The brutal Enclave assault marks a point of critical transition for Fallout 3‘s story. This is the part where James ceases to be the de facto protagonist and passes his mantel of agency and primary story-driving responsibility onto the player. In other words, this is where your story should properly begin.
To pull this off, this scene should accomplish three goals:
- Bring closure and resolution to your father’s arc, and by extension your relationship with him
- Provide a brand-new motivation for the player (since the old driving force, centered directly around your dad’s choices, has become moot)
- Establish the villains for the final stretch
Before we go giddily rewriting, an important question: to what extent does the game’s midpoint, as already written, succeed and fail at these goals?
The James Story
Inarguably, James’ story ends when he sabotages his purifier to kill Colonel Autumn and prevent the Enclave from taking charge. Is that a proper ending to his story as written by Bethesda?
Well, let’s take stock of his decision to kill himself and endanger you so he can without prior communication or forethought sabotage his own life’s work to prevent it from…being finished, and then put to unstoppably altruistic use, by the wrong people? As heroic maneuvers go it’s a shortsighted, brash, incredibly damaging and ill-conceived gesture of self-indulgent pride that directly jeopardizes his workers, friends, and only remaining family. So yes; it’s the perfect ending to his story. This is exactly the sort of boneheaded melodrama that caused dozens of deaths in Vault 101, so it’s actually a completely appropriate note to go out on. The only problem is, the game refuses to acknowledge any of that. Ultimately this ending can’t work because James doesn’t work in general. His character as conceived is not in balance with his choices as written.
As for wrapping up the player’s relationship with James, there were two ways to approach that from a writing perspective. The first path is the painful and tragic: the player never really gets a chance to square things with James. In this version the Enclave takes away something the player probably wanted, which was closure with their father, and comes off as an even bigger and more loathsome jerky-jerk. The other path is that of the conscientious writer: wrap everything up so the act break is maximally tidy and the players go away satisfied.
I don’t really care for the game-as-written’s compromise between these two poles, which seems to be: the player’s relationship is resolved if they’ve made ethical choices (“I love you, son/daughter. I am proud. Let us hug.”) and unresolved and open-ended if they’ve made inconveniently barbaric ones (“You nuked a city? Let’s…uh, talk about that after I’m dead, I guess.”), which seems suspiciously like a concession towards keeping the story on rails when James is a saint and the player’s a cartoon supervillain. Whichever route you end up on, it’s hard to shake the sense of “This conversation doesn’t matter” permeating the dialogue.
Let’s cut straight to the rewrite. One way or another (either after helping with repairs or returning from the last unhappy argument for a final showdown), the player will end up speaking to father. Your father will be…not apologetic for what he’s dragged you through, exactly. He doesn’t seem ready to be that honest with himself yet. Instead he has a kind of confession, only a little defiant, even somewhat regretful: he can only ever do what he feels is right. Sometimes those choices hurt. Sometimes they means making sacrifices, or putting people in danger.
But he wishes…he wishes you didn’t have to get hurt.
He’s making progress in Project Purity. He still thinks he’ll need the GECK, sooner or later, but he’s almost got the project back to where it was. He’ll keep working on it. He understands if you don’t share his vision. He understands if you’d rather go home to Vault 101, and he’s sorry that you never can. What he wants is for you to be by his side while he finishes this project to help the wasteland forever.
But first, there’s something that belongs to you. In a maintenance tunnel that was previously locked is the grave of Catherine, your mother. He left a ring of hers there: a piece of silver twisted to look like flowing water. He’d been in too much pain to keep it when she passed, but in the long years since he’s regretted not passing it on to you. Now he’d like you to have it, and to remember who she was and what she stood for.
The player retrieves the ring. Vertibirds creep over the horizon. By the time the player arrives, the scene is in full swing:
The colonel confronts your father inside the booth, soldiers at either shoulder. James, was it? Very good that he dropped by. The cameras they’d installed showed everything. The purifier’s not finished, you say? Oh, no problem at all…it doesn’t have to be finished. The important part is that the primary and secondary reactors, the ones your father warned you were dangerous, have already been set up. Just one premature push of the “start” button will permanently soil the Potomac, force settlements across the Wasteland to deal with the Enclave for water, smooth the way for a peaceful occupation.
All James needs to do to accept a position as chief engineer in this new world order is…press the button. Rest assured, the position is unbelievably comfortable.
Your father’s voice shakes. At first he manages to speak evenly:
“Here we are again. Again. I’ve never met you, ah, colonel? But you know, I know you. Ever since the first toothless wasteland thug took my work, I’ve known you. I’ve harnessed the thing that’s rotting the guts of children, and I’ve beaten it into a miracle, but that’s no use to people like you, is it? You don’t want the miracles, you just want the plagues, the rains of frogs, the death of the firstborns! Is that what you want from me? You want a fucking weapon? (Dr. Li yells to him through the glass) You want me to push this fucking button? Well! Let’s push the fucking button!“
He slams his fist down on the console. The generator crackles, bursts—the booth glows green. The colonel collapses in an instant. Your father staggers, clearly ill, looks at you.
“I’m sorry,” he says, and dies.
So what is the player’s motivation for the second half of Fallout 3?
I want you to take a moment and decide for yourself what it is in the game as written. Be earnest; engage the game in good faith. Think about what happens in this act break and what you’re supposed to feel afterwards.
Now. Did you answer that the player’s motivation is to:
- Restore the purifier and cleanse the Wasteland, or:
- Avenge your father?
Tricky, isn’t it?
The second one seems like the much stronger emotional drive. You’ve just been through a massacre that among other targets, claimed the father you haven’t had much time to reconnect with. Avenging your father seems like the obvious drive.
At the same time…the man who killed your father is apparently dead. The man who planned the operation, the President, hasn’t really been explicitly connected to what happened yet and ultimately barely will be. Besides, your first act isn’t to declare war on the Enclave, it’s to try to fix the purifier…the one your father just irradiated, and that the Enclave also wants to fix…? And this is leaving aside the elephant in the room, which is that not all players are going to give a shit about dad or are even given a reason to (“He was just gonna lecture me for blowing up Megaton anyway, so whatever”). So revenge doesn’t really qualify as the main motivation.
So what about restoring the purifier? That works, but honestly—and laying aside the myriad reasons this goal doesn’t actually make sense as written—it’s not really emotionally sold to the player. The player watched dad die dramatically, but it wasn’t of thirst. The purifier only matters in an abstract sense, or if the player feels particularly motivated to finish dad’s great work while at the same time not closely examining the logistics of fixing it vs. keeping it out of enemy hands.
In the rewrite, we’re going to break this into two stages. While the emotional rawness is still in place, we’ll give the player the same temporary motivation the original draft does: survive. The player needs to escape the assault and get to safety.
Then the second stage will begin. Dr. Li will exposit where the project currently stands: it’s badly, badly broken. The main generator and secondary generators were both whammied but good. Dr. Li mourns your father, and has some angry words to say about his rash sacrifice, but she has to admit he’s done a thorough job of sabotaging the purifier: at this point only GECK-level technology will fix the thing to the point where it can purify the Potomac OR poison it like the Enclave wanted to. In other words, it’s stable: stably worthless to either party.
Of course, as long as you could find a GECK…it could be very, very useful.
New motivation: opportunity.
NEXT WEEK: #3, ESTABLISHING THE VILLAINS
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