When I started this series, I said I was keeping all the major story beats. All the major characters. All the major locations. Every mile of Bethesda’s extensive worldmap and groundwork. Even if I don’t like it, even if I can’t stand it, even if remembering it exists makes my teeth itch. Yes, in fact: even Little Lamplight.
I’ve talked before about how Bethesda can’t be trusted with immortal NPCs. Not because it’s some objective sin of game design, because it really isn’t, but because nobody in the company knows how to write for NPCs that have privileges the player character lacks. If you create NPCs that relentlessly taunt and belittle the player, there should be a way to serve them comeuppance. If there isn’t, there should be a way to ignore them. If one can’t, they should be basically immaterial to the player’s success or failure in the game. If they aren’t, that feeling of all-too-familiar disempowerment at the hands of an unassailable bully better be what the game is about, heart, soul and center. It’s an appropriate emotion to convey in a game about the horrors of tyranny or man’s inhumanity to man. Slipping it in like a pinch of sand in your triple-decker victory sandwich is just bad writing.
Sure, the bullying dorkuses of Little Lamplight aren’t really sinister. I was myself only moderately bullied in elementary school, but I have trouble imagining even the most tender souls are genuinely reduced to tears by Mayor MacReady or his snotty authoritarian goombas. I would characterize them as “annoying.” You know what, though? “Annoying” is bad enough. “Annoyed” is not an emotional goal of Fallout 3 and I will aggressively roll my eyes at anyone who argues otherwise. We can do better.
So how do we fix Little Lamplight? As in all things, by identifying the intended purpose and the core problems.
- Check another box from the “wacky high-concept brainstorm wall,” which it pains me to say Bethesda loves more than the company loves internal logic or a logical story structure. “Sure, this cool thing might be a complete dead end that seems to exist purely for its own sake, but it sure did make journalists chuckle and say ‘huh’ at E3!”
- Provide another set of quests to pad out the main story (or skip if you have the right perk, which is sort of neat).
- …that’s it.
Not an incredibly strong start. So, besides the fact that LL’s existence is weakly justified, what are the problems?
- The kids as written are jaw-shatteringly obnoxious. If you’ve played the game, you need no examples. If you haven’t, no one example will suffice. Trust me, they’re real shit-kids.
- Appointing the Lamplighters sole guardians of the pass creates an ugly plot holeAnd a plot hole is only really ugly when it enables bad storytelling which I’ll get into in a later post.
- Considering that their role in the story is literally to be gatekeepers, they’re insulting unqualified. They prevent the player from passing with a short plywood wall and a handful of armed children. To earn a way through the gate without the right skills or perk, the player has to assault a fortified base of murderous slavers. Even if you present the reasonable conceit that harming the kids is off the table, how hard would it really be to bulldoze through with power armor? And given that the kids don’t know they’re invincible, why would they stand their ground and shoot at you instead of running for the hills? It’s asinine. The mind reels from the idea that these kids actually get to dictate terms to you just because they’ve got a shitty barricade and the protection of youth.
Now we’re getting somewhere. First we’ll fix our identified problems; then we’ll create new, better, more ambitious goals.
- Forget the kids playing gatekeeper. “We’ll let you progress in the main quest if you do us a favor” is a frustrating chestnut of RPGs anyhow and rarely holds up to scrutiny. How about instead, the player arrives to discover and thwart a raid currently in progress, and (after witnessing the vulnerability of the settlement and having their heartstrings plucked by the plight of the poor beleaguered kids hanging on by their fingernails) finds out that in an earlier gambit, the members of Little Lamplight who know how to hotwire the vault door have been snatched up. The player’s cleared to pass on through the town, but there’s nothing to pass on to because the vault door won’t budge without the right passed-on-for-generations steps known only to the absentees. Now the player has a choice: they can rescue the children and get the information directly, or they can negotiate with or befriend the Paradise Falls slavers to gain access the information without saving anyone.
- Like I said, I’ll get to the plot hole later.
- Simplest fix so far: don’t make the children a flock of cocky shitbirds. Make them defiant, proud, brave, but don’t make them pointlessly antagonistic. I can buy that a settlement of children can fend for themselves and demonstrate the grit they need to keep predators at bay, but there’s a tremendous difference between standing one’s ground and savagely mocking potential enemies. One of these two attitudes is associated with survival in desperate, brutal, dog-eat-dog situations. The other is associated with getting one’s ass kicked.
- Pad the main story with quest content and a choice that reflects the tension between helping others at great risk and taking advantage of weakness. We do this by presenting a pretty straightforward choice: the player can either take great risks to get some information and rescue the innocent, or exploit the fear and helplessness of the captured children to get the info out of them under false pretenses or intimidation. Either way, a resounding and full-throated commitment to the player’s established principles…unless the player just buys the kids and sets them free, choosing neither to confront evil nor to profit from it and deferring “choosing a side” for a little longer.
- Check another box on the “wacky high-concept brainstorm wall” in a way that tells an active story about what’s currently happening in the world. If you come across a settlement of children, that’s…cool, I guess? If you come across a settlement of children that is currently locked in a war of attrition with slavers and fighting to save its own existence, that’s a just a location that can show up in a story, that is a story. That tells us something about Little Lamplight’s role in the world. That makes the lol-crazy concept of an entire village of youthful innocents facing the dangers of a hungry wasteland directly speak to the central themes of the story by acknowledging: the weak are always in peril of being devoured by the strong and evil, and can be saved only if the strong and good give their strength willingly.
So that’s our Little Lamplight. We’re past the worst of it now; time to bring this story to its satisfying final act.
NEXT TIME: GETTING THE GECK AND GETTING CAPTURED
 And a plot hole is only really ugly when it enables bad storytelling
Why Google sucks, and what made me switch to crowdfunding for this site.
The Strange Evolution of OpenGL
Sometimes software is engineered. Sometimes it grows organically. And sometimes it's thrown together seemingly at random over two decades.
There's a wonderful way to balance difficulty in RPGs, and designers try to prevent it. For some reason.
Juvenile and Proud
Yes, this game is loud, crude, childish, and stupid. But it it knows what it wants to be and nails it. And that's admirable.
The Best of 2011
My picks for what was important, awesome, or worth talking about in 2011.