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.

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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.

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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.
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Deconstructing Fallout 3: The Power of the Atom

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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. 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. 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

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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.

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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

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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.

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How Fallout Reshaped a Genre

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.