Entropic Crusader

Home of sci-fi and fantasy author, Benjamin Matthews

Fallout 3 is an odd game. It was my first real experience with the Fallout franchise, and at the time I thoroughly enjoyed it. I didn’t think too hard about the nonsensical, batshit crazy story. The lack of coherence in the world building didn’t bother me. The characters were bland, but they did the job, and I had a huge amount of fun playing it.

But that, right there, is the point. I had fun playing it, largely by ignoring most of the silly story stuff. I wasn’t a writer (professional or otherwise) back in 2009, when I originally played Fallout 3, but I was a keen reader and could generally tell when something wasn’t working. And Fallout 3 does not work as a story, on any fundamental or even superficial level.

The whole world is a broken, disjointed mess. The story is laughably sophomoric, except a real sophomore probably wouldn’t be writing anything this embarrassingly inadequate. And the characters are wafer thin and missing any real characterisation or depth beyond the most basic of one-note traits.

And yet, I had a huge amount of fun playing this mess. Imagine, then, how much more fun I, and everyone else, could have had from this game if the world and story had been up to the high bar set by the original game? If I’d cared even slightly about Liam Neeson, or Dr Angry, or the Brotherhood of Snooze, if I’d had something to actually anchor me to what was going on, something to care about? That would’ve been nice.

The thing is, we don’t need to imagine. Because we were fortunate enough to receive the wonderful gift of Fallout: New Vegas a couple of years later, at which point Obsidian got to show us how a first-person Fallout should be made. That game showed us that yes, you can have actual role-playing mechanics in a modern game, you can have an interesting world and story, you can have a game that doesn’t feel like it was written by aliens who don’t understand the basics of being human.

It also made me realise that I really needed to go back and play the original games. As I said above, Fallout 3 was my introduction to the series, at least on any meaningful level. But way back in the mists of time (1998 or so) I tried the original Fallout. Briefly. Alas, my ultra powerful 486 computer at the time—with no discrete graphics card and an amazing 66MHz of blazing speed available—couldn’t handle the game properly, so I gave up pretty quickly.

After finally playing both Fallout 1 and 2 in the 2010s, I developed a new appreciation for the franchise. But I also had a considerably lower opinion of Bethesda, which made me extra sceptical of their other games going forward. Just seeing the incredible gulf between what Bethesda was capable of producing with their massive budgets, and what Black Isle managed with a small crew largely working on Fallout as a side project was an eye opener.

You might have noticed that I said ‘original game’, singular, when talking about the high bar set by the old game. That’s because I’m one of the few people who doesn’t actually think all that highly of Fallout 2. In fact, I’d argue that the tone of that game is a large part of where Bethesda went wrong with Fallout 3, especially how the whole game feels more like a theme park ride, with zany antics and slapstick humour.

So I’m going to spend a couple of dozen posts tearing most of Bethesda’s work on Fallout 3 apart and proposing ways to fix or improve it, based on the world as it exists in the game. Despite my overall negative view of Bethesda’s work, I don’t think everything is terrible. Actually, I think they absolutely nailed a lot of things, especially in their overall effort to bring an isometric game to life in 3D.

But while they did a great job of that, I’m not so sure about the quality of the actual content itself. Someone at Bethesda might’ve played the first couple of games, I guess? But honestly, it feels more like they just looked everything up on the wiki and cobbled together a game that vaguely resembled Fallout without really getting what made Fallout good.

I suspect they saw the wacky hijinks of becoming a porn star or a boxer, or the weird supernatural stuff involving ghosts and psychic mole rats, or the largely self-contained nature of a lot of the locations that often felt like theme park attractions—a result of the way Fallout 2 was made, with small teams being given areas to work on (like New Reno) while having little contact with the other teams—then saw the positive reception of that game and attempted to do something similar. Except Bethesda doesn’t have the writers necessary to craft the dark humour of Fallout 1 and 2 without it becoming… well, stupid ideas like Little Lamplight or the Antagoniser.

Interplay lives on?

The really odd thing, though? I get the strong impression that they really did try to please the original games’ fans. By introducing elements from those games (water woes, Brotherhood, Enclave, etc.), they hoped to ease in sceptical fans while also cultivating a new fan base who’d never heard of or played the previous entries.

Honestly, their biggest mistake might have been calling the game Fallout 3. That set up expectations, especially amongst the older fans, and doubly so when everyone was already angry at Interplay’s woeful mishandling of their finances, resulting in the true Fallout 3, codenamed Van Buren, never materialising, at least beyond a basic tech demo.

By trying to please everyone, Bethesda ended up making a game that was fun, but ultimately flawed. They hamstrung themselves by sticking so firmly to already played-out ideas from the previous games, instead of letting their creativity flow and coming up with their own ideas.

But you know what? I actually applaud Bethesda’s efforts with Fallout 3. Yes, the game has severe thematic and tonal inconsistencies, and the less said about the story the better. But the atmosphere is fantastic, and the locations have the overall look and feel of the gothic architecture seen in the originals, even the massive carved heads on buildings (which they then got rid of in Fallout 4 *sigh*).

