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Overhaulout Part Two: Wasted

By Rutskarn
on Friday Aug 18, 2017
Filed under:
Video Games


Last week I made the argument that Fallout 3 could have had much more interesting and effective writing while still appealing to its desired audience. One criticism I received was that New Vegas received a lukewarm reception from some of the most ardent F3 fans—and what was New Vegas, if not Fallout 3 written more interestingly and effectively?

Well, quite a lot. Let me be as explicit as possible: in this exercise, I am not trying to write New Vegas. That was a game that didn’t appeal to F3‘s broader audience simply because it had no interest in pursuing Bethesda’s design sensibilities. Obsidian wanted a morally-ambiguous political meditation explored through a basically linear zigzag through its curated gameworld. Bethesda wanted a tightly-linear main storyline with a baroque good-versus-evil narrative that serves as a tour guide to an otherwise totally open gameworld full of little disconnected vignettes to explore. There was no reason either game had to be written well or poorly based solely on development goals. You can argue that Obsidian’s priorities attract a better class of writer, or that Bethesda settled on the approach it did for want of strong narrative designers, but I’d argue success or failure in either case is hardly baked in at the conceptual stage.

If we’re taking one Obsidian-y action item on board, it’s the idea that a story’s conflicts should all reflect its theme. Last week we settled on a major theme to explore: it is good for the powerful to give strength to the weak. This week we’re going to mix in a theme to accompany, complicate, and inform this idea: there’s no free lunch. Whenever we feel tempted to boil a conflict down to “Should you give bread to the hungry because you want to be a good guy or just jack up the prices for evil karma points,” we can complicate the choice to a greater or lesser extent by asking something like: “If you give that bread away, how will you get everyone more bread?” In an Obsidian kind of game, we’d be asking that question constantly; the intense dilemmas would be half the point. In this Bethesda-style game there’s no reason to put that much pressure on the player, who’d probably rather make a straightforward choice and get on with the story and exploration, but being able to at least point to that tension and acknowledge the existence of scarcity will go a long way towards making characters and factions more interesting.

Speaking of “making characters more interesting,” I think it’s time we had a serious talk about the main character of Fallout 3. That would be James, aka Liam Neeson.

James (“Dad”)

It’s hard to deny that James is the central character of at minimum the first half of the game. James makes a choice that sets the story’s events in motion. James has identified the main problem in the Wasteland and made a machine that can solve it. The player is frequently called on to learn more about him and his motivations, to the point where a major story reveal is where you learn a detail of either.

Since I constantly bang on about player agency, you might be bracing for me to dress this down as a terrible idea. Actually, I think it’s pretty shrewd. This is a really good way to start the player down a linear narrative in an open world; calling on the player to respond to their father’s choices lets them learn about the world and gather context for grander moralizing while keeping things neatly on rails. I also really like it when games let you shadow a character and unravel their inner mysteries by studying their actions. Which brings me neatly to what I do need to dress down.

James is an extremely weak character. He withstands no study whatsoever. There’s no “mystery” to his choices, in the sense of a tantalizing lack of connective details; for a long time the player is totally clueless as to why James vanished, then the answer is provided and overlaps perfectly with his one character trait, “being a good and selfless person.” All of the answers to James’ nebulous mysteries are either dully straightforward (“I left the Vault because I thought you were old enough to take care of yourself”) or predicated on convoluted twists the player couldn’t have begun to predict (“I’m actually a genius engineer as well as a medical doctor, and I was building a water purifier before your mother died having you and I decided to take you to the Vault”). When you rebuke the mild flaws you are allowed to discover, he offers no passionate defense—that might make him unsympathetic—but squelches the drama instantly by apologizing. He rarely modulates his tone from meek but earnest concern. He is boring, boring, boring.

And there really should be more to him here. He leaves rashly and unexpectedly, abandons his only remaining family member to the wrath of a dangerous unhinged madman Overseer without leaving so much as a warning, and carelessly fills the Vault with murderous radroaches in the balance. You’re allowed to bring this up, sort of, but it feels like even the writer’s trying to say that all of that wasn’t his fault. James isn’t allowed to actually be a reckless idealist who doesn’t weigh the consequences of his actions; that wouldn’t suit Liam’s soothing tones, and so it must be papered over with excuses and omissions.

