquility Lane: Perhaps the most famous quest in all of Fallout 3. If you’re speedrunning this is actually your second quest. In terms of narrative, this is a bit silly. The Lone Wanderer escaped the vault just a few hours after dad, but in that time dad has already gone to Megaton, downtown DC, Rivet City, Project Purity, and then back across the wasteland to Smith & Casey. This is needed to move the story forward, but it means all the detective work up to this point was pointless in comparison to exploration. On my first play though back in 2008, I accidentally found this quest simply by exploring the wasteland. Aimlessly walking through the wasteland is literally faster and more effective than hours of guided by the nose detective work.
Tranquility Lane itself is pretty well structured, but in this instance it is because the game takes place in an enclosed environment and includes a large cast of fun characters. Bethesda’s Fallout games are known for their exploration and freedom, but I’d argue the best quests are those in tight environments. Because Tranquility Lane occurs on a single street, the options are nicely interlaced and tightly focused.latest.jpg
Unfortunately, your choices don’t matter. The quest asks you to engage in sadism without accountability. You don’t need to be sly or cunning. You don’t have to fake someone’s death. Tranquility Lane’s residents will just respawn.
There’s no reward or skill requirement for creative kills. You don’t need to use the science skill to reprogram the Mr. Handy. You don’t need lockpick or sneak to sabotage a marriage. The only way to use your character is a single optional speech check. Thankfully, DLC’s would build on this by adding more quest perks, but its clear that a sense of reward is sorely missing from this quest.
Of course there’s also the failsafe puzzle, allowing players to bypass this quest without even speaking to Betty. Although this is the “best” ending, it is also the least interesting as the puzzle is merely trial and error. Anyone can figure out the failsafe in two minutes. Additionally, its never clear what the failsafe puzzle is until you activate it. Your only hint is the town outcast telling you to check it out. Once you’ve solved the puzzle, it seems natural to active the failsafe itself, even if you don’t know what it does.

Skills: Combat skills
Optional Skills: Speech

jefferson
The Waters of Life:
After finding dad and returning to Rivet City, you’ll be asked to clear a dungeon (if you haven’t already). Dad will then ask you to perform some remedial maintenance. These repairs don’t actually require the repair skill, that would alienate low-level players. Now the late game officially starts with the introduction of the Enclave and power armored enemies. The issue here is that Enclave soldiers only attack in pairs. There’s no sense of danger, especially since their power armor can be penetrated with low-tier weapons, which you’ll have plenty of after clearing out the super mutants.

Toward the end of the quest, Dr. Li’s assistant, Garza, requires medical attention. This can be solved, not with the medicine skill, but by handing over medicine or completing a speech check. Again, this is a huge missed opportunity. In terms of narrative there is no reason for Garza to have a heart condition. This never comes up again and Garza has literally told the player to ignore him up to this point. If instead of a heart condition Garza had been bitten by a ghoul or been shot in the gut, it would have opened an opportunity to use the medicine skill. Instead, nothing happens. Garza serves as a disposable annoyance.

Skills: Combat skills
Optional Skills: Speech

lamplight
Picking up the Trail:
After the introduction of the Enclave and the reintroduction of the Brotherhood of Steel, the player is asked to find a G.E.C.K. To do this, they must go through Little Lamplight, a village full of literal children.
To gain entry, the player must either save children from slavery or have the Child at Heart perk.
Saving the children requires either a small sum of money (2000 caps), using the science skill, or destroying a main hub. The only reward for saving the children is entry to Lamplight which, again, can be just as easily achieved with a perk.
Once inside Lamplight, the player is tasked with either going through a tunnel full of mutants or bypassing the combat encounter with an average (50) science skill. Both options lead to the same room. Merely entering the next dungeon, Vault 87, completes the quest.

