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. For that reason, 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.
Escape! This mission is similar to killing tunnel rats in the original Fallout. It’s a simple way to teach players about combat, choices, lockpicking, and hacking 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) men that 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 (if they exist at all). 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 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 him 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 all of the quests 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.
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 nuke 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. The problem is that these are always in poor condition, making them no better than weapons the player is already using. Although it’s true that items can always be repaired, it requires either a duplicate item or a merchant. The problem with merchants is that none of them have a very good repair skill. Indeed, the best repair merchants are caravans, but only after the player has sunk significant investments into their businesses.
Skills: Combat skills
Optional Skills: Lockpick, Science, Speech
Optional Perks: Lady Killer
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.
Skills: Combat skills
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 that 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 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 that the best quests are those that occur in tight environments. Because Tranquility Lane occurs on a single street, the options are nicely interlaced and tightly focused.
Unfortunately, your choices don’t matter. The quest asks you to engage in sadism without any 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.
Of course there is 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.
Skills: Combat skills
Optional Skills: Speech
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. After that, the late game officially starts with the introduction of the Enclave and power armored enemies. The issue here is that the 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. The issue never comes up again and Garza has actively 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
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…interesting characters.
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.
Optional skills: Combat skills, Science
Optional perks: Child at Heart
Finding the Garden of Eden: Tasked with finding the G.E.C.K., the player must simply clear a dungeon. Along the way, they will find a friendly super mutant named Fawkes who tells the player that 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
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. Following that, the player 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 continue to be hostile even as you are working 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
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 issue 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, there are 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 simply by telling him to “just walk away.”
Skills: Weapon 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 could just use Child at Heart instead. There’s no reason to go on a side quest for Moriarty if you get the same reward (possibly more XP) for just 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.
The biggest problem with the main quests is that they are designed to be completed by any player, with any build, at any level, at any time. That means that you can’t have difficult enemies and you can’t have difficult skill checks. 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!