The biggest complaint about this series is that a lot of my objections to the story are over “trivial” things. This is true in parts, but it’s also missing the point. The story of Fallout 3 is fractally bad. It’s bad at many different levels and it often takes people a while to realize just how far the brokenness goes. The fact that the themes of Fallout 3 are wonky isn’t enough to ruin the story on its own. And the fact that Dad is really flat and the only actions he ever takes are destructive isn’t enough to ruin the game either. But when I hammer the game for having nonsense goals, people often defend it on the basis of its themes, or characters, or the places you visit. You can’t drill down through the layers to find a single point of failure that we can point at and say, “Here. THIS is where it all went wrong!” It’s a big interconnected mess and it takes time to document all the failures.
So all those early “trivial nitpicks” were part of a long process to head off all the usual defenses of Fallout 3 so we wouldn’t get caught up in looping cul-de-sac arguments, because I didn’t want to end up discussing the entire game in a kind of nested reverse of “D because C because B because A”. This is long and nitpick-y because the problems are far-reaching.
But here’s the payoff. This is where all the mistakes converge into a completely idiotic conclusion…
The end of the game is an all-out War of The Idiots
For most of the game the writers have been flagrantly cheating their asses off to make Col. Autumn work as an adversary. They save him from 100% guaranteed death inside the purifier without even bothering to make up a bad, cheap, implausible justification for itAnd no, having him inject himself in the arm does not BEGIN to excuse this mess. Don’t even pretend it does.. His men magically know they need a GECK, they know there’s one in Vault 87, they know you’re going there, and they magically reach it without needing to go through Little LamplightYou might try to fix this by suggesting that the Enclave used the main entrance of vault 87 and they have some super-technology for dealing with the extreme radiation. But the VERY NEXT SCENE makes it clear that this is not the case, if you offer Autumn a bogus code for the purifier. See what I mean about the brokenness being complex?. They knock you out with a grenade that only exists for this cutscene, and they use it even if you’re in stealth, and it works even if you’ve got equipment that ought to defend against it. The writers have to break so many rules to make this sequence work, but they never get around to establishing the stakes for the giant set-piece battle at the end of the game.
On one hand we have the Enclave, who control the purifier. They have the GECK, they’ve installed it, and they’re apparently going to… what? Turn it on? What’s the plan, here? What are we afraid they’re going to do? If they turn it on and it works then the Potomac will become clean. Short of poisoning it, you can’t maliciously clean water. (Remember, the FEV is Eden’s plan, not Autumn’s. And in either case, the Brotherhood doesn’t know anything about it.) If the Enclave wants to pay for the maintenance of this contraption, why not let them? Why would you spend human lives trying to take control of the facility, when it doesn’t matter who is running it?
But the Brotherhood of Steel conclude that not only is it imperative that we take control, but we must do so right now. They even activate their super-robot that still needs some kind of work before it’s properly ready to be used in battle. Then all the “good guys” assault the purifier so that… what? So the we can turn on the purifier instead of the Enclave?
Are we fighting this war to decide who gets to push the button to turn it on?
The Enclave then turns around and pulls the same trick Dad did. They sabotage the device rather than allow it to fall into enemy hands, even though the machine only has one purpose and it doesn’t matter who runs the damn thing.
Worse, someone needs to sacrifice their life in order to turn on the purifier. So by mounting this assault you’ve goaded the Enclave into sabotaging the machine and made it so that you (the player) are the one that needs to go into the deadly radiation to turn the stupid thing on. If you’d just sat back and left the Enclave alone, then presumably they would have turned on the machine and you would “win”. Maybe Autumn could have turned it on himself, since deadly radiation doesn’t seem to be a problem for him.
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.
Keep in mind that what I’ve outlined here isn’t even the worst stuff. I skipped over Little Lamplight, Dad’s Vault-killing adventures, and the fact that the writers didn’t seem to notice all the ways that supposed good-guy Three Dog is actually a monumental selfish, delusional, self-aggrandizing asshole. I’ve just stuck to the crucial elements of the central premise and story.
