Quick housekeeping note before we progress: these posts represent what I’d call a first draft of our revised Fallout 3 storyline. I’m jotting down notes for one-off revisions that I’ll share in the final post, but I also reserve the right to retcon lavishly as we go along. Dialogue is written for general effect, not for poetry, although I’m certainly trying to approximate the correct tone and content. Might I say again, at the risk of belaboring the point: actually writing a videogame is so much harder than what I’m doing in this series.
We’re coming to the first major multi-part quest of Fallout 3, “Following in his Footsteps.” Core design purpose: allow players pursuing the main quest to rapidly uncover the central hubs, conflicts, and NPCs. Secondary purposes: provide a sense of mounting mystery by drip-feeding information and “you just missed him” teases about your father, expose player to selected sidequests that create a huge (not to say inflated) sense of player empowerment. On all accounts, the finished product rates a very qualified success.
One problem is that by this point in the game the player is invested in one question: why did our father leave the Vault? Soon we’ll learn that he actually brought us into the Vault years ago, and the contrary question becomes equally enticing: why did he go there in the first place? Why was he even permitted inside? There’s no point in speculating. You don’t have the facts to do, so you can hardly be expected to get it right. It’s perfectly well to motivate the player by promising to answer these questions later over and over again until your father is discovered and all is revealed, but surely it would be more inspiring to dole out clues and little revelations more regularly. Even as early as the first town, we should be laying groundwork that will stir the mind for a first playhrough and ring like a bell every time thereafter.
But you know what else the game doesn’t foreshadow? Nearly everything, including the central hooks that come in without ceremony midway through. By the time the Enclave shows up to seize the water purifier, the player needs to have a very clear idea why this is a bad thing on both a personal and regional level. That the early portion of the game teaches neither especially well and in fact seems disinterested in either point is one of the storyline’s more arresting failures.
FRESH WATER, LIVE AMMO, INFORMATION
BOMB IS PERFECTLY SAFE
-Sign near Vault 101
We’re keeping Megaton.
That is to say that we are kicking our story off with a city that’s been built around a dubious atomic bomb by weary settlers and nuke-worshipping loonies. Just after arriving in town, the protagonist will have the choice to blow it up for some rich snobs in the Wasteland or help to keep the peace out of a sense of goodness and charity. We’re keeping these ideas intact because, as I hope I’ve made clear, our objective is not to question whether all of these big-picture E3-friendly ideas are good starting points for an interesting RPG; our job is to trust Bethesda’s brand of memorable high concept and make it work as best as we can on a narrative level.I did rewrite the beginning, but frankly that was more for length than anything else. Ideally, nuMegaton will be internally consistent, reinforce the game’s core theme just by existing, further the game’s current central mystery, and provide a more interesting version of the Big Choice to blow up an entire major settlement.
Our first order of business is to give nuMegaton a reason to be there, both in the sense that the town has a function of some kind (besides serving as a “trade hub,” despite the actual trade activity seeming sporadic and sedate) and in the sense that there’s some reason for people to have built absolutely anything around a goddamn bomb. “There was lots of scrap metal from the bomber carrying the nuke” doesn’t cut the mustard when the whole region is full of entire blown-out towns that haven’t been broken down for parts yet. Let’s say you were trying to get into Vault 101, as Megaton’s founding fathers nobly attempted, and ended up building a makeshift community to avoid perishing in a radiation storm or raider attack or something. Now, which site would serve as the foundation of your emergency shelter: a crater with an undetonated atom bomb and a single plane’s worth of metal in the center? Or the big still-standing schoolhouse up the road? There’s a lattice of overlapping excuses, none of which is individually very strong, which gives the player the very definite sense that Megaton is a plot point justified rather than crafted.
It’s not that I particularly noticed this didn’t make sense during my first playthrough. I’d go out on a limb and say most players didn’t observe or care about the contrivances, which is sort of an illustration of the problem. Players see a town built around a nuke and say, “Oh, cool. I get the gist.” The problems with the premise don’t come out because the premise is obviously superficial. There’s nothing in particular to connect to or think about, which means a better job can certainly be done.
My origin for nuMegaton goes like this:
Not far from the gates of 101, Vault-Tec had a small research and development campus cranking out security and quality-of-life innovations for their survival bunker slash ant farms. Among the features under development were an advanced water purification facility and a poorly-understood “anti-nuke” system. Naturally, when nuclear war began, every single one of these anti-nuke systems that can be detected on the old still-intact computer banks completely to keep the enemy bomber at bay or prevent the gigantic payload from flattening the main building. Except, funny thing: while the impact did a tremendous amount of damage to the main R&D thoroughfare, for some reason the nuke failed to go off. These days, Megaton’s more thoughtful residents are split between those who believe the nuke failing to blow was a fluke and those who credit an as-yet-undiscovered innovation of the ruins with suppressing the detonation. And then there are those super-crazies, the Children of Atom, who’ve spun this vague notion of a secret and inscrutable anti-apocalypse field into a religion that’s elevated Vault-Tec’s disaster readiness manual, signage, and graffiti into sets of rituals and sigils that make radiation harmless and stave off the end of the world. Anyway, nobody’s keen to try moving the old troublemaker. The bomb is rust-fused to the infrastructure, extremely heavy, and as best as anyone’s been able to tell the best way to blow it up would be to give it a sudden jerk.
