Replaying Fallout 3
In order to realize the author's vision, this article contains spoilers.
You have been warned.
Somehow I found myself playing Fallout 3 for hours on end recently. I am unsure when the desire to revisit it began. Before, I spent time rewatching Joseph Anderson, Noah Caldwell-Gervais, hbomberguy, and Luke Stephens' analysis videos on various entries into the franchise. This interest might have been spurred by questions about the upcoming Fallout 76 (What’s the risk if death doesn’t set you back? They’re talking about crafting becoming more important such as making ammo but are they going to severely limit your resources? How are there quests with no NPCs?), which in turn had me thinking about Fallout 4 and about booting up Fallout 3. I do think a major factor was a curiosity about some of the conversations sprouting up about the Fallout franchise in wake of Bethesda’s reveal and marketing with 76. Mainly, claims that Bethesda had forgotten, or simply was uninterested, in the major themes of Fallout and Fallout 2 regarding Americana. Vault Boy went from being an unethical corporation’s propaganda tool that fed off of the “innocent” American culture of the 1950’s to being the aesthetic core around which Bethesda’s Fallout games rotate with little of that original satire intact.
Fallout 3’s introductory chapters weren’t as long as I feared, but as boring as I expected. Vault 101 imparts on the player the following: your father loves you very much, dialogue choices generally lead to the same outcome, morality is binary. Childhood bully Butch offers the first truly consequential moral choice: the player must choose whether or not to let his mom die from radroaches. Fallout 3 asks, “Butch has been nothing but an asshole to you throughout this introduction, so why not pay him back by allowing his mom to die or killing him yourself?” Except Butch’s mother is not responsible for his actions, and even if she was why would I let her die? This is an issue that enraged me while watching Riverdale, where multiple characters can’t seem to understand that a child is not responsible for their parent’s actions and vice versa. Immorality in this situation is straight out murder by inaction, and the rational thing to do is rewarded with good karma. Nothing about this situation is challenging or complex, and this begins the trend of simplistic and erroneous moral choices throughout Fallout 3.
Immediately proceeding your escape from Vault 101, you will make your way to Megaton the closest Wasteland settlement and host of another moral dilemma, an active atomic bomb that serves as the town’s centerpiece. In Moriarty’s bar you encounter Burke who requests that you activate the bomb in order to destroy Megaton. Surely as a non-resident you won’t care if this town of civilians is obliterated. Overlapping this quest is Tenpenny’s Tower. In it the player either kills Roy and his ghouls or kills Tenpenny and his tenants, there is no third option. Even if you forcibly evict the residents who would protest the ghouls’ presence, or convince them that the two factions can live peacefully, Roy will eventually murder everyone after a dispute, and you will gain negative karma should you follow this up by murdering him and his group. Both of these quests are so simplistic. Why not have the Church of Atom move the bomb elsewhere so that they can set it off and fulfill their religion without endangering the entirety of Megaton? Why is the best option to force two mutually hateful groups into close proximity? Roy and the ghouls in this scenario are so obviously a stand in for racial tensions in the US. Why create his endpoint to be as abhorrent as his oppressor Tenpenny, who would just as easily have Roy killed simply for existing as a non-human?
Ghouls in general are not served very well here, as a large majority of them are rendered feral and ripe for killing, nothing more than mindless zombies. Likewise the raider and super mutant factions, those you will be killing hundreds of throughout the Capital Wasteland are dehumanized as much as possible in order to justify your mindless violence towards them. The lone example against this if Fawkes, who only exists due to his upending of the expectation of every super mutant being a mindless monster. Three Dog spends the early hours warning listeners of the brutality of raiders towards their victims, and super mutants likewise are larger more menacing humanoids that kidnap people to create gore nests. These enemy factions are mindlessly evil and violent, and the player gets to reflect that violence back onto them.
Fallout 3’s first and third person shooting mechanics are very bad, but they are redeemed by the V.A.T.S. system, which freezes time, allows the player to highlight specific limbs, and unload in slow-motion, action edited clips. The system exudes cool, which was the obvious intent of the mechanic. Bethesda wanted to highlight the bloody violence they had created, both in how the enemies mindlessly terrorize the world, and how the player mindlessly guns down anything highlighted in red. I like the VATS system despite its over the top violence, where limbs can be severed by a punch and heads are regularly obliterated in a bloody fashion. An early perk called “Bloody Mess” enables more violent death animations if it wasn’t enough. The description for this perk focuses on the visual entertainment and treats the statistical bonus as an afterthought. This shows that Bethesda wanted the violence to feel cool and impressive and addressed the role-playing elements afterwards.
The world of Fallout 3 is brutal and unforgiving. Jericho raped Jenny, but no one is pushing you to avenge her. Hell, he can even join you on your explorations if you are despicable enough. Slavers place bomb necklaces on wasteland wanderers, kids lose their parents, people get kidnapped and tortured and killed but its all just set dressing so that you can loot a mutilated corpse for bottle caps. Vault-Boy will pop up after you’ve murdered a town of civilians to let you know you’ve leveled up and present some rewards for the good time you’re having. The tone is off, and it is a problem sadly not unique to Fallout 3.
Both the karma system and the violent tone are things I see as complaints from those who have played Fallout and Fallout 2, or at the very least New Vegas, when talking about Fallout 3 and Fallout 4. Even as someone who hasn’t put significant time into any of those games I still see the faults in Fallout 3. And yet I keep feeling drawn back to the Capital Wasteland, to find locations I hadn’t on my initial play-through and to touch on some DLC I never engaged with previously. Fallout 3 presents a dangerous and bloody world that is treated like a playground, one that makes it easy to be a good guy and doesn’t want you to feel too bad about killing everyone in sight.