Overhaulout Part 3: Time Bomb

By Rutskarn Posted Friday Aug 25, 2017

Filed under: Video Games 94 comments

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.





-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:

  1. 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?)
  2. Control of the means to create fresh water equals political control over a region.
  3. 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?



[1] I did rewrite the beginning, but frankly that was more for length than anything else.

From The Archives:

94 thoughts on “Overhaulout Part 3: Time Bomb

  1. Matt` says:

    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.

    I think you may have accidentally a verb in there somewhere.

    “completely failed to keep the enemy bomber at bay”, perhaps?

    1. DivFord says:

      Ohhhhh! I was trying to parse it with ‘banks’ as the verb, and getting very confused.

  2. BlueHorus says:

    Side note:

    …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.

    This sentence is missing (I assume from context) the word ‘failed’?

    …and Ninja’d! Ah well, that’s what you get for trying to say two things with one post.

    On topic:

    Yes. Brilliant. It reinforces that water is precious – which the original game failed to do – while justifying why the people of Megaton actually MIGHT live around an unexploded bomb.
    And, in the same stroke, it causes Burke & Tenpenny’s proposal make actual damn sense as something an actual person would do, rather than a cartoon villain.

    And not a single water-beggar/karma dispenser in sight. They were a awful way to try and show water scarcity.

    1. Zekiel says:

      Agree. I like the nu-Burke much better. I was so annoyed by Burke when I played game – I turned down in his proposal (because obviously I would) and he immediately attacked me; I killed him and that was it. It was my introduction to the paper-thin and astonishingly obvious moral choice of Fallout 3.

      1. BlueHorus says:

        Wait, he attacks you? I don’t remember that happening.
        I remember I went and told the sheriff (Simms) about his plan, at which point he killed the Simms (yep, pulls a gun on the town sheriff, who’s holding his gun during an arrest attempt – and Simms dies without getting a shot off) so THEN I killed him.
        But it’s been a few years.

        What I really ‘liked’ about Burke was that he seemed to be presented as a ‘Fixer’ – a competent professional who you called when you wanted something dubious done.
        But on being contracted to blow up Megaton, he…
        …sits in the bar, wearing an ‘obviously shady guy’ outfit and making everyone suspicious, then tries to get a stranger (you) to activate the bomb for him. He even gives you the bomb-exploding doodad, proving he had it on him…what was *I* needed for again?

        Now if he’d said ‘No-one here trusts me, I need you to break into the shed where they keep the bomb doodad; I’d do it but they’re watching me.’, that would have made more sense.

        1. djw says:

          I’m not sure that it would make sense.

          1) They are watching Burke

          2) Some stranger (you) appears and talks to Burke

          Why wouldn’t they be just as suspicious of you as they are of Burke? Why would they let a stranger anywhere near their bomb regardless of their interactions or lack thereof with Burke?

          1. BlueHorus says:

            Well, yes. But that’s true of the original too – they *are* watching Burke, and after you talk to him you can activate the bomb – in front of everyone else – and you don’t raise the alarm. Who’s suspicious or not isn’t something Bethesda cares about, apparently.

            My point was more about the fact that Burke has the means to detonate the bomb and hasn’t done it yet, preferring to sit in the bar and act suspiciously.
            A simple change would have made that make (a bit) more sense.

            1. djw says:

              Eh, its a band aid on a gaping chest wound.

      2. Wide And Nerdy says:

        In a normally quite uncharacteristic turn for me, I went evil on my first playthrough at least long enough to blow up Megaton. I just wanted to see the pretty explosion and getting an nice place to live out of the deal was an added perk. Having seen some of the Spoiler Warning (half paying attention) the plot seemed so thin that I didn’t really care whether Megaton stuck around or not.

        Which turns me to Rutskarn. I like the temptation angle. In my opinion, more games with evil choices should be like this. Evil should be expedient or otherwise beneficial.

        Sometimes it can prove to be counterproductive but the player should believe that making the evil choice should do one of the following (not an exhaustive list):

        1) Should be expedient. Save time on a grindy chore. It should be tempting to the player, a way to skip something they might not enjoy. AND/OR

        2) Should give a big reward. Power, money, perks. If you want to balance out the money that evil and good get, you can set of some of your expedient/grind choices to grant good players choosing grind some compensatory reward. But the rewards for an option 2 evil choice shouldn’t be identical for good and evil. AND/OR

        3) Should be emotionally satisfying. Like getting a chance to kill a smug jerk. AND/OR

        4) Should get you out of trouble. Like killing a witness.

        You get the idea. There should be a reason for you to want to do the bad thing that in some way offsets being bad.

        Of course it can be worth a few giggles to take the evil route in a game that gives you absolutely no reason for doing so.