Sure, you can find a couple of plot holes in Fallout 1. No story is perfect, and it’s hard make big stories hold together over the long haul. But this isn’t just “a couple of plot holes”. This isn’t nitpicking, over-analyzing, or looking for things to complain about. This is a story in which every single aspect of the setting and characters was fundamentally broken from inception. What we’re told isn’t supported by what we’re shown, none of the characters pursue their goals rationally, and the player is constantly obliged to make nonsensical choices.
Despite rampant cheating, hand-waving, railroading, false-choices, and copious amounts of exhaustive over-explainingThe conversation before the final battle is SEVEN MINUTES long. the writers couldn’t put two concepts together without creating a plot hole and having someone act irrationally. It’s not that the pieces don’t quite fit together, these pieces don’t even work in isolation. Everything is wrong and goofy and desultory. This is an incompetent heap of misunderstood concepts and recycled story themes that the writers never understood.
But what about NEW VEGAS?
Are you one of the people who played through Fallout 3Possibly multiple times. without noticing any of these problems? That’s fine. Lots of people clicked through the dialog without listening, or listened to the dialog without thinking too much about it. You might spend several hours screwing around in subways and killing ghouls between story beats, and by the time you reach the next signpost on your journey the details of the previous scene might seem a little vague.
But I’m willing to bet that the reason so many of us ignored the story was because it was so vapid and flavorless. Maybe with a sensible story, consistent characters, and coherent themes you would have liked it even more.
This is where fans of Fallout 3 jump in and shout, “It’s still better than New Vegas!” I don’t want to see people burn down New Vegas in their attempts to defend Fallout 3, so let’s get this out of the way…
Yes, crawling though subways and gunning down super mutants was fun, and I liked Moira’s quests as much as anyoneI always thought the Wasteland Survival Guide made for a more interesting and varied main quest than trying to fix Dad’s stupid nuclear-powered dehumidifier.. And maybe – like me – you enjoy exploring a ruined city more than crawling over the orange hills of the Mojave desert in New Vegas. Maybe you liked fighting super mutants more than screwing around with casinos and Mr. House. That’s fine. That’s all fine. We’ve got this false dichotomy between fans of the games where you can either have:
- The fun, atmosphere, exploration, and [relative] stability of Fallout 3, or…
- Rich lore, vibrant characterization, and consistent themes of New Vegas, but the gameworld looks bland, there are invisible wallsBoth literal collision walls and practical walls enforced by high-level mobs. everywhere, and it crashes all the time.
Do not fall for this. The Fallout 3 story didn’t need to be stupid. They could have just turned the world of Fallout into a mutant shooting gallery, but instead they constructed this long, strange, nonsensical, thematically disjointed, morally confused, horribly paced story with overlong dialog and contrived choices with no emotional payoff.
This shouldn’t be an argument between Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas. This should be an argument between Fallout 3 and the BETTER version of Fallout 3 we could have gotten if just one person had stepped in and either fixed the plot, or changed the plot to tackle a subject commensurate with the skills and ambitions of the writing staff.
You don’t need to accept the Fallout 3 story just because you liked the shooting. Games criticism isn’t an all-or-nothing deal, and it’s okay to hate one part of a game and love a different part. When this much time and money is spent on making a game this big, there’s no excuse for the story to be this bad. They could have done better. This franchise deserved better. You deserved better.
 And no, having him inject himself in the arm does not BEGIN to excuse this mess. Don’t even pretend it does.
 You might try to fix this by suggesting that the Enclave used the main entrance of vault 87 and they have some super-technology for dealing with the extreme radiation. But the VERY NEXT SCENE makes it clear that this is not the case, if you offer Autumn a bogus code for the purifier. See what I mean about the brokenness being complex?
 The conversation before the final battle is SEVEN MINUTES long.
 Possibly multiple times.
 I always thought the Wasteland Survival Guide made for a more interesting and varied main quest than trying to fix Dad’s stupid nuclear-powered dehumidifier.
 Both literal collision walls and practical walls enforced by high-level mobs.
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