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. 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.


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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 that 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 that the towns other residents are crazy. If you talk to those other residents, you’ll find out that 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.

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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.

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Which would you say is a product 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 that 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 that 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 that his family is “Crazy! Crazy I tell you!” and that “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 that they’re cannibals? Instead, Old Man Harris tells you to look inside either the shed or the basement.

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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 that 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.

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Which one 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 that 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 that 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 that “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 that they’re all killers, 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 illustrates another way that 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.

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


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

I want to break this quest down into four sections.

  • Gameplay
  • Moral Choice
  • Burke
  • Improvement

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Gameplay

The gameplay of this quest has some strong points that are 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 that 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 that deserves mention. If you tell Mr. Burke that 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 that it initially appears. Unfortunately, this never happens again.

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The Moral Choice

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

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

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

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

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Mr. Burke

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

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

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

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

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

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

As I understand it, the Children of Atom believe that 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 that atomic detonation will lead to salvation. This should give motivation to a radical member of the church who wants to speed up the division. Instead, nothing happens.
Despite having their own fleshed out dogma, journal entries, and their own HQ, the Megaton church has no quests associated with it. The most you get is a sub-cult outside of Megaton in the Broken Steel DLC.

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

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

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

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

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

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Conclusion

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

Perhaps the most disappointing part of the entire quest is if dad finds out that you nuked Megaton. Informed that his 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

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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. 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.


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, 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

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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

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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

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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.latest.jpg
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

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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

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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.

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

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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

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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

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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.

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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!

The Interactivity Curve of Fallout: Shelter

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If you follow The Rad-Lands on Twitter, you might know that I’ve been playing a lot of Fallout: Shelter recently. I find the game pretty intriguing. The art direction has a lot of charm, the gameplay is smooth and can be picked up in a few minutes, and it feels great to do whatever is necessary to earn a lunchbox. Although this game does a lot right, it also takes a few missteps. Rather than providing a consistent curve of player interaction, Fallout: Shelter suffers from peaks and valleys.

The majority of Fallout: Shelter is built upon waiting. You put dwellers into the right room and you wait. You send people out into the wasteland and you wait. What separates Fallout: Shelter from similar time-lapsing mobile games is the illusion of agency. Because new rooms are built instantly and there’s an emphasis on collecting better equipment, players feel like they’re doing more than they are. Although unlocking a new room feels interactive, it is really just the beginning of a new timer.

All that having been said, not all unlocked rooms are equal. Some provide the player far more satisfaction than others. To better explain how Fallout: Shelter wavers in player interaction, I’ve made the following graph:

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  1. First lunchbox
  2. First explorers return
  3. Medical
  4. Waiting
  5. Overseer’s office
  6. Radio Station
  7. Weapons Workshop
  8. SPECIAL Rooms
  9. Objectives
  10. Rare Weapons Workshop
  11. Barber Shop
  12. Rare Clothes and Weapons
  13. All unlocks

If we accept this graph, we see a huge valley right at the mid-point of the unlock schedule. In a lot of ways, this makes sense. Up to the mid-point, the game gives just enough to keep players engaged. After the mid-point, gameplay is comprised of long term goals, goals that may take over a week to accomplish. Let’s briefly deconstruct each of the 13 points.

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  1. First Lunchbox: This is the high point of the game for two reasons. The first is that opening a lunchbox (usually) feels rewarding. Legendary characters and weapons are most useful at the beginning of the game, making the player feel great when a familiar face shows up at their vault door. Second, three free lunchboxes can be obtained at the very start of the game. This means that if you’re unhappy with your lunchboxes and don’t want to spend money, you’re never more than an hour away from a second chance.
  1. First Explorers Return: Once your explorers come back, you’ll have a handful of new loot to distribute to your dwellers. This doesn’t really do much, except slightly increase production speed and the survivability of future explorers, but it serves as a significant moment in the game’s interactivity curve from the novelty of distributing gear.