    2. Echo Tango says:

      A very easy way the game could have shown (clean) water scarcity, would be to adjust the stats on radiated water and pure water in the game, as well as their actual scarcity. Make bottles of pure water have something like 100 base-cost-value (instead of the normal 20), and make dirty water’s base-value 2 (instead of the normal 10). Then just have clean water spawn a bit more scarcely in the world and on merchants, and make dirty water fairly common. It wouldn’t have fixed the broken quests in the game, as Rutskarn is doing, but it’s a fairly easy thing to adjust in the game.

    3. Jabrwock says:

      Water beggars weren’t a bad idea, just the implementation. “Wait, why doesn’t he just go inside?” There’s no backstory, no explanation. “Oh that’s Jim, he’s been banished from [location] for some trouble he caused before [details about an altercation, attempted rebellion, theft, assault, whatever), so now he’s not allowed inside where clean water is available and has to pester visitors.”

      You could even get a side-quest to have the town forgive him and rescind the banishment.

      1. Viktor says:

        Or just make it so that anyone outside of specified locations will have a dialogue where you can sell them water for a markup or give it away. Include a couple random voicelines about being thirsty or drinking from the basin even though it tastes funny and it would feel much more natural.

        1. Jabrwock says:

          Well, you can sell your water to random travelling merchants, but yeah, I like the idea that anyone you meet might ask if you’re selling. Reinforces the idea that clean water is a highly sought-after commodity in these parts, that it becomes almost a currency in and of itself.

          Having encounters with water merchants might help with this. Maybe local distributors.

      2. BlueHorus says:

        Water beggars weren't a bad idea, just the implementation.

        That’s true.
        Rutskarn put it well in one word: superficial. So much of FO3’s writing looks fine until you think for more than 3 seconds or take two figurative steps to the side.
        And the beggars were a prime example: they didn’t seem like actual people, even by Bethesda NPC standards.

        – They didn’t have a place to sleep or to go and eat, like other NPCs did; they just sat outside towns all day every day, looking misreable.
        – They didn’t get better if you gave them water, or die of dehydration if you didn’t; regardless of how you treated them they gave you the same ‘please can I have some water’ dialog, forever.
        – Did they all have the same voice set? I think they did, but it’s been a while…
        – The biggest problem by far: They were the ONLY people in the entire game who seemed to lack water; they were let down by the surrounding world. And considering the nature of the main plot…

        Fix those things, and they’d be a lot better.

        As it was they made a lot more sense in context as some kind of scam than anything else: i.e they’re all synths and are tricking the gullible out of their clean water.

        (Hey, quest mod idea!)

    1. Zak McKracken says:

      …that would actually open another scenario for Megaton: They built this place, using some irreplaceable things from pre-war times, and only later realized that there’s a proper unexploded A-bomb in the center of it, not just a crashed airplane. But now it’d be too hard to to pack up and move all the stuff elsewhere.
      (Although that scenario might need a bunch of changes to existing game assets)

      1. Jabrwock says:

        I like some of the backstory they give though, that the crater gave natural shelter from the radiation storms. The bomb didn’t seem to do much so they just shrugged and assumed it was inert, and decided that using the easily defensible position was worth the risk.

  3. Echo Tango says:

    Rutz, you’ve explained why a functioning water purifier would be valuable, but there’s still an open question – why is filtering water so difficult in the first place? It’s actually easy to filter fallout particles out of water; See the simple filter at the bottom of this page of Nuclear War Survival Skills. I get that there’s plasma guns and analog-circuit AI computers, but this seems to violate the otherwise normal laws of physics even harder than the rest of the game.

    You could justify it if a nuke turned a bunch of salt radioactive, which would dissolve easily in any water it touched. Possibly an enemy nation purposefully made some salt-bombs as one of their Mutually Assured Destruction plans. I know the original game[1] had small pages of text explaining quirks of the world like this, so this’d be an acceptable way to handle it for me, anwyays, :)

    [1] Drink responsibly!

    1. KarmaTheAlligator says:

      Aren’t we going with the premise that radiation in the Fallout universe isn’t that easy to get rid of?

      1. Radiosity says:

        No, because that was never the case in the first instance. There’s also the fact that this is 200 years after the bombs, and radiation simply wouldn’t be a major problem any more.

        Nuclear bombs and reactors work differently (obviously). Bombs release their materials REALLY FAST over a short period of time in order to create a devastating explosion + shockwaves. Reactors release their materials VERY SLOWLY over a long period of time (see: Chernobyl).

        The first ~50 after the bombs would definitely be a huge problem, with radiation everywhere and nasty stuff like black rain and other hazards, given the global nature of the exchange. But 200 years? Yeah, most of the radiation would’ve been naturally scrubbed by the continual precipitation, especially when you consider how much it rains in the DC region.