The problem with Fallout 3 is that they wrote a game about the idea of a father—an icon whose principles and passion and stubbornness are virtues beyond reproach. That’s how you see your father when you’re a child. Eventually, you have to learn to see these things as the imperfect human qualities they are.

The other missed opportunity in the first half is how uninteresting the actual features of James’ trail are. Considering his prominence in the story, it’d be nice if he left a little more impact on the gameworld. This is chiefly because letting your father make decisions and lead the narrative for the first half of the game could have allowed the developers to model some of the moral dilemmas of the world through the lens of his actions. This isn’t to say players wouldn’t get their own choices—quite the opposite—but it would allow the story’s themes to be presented and put in context fully by the second half, when the player will be the primary driving force.In my draft, anyway. Plus, it’d be a way to characterize him further and thicken the mystery of “why did James leave.”

I won’t get into more detail about “my” James yet. For now, let’s just keep on following the main storyline.

Morning in the Vault

The alarm awakens you the next morning. The overseer’s bland morning speech plays over the intercom, transparent yet chilling propaganda that references an “incident” the following evening and asks eyewitnesses to debrief with the security office. A quest appears: get your work assignment from labor office.

You come out to find your father’s room empty. The tables are cleared of experiments. In the living area is a table with an empty bottle of whiskey and drinking glass that weren’t there the night before. One of the medical lockers is unlocked and empty. A note on the exit door says simply, “I love you.”

All of this is probably weird enough that the player will probably notice it, and may even figure out something’s amiss. But there’s nothing to do about it yet.

Security bots and vault dwellers pass by windows as the player proceeds to the labor office. The atmosphere is subdued. It’s clear, from overheard dialogue, that resources are a little scarce; people pine for “luxuries” like bottled whiskey from when synthgrain “wasn’t so rationed.”

Amata, the overseer’s daughter, asks the player if something seems unusual. The player may confront her with the knowledge that a man injured by security bots arrived for treatment at your father’s office last night. Amata will not take kindly to these insinuations and will counter defensively that the resources he stole were not his to take, nor were the medical supplies your father provided; everything in the vault is necessarily the Overseer’s to distribute. Otherwise, reasonably comfortable life inside the vault would fall apart.

You arrive at the labor office. Apparently your file in the system was scrambled that morning, as was your father’s: you need to re-fill out your form and “give this one to your father to fill out when he gets the chance.” You get to assign “priority” checks to various duties, like “try to fix all the broken heating coils to make the furnace room bearable” or “help blast rocks out of the collapsed tunnel with high explosives” or “help break into the supply closet that the key got lost to.” These, naturally, fill out your tag skills.

You’re on your way out of the job office when the scanner shrieks. Laser turrets hone in on you. A voice declares:

Present yourself at the Overseer’s office immediately.

The Overseer’s Office

The Overseer is vanilla Fallout 3‘s first villain, and the bad news is, he sets the tone perfectly. He’s typical of the game’s antagonists in that he has no redeeming qualities and no interesting bad ones. For most of the intro he’s a comically vain, officious, joyless tyrant. Then a switch flips off-camera and with extremely little foreshadowing he and his security team go from “irritating bullies” to “berserk, murderous, family-torturing thugs.” There’s no sense of proportion, limits, motivation; the Overseer is bad because he’s a snide buzzkill, so when the drama switch gets flipped he’ll be a butcher too. Let’s see if we can’t do better.

The Overseer should contrast your father, providing a thematic counterpoint…but just because our father is a man who will selflessly give his strength to aid others, doesn’t mean the Overseer should be a merciless petty autocrat by way of balancing him out. As long as we’re presenting our themes, this is the perfect chance to explore why someone might not believe in giving up power.

The Overseer’s office is calm, if not friendly. He has a picture of his daughter on his desk; behind him are a row of plaques commemorating all of the Overseers who came before him. Some of their reigns were conspicuously short. He’s surrounded by security robots, but they’re not flashing red lights right now. He asks you to sit down.

Then he says:

Do you know what it takes to keep men alive in a tin can?

I know how many drops of water a man must drink to live, and how few we produce. I know how many injuries our dwellers suffer every year and I know how little medicine our synthesizers produce. If I could give my people one luxury, it would be waste. Two luxuries, it would be choice.