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  1. Medical: The second most important part of the interactivity curve. The Medbay allows dwellers to stay out longer, which allows for greater player interaction when they return with armfuls of loot. Again, this feels interactive, but it actually causes the player to invest less time as they no longer need to recall explorers every hour and a half. Psychologically, this ensures that players don’t get burned out from checking on their vault.
  1. Waiting: A somewhat uncomfortable dip in the early gameplay. The vault is essentially in limbo until the population reaches 18. The science lab should serve as a bump between the Medbay and the Overseer’s Office, but radaway is practically useless. An exploring vault dweller will use roughly 1 radaway for every 5 stimpaks. The problem here is threefold:
    * Quest are not unlocked at this point
    * Radioactive enemies do not appear inside the vault at this point
    * Your Medbay will (probably) not be producing enough stimpaks to make equipping radaway worthwhile.
    For those three reasons, this period between unlocking the Medbay and the Overseer’s Office feels like a natural stopping point.

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  1. Overseer’s Office: Quests are critical to a player’s long-term commitment. Although combat is incredibly simple, navigating dungeons feels fun. The fog of war effect only adds to this, making dungeons appear larger and more mysterious than they actually are. Holiday quests and exclusive loot keep players coming back months later, if only for a few hours.
  1. Radio Station: This is where gameplay starts to dip again. The radio allows you to recruit new dwellers faster than you could by breeding, but there’s a problem. The majority of dwellers arriving from the wasteland are what I call “X-Models.” X’s are vault dwellers that aren’t good at anything. They have a 1 or 2 in every S.P.E.C.I.A.L. attribute. The issue with having so many X’s is that you cannot begin the lengthy process of enhancing them until you have at least 24 dwellers. Even then, you cannot begin optimizing them until you have 35 dwellers.
  1. Weapon’s Workshop: There’s an initial excitement when you unlock the weapons workshop. Unfortunately, this part of the game is a nonmedy; something that makes you enjoy the product a little bit less. At this point, everyone in your vault probably has either a sawed-off shotgun or a rusty laser pistol. The problem is that the best weapon the workshop can initially produce is a rusty laser pistol. A standard laser pistol is available with the tier-1 workshop, but it requires a randomly obtained blueprint. That means you cannot build any weapon that deals more than 7 damage until you upgrade. Unfortunately, while the workshop is unlocked at 22 dwellers, the upgraded workshop is unlocked at 45 dwellers. Further, quests require weapons with a minimum damage count. Meaning that if you never received a rare or legendary weapon from a lunchbox, you’re stuck until you double your population. Again, this is an obvious quitting point.

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  1. S. P.E.C.I.A.L. Rooms: Again, this feels like a natural stopping point, despite the potential long-term reward it brings. The training rooms are required to improve productivity, meet prerequisites for quests, and improve loot collection in the wasteland. Again, the problem is twofold: The first is that the most important room, the endurance training room, unlocks third before last, just ahead of the charisma and luck rooms. Endurance is required to improve health, which increases time in the wasteland, which increases loot, which is important since you can’t build rare weapons or clothes at this time. Second, the costly upgrades to these rooms have little effect on the timers. The difference between a tier-1 room and a tier-3 room is a 5% reduction on the timer. In other words, if a tier-1 room had an 8 hour timer, a tier-3 room would have a 7 hour 35 minute timer.
  1. Objectives: There’s another uncomfortable lull while waiting for both a population increase and the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. rooms they bring. At this point, the player has probably completed all of the easy objectives and will likely receive objectives they cannot complete in a few hours. The issue here is that there’s no short term reward to work toward. New room unlocks, training, and objectives can take days at a time to complete. This dramatically reduces interactivity, which reduces retention.

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  1. Rare Weapons: If you’ve played long enough to unlock the upgraded weapon’s workshop, you’ve likely amassed a horde of rare crafting supplies and blueprints that you’ve been completely unable to use up to this point. Unlocking the weapons workshop feels fresh only for a moment. Despite the new possibilities, there’s an overarching issue of time. A rusty laser pistol takes 30 minutes to make. A rusty plasma rifle takes 9-18 hours to make, depending on the number of people in the workshop. Again, there is no short term reward, but rare weapons are required to start mid-level quests.