Skills: Varies
Optional skills: Combat skills, Science
Optional perks: Child at Heart

848148-geck_vault_87
Finding the Garden of Eden:
Tasked with finding the G.E.C.K., the player must simply clear a dungeon. Along the way, they’ll find a friendly super mutant named Fawkes who tells the player the G.E.C.K. is in a radiation chamber. The player can optionally kill Fawkes with a hard (75) science skill. After clearing more of the dungeon, Fawkes or the player collects the McGuffin, completing the quest. Aside from loot containers and fluff hidden on terminals, this is a straightforward combat quest.

Skills: Combat skills.
Optional Skills: Science

latest

The American Dream: This is essentially where the gameplay of Fallout 3…falls apart. Trapped in a base full of dehumanized armored enemies, the player should face a challenge here. Instead, the President of the United States murders his best soldiers, supposedly some of the last unmutated humans on Earth, just to help the player navigate the Enclave’s base. The player then enters into a dialogue with the President. The Lone Wanderer can either:

  • Use speech to convince the President to kill himself.
  • Use an average (60) science skill to convince the President to kill himself.
  • Cause the President to kill himself with an item
  • Just walk away

The player is given the option of helping the President secure a future for non-mutated humans, but it has no effect on the gameplay or narrative of the base game. Enclave soldiers will still attack the player even as you work for the President himself.
In terms of gameplay, the bigger issue here is at the end of the quest. Since the player is more likely to encounter Enclave camps, they need a weapon to fight squads of armored soldiers. In the beginning of the quest, that was achieved through robot sentries. In the wasteland, Fawkes is the player’s best weapon. Because Fawkes’ default weapon is a powerful gatling laser with unlimited ammo and the mutant himself is nearly indestructible, the player never has to worry about getting in a difficult firefight.
Arguably, this removes the player’s agency from the game. Combat encounters are no longer challenging, they are merely a question as to whether or not the player will earn a kill before Fawkes cleans house.

Skills: Combat skills
Optional Skills: Science, Speech

liberty_prime_ffd

Take it Back! The big finale. A charge led by an iron giant, a squad of elite Brotherhood soldiers, and (optionally) a near-invincible super mutant with a gatling laser. The problem here is that Liberty Prime is unstoppable. He has no weak point, he requires no protection, and he can disable force fields on his own. The robot does all the work, never running into a conflict that requires human assistance. The player has zero agency in the game’s climax and is reduced to little more than a walking camera.
Once inside Project Purity, there’s a few more Enclave soldiers, but Fawkes will make short work of these. In the grand finale, the last boss of the game can be defeated by telling him to “just walk away.”

Skills: Combat skills
Optional Skills: Speech


If you’re keeping track, the main story only includes options for the following RPG elements:

Mandatory: Combat skills
Optional skills: Lockpicking, Science, Speech
Optional perks: Lady Killer, Child at Heart

Here is the overarching issue with Fallout 3’s main quests as a whole: There are no rewards. Without any incentive to continue the story, other than moving the plot along, there’s no reason to do things the hard way.
There’s no reason to save children from slavery if you can just use Child at Heart instead. There’s no reason to go on a side quest for Moriarty when you get the same reward (possibly more XP) for breaking into his filing cabinet. There’s no reward for torturing people in Tranquility Lane (other than the player’s own amusement) because a better ending can be achieved more quickly.

Alternate solutions to story quests just skip content. There aren’t long lasting decisions. There aren’t hidden items. There aren’t store discounts, perks, or access to special weapons. In the entire story line, the only reward for completing optional objectives is the Tunnel Snakes outfit in the tutorial mission.
Fallout 3’s story is a treadmill, giving the illusion of choice and movement while shuffling the player between locations. By the last mission, it doesn’t matter how many enemies you’re facing or how powerful they are, because the player has invincible allies armed with super weapons.

tumblr_mv8wev2gpx1qbtxe8o1_500

The biggest problem with the main quests is they are designed to be completed by any player, with any build, at any level, at any time. That means every enemy and mandatory skill check in the storyline must be tailored to a Level 2 Character. It’s why Tranquility Lane doesn’t rely on skill checks at all. The result is a bare bones story that doesn’t make use of all the RPG elements Fallout 3 or the Fallout franchise has to offer.