        Purifying water would be necessary still, simply from the point of view of bacteria and so on, but radiation wouldn’t actually be a big problem at all. The only major radiation hotspots by this point should be those where unusual circumstances persist; nuclear stockpiles, toxic waste dumps, destroyed nuclear reactors, and the like.

        And don’t forget that the primary reason for all the mutation and so on was the FEV getting into the atmosphere along with the radiation. Basically… everything about Bethesda’s setting is broken, heh.

        1. Viktor says:

          And eating a bunch of TV Dinners doesn’t fix bullet wounds. Rads in the Fallout series are not the same thing as radiation IRL. You can either accept that or not, but the setting and gameplay fall apart if they use real-world science, so don’t expect them to.

          1. There is such a thing as *radioactive water*, aka Heavy Water, that contains Tritium (Hydrogen atoms with 3 neutrons instead of 1 or 2).

            So some premise along the lines that most of the water in the world (or, at least, around the Capital Wasteland–which was the political capital at the time and probably would have been a high-priority target) was chemically changed into heavy water due to the crazy (unspecified) reactions that happened. You can’t FILTER the hydrogen out of water, in fact, the primary way to separate the heavy and regular water is a complex process that involves high pressure and the difference in boiling points between heavy and regular water. So it’s reasonable that specialized, high-power machinery would be necessary to do this in any quantity.

            1. I’m not claiming this is a scientifically legitimate scenario, just that it would be complex-sounding enough to jump the threshhold between “total bs” and “story sciencing”.

              1. djw says:

                Well, it is science sounding at least…

                The half life on Tritium is 12.5 years though, so not much would be left 200 years after the bombs fall.

                1. Assuming the normal water and the radioactive water were mixed together, the water could still be radioactive enough 200 years later (16 half lives approximately) that consumption was a risky proposition. 1/16th the radioactivity is not necessarily sufficient to make it safe, exactly. And that’s assuming that there isn’t a science magic thingamajig continuing the process.

                  It doesn’t have to be perfect to fit the setting, although of course better is good.

                  1. djw says:

                    That’s 2^16 = 65,536 times smaller, so it will be on the level of background radiation 200 years later.

                    Tritium is actually pretty dangerous because its activity is quite high, but that means that it is not around for very long.

            2. evileeyore says:

              So instead of using Ice-9 to ruin America, China used 3H?

              Sounds plausible.

            3. Boobah says:

              Gratuitous science nitpick: normal hydrogen has just a proton in the nucleus. Deuterium has a proton and one neutron. Tritium is a proton and two neutrons.

              1. Thanks, my brain couldn’t reconcile the 2 neutrons with the name, which of course means “three” in Latin.

          2. Nessus says:

            Well, it’s important not to mix up gameplay mechanics with actual worldbuilding details when making apologetics.

            TV dinners fixing bullet woulds isn’t a detail that’s a part of the actual world, it’s just a gameplay mechanic with a cosmetic fig leaf. Nearly every game that doesn’t have health regen (another mechanic that’s usually just a mechanic and not literal) has some kind of healing item that’s named/textured as an in-world item. Magical first-aid kits, magical aspirin bottles, whatever.

            There are games where that sort of thing CAN be immediately explained as a literal part of the world (Elder Scrolls has powerful and easy street-level alchemy, so it makes sense that low-level alchemy would be built into everyday cooking), but those are exceptions. Max Payne doesn’t actually live in a world where wound regenerating over-the-counter drugs exist: that’s just a fig leaf for a game mechanic.

            The water filtration thing in Fallout 3 on the other hand is entirely a woldbuilding/story thing.

        2. Agammamon says:

          And let’s not forget the 7-10 rule. 7 times the duration, 1/10th the intensity.

          7 hours after detonation 1/10
          49 hours 1/100
          2 weeks = 1/1,000
          . . .
          92 years later = 1/10,000,000th the intensity.

          At 200 years the background radiation should be pretty close to what it is today.

          1. Daemian Lucifer says:

            Background radiation is not the problem.It has to be extremely high in order to harm you.Its the fact that radioactive material gets into the food thats the problem.This is problematic not only due to radiation blasting you from the inside,but because plenty of radioactive stuff are also toxic as well.

        3. Daemian Lucifer says:

          No, because that was never the case in the first instance.

          True.But if we are going to change little about fallout 3,then magic radiation water should remain a thing.

          There's also the fact that this is 200 years after the bombs, and radiation simply wouldn't be a major problem any more.

          Actually it would.But not in the way presented here,where radiation just kills you after a certain threshold.The radioactive material would quickly find its way into the food,so everyone would be slightly sick all the time.Cancer would be on the rise,average immunity would go down,etc.Of course,it wouldnt be so drastic as presented in the media,but my guess is that the average lifespan would be about 5 years shorter than today,due to radiation alone.

          1. djw says:

            Cesium 137 does get into the food chain via grass and fungus that grow in the irradiated soil. This is an ongoing problem at Chernobyl.