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  1. Barber: Other than new quests, the mid-game is absent of short term rewards. The time between the radio station unlocked at 20 dwellers to the barber shop unlocked at 50 dwellers feels like a long, long haul. Luckily, the barbershop brings back some of the magic as cosmetic changes only require about an hour of waiting.
  1. Rare Clothes: With rare clothes and rare weapons, the player has everything they need to address a problem the game can throw at them. Although this unlock gives the player direction, rare weapons and clothes should have been unlocked much earlier in the game. Alternatively, the game could have had a consistent (and randomized) unlock schedule by only requiring blueprints to create new items. When I finally upgraded the clothing workshop, I had 35 rare hides. 35 hides that were taking up storage space but had no possible application.

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  1. All Unlocks: This is where gameplay levels out completely. The vault has become self-sufficient and the player has the ability to create anything they want. The only thing left to do is engage in quests. For that reason, from the moment the vault has 100 dwellers to the time when the player finally decides to stop playing, interactivity is locked at a solid 5. .

Fallout: Shelter has an unusual interactivity curve. It feels like it was designed not to get people to spend money, but rather to let players engage with a lighthearted incarnation of the Fallout brand. That having been said, it’s important to remember what this app is: A mobile game meant to prime an audience for Fallout 4. The game has been overhauled several times since its initial release and although it has its issues, Fallout: Shelter is still an enjoyable and addictive mobile experience.

Creature Catalog: NECROPLASM

Every soldier who survived the war fears the biological superweapon nicknamed “necroplasm”. Toward the end of the war, American scientists had developed a virulent biocide capable of liquefying living tissue within a matter of seconds. The addition of chemical cannons on tanks and man-sized chemical throwers left toxic puddles of necroplasm all across the American west.

Although there is no living person who fully understands the chemical makeup of necroplasm, one thing is clear: for reasons unknown, radiation bonds to the biocide causing post-war necroplasm to function as a powerful mutagen. Some have even theorized that necroplasm itself has transformed into a living organism.

It is well known that the majority of humanoid mutants are created from direct exposure to necroplasm. However, scientific expeditions led by the Guilds of Academia suggest that prolonged exposure to necroplasmic particles in the air cause reproductive mutations in plants and animals. Luckily, a sealed chemical suit is all that is necessary to keep the biocide at bay. Unfortunately, few wastelanders have access to such a luxury.

As a result of vocal opposition from General Morris Kass, mutants are typically frowned upon in human settlements. In response, the mutant races of the Mo-Javi have formed their own tribes and civilizations, often in close proximity to pockets of radiation. Maps of the wasteland often include known locations of necroplasmic puddles and radioactive hotspots. These areas are known as the “rad-lands.”

Because humans overwhelmingly avoid the rad-lands, these sections of the desert have seen a sort of Cambrian explosion. Life is abundant in these regions and constantly adapting to new threats. It is rumored that a tribe of nomadic shepherds nurture and feed the creatures of the Mo-Javi, though such claims are often dismissed.

Radiation as a Gameplay Mechanic

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You can’t have a post-nuclear setting without radiation. Many films overlook this crucial aspect or at most offer a token Geiger counter scene (She Wolves of the Wasteland). This is largely because radiation cannot be seen, felt, or heard and special equipment is required to detect it. Despite this, radiation serves as an important gameplay mechanic in the majority of post-nuclear video games, but with gamification comes new challenges. In reality, radiation does not kill outright, even several lethal doses will not result in immediate death. Because radiation attacks the body slowly, game developers have approached this mechanic in a variety of ways.

To further explore this mechanic, we’ll be analyzing three game series that make extensive use of radiation.