How could Fallout 3’s story quests have better integrated S.P.E.C.I.A.L, perks, and skills? Tell us in the comments!

How Fallout Reshaped a Genre

fallout1

The year was 1997. The Cold War had been over for almost six years. Fear of nuclear annihilation took a backseat in the public’s mind.  Post-nuclear fiction disappeared almost overnight. 1995 saw a brief resurgence with the Judge Dredd film (a critical disaster) and the release of the I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream computer game. For a brief moment, it seemed that tales of the apocalypse might die out.

Then, like a messiah emerging from the wastes came Fallout.  The game reenergized the genre, primarily by solidifying the post-post-apocalyptic genre, normalizing sentient mutants, and developing a tone and motif between Mad Max and A Boy and His Dog that would engage fans of those respective intellectual properties.

nuclear_holocaust_movies_

There’s a glaring empty space in nuclear holocaust fiction from 1990-1995

The vast majority of post-nuclear fiction before Fallout focused on the hours and days immediately after WWIII. Films like The Day After and The Road Warrior show glimpses of the terrifying times after the immediate collapse of society.
Fallout took this a step further, setting the game 80 years after the war and establishing peaceful villages and trading hubs. Even after the end of the world, people continue on as they always have. Cleverly, there’s even an explanation for standardized currency.

fallout-bob

Many Fallout games have a secondary theme of building a life for yourself in the wasteland, not surviving or scavenging, but really living. This theme manifests itself in the formation of NCR, the quest to save Arroyo (and later rebuild it), civilizing the mid-west, purifying radioactive waters, deciding the future of the west coast, and building settlements.
In some sense, every Fallout game has the protagonist turning the Wasteland into a place where settlers can thrive. Inevitably, this meant constructing new civilizations around the culture of the old. Many settlements in the Fallout franchise are parodies or social commentary: Cultists who are kept in the dark about their own religion, a society where martial arts rules supreme, tribal nomads becoming a caricature of 50s swing.
These commentaries and interesting factions were only possible because Fallout had made the movement from post-apocalyptic to post-post-apocalyptic.

latest

Deformed mutants have always been a staple of the genre. In lower budget films (such as She Wolves of the Wasteland or Warriors of the Apocalypse) these were primarily feral creatures that killed everything in their way or were merely humans with burned faces. During these times, every mutant had a different deformity (see Judge Dredd).
Fallout changed that by introducing sentient mutant races (ghouls and super mutants), in the same manner as Tolkien introduced a world of elves and orcs. In many ways, the world of Fallout is like a mixture between Dune and a Tolkienesque fantasy. It has multiple races at odds with each other and who spawn from designated homelands, but it brings a heavy sci-fi influence that allows nearly anything to happen. As Clarke’s third law says: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

latest

Utilizing its sci-fi elements, Fallout created a unique style of its own while invoking the familiar feelings of Mad Max and A Boy and His Dog. Endless flat desert, underground refuges full of survivors, tribal communities, and murderous slavers. Fallout’s sequels  built upon its own IP while still anchoring itself to the genre with Mad Max references.

Notice how every Fallout game has a Dogmeat or a dog surrogate. This links Fallout back to A Boy and His Dog and The Road Warrior, giving the audience a sense of comfort and companionship, encouraging immersion. Like Tolkien borrowing and building upon elements of folk lore, Fallout borrowed and built upon post-apocalyptic tropes, then molded them into a livable world where characters do not live in constant fear of bandit or mutant attacks.

1436371573-141-card

Fallout is deeply anchored in the culture of Mad Max

By establishing the post-post-apocalyptic genre, Fallout carved a niche for itself. The Mad Max times have already happened. Fallout moved away from tales of survival, instead focusing on themes of either saving or destroying new civilizations.
Because of Fallout, writers have moved away from the immediate post-apocalyptic chaos and have instead shifted focus toward tribes and civilizations that parody and critique modern culture. Effectively, the Fallout franchise shifted post-apocalyptic fiction from anxiety of nuclear annihilation to social commentary.