Where is your father?

The player is allowed to express ignorance, agree that their father seems to be missing, or provide a refusal to help. The Overseer continues:

What I know is that my doctor seems to have stolen precious supplies and left my Vault. He left me a letter full of excuses he seems to think I’d want to read. He told me you wouldn’t know anything about where he’s going or what he’s going to do.

So let me ask you again, politely. Where is your father?

Once again, the player’s response doesn’t particularly change the flow of the conversation. The Overseer is a stern man. Since the player can’t actually offer him what he wants, he’ll move forward to his preplanned next move.

Maybe you know where he’s going, maybe you don’t. Maybe he was reckless enough not to tell his own flesh and blood the where and why of it. Doesn’t matter; I can’t spare him. And I can damn well spare you.

You’re going to go out there into that wasteland, you’re going to find your dumbass father, and you’re going to bring him back to my nice safe tin can. Do I make myself clear?

The player’s choice of options don’t include an outright refusal, but they do make it clear that cooperation isn’t the only possibility–that the player can be motivated to find the father, but not necessarily to return to the repressive Vault. The Overseer replies to this:

Tell yourself whatever you want. One night out there in that Hell and you’ll curse your father almost as much as you curse me. There’s a reason no-one ever leave the Vault.

On the player’s way to the Vault entrance, they may talk to as many vault dwellers as they’d like about the missing father. Some details are filled in here: why the father is so important (“Not only was he the best doctor, he was one of only three people in this Vault who knows his way around the water system and the food synthesizers. He was such a caring man. What could possibly be out there that he’d abandon us like this?”), where they think he may have gone, or why the wasteland is so rough (“There’s no Vault-Tec food generators, no cozy radiation shields. Even the water is poison. I don’t know how people are still alive out there.”). A few seem to want to say more, but don’t. The security robots follow the player closely wherever they go.

In the final chamber the player’s given some bobby pins, bottled water, food, a baseball bat, and a pistol by the security officer.

Listen, I liked your father. I think we both know that if he left this place, it’s because he knew there were people out there who needed him more. If I were you, I’d look for the first sign of trouble.

Good luck, kid.

Then the vault door is opened, and the player is allowed out into the winding tunnel.

Tutorial Tunnel

If I had my druthers, this is about where the bright light would blind the player and the world would open up in glorious pea-soup and sepia. But I did say I’d try to make this an acceptable treatment based on Bethesda’s vision of the game, and we all know perfectly well that the Bethesda version needs to have some controlled tutorial combat right about now. So let’s extend the intro just a little bit longer.

Wouldn’t you know it—the tunnels outside Vault 101 are crawling with crappy-ass enemies. At first they’re infested with radroaches, providing simple tutorial-combat adversaries for the player to chew through. When the player reaches the upper level, however, they hear a conversation around the corner. The tutorial prompt for stealth appears, just as the player sees a mobile of bones dangling from the ceiling.

Well, what if they’re ALL leaving? Could be another nice soft fat vaultie coming down here any minute…

Another voice snarls:

Tooth-Tooth’s right. Let’s not let the next one get by, eh? Eyes open!

Around the corner is a camp. There’s tin cans and bones and ratty old tents everywhere.A journal found in one of the tents reveals that they’ve been set up here for a while because “nobody ever goes into the tunnels,” and that it took them a while to even realize there was a vault down there; none of them supposed it had anybody left in it. The last entry expresses shock that a man snuck right through while they were sleeping and ran for it down the cliffs, barely keeping his skin. Three raiders sit by a fire, armed to the teeth. They’ve got a tripwire set up away from them, toward the exit that leads to the wasteland. The player can either sneak by, sneak into battle, or approach openly; doing so will prompt Tooth-Tooth to declare that she’s going to kill the player, which gives the player the option of Speech-checking a billy-goats-gruff situation where the player insists that a noisy firefight will alert the dozen vault-dwellers who will be arriving shortly with picnic baskets.

Once the blockage is cleared, the player finds themselves in the Wasteland. They don’t know quite know it yet, but they’re Megaton bound.



[1] In my draft, anyway.

[2] A journal found in one of the tents reveals that they’ve been set up here for a while because “nobody ever goes into the tunnels,” and that it took them a while to even realize there was a vault down there; none of them supposed it had anybody left in it. The last entry expresses shock that a man snuck right through while they were sleeping and ran for it down the cliffs, barely keeping his skin.