  1. Metro 2033
  2. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
  3. Fallout

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The Geiger counter in Metro 2033 is primarily used for immersive world building. Small set pieces such as bioluminescent mushrooms or pools of bubbling green slime will cause the Geiger counter to tick. These pockets of radiation are mostly harmless, though Artyom can die if he stands in a radioactive hotspot for a few minutes. Although subtle, this gameplay mechanic immerses the player into the setting. Without radiation, the world of Metro 2033 could be mistaken for a sci-fi setting similar to Gears of War, especially since Moscow’s surface is considered poisonous rather than radioactive. This is why so many post-apocalyptic movies have an obligatory Geiger counter scene: it puts the audience in a survivalist mindset. The Metro games take this a step further, subtly reminding the player that the world above the tunnels is not like the world in the postcards.

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Though technically not post-nuclear, fans of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise are constantly aware of their radiation exposure. Contrary to handful of contaminated puddles and mushrooms in post-nuclear Moscow, the Zone is positively covered with fields of radiation. Players who wander into these hot spots will find their vision distorted by grey TV static.

Radiation damage is pretty simple: the more radiation you’ve absorbed, the faster your health decreases. Radiation can be removed either with a radiation absorbing artifact or a dose of anti-rad. Because artifacts drain radiation slowly and anti-rad is somewhat rare, players are forced to respond quickly after absorbing deadly amounts of radiation.

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Although the Zone’s radioactive hotspots (and anomalies) seem like a nuisance, they actually encourage exploration. Artifact hunting aside, anomalies and pockets of radiation act as landmines, encouraging the player to take the long way (usually ending up at a lootable location), rather than risk wasting resources or instant death.

Moreover, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. encourages a high risk/ high reward style of gameplay when dealing with artifacts. Although artifacts grant stalkers special abilities, they emit large amounts of radiation. Before obtaining high tier anti-radiation artifacts, players will occasionally be forced to balance their health, elemental resistance, carry weight, and radiation levels. Having artifacts emit radiation was a brilliant idea and one that makes the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series all the more satisfying and rewarding.

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Finally, there’s the Fallout franchise. Radiation sickness has been a gameplay mechanic since the first Fallout, but originally it didn’t effect much. In the first game, there were only two ways to get irradiated: Get smacked by a glowing one or wander into The Glow.

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Lets cook some hot-dogs!

The original Fallout has the most complex take on radiation sickness, requiring a chart to fully understand what it does. Every part of the character is effected: HP, healing, and SPECIAL (with skills as a result). If either HP or any S.P.E.C.I.A.L. attribute drops to zero because of radiation sickness, the character will die. However, as I said in another article, I don’t think that radiation was used to its full potential in  the original Fallout. Two doses of Rad-X makes the player completely immune to radiation, giving them 24 hours to explore The Glow without worrying about any side effects. Even if the player took a few points of radiation damage on arrival, they can use a single Rad-Away to instantly cure themselves. Allowing the player to reach 100% radiation resistance detracted from the danger of The Glow as the lore (and environment) states that even Brotherhood Paladins have died due to the intense radiation exposure.

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Fallout 3 streamlined the mechanic of radiation sickness. Instead of effecting several variables, radiation sickness only lowers endurance (at minor sickness), agility (at advanced sickness), strength (at critical sickness) and finally caused death at 1000 rads. Additionally, radiation was far more present in Fallout 3 than previous games in the franchise. The Lone Wanderer could not eat or drink  without absorbing at least a few rads. Additionally, radiation resistance was capped at 85%, making it challenging to approach areas like Vault 87.

With Fallout 3 and New Vegas came special perks associated with radiation sickness.  These perks are often overlooked as the majority of players want to keep their rads as low as possible. However, the brave few who uses these bonuses will find that their gameplay dramatically shifts toward min-maxxing.