            However, Cs 137 has a half life of 30 years, so after 200 years it will be reduced to a 1/128th of its original level and should be much less of a problem. Also, churning the topsoil and mixing it with non-radiated soil should reduce the effect by diluting the Cs 137, and over the course of 200 years animals and weather should do that even if humans aren’t.

            (on second thought, animals will probably concentrate the cs-137 further by eating the grass and each other, so that’s not a mitigating element. The 30 year half life should make it almost negligible after 200 years though).

            1. Decius says:

              It’s not just the decay time of the Cs-137. What’s the average of the half-lives of the decay products, until you get to something that is stable enough? What’s the /biotoxicity/ of the decay product chain?

              1. djw says:

                It decays to Ba-137m, which is a Barium isotope in an excited nuclear state. Ba-137m decays by gamma emission to the ground state Ba-137, which is stable, with a half-life of 153 seconds.

                This means that the decay chain half life is dominated by Cs137 half life of 30 years.

                No idea on the Biotoxicity of either Cs or Ba (although I doubt they are good for you in large quantities).

                Here is the wiki page for Barium . It looks like water solutions of Barium are poisonous, but in other forms it is benign.

                In any case, once it becomes a matter of water soluble Barium poisoning its not really appropriate to call it a radiation problem anymore, since it has a radioactivity of zero.

                1. djw says:

                  In any case, my position is that the “science” of the Fallout series is basically un-fixable, and it would be silly and counterproductive to try.

                  As Jeremy Bowers posted below, the radiation in Fallout isn’t real radiation, it is public perception of radiation, which is only tangentially related to the actual stuff.

                  The setting works fine if you keep it in the science-fantasy compartment of your brain instead of the science fiction compartment.

                  It should still follow its own rules though…

      2. Grey Cap says:

        Considering the things radiation does in this series on a gameplay level (as well as other things, like the immortal radiation-zombies, the battery-sized nuclear reactors that power armor and the living-room-sized nuclear explosions from the Fat Man) I think we’re meant to understand ‘radiation’ as ‘black plot magic’.

        1. djw says:


          radiation = science magic

    2. Because in the Fallout world, the common understanding of radiation in the 1960s is the truth. Not the true scientific understanding, the common one.

      And in the common understanding, including for most people today, radiation isn’t a scientific phenomenon to be understood as just another aspect of our universe, but is a form of Evil Curse. That is to say, I don’t just mean that as a sort of slur, but that it fits into our species’ ancient Evil Curse narrative. It is actively malevolent and will seek you out and Curse you and your family if you do not carefully ward it away with the rituals given by the Priesthood. The Priesthood’s name happens to be Science today, but the fallout conception of it has little to do with “true science”.

      If you want to freak someone out today, look up the sources of background radiation and explain to them just how much radiation they are actually bathed in. You can terrify people, because while you think you’re just relaying some interesting scientific facts about cosmic radiation, how much potassium bananas have, and how smoke detectors work, what you are actually telling their hindbrains is that the Evil Curse that they thought was 100% Over There somewhere and Not Here is in fact Here right now and is actually In Them where they can’t get it out.

      A scientifically-minded person may hear “Water Purifier” and think “oh, yeah, it’s removing impurities from the water which is really easy to do, the thing’s probably just a big distillery, in fact what’s so hard about that?” And… frankly, for the original authors that’s probably what it was too, as they seem a bit fuzzy on this concept themselves as the teams would be full of people who were raised scientifically even if they still have some of the curse ideas in the back of their head. But I’d submit a reading that is more accurate to the conception of radiation in play here is that the “Water Purifier” is using the term Purification in a more religious sense, where it gets rid of the Evil Curse and yields Pureness out the other end.

      Note in both the original story and even in Rutskarn’s reformulation here, getting and keeping the Purifier running is requiring a sacrifice of life and limb. Our mental concept of Purity never comes without at least the perception of it costing someone.

      And I’d submit this also explains why it is so natural for post-apocalyptic games that run on this sort of physics, including the revived Wasteland series as well, to end up with violent religions worshiping the Evil Curse in a way that someone with a scientific understanding of real-world radiation would find bizarre. Especially since “worshiping” a big chunk of Cobalt-60 doesn’t “scar” you in nifty religious ways or endow you with Super Curse Powers, it just kills you, and everything in you, stone-dead.

      1. King Marth says:

        Radiation totally gives you superpowers, in fact, it makes your cells immortal and capable of endlessly replicating!

        It just doesn’t apply to all of them, and we call the results ‘cancer’.

  4. tremor3258 says:

    Rustkarn, this alone works so well at establishing later themes if the whole rest of the game was the exact same down to dialog, the final product would feel much stronger. It’s important enough to be worth letting down a veil of secrecy around your government conspiracy (non-radioactive water being so vital, and people willing to go so far to get it, to spread the FEV strain easily through the population) and also important enough to wake up the giant robot still fighting the Last War from the basement.