Comments (86)

  1. Tizzy says:

    I regret that the Fallout series gradually turned the Vault dystopia into a joke or a caricature, when there’s such potential for depth here: Vault life is amazingly comfortable despite the authoritarian regime that seems to invariably crop up. These kinds of contradictions can be mined for all sorts of interesting themes.

    • Echo Tango says:

      I’d be interested in a Fallout game that actually made the outside world feel uncomfortable and inhospitable. They always have the annoying deadly-radiation zones, but otherwise I can just walk around freely without a care in the world, and that world seems pretty well-stocked and livable. Some possible ways to make a contrast between vault and world, while still using the original game engines (maybe with a minor config tweak, item-stat alteration, or recipe change):
      1. Turn off the green-brown visual filter inside of (working) vaults, so that the outside world feels gritty, and the vaults feel clean and bright. This is pretty simple, but I think it would have a big effect. The first vault you’re in should be (mostly) working, but in the game as it is, it feels almost as grimy as the outside world.

      2. Make radiation / sickness more gradual, and more annoying. In Fallout 3 the radiation sickness levels amounted to: nothing, nothing, nothing, slightly annoying, death. If it were something more like (these are additive): clean and healthy, increased camera bob, lowered movement speed, lowered sprint energy, lowered carrying capacity, lowered maximum health, death; then the game would be offering more reason to care about radiation. As the game was, you’d just quaff anti-rad potions freely to stay topped off; Those potions were fairly plentiful because the game had to give you a way out of the death state. A more gradual scale would give the game freedom to be stingy with radiaiton meds, and the annoyance would provide a world-building, suck-the-player-into-their-character motivation.

      3. Food is extremely scarce outside of vaults and towns. In abandoned areas, you can find old food cans, but they’re empty. The game (as it was built) had this crazy world where old ruins with bandits in them would be mysteriously unlooted – eaten food cans would make the world feel alive. You could bring the cans into town to trade for money, take them to a canning factory with some animal meat to be processed, or craft the filled cans yourself if your skill was high enough. Adding food spoilage would be a bigger change, so just make treated meat cost less inventory than jerky and cans. Rename the interface so it says “encumbrance” instead of “weight”.

      • Radiosity says:

        The issue here is the 200 years. After that length of time radiation simply wouldn’t be an issue any more outside of certain hotspots like old reactors that might have melted down (and we don’t have the luxury of building a concrete shield like Chernobyl). Shunt the timeline back to 20 years after the war and now you have the right situation for that bleak world you crave.

        Interestingly, it was rumoured that 20 years was actually what Beth originally planned. But then they couldn’t have had the Brotherhood, or Muties, or the Enclave.

        • Matt Downie says:

          It’s already a world of magical fantasy radiation that creates healthy two-headed cows and which can be cured with pills, so implausible half-life probably isn’t a big deal.

          And it’s a world where people haven’t gotten around to, for example, clearing out the skeletons from their places of work. No timeline makes sense.

        • Echo Tango says:

          The real problem is sticking slavishly to an established canon like it’s etched in stone. They could move the 200 years to 20, or simply ignore the established timeline if they wanted the Brotherhood. They made a world that’s consistent and makes sense at the detail level, at the expense of having a world that makes sense at the world-level.

      • ElementalAlchemist says:

        the annoyance would provide a world-building, suck-the-player-into-their-character motivation.

        No, it would just be bloody annoying. No doubt that’s exactly why they don’t do stuff like that.

        • Kylroy says:

          This. Despite taking place in a post-nuclear wasteland, the Fallout games have never been about survival in the food/water/shelter sense.

          ETA: yes, the first one had the Water Chip, but that was a plot device/timer, not Minecraft style meter maintenance.

          • Echo Tango says:

            I’m not suggesting the game be a player-survival simulator, but rather that the game needs some way of giving impact, weight, and meaning to food, water, radiation medicine, etc. As the game is right now, those things are simply differently-colored types of money, with no real impact to the player. They’re very common items, so the few times when an NPC ask you for some feel like trivial non-choices. (e.g. The homeless guy who asks for pure water.)