  • Rad Regeneration: Offers the player free healing of crippled limbs in exchange for advanced radiation sickness (-2 EN, -1 AG). This perk comes free with the “Wasteland Survival Guide” quest, but is lackluster compared to admantium skeleton, which decreases limb damage by 50%. Perhaps this perk was ahead of its time. It would have been great for survival mode in New Vegas (as rare doctors bags are required to heal limbs), but in a game where a single stimpack instantly heals crippled limbs, this is a useless perk.
  • Rad Child: This perk is where high risk/high reward should shine through. Each level of radiation sickness increases health regeneration. In exchange for minor radiation sickness (-1 EN), player are treated to +2 health per second. At advanced sickness, players receive +4 health per second. Again, this is often overlooked simply because it relies on radiation, which brings S.P.E.C.I.A.L. penalties. However, by utilizing Wasteland outfits (which provide +1 EN, +1 AG) the effects of advanced sickness are practically nullified, while the player still benefits from extreme HP regeneration. Although for balance purposes this perk should be risky, it actually provides far more protection than power armor or a higher damage threshold while still allowing players to travel at maximum speed.
  • ATOMIC: This perk grants players a faster run speed, +2 strength,  and+2 damage threshold while being irradiated. Additionally, action points regenerate much faster based on level of radiation sickness. This synergizes amazingly well with Rad Child. The challenge is that the best parts of the perk are only available while being irradiated.Luckily, New Vegas has coyote steaks, which irradiate the player over time and whose effects stack. If the Courier should buy coyote steaks at every opportunity, they will become more powerful than any wastelander could possibly imagine.

Although overlooked, New Vegas’ radiation perks are definitely worth the penalties they bring, especially when combined with wasteland outfits and the Travel Light perk.

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Most recently, there is Fallout 4 and Fallout: Shelter where the mechanic of radiation sickness was streamlined once again. Radiation sickness now merely reduces maximum health by 1% per 10 rads (making 1000 rads still lethal). This really eliminates the potential of making a super-powered mutant cyborg that was present in New Vegas and eliminates the complexities of the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system as a whole.

At a first glance Fallout 4 seems like it moved away from the aspect of radioactivity. Although the game moved away from player interaction with radiation, it expanded on NPC interaction in the form of weapons that utilize radiation damage. These weapons reduce the max health of an enemy, making it more difficult (if not impossible) for them to heal. What I find interesting in this new gameplay element is that some enemies are immune to radiation while others are highly resistant. This is a big shift from Fallout 3, where all NPCs were immune to radiation and would walk up to the door of Vault 87 without any trouble.

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Gamma Guns are fun

Overall, each game (even within the same franchise) deals with radiation differently. It’s a difficult feature to include in a game and it’s even harder to get right. There’s no right or wrong answer to the inclusion of radiation sickness in a video game or movie. Metro 2033 uses radiation merely to set the tone, while S.T.A.L.K.E.R. uses radiation to make players think about resource management and navigation, and the gameplay mechanics of the Fallout franchise continue to mutate in entirely new directions. Radiation is a necessary part of the post-nuclear atmosphere and I hope that game developers continue to experiment with this genre specific gameplay mechanic.

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How would you like to see radioactivity and radiation sickness used in video games?  Tell us in the comments!

The Practicality of Vault 68: Trickle Down Genetics

The Vaults were never designed to rescue the people that lived inside them. They were a vast social experiment, designed to study pre-selected segments of the population.” So begins the Penny Arcade comic One Man and a Crate of Puppets.

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For this series, we’ll be deconstructing a handful of Fallout vaults (both canon and fan created) to determine which, if any, could be viable. We’ll be starting with Vault 68, an experimental environment comprised of 999 men and 1 woman.

At first glance, this vault seems doomed to fail. A new child can only be born about every 11 months, although the bigger issue is that there’s only a limited amount of time to secure a future for this vault as there is a limit to how many children the first woman can have. Assuming that the vault door doesn’t open for 100 years, this experiment is barely, if at all, possible. To explain my thoughts behind this piece, we first have to understand the vault’s social structure.

  1. Socially

My rationale for the future of Vault 68 relies heavily on establishing a social structure within the vault. I believe the only way for the first woman (who we’ll call Eve) to survive would be to take advantage of her position within a month of entering the vault. Eve’s best bet would be to ally herself with the most powerful man in the vault, the Overseer.