So why do people live or trade there? A damn good reason, actually: the Vault-Tec water purification facility is the closest thing the whole Capital Wasteland has to a reliable supply of fresh water.
As the townsfolk will be happy to explain, normal Vault water purifiers (like the one you grow up with) will make septic water drinkable, but they won’t scrub away all the radiation “natural” Wasteland water is infested with. That’s where Megaton’s rusty, busted, half-finished facility comes in. It might break down constantly, take a lot of labor to keep running, occasionally mangle a worker, and require the constant attention of irreplaceable experts, but god damn if it doesn’t make water mostly rad-free. For a while the place was run by a tyrant scientist-king who was the only man who could make the thing work; then a woman who worked there figured out how it ticked, and she told everyone else, and now there’s a statue of her in the square and people don’t talk about the tyrant-king anymore. Settlers and traders come from miles around, sometimes daily, to fill their jugs and waterskins. Plenty of people hang around to sell things to them and the facility’s workers, enduring the constant if low-grade threat the bomb poses, figuring it’s better to suckle at the slightly menacing teat of the facility than sit around a scabby flat sipping cloudy mugs of bone-hurting juice.
With this setup we’re providing some key story-critical info to the player:
- Fresh water is scarce. Not “oh no the purifier’s annoying to fix sometimes” scarce, but terrifyingly rare. The wonky busted prototype purifier is such a valuable asset that it singlehandedly created a trading hub next to a live atomic bomb. (See how useful that slightly silly high concept can be?)
- Control of the means to create fresh water equals political control over a region.
- A woman figured out some important things about purifying water, then vanished somewhere. Huh. (This will click a little later on.)
Full disclosure: I don’t feel much need to rewrite the actual Moriarty part of “Following in his Footsteps.” It accomplishes two of my major objectives: it demonstrates a case of the resource-strong victimizing the weak while making the player feel more invested in the world and story by allowing them to make granular, interesting short-term choices. Seriously, check the wiki: there’s more divergent paths and options in this one stage of this first quest than there is basically the rest of the main storyline combined. Off the top of my head, I’d only make two changes: firstly, I’d amend what I seem to recall is explicit language on Moriarty’s part that the best way to get the money to pay him is to go “kill” his runaway employee Silver, which I think is needlessly nefarious; I think it’s more impactful if he just legitimately doesn’t give a shit what happens to her as long as he gets his money. Secondly, I’d make it a little bit harder to hack the terminal if you want to bypass him entirely. Seriously, the password’s in a cabinet? Way to make every other way through the quest seem like an embarrassing waste of time.
Since I’m not rewriting that part, let’s instead take a crack at the real star of Megaton.
Mr. Burke’s Modest Proposal
Let’s get this out of the way: as it is, the quest to blow up Megaton makes no goddamn sense. It’s so fractally bizarre that it’s hard to know where to begin. Why are the people in Tenpenny Towers “wealthy?” Barring any real arable land to work, aristocrats would almost have to be merchants…so why on Earth would they blow up the one solitary trade hub in the area? Because it “spoils Mr. Tenpenny’s view?” I see why a writer thought that could work; certainly it’s not impossible to sell audiences on a villain callous enough to murder hundreds for aesthetic reasons. But that’s such an unexpected motivation that it naturally prompts the player to become curious about the characters and setting involved, and since all are very loosely sketched, no actual scrutiny is borne. The only real way to get through it is not to think about it.
So let’s leverage our newly-fleshed-out Megaton and add some dimension to this quest.
After you enter the saloon, you’re called over to a lonesome corner by a mysterious fellow, Mr. Burke. He’s heard from his ears around town that you just arrived, apparently from a Vault. You therefore represent exactly what he needs: an outsider with plausible connections to Vault-Tec and none whatsoever to the locals or outlying settlements. He offers to buy you a drink, then confidently launches into his pitch:
He represents a Mr. Tenpenny, the leader of a syndicate of water merchants who ship not-so-radioactive water at a tremendous markup from various reservoirs and holdings across the eastern seaboard. While the syndicate has historically done extremely well, making all of them so fabulously wealthy they can afford to maintain a fully-appointed luxury apartment building, the successful revolution of Megaton’s water purification facility has crimped local business dangerously. Megaton represents a local, well-fortified threat to the syndicate’s interests. Proposals to take it over were ultimately rejected, as the atomic bomb was considered too much of a liability to make the facility worth trying to seize. After all, “What good is a resource if you can’t hold it tightly in your fist?”
So the answer is simple: blow it up, along with the purification facility, and allow the syndicate to once again monopolize water in the region. That’s where you come in.
As an outsider from the Vault, you are to claim to town officials that you know how nukes work due to your Vault education—something they had long theorized, incorrectly, might be the case. The sheriff will allow you to approach once you promise to help disable the bomb. As Burke would have it, this is when you would set the detonator, briskly depart, and destroy Megaton.
Your reward would be tremendous. You get a huge one-time payment, for one thing. You’ll also get a safe residence with ample access to resources. Finally, and not insignificantly, you’ll have just made instant friends with a lot of rich powerful people who are about to be the richest and most powerful people in the whole region. Gradually it becomes clear why Burke is being so brazen: it doesn’t occur to him, being a child of the wasteland, that anyone would be stupid enough to turn down such a self-evidently cushy opportunity. As a good-aligned player helps the Sheriff bring Burke to justice, the question must present itself: how desperate are these people after all?
 I did rewrite the beginning, but frankly that was more for length than anything else.
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