  5. Thomas says:

    I think Megaton is an example of the genius in Bethesda’s madness. FO3 people _love_ Megaton and the choice.

    I really do think FO3 could be improved by better characters and thematic consistency, but I think explaining Megaton would make it worse. Its a town around a bomb that a cult worship and you can blow it up.

    Its simple, it’s clean, it’s resonant in a Bethesda way. You can say that exact sentence to your friend.

    There’s something [dirty word] nerdy to caring about how things work and why. ~ (reminder I’m a new Vegas guy)

    Maybe there’s a middle ground, and you can very carefully scatter your explanation around out of sight. But I think if it’s obviously _reasonable_ to be based around a bomb, that’s a turn-off.

    1. Grey Cap says:

      I think Rutskarn’s version plays very well to some of Bethesda’s strengths, though. There’s a crazy power-mad engineer-king and a bunch of intrigue about that in the past that they get to communicate via terminals/environments (compare that to the saga of the raider boss, in Fallout 4, who kidnapped another boss’s sister and extorted the gang for food; it’s told through multiple stages in multiple areas). There’s the story of settling the town (more terminals and environments; Vault-tec shenanigans on terminals, notes left by settlers exploring the ruins etc). All of the above is very cheap since you can lean heavily on terminals. There’s still the kooky cultists to inject zaniness, the bomb, the chance to blow up the bomb etc.

      [Edit:] I’m not sure how unreasonable the plot has to be to appease the average Fallout player but purely on the surface a city on top of a live nuke is still memorable, and I feel like a lot of players must enjoy the exploration aspect of uncovering little bits of story–otherwise, why have that be such a big part of Bethesda’s games?

      Whoever at Bethesda designed that kidnapping story in Fallout 4 would probably love to tell Rutskarn’s version of Megaton, and the studio are masters of all the tools they need to do it.

    2. Mousazz says:

      But then why not simply make the whole town made up only of the cultist Children of Atom? Why make normal people inhabit Megaton at all? That would make even more sense from the Bethesda design philosophy, because you’d eliminate even more nuance from the town: “Do you want to keep this town of silly but harmless loonies alone? Or do you destroy them all because no one would miss them anyways?”

      (Besides, it’s the obvious place to have all the wacky characters like Moira reside)

      1. Thomas says:

        I don’t have all the answers to that, this is still a relatively new thought and I’ve been more flippant than actively selling it which is going to prevent other people from going on board.

        I can answer the ordinary towns folk one though. Bethesda are selling _moments_ to people – that’s why it’s got to lack nuance (at least on the surface, I’m open to a middle ground existing). Its something that fits in everyones head and doesn’t get messed up by context.

        The Megaton bomb moment is being able to do something giggle inducing evil – something a bit transgressive. There’s a town around a bomb. And you can blow the bomb up.

        If it was all a cult, it wouldn’t be a moment anymore. There’s a town around a bomb. And you can blow up – but they’re all crazy and evil anyway so it’s kind of justified.

        Its odd, but removing the ordinary towns folk adds a complication to the moment. You’re doing something silly and evil – but in context it’s not as silly and evil as it seems.

        You could probably make it work ‘There a cult who worship a bomb – and you can blow the bomb up’. I mean that’s why the cult exist. But the moment is a bit smaller. Its a moment to tell friends, but not quite as big a one.

        1. Daimbert says:

          You could invert it to make it still be a moment. Have them build there because they worship the bomb and want to be grasped in its explosive embrace. Except they can’t figure out how to set it off. Someone somewhere tells you how to undo what the deactivation device does to it. So then you can decide to set it off and give them what they want or walk away shaking your head at their insanity.

    3. ElementalAlchemist says:

      I think Megaton is an example of the genius in Bethesda's madness. FO3 people _love_ Megaton and the choice.

      I really do think FO3 could be improved by better characters and thematic consistency, but I think explaining Megaton would make it worse.

      Bethesda disciples already have FO3 “classic edition”. This is an attempt at making a “special edition” that is palatable for everyone else.

      1. Thomas says:

        I thought the idea was to stick to what Bethesda was doing – but show how better writing could improve even that?

        And to be clear, I don’t like what Bethesda do to the point where Ive never finished FO3 or Skyrim. I’m just trying to acknowledge the fact that they’re phenomenally successful and successful despite alternatives I prefer being out there. Skyrim has nearly outsold every Witcher game combined and lots of people.genuinely love FO3 and dislike NV

    4. djw says:

      In Rutskarn’s construction you still have a town around a bomb that you can blow up. It’s still simple to explain. He has just added a back story that makes sense. People who don’t care about it aren’t going to bother reading it anyway, so its not going to make things worse for them.