The desolate loneliness, while making precisely zero sense, story-wise (which I’ll cover properly as we go along), was often chilling and melancholic, at least until it was spoiled by some dumbass raider yelling about how they were going to wear your intestines as a scarf.

Exploring the wastes was fun and engaging as long as you avoided the main story. Finding new locations was almost always a decent experience, and in those early days when I’d first started playing the game, being killed by an unseen raider was actually pretty scary and challenging. That sense of challenge admittedly didn’t last long, but still, points for actually making me feel something, Bethesda.

Oh, and they also get points for going out of their way to include the Interplay logo as a big piece of Art Deco street art in the game world (see above image). That was a nice little nod to this game’s progenitor. To me, that shows that someone, somewhere at Bethesda actually cared.

I said at the start that Fallout 3 is an odd game. I’m going to add to that to say that Fallout 3 is a frustrating game. It could’ve been amazing, it could’ve been a true classic for the ages, but instead it’s a passably enjoyable romp as long as you turn your brain off whenever anyone in the game is speaking.

So how could it have been fixed? Honestly, I don’t think it would’ve taken much beyond what’s already there. The world itself is solid enough, albeit in need of some serious tweaks and changes such as things like what people eat.

Yes, that’s important world building and is a part of the overall setting (the setting itself is a character!), and it’s not something you can reasonably blow off, especially not in a game where survival is a big theme and we’re supposed to care about this big central plot where people desperately need water.

As for the characters… yeah, these would need a lot of work, but a good amount of that would come about naturally by fixing the world itself. As things stand, the characters are largely stupid and make no sense because the world they inhabit is stupid and makes no sense.

The story is atrocious, but could be fixed by changing a few aspects of it to focus more on the player rather than other characters, something Bethesda is often guilty of; they err on the side of giving NPCs moments instead of giving them to the player. It’s almost always a case that NPCs establish a problem, debate it, then resolve it. The player is a spectator at best, and is only there to shoot some mooks once the NPCs have finished their important discussion.

I won’t be talking too heavily about the main story simply because plenty of other people have already done so, including the excellent five part series by Shamus Young, titled The Blistering Stupidity of Fallout 3. Quoting from the final post of Shamus’s series:

Dad built a water purifier that didn’t work, for people that didn’t need it, and then made it release radiation it shouldn’t have, to prevent it from falling into the hands of people trying to fix it. This killed the man who had no reason to sabotage it and didn’t kill Colonel Autumn, who had no means to survive. This put the Enclave – an army with no reason to attack – in charge of the purifier, which was of no value to them.

Then the player entered vault 87 to recover a GECK, a magical matter-arranger that they shouldn’t need and that would be better put to use in virtually any possible manner besides fixing the purifier. Colonel Autumn, who shouldn’t be alive, captured the player with a flash grenade that shouldn’t have worked that was thrown by soldiers who had no way to get there.

The final battle was a war between the Enclave and the Brotherhood of Steel, to see which one would get to commit suicide trying to turn on the purifier that neither of them needed. This resulted in more sabotage that threatened to explode a device that shouldn’t be explode-able, ending with the death of the player character, who had the means to survive but didn’t, and who was never given a good reason for doing any of this.

Shamus Young, Twenty-Sided

When summed up like this… yeah, the awfulness kind of stands out, doesn’t it? Anyway, instead of talking heavily about the story, I’ll be focusing more on the world itself, specifically the Wasteland and locations therein, both major and minor.

World building is one of my favourite aspects of writing novels, to the point where I can sometimes get so involved in the process of creating a world that I forget to actually start writing the damn book. And I think there’s plenty of fertile ground in Fallout 3’s world, it just needs to be a bit more coherent.

While I’ll be looking at the world of Fallout 3 and seeing how it might be improved, I won’t be suggesting such drastic, sweeping changes that it’d cost a fortune to implement in a hypothetical remake (or if I had a time machine). Rather, I want to look at ways to spruce up existing content / locations and have them make more sense, be more connected to other locations around the wastes, and have more reason for being, while simultaneously critiquing the locations as they exist in the game.

Oh, and one other thing: yes, I will be criticising Bethesda. Heavily. I dislike a lot of what they’ve done to this franchise, and the same issues plague their Elder Scrolls series. Frankly I have zero hope for Starfield being any better either (update: Starfield was even worse than expected), especially not after the Creation Club and Fallout 76 debacles. I still like Fallout 3, and it’s okay for you to still like the game, or to think it’s better than Fallout: New Vegas. You’re not wrong for having an opinion or a personal preference.

In short, criticism isn’t an attack, it’s what we do with things we like—or, in some cases, dislike—because we care and want something we enjoy to be better. I’m a writer myself, I receive criticism as a natural consequence of putting my work out there for people to read. It’s a normal and healthy part of the creative process, so please don’t take my criticisms of Bethesda as a personal attack. Thanks.

Finally, this project is dedicated to Shamus himself, who tragically passed away last year (2022), quite possibly as the result of… well, you can guess. Rest in peace, Shamus. No doubt he’s already nit-picking the Hell out of Heaven, as critical in death as he was in life.

Without further ado, then… Part 1 will kick us off with some more griping about Bethesda and why Obsidian did a better job at Fallout.

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