            • BlueHorus says:

              Thing is, it’s not a Bethesda game with those features. It’s definitely not Fallout 3.
              (Not that your ideads are bad in any way.)

              This kind of survival-based difficulty (whether it’s battling radiation, starvation, thirst, mutants, whatever) is inherently limiting: you’ve got to spend your time finding rad-x, or food, or weapons, etc.
              And that’s time you then can’t spend wandering around freely, seeing the sights and doing whatever you want – which seems pretty key to most Bethesda games I’ve played.

              Honestly, I think they’re fundamentally incompatable.

              • Echo Tango says:

                Two points:
                1) I’d forgotten the different between Bethesda-style and Obsidian-style.

                2) I’m having difficulty seeing where the line is drawn between letting the player do anything and go everywhere, and having the player make choices that have consequences in the world. As I understand it, from what’s been discussed here, and what I’ve seen and heard described of Fallout 4, the end-goal that Bethesda seems to have for a game, is to remove all player restrictions entirely. Perk requirements, skill-checks, and inventory weight are all hindrances to player freedom. Somehow though, bullet inventory is viewed as something to keep in the game?

                • BlueHorus says:

                  I'm having difficulty seeing where the line is drawn between letting the player do anything and go everywhere, and having the player make choices that have consequences in the world.

                  There’s the rub, I think. There is no line(IMO). You get one or the other, and they undermine each other if put together.
                  Bethesda goes with ‘letting the player do anything’, and this is where the ‘wide as an ocean, shallow as a puddle’ review of Skyrim came from.

                  …which makes me wonder why exactly they wrote a post-apocalyptic story centred on water being scarce in the first place.

                  Well, obviously because that makes it seem like the original Fallout (in the same way that painting a cardboard box turns said box into a house), but beyond that?

    • Decius says:

      It wasn’t gradual. It was sudden, http://fallout.wikia.com/wiki/One_Man,_and_a_Crate_of_Puppets
      July 2008, before the release of Fallout 3, the tone of vaults changed from serious to absurd.

      • GloatingSwine says:

        There were some slightly wacky ones in the Fallout Bible. (Like one with no entertainment tapes, and one with no entertainment tapes except for a particularly annoying comedian that was predicted to fail faster).

    • Joe Informatico says:

      Have you ever read Hugh Howey’s Wool? That was a great depiction of life and strife in a post-apocalyptic underground fallout shelter that could be mined for ideas.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      Logans run:The game.That could be interesting.

    • Adrian Burt says:

      Yes but now the franchise is squarely in the hands of Bethesda now and they have never found an interesting theme they didn’t run screaming away from in the other direction as fast as possible.

  2. Nick says:

    Wow, that version makes the player way more invested in the idea of coming back to the Vault later

  3. Zekiel says:

    Good writing Rutskarn! This is way (WAY) better than the original. My only criticism is that there’s perhaps a line or two too many of the Overseer dialogue which you can’t respond to in any meaningfully different way; I feel like that could probably be trimmed.

    On a related topic, I re-watched the Fallout 1 intro today; while it is obviously from a different time (and obviously completely uninterative), it is amazing how much exposition it packs into a few minutes. Wish I’d played it when it was released.

  4. MichaelGC says:

    You’ve gone too far! This isn’t Fallout 3!! No sweetroll?; fine. No Tunnel Snakes?; ok then. No Grognak the Barbarian?; well, I always forget to read that anyway.

    But … no BB gun?!? 😲😱😡 Graaaaah!! *flips 200-year-old table*

    • MichaelGC says:

      Actually, I’ve just piqued my own curiosity. Is it still going to be 200 years since the bombs fell? As (arguably) changing that wouldn’t be a big change, and it would certainly improve things, even if only in a deep-in-the-background way.

      Well, I guess we’ll find out!

      • Decius says:

        “Nobody knows for sure how long it has been. Legends of something called “outside” have spread; some say that the ceiling is taller than the highest ladder, and the light bulb never has to be changed.

      • Pax says:

        Ruts seems intent on changing as little as possible, but man is that something I would’ve done differently if I were making this game. I’d have set it at around 80 years since the bombs, roughly the same time as Fallout 1. That way we could parallel the growth of the East Coast to the growth of the West coast. Of course, that would reasonably prevent the Brotherhood from showing up, but I wouldn’t have included them anyway, nor Super Mutants. There could’ve been some other still-power armor-having Army remnant that decided to go all shining armor. In fact, that would’ve helped set them apart from the original BOS. Alas, Bethesda reportedly has a policy that sequels can’t be set earlier in the timeline than their predecessors, so here we are.