Once Eve and the Overseer had established a relationship (or even a marriage), Eve could begin having children. I suspect that for the first few years, Eve would be in constant danger of violence from frustrated men in the vault. To ensure Eve’s safety, the Overseer would establish arranged marriages between his daughter(s) and Vault 68’s security team, who in turn would arrange marriages for their daughters. Vault 68 would devolve into a caste system, where women would become currency. I call this “trickle down genetics.”

Once a few members of the security team were given sexually mature wives (likely 17-18 years after entering the vault), they would likely pass their daughters down to the next most important caste. Thinking of this in a Fallout Shelter mindset, I imagine that doctors and workers either in the generator room or waterworks would threaten to cut their services and utilities until marriages were arranged.

I suspect that the lowest caste in Vault 68 would be either cooks, mechanics, or janitors; essentially anyone who did not contribute to the security or immediate needs of the vault. The way I see it, the experiment could end in two ways. The first is that daughters of the lowest caste are married off to the Overseer caste, where partners would be 1/20th related. The second is that the vault door could open after 80-100 years; its inhabitants would invite/abduct wastelanders to maintain genetic diversity (ala A Boy and His Dog).

  1. Practically

Before we begin, let’s consider a few things:

  • 50% chance the child will be female.
  • In its first years, Vault 68 can only produce 1 child/11 months.
  • Pregnancy related complications increase significantly after the 5th natural birth.
  • Generally, 1:67 births will be multiples. However, fertility drugs (if the vault has them) can raise that probability to 1:4.

So let’s say that Eve enters a relationship with the Overseer and takes fertility drugs. Assuming she is pregnant as often as possible (as she realizes her position of power), 5 years later her family will look like this:

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Now 30 years old, Eve will be at a higher risk of complications during natural birth. However, if needed, a C-Section birth significantly reduces that risk. Marriage arrangements can now be made with the security team to ensure the protection of Eve and her daughters.

16-18 years later (21-23 years after the vault was sealed), Eve’s daughters are married to the security staff. Because men remain fertile until death, they will be able to have children, despite the clear (and somewhat uncomfortable) age difference.

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Now we have a few more families. Including Second Child’s sisters

32-34 years after the vault is sealed, assuming that Eve’s three daughters all have five children each, there are now (on average) 7-8 daughters to distribute either to other security officers or the next lowest caste. Men who entered the vault in their 20s are now in their 50s and it is likely that Eve is no longer fertile.

Assuming similar birth rates, the third generation born in the vault will consist of 17-18 women. At this point, there will be roughly 30 women living in Vault 68, none of them inbred. As some of the lower caste men begin to age, the vault could create a sperm bank (odd as that sounds) to ensure genetic diversity if lower caste members die before the women trickle down to their level.

Where this model gets hairy is at the bottom. Once there are children in the lowest caste, the only place to go is up. Unfortunately, assuming monogamous relationships (fitting with Fallout’s 1950s motif and lifestyle), all children would eventually be related on some level. As far as I can see, by the fourth  generation (65-70 years into the experiment) the only place for the lowest caste to go would be to the top caste (assuming that every man in the vault had a wife at this point), so that Eve’s sons (who would be 60-65 years old) would be married to their great great grand nieces, who they are 1/20th related to.

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Once at the bottom, it looks like the only way to go is up.

Luckily, in Fallout canon, most vaults weren’t meant to stay closed for hundreds of years. Vault 68 could probably be opened around the third or fourth generation. With the door open and genetic isolation lifted, residents would be free to take in wastelanders or leave the vault altogether and form a new tribe. Either way, so long as the inhabitants of Vault 68 can avoid infighting for the first few decades, they have a good chance at survival. Although that could be the case, the world of Fallout is usually filled with deception, violence, and extremism, making it more likely that Eve’s existence would end up causing a war within the vault.

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Did I miss anything? Can you see any way to increase the genetic diversity of Vault 68? If so, let us know either in the comments or on Facebook and Twitter!

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