  6. Grey Cap says:

    Man, this sounds so much better than the actual plot I’m starting to wonder if I’ve gone mad. I mean, either Rutskarn’s draft would be more irritating in practice or Bethesda set out to sabotage their plot on purpose.

    1. Paul Spooner says:

      Or no one ever got to do a high-level pass over the story which had mutated as development went on, and was hamstrung by pre-recorded dialog. As he says, this is a lot easier to describe than it is to execute.

      1. Grey Cap says:

        I get that development is a messy and expensive process. I get that working with a big unwieldy machine is difficult and throws unexpected problems in a developer’s way that can be hard to remedy. But someone wrote what they recorded, and then someone else read through it and told them ‘yep, that’s what we want, go ahead and book the studio’.

        Also, Bethesda has one or more geniuses in the field of background storytelling, they just keep them away from the writing department. Someone is placing all those poignant skeletons. Someone is setting things up so that the story of an abducted raider reacts depending on which raider bosses you’ve slaughtered before getting to the relevant terminal. A lot of changes (especially for the justification of Megaton/Tenpenny) could have been made just by sprinkling some terminals around.

  7. Redingold says:

    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.

    oof ow ouch

    1. Genericide says:

      I believe that the above commenter, and perhaps Rutskarn himself, are referencing this subreddit about missing the point of something for comedic effect. This observation isn’t smart or funny or anything, I just feel compelled to explain references that haven’t been so people aren’t left in the dark.

      1. tzeneth says:

        Thank you for explaining as I was completely lost.

  8. Mousazz says:

    “What good is a resource if you can't hold it tightly in your fist?”

    I’m pretty sure this sentence needs to be painted red. After all, this is related to the opposing theme of profiteering from selling badly-needed goods (in this case, purified water).

  9. M says:

    Certainly radiation doesn’t work in Fallout the same way as it does in the real world. Nuclear bombs don’t work the same way either – a 220+ year old bomb is really unlikely to work.

    They’re having problems keeping the triggers in real world nuclear bombs working because they require radioactive elements that decay relatively quickly (as in they have to be replaced every decade or so).

    The previous poster is correct – it’s better to think of radiation as an Evil Curse and a bomb as the Evil in a Can that Never Dies But Can Only Be Contained – unless you let it out.

    1. Philadelphus says:

      Forget being 220+ years old, a nuclear bomb that didn’t go off on the way down almost certainly won’t be going off once it’s impacted with the ground. The triggering devices for nukes are incredibly precise devices; triggering a plutonium bomb involves accurately firing timed explosives in such a way that something like 20 different pieces of plutonium all implode on a central point within a few nanoseconds of each other. If that doesn’t go off on the way down, hitting the ground will just break it irreparably. A uranium bomb’s slightly simpler (basically just firing one slug of uranium into another to reach critical mass), but still unlikely to survive a high-speed collision.

      1. Daemian Lucifer says:

        But due to other effects of age,there is a chance for the fissile material of the bomb to still undergo a meltdown.This of course depends on how it was distributed in the first place.

        1. Philadelphus says:

          Sure, it could heat up quite a bit due to bits of fissile material getting jostled together from the impact, but the ability to get enough fissile material together to reach critical mass and release all that energy in a split second would be basically gone once the triggering device hit the dirt. (I think. Admittedly I’m just a physicist who’s read up the subject, not an actual warhead designer, and who knows how Fallout nukes work.)

          ‘Course, you’re right that a meltdown would be very dangerous, just in not-so-explosive ways: uranium and plutonium are both mundanely poisonous heavy metals that you really don’t want anywhere near your water supply even if they weren’t radioactive, so if you somehow sabotaged the casing to allow water to get in there you could potentially cause quite a lot of damage over a much longer timescale.

          1. djw says:

            Fallout nukes work on the principle of “space magic” so of course it could still go off…

  10. Paul Spooner says:

    Enjoying the nudges to the continuity. It’s all falling into place!
    Language patrol reporting in.
    “It's perfectly well to motivate” might want to change “well” to “understandable”.
    “first playhrough and” Keyboard ‘t’ key isn’t working.
    “without ceremony midway through.” last two words could be “mid-arc” for elegance.
    “a better job can certainly be done” append “, in the passive voice” for self-awareness. (bonus points, next paragraph is written in the passive voice)
    “…every single one of these anti-nuke systems that can be detected on the old still-intact computer banks completely to keep the…” This whole sentence is just bonkers. Did you accidentally?
    “no actual scrutiny is borne” … “in the passive voice”
    “He's heard from his ears” there’s nothing wrong with this, just made me chuckle.

  11. Brandon says:

    Gotta say I did not expect such a spicy meme as bone hurting juice to come from Adam.