        • MichaelGC says:

          Aye right. As to how big a change it would be … I think one could argue it either way! It might be a sizeable change to one aspect of the setting, of course … but would a change have large narrative or thematic consequences? Probably not. So it’ll be interesting to see which side Rutskarn comes down on – unless he takes the equally legitimate third option to not address it at all.

        • Daemian Lucifer says:

          This would make sense because this opening is similar to that of fallout 1.Also,it would make sense for a kind of reboot but on a different coast to somewhat mirror the original.I have no idea why they didnt chose to do that,primarily because its an easy decision and it would appeal to the fans of the original thus drawing in more customers.

  5. Hal says:

    This is actually about the point in the game where I quit.

    I made it out of the vault, wandered around a bit . . . and got shot by an enemy I couldn’t see. I put the game down and never went back.

    So I read this series as someone whose exposure to the game is mainly through Shamus’s writing about it.

    That said, there’s one quasi-dilemma I could see happening in this rewrite. The part where you get your job orders for the day and then get forcibly escorted to the Overseer’s office. Does the game take control and march you down there, or does the player have the ability to resist and run? I can guarantee you that anytime an oppressive NPC tells a player to go left, he’s going to sprint right, and will balk at being unable to do so.

    If your draft allowed for this, I think the easiest bypass would be to funnel the player towards the Vault exit. Give the player time to have a conversation with an NPC (maybe the Overseer’s daughter, maybe just the security officer) similar to the one he would have had with the Overseer. Throw in some signal at the exit that Dad went this way. Security guy says, “I liked your father. I’ll tell the Overseer you caught me by surprise and got out. Just hurry.” Something like that.

    Or maybe the player just gets blasted by robots. I dunno.

    • Decius says:

      If the player runs, the Overseer can give his conversation by a video screen before remotely unlocking the door out?

    • Zekiel says:

      I didn’t get much farther. I tangled with a few raiders in a super market, wandered around Megaton, was appalled by the inanity of the big “blow up or save the town” quest and gave up.

    • Olivier Faure says:

      You can do it like the Half Life 2 intro and the undercover levels in the last Wolfenstein: you can move inside a tight corridor, but there’s only one direction to go and doors keep closing behind you.

      For instance, let’s say you’re about to go to work. There’s a checkpoint with metal doors, and a security guard. When you go through the checkpoint and punch your card, there’s a beeping sound, the auto-turrets point at you, the doors in front of you and behind you close. The guard opens a side door and tells you “The Overseer wants to see you”. There’s nowhere to go except a corridor. The corridor has a bunch of closed doors, so the only way to go is forward, until you reach the Overseer’s office.

      Control is never literally taken away from you, but you’re being railroaded (which works thematically).

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      I quit at megaton.The opening was….interesting….to say the least.It had some moments in it,but overall was crappy.The exit from the vault was amazing,but followed by the puke green filter,which kind of ruined the mood.And then,the town around the bomb….I simply couldnt take it anymore.

    • Naota says:

      Considering the situation, blasted by robots seems the simplest solution. If you wanted a less extreme take on this: if the player strays too far away and ignores the NPC’s warnings, the robots zap them non-lethally, their screen blacks out, and when they come to they’re in the Overseer’s office in store for a rather stern talking-to.

  6. Randy M says:

    I’ve never played the game; I’m a bit confused about which parts are recounting the plot and which parts your your suggestions.

    • kanodin says:

      Everything here is a rewrite. Rutskarn explains in broad strokes how the original was written and this part loosely tracks with how Fallout3 actually handled, but all of the scenes in the vault are new writing.

    • Fade2Gray says:

      So far, almost everything other than the setting and the relationships of the main characters to one another (and the fact that the PC’s father disappears without explanation) has been a total rewrite.

      kanodin beat me to the punch! I should really refresh before commenting after reading articles.

