As we complete the Braun chamber I have no amendments to the substance of the quest worth nothing here., we run into one of my trickier objections to Fallout 3’s story design: the part where we’re actually reunited with our father comes off awkward and not especially satisfying. Partially this is for emotional reasons, since the story’s kept our attitude towards our father more or less in limbo since his inexplicable and extremely irresponsible departure from Vault 101, but more practically it is because what we really need is a sequence where we hash things out with dad and it doesn’t fit into the established meter of this section.
Even story-first players such as myself will get impatient if too much time is spent frozen in conversation limbo right after a sequence that’s overly scripted or linear. It’s bad design to jump straight from the Braun chamber into our heart-to-heart dialogue with our father; we need a little time to roam around and stretch our legs with some unscripted mechanical engagement. Besides, it would feel weird to have a serious talk in the Stanford prison vault…although given that it seems perfectly safe and clean, and how emotionally urgent this scene is, it also feels weird not to unless there’s actually a good reason.
Because you know what else feels weird? Busting your dad loose, trading a few perfunctory pleasantries, then agreeing to defer conversation until you’ve both silently trekked across the wasteland, punching animals and putting the Project Purity band back together.
What would be natural would be to catch up with your father as you exit together, but the engine can’t handle that and it wouldn’t feel right even if we found a workable compromise–for example, breaking the conversation up between “nodes” along our trip. Our story demands a face-to-face comfortable dialogue the logistics of the scene isn’t disposed to give us.
There has to be a better way.
It wouldn’t be such a big deal, only this scene is kind of the emotional highlight of the whole arc. If it’s a little bit janky, that’s more than a little bit of a problem. Here are my best immediate fixes:
- Transition straight into another action beat. The player’s tripped the Vault’s security somehow and after only a few lines of dialogue, the player and father have to shoot their way out. Basically, remove the Vault itself as a safe quiet space for a conversation and we remove the player’s reasonable desire to have one there, even if it’s a little bit awkward.
- Once the players are outside the Vault in the wasteland, that’s clearly not the right place to have a heart-to-heart. However, James knows a good place nearby. We can take advantage of an already existing location (is that one fishing shack nearby? I forget) or posit our own—some wasteland diner selling dog meat and chips in discreet booths, maybe.
- Once the player reaches that place, and sits down with James, then they have their important discussion.
I’ve made no secret about my dislike for James as portrayed in the main game. I think he’s shortsighted, impulsive, unwilling to take responsibility for his actions, and a thousand times more boring than any of these qualities suggest because the game won’t acknowledge them. Occasionally the player can say something like “That was really stupid, dad,” and he’ll say, “You’re right,” and then everyone involved will smooth over it. His most dangerous mistakes aren’t treated as consequences of who he is or the logical products of his principles; they’re basically on the level of forgetting to buy orange juice at the grocery store.
This conversation has to have some passion to it, even if the player isn’t interested in picking a fight. I want to give Liam Neeson something to do. This is where that voice acting money’s gonna come in, because this conversation’s going to have an uncomfortably high number of branching permutations.
The talk will always start the same way: dad, who’s clearly been rehearsing this on the way over, says something to the effect of: “I appreciate your help, but I really didn’t want you to come after me, and while I respect your choices I think it would be best if you returned home until…”
At which point the player gets to tell him, with optional degrees of sass: “You know I got kicked out, right?”Which, frankly, they’d have WAY more reason to be furious about in the original than in my version.
He’s going to react with anger and outrage—“I can’t believe the overseer would do that, he’s insane, what kind of blah blah”—and the player will have their first real choice in the discussion.
On the one hand, they can challenge this reaction. Not because he’s wrong, but because the intensity and duration of his anger is clearly a defense mechanism excusing himself of wrongdoing. It’s the emotional logic of guilty people everywhere: if the Overseer’s actions were irrational, delusional, unethical, maniacal, then James is absolved of any responsibility for jeopardizing his child with such an irresponsible and miscommunicated escape. Players may point out to James that while the Overseer is a tyrant, he should have taken that into account when deciding to run away. James will not react gracefully to this point; he’ll overflow with excuses. It’s not my fault. I thought he was reasonable. You’re a grown adult, you can take care of yourself. There’s more lives at stake than mine and yours. In the face of these rationalizations and dodges player will have options to let off the heat, to hold firm, or to fire back. Stepping off will return the conversation to the middle, and the already tense and charged conversation will continue as normal. Holding firm will make it clear that for one reason or another, James is barely holding it together and will probably have a breakdown if he lets himself realize he’s at fault. Firing back will get very, very ugly.
The other initial reaction available to the player is the comfortable one: to echo their father’s anger at the Overseer. By bonding over mutual indignation, the player offers James solidarity, relief, and absolution. The player gives themselves the gift of bonding positively with one’s father at the expense of an honest emotional accounting. People make choices very much like this with their families every day.
After the confrontation there is a chance to make James justify his actions, either by simply asking him to explain himself or by demanding he return home for your sake (a request he’ll hotly refuse). James expresses how deep a depression he’d fallen into; how useless and helpless he felt, how he couldn’t shake the feeling that all he was doing was make himself and his family comfortable at the expense of increasing human misery in 101. His dreams became haunted with his wife, the player’s mother, and the heartbreaking feeling she’d died for nothing. He kept his past from the player out of an earnest but misplaced desire not to inflict the burden of his choices and sacrifices on them. He explains that no good can be done without sacrifice. He will ask for forgiveness.
If things go well, the player is asked to join him at Project Purity. If things don’t, the conversation will probably end decidedly prematurely. He will leave somberly, telling you (with barely concealed anger) to return once you’ve both had time to think things through, and the quest will be marked resolved. Then, some time later, a new quest will emerge: Confront your father.
NEXT: THE ENCLAVE ARRIVES
 I have no amendments to the substance of the quest worth nothing here.
 Which, frankly, they’d have WAY more reason to be furious about in the original than in my version.
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