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: The Power of the Atom

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 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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