  7. Radiosity says:

    Hmm, different route to my own ideas, but some similarities, too. I went with ‘opening the Vault to the outside’ as the main issue for the start, and you’re told by the Overseer that you’re both emissary and scout. You’d have ~4 locations marked on your map the Vault’s initial scouting parties have tagged as potential contacts, but you’d be free to wander anywhere you like, to keep the Bethesda ethos of letting the player roam wherever.

    I’d link my own work but eh, can’t imagine anyone cares.

  8. tremor3258 says:

    Okay – I like how it increases the drama without making everyone in the Vault obviously terrible, includes the in-universe SPECIAL exam still and ties it in universe more directly, and introduces the random monsters, that there are people, and that James is having an effect in the Vault and the Wasteland.

  9. Tetsubara Kaori says:

    I hope that when you finally reunite with James (assuming you do, in your rewrite), you can ask him how the heck he got past those raiders.

  10. CoyoteSans says:

    I mean, to bring up the New Vegas comparisons again, we can compare James to Benny. Both are men who kickstart the plot by performing an action that shakes the player character out of their quiet life and indirectly throws them into an unfamiliar wasteland. Both men suddenly disappear after their introduction and the first half of the main plot is to track them down and get answers for what they did to you. You do this by following the trail of breadcrumbs they leave through a chain of settlements, and in the process you slowly learn both about the men you’re following and the greater problems the wasteland currently faces. When you finally do find and confront them, plot events transpire that both resolve their role in the plot and force the player character to switch their focus to dealing with the greater issue the wasteland faces. The second half of the story is then about the player character helping a faction conclusively assert their dominance over the wasteland and resolve the central issue it’s faced the entire game.

    The difference is all in the writing. We know virtually nothing about Benny from the outset other than that he shot us in the head for a poker chip and talks like a member of the Rat Pack. Each breadcrumb we obtain informs his character a little more for us: in Goodsprings we learn he and his gang left in a quickly for Vegas after burying us. At the Quarry settlement, we learn they couldn’t return straight north to Vegas due to Deathclaws suddenly settling in. In Primm, we learn they passed through quickly to Nipton and that despite our delivery being virtually identical to five others, they nonetheless intercepted us for some reason. Nipton doesn’t really tell us much I think since that’s more about establishing the Legion, but following the road north (and after dealing with the Viper ambushes), we come to Novac, where we learn the gang Benny’s with are hired thugs, not loyal minions, and in Boulder we learn Benny abandoned them the moment it benefited him to do so. Also, afterwards Victor tells us he’s no doubt returned to the “easy living of Vegas”, which means despite the lengths he went to for the poker chip, he’d prefer to stay in comfort and safety as much as possible.

    Each of these things foreshadows the kind of man we’ll be dealing with when we finally meet him in Vegas, and if a player was paying attention, will realize he’s not to be trusted when he tries to cut a deal with them.

    None of this happens in Fallout 3: everyone, even unpleasant folk, tell you James is The Best Goodiest Guy Ever over and over again and also he really wants to purify water, and when you meet him he does nothing to dissuade you of this notion nor do you have any options to act on this information anyway.

    • BlueHorus says:

      I loved that in New Vegas you could:
      a) Just not learn about Benny’s character. (Ignore quests, miss things, not talk to people etc).
      b) Learn all these things about him and still trust him. He tries to trick you and the game gives you the option of falling for it – then you bear the consequences. And feel stupid.

      Fallout 3 had one kind freedom, but for my money, New Vegas’ verson was infinitely better.

  11. Paul Spooner says:

    This series is easily re-forming my head-canon of the Fallout 3 series. Lovely thematic work. Keep it up!

  12. Man…so many ways this doesn’t work. Let’s see…well first, the obvious I guess:

    Tutorial Tunnel
    A stealth/combat tutorial show up after you exit the Vault and have already finalized what you’re character is capable of? I mean…

    Okay first of all, it completely sabotages the entire point of leaving the vault, which is about the clearest metaphor you can have to communicate to the player the tutorial section is over, which gets doubled-down on by the game – and you – with the character sheet prompt. How pissed is a player going to be when they find out they still got more hand holding to plow through before they see the game proper? It completely undercuts the ‘first time in the sunlight’ moment the original had.

