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.

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.