  12. Sleeping Dragon says:

    So I have an… I hesitate to call it a problem or even an issue with so let’s say it’s an observation about Megaton.

    This is the spot where the game has a major bout of split personality. On the one hand we have this storydriven pursuit of James, and at this point the player should probably have even more questions than when they just stepped out of the vault. On the other this is where the game throws its “or, you know, you could just go openworld on this” at the player. There is that delivery quest to Arefu, which is likely to take you past Big Town (which may push you to explore the north of the map somewhat, especially if you’re playing on an easier difficulty or are cheesing the mechanics so you can actually handle it) and Tenpenny’s, there is Moira’s quest which can take you all over the map, leads to a number of other quests and is, in fact, how many people skipped GNR completely.

    I know that Bethesda games generally open up early but most don’t try to run a narrative of personal investment at the same time. Well, FO4 sorta does but it was such a weak sell storywise that at no point did I feel like I really wanted to pursue that quest, in FO3 at this point a player had no idea what a mess the story would turn out to be.

    1. Matt Downie says:

      Yeah, if I remember right one of the things the game told me was that I should go to Galaxy Radio to look for my father.

      But it didn’t occur to me that the GNR thing marked on my map was anything to do with Galaxy Radio, so I wandered off in a different direction.

  13. Cybron says:

    I love this series. Keep it up, Rutskarn.

    I wonder how hard it would be to mod the game into something like this. You’d have to forgo voice acting, obviously. But I don’t know much about the quality of Bethesda’s modding tools.

    1. earlgraytay says:

      You wouldn’t even have to forgo voice acting.

      There’s a couple guilds/subreddits/etc. devoted to doing mods for Bethesda games. I bet you could scare up enough people who are talented enough to give a passable performance to voice it.

  14. Daemian Lucifer says:

    He represents a Mr. Tenpenny,

    This is one other thing that bothered me:Why would he outright tell you who is his employer?Thats just stupid.

    Ok,being so brazen because this new world is harsh,I can kinda see it,but still even then I dont see the need for him to tell you the name of his employer.

    1. silver Harloe says:

      Ruts said in a previous post: this is an outline, not the final dialog, so perhaps he doesn’t actually reveal the name of his employer, at least until he’s certain you agree to do it and aren’t just lying to get a name to give to the whatever-passes-as-cops-around-here. Though when you ask about the reward, “a home in Tenpenny Towers” might give you a clue.

    2. KarmaTheAlligator says:

      I took it to mean Burke thought you might recognise the name of a very wealthy man as an incentive, and also to show that he *can* get you what he promises.

    3. Stuff like that doesn’t bother me. It’s the video game equivalent of “As You Know” speeches: the player is clueless and needs to be brought into the world, irrespective of the potential knowledge of the protagonist. Sometimes that means an agent of the villain puts everything on the table for you. The alternative is confusion.

      What I’d do is have Speech checks, appropriately low level, to convince him to share information, like “Who’s your employer”?, “Why”, etc., and some information he gives away for free.

  15. Christopher says:

    I love it, it’s so nice to see how you can continue to build on the themes once they’re established without changing very much at all.

  16. MrBtongue says:

    Couple thoughts:

    First, characters in Megaton could mention at some point that water is strictly rationed there – like, each citizen gets a certain amount, with leftovers reserved for trade. That might give the thirsty guy outside the walls an extra dimension.

    Second, this is a lot of backstory to add. Like in the actual game I think the “church of the atom” is restricted to one guy preaching vaguely about radiation or something while standing next to the bomb. In the Rutskarn version I think you’d need at least a couple other NPCs with backstory in their dialogue, plus maybe a little chapel-like building containing the vault-tec safety manuals as holy relics or something.

    It wouldn’t be a ton of extra work, but it would be some. You’d also have to have the new statue, probably with a plaque or something and options to ask nearby NPCs about it.

    1. Paul Spooner says:

      Knowing Bethesda, the statue would be a retextured NPC with animations turned off. If you try to pickpocket the statue, it attacks you, but because animations are turned off, it can’t die, so you’re stuck in combat forever.

      1. Kasper says:

        I hate you, you made me waste a mouthful of perfectly good coffee

      2. Daemian Lucifer says:

        You know whats funny:An immortal enemy that you cant beat with combat but have to creatively dispose of is a common thing in rpgs.So how come no bethesda game has one of those?At least,not on purpose.

        1. Matt Downie says:

          Immortality is so commonplace in Bethesda-world that an immortal enemy wouldn’t even be notable.

          1. Daemian Lucifer says:

            Yes,but none of them are immortal on purpose.At least amongst the ones you are meant to fight.

      3. BlueHorus says:

        That does sound like Bethesda. They’d also not have disabled its voice, so it would shout the same one combat taunt at you every five seconds, forever.

        On the upside: by running just fast enough and cleverly using stealth boys, you could use it as a mobile weapon. Five deathclaws vs one invulnerable statue would be quite the sight.

        1. Sleeping Dragon says:

          Funny thing, things like taunts or changing into combat stance used to be an issue with early mannequin mods for some Bethesda games.

    2. Sleeping Dragon says:

      In the actual game we have that one guy in the filtering plant and someone (might be the sheriff?) mentions fairly offhand “oh yeah, he has some problem, you might want to check it out”, there are leaks all over the town literally spraying water and nobody seems too bothered.

      I wonder if the church of atom was meant to be fleshed out more at some point. It seems odd that all they do is show off a bit of Fallout weirdness and they don’t even have a single quest of their own nor do they factor into other quests. Possibly someone decided that Megaton had enough quests already and the development time would be better spent elsewhere.

      1. Jabrwock says:

        From what I remember, the leaks weren’t a huge issue, more an annoyance. Like the pumps have to work harder to maintain pressure or something. And it’s a waste of clean water since it runs down into the rad-lake that slowly forming around the bomb…

        1. Sleeping Dragon says:

          That is my point. If water is critical there is no such thing as a “no issue” leak (much less three leaks literally spraying water 24/7(. If the leaks are no issue that means water isn’t critical.

  17. trevalyan says:

    In some ways, I think people are being too nitpicky. Burke no doubt has a reputation: it explains why the sheriff does not immediately attack him, and why anyone else would not approach him in a bar. Why shouldn’t I turn you in?

    Burke (terse, threatening) Step on a snake, you get bit.

    As for the plot change: holy crap, I LOVE the idea of an evil scientist king. It also explains why Burke specifically gives YOU the job of detonating the bomb: he recognizes you, even though you have never met. Gotta have friends in high places, am I right? And that works both ways.

    I can’t believe no one else brought this up, so let me just ask you: What can change the nature of a man?

    1. BlueHorus says:

      I LOVE the idea of an evil scientist king. It also explains why Burke specifically gives YOU the job of detonating the bomb: he recognizes you, even though you have never met.

      Um? He’s never met you, thus he recognises you, so he knows to give you the task he was hired to do instead of doing it himself…?
      And somehow this is all related to a mad scientist-king in the town’s history?

      What am I missing here, because to me that makes not one lick of sense…
      Unless his friends told him about you?

      Side Note: How are avatar pictures assigned here? Somehow I managed to not be a misreable-looking star shape for one post – but have no idea how.

      1. trevalyan says:

        BURKE: (calm, reflective) I knew the old king. Back in the day, before he ran this town. We did our fair share of jobs together. He had these eyes: fierce, hungry. Look you over and measure your worth in a second.

        You have those eyes too.

        1. BlueHorus says:

          Okay, now it makes more sense. Cool.

      2. Viktor says:

        Avatars are RNG based on your email. If you want a custom one, http://www.gravatar.com. Sign up for free there, get a custom avatar for every site that uses it.

      3. tzeneth says:

        I got lucky as I completely enjoy this gravatar. I actually copied the image to use elsewhere. :P Somehow I got the perfectly uncomfortable smiling face with a nice monocle.

  18. tzeneth says:

    Writing a video game is hard? Nonsense. :P

    On a less jokey note, how many people are actually credited solely as writer for Fallout 3 or 4? Do they have any dedicated writers who can examine this to analyze what’s good and bad for later? A quick google search (double check me as my googlefu is weak) shows that the only person who was listed as the writer was also the lead designer… That means they don’t have anyone whose sole job is to make sure these things are consistent and make sense. This feels like a facepalm moment.

    Fallout New Vegas in contrast lists the lead designer as the lead writer as well as listing 2 other writers under the category of writer. I’m kind of curious about Fallout 4 but am getting kind of tired. Would be interesting if the pattern holds and FO4 does not have someone who is credited solely as “writer.”

    1. djw says:

      Did you look up the Bethesda staff with the title “Riter”?

      1. Mousazz says:

        Holder of the fabled “Goldun Riter Awward!”

  19. DwarfWarden says:

    I hate Tenpenny Tower. It is the antithesis of roleplaying.

    All these rich bastards are rich…..off of what again? This remote place in the middle of nowhere and somehow they can be rich enough to live in an electrically-lighted hotel? Ignoring the fact that you get an infinitely better house in Megaton these people have no discernible income. No, they’re not traders – look up the Caravan Trade Route in Fallout 3 – the 4 caravans never even go to Tenpenny Tower. Yeah, they prefer the bandit hideout of Evergreen Mills to Tenpenny Tower.

    The Water Merchants from Fallout 1 were said to be a force to reckon with because they controlled WATER, the whole point of Fallout 3 is getting WATER, and they forgot to include any reason at all to explain Tenpenny and his wealth other than a really tall building like all the other buildings around.

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