    Look I get it. Ya don’t like the combat. I’m right there with ya. Bethesda hasn’t made an RPG yet that actually felt good to play – Skyrim…kiiinda gets there…almost – but trying to section combat off from the Vault is…not a solution. It’s still a videogame and the Vault’s main purpose is still to instruct the player on how to utilize all of its basic mechanics. Even if the ones you don’t like.

    The Overseer:
    Again, this undercuts the theme of freedom the game has. The whole point of this intro is to juxtapose how stifling the Vault is compared to the vast freedom allowed by exploring the waste. It’s the entire reason they have that music swell when the sun hits ya for the first time! This rewrite completely removes the player as an agent of that change and gives it to the defacto bad guy that won’t even end up being relevant past this point in the game! Again: completely undercuts the sensation of earned freedom the moment is meant to have.

    Sure, you can story thread to take a hike and do what feels, but at the end of the day it’ll still be freedom given to you by an asshole, because the reality is you’re running round the wastes not because you freed yourself as an agent of your own fate to search for personal answers, but because you’re an errand boy sent by a grocery clerk to collect a Bill…er James.

    • guy says:

      Bethesda games with stat/skill allocation always have you pick them before the combat tutorial then drop a respec screen at the end of the tutorial.

    • KarmaTheAlligator says:

      I don’t think it sabotages the leaving the vault moment. In fact, it emphasises the difference between the peaceful vault (where fighting is in fact a bad and rare thing) and the barbarous outside (where fighting is required, thus the tutorial for it then), and would give you a reason to maybe want to come back after finishing your mission.

      You also don’t earn your freedom in FO3: you’re kicked out, no ifs or buts about it. Even if you remove every hostile element during the escape, you don’t get a choice. How is that different here?

    • MichaelGC says:

      So many ways? I count two, and neither of your criticisms are as obvious as you contend. OK, so – you’ve left the Vault but you’re still in a tunnel. This seems an equally clear metaphor to me. You could argue it’s a better one – instead of a sudden transition from enclosed to free, there’s a short journey which must be taken. On this short journey you begin to learn some basic skills which will stand you in good stead for the blindingly different new world which you emerge into at the end of it. So we can still have that sudden moment. (Also, this intro is much shorter than the original, so I don’t know why the player would be getting frustrated already.)

      On the second criticism – in addition to what KarmaTheAlligator says, the game doesn’t have a theme of freedom, but instead has a degree of freedom as a mechanic. Nothing has been thematically discarded in this re-write so far; quite the opposite: the theme Rutskarn identified has been bolstered and developed.

      • Yes, I would agree that Rutskarn adjusting the story to fit his themes…fits his themes. But by doing so in this particular fashion, he’s bucking against the themes set about by the game itself.

        On the second criticism ““ in addition to what KarmaTheAlligator says, the game doesn't have a theme of freedom, but instead has a degree of freedom as a mechanic.

        Except freedom as a mechanic IS a theme. There’s a general consensus – including Rutz if I remember their SW season correctly – that as compared to its other entries, FO3 is a terribly written game, but has a much better grasp of the mechanical sense of exploring a world. This a noted aspect of Bethesda OWG in general, so I find it hard to believe it was an accidental or unintended aspect of the design for this game. Doing anything to take focus away from this underlying theme is a detriment, so when you have this grand vault door open to suddenly find more tunnels and tutorial prompts…yeah. It’s gunna dull the impact no matter how much spin you put on it.

        • MichaelGC says:

          Rutskarn identified that theme from the original. He hasn’t invented it. Go back and read the original post – he backs it up with actual examples, rather than condescending gifs.

          That you can freely explore the wasteland is not a theme of the story. However much spin you put on it, you’re just explaining more about how freedom is a mechanic. There’s nothing in the story specifically about freedom – it’s not dissonant as such, but however nice that moment is, in the original story your ludofreedom is narratively irrelevant.

          • That you can freely explore the wasteland is not a theme of the story.

            If that’s the case, that would make this entire endeavor a waste of time, because it’s basically presenting the narrative and mechanics as completely separate…something I don’t agree with.*

            Creating a videogame narrative separate and wholly unrelated from the experience of playing it is cutting your legs off before you even learn to walk, which is metaphorically okay…just don’t claim its an improvement.

            • Shamus says:

              “just don't claim its an improvement.”

              So a smart story and a terrible story are equal if they don’t perfectly mesh with the mechanics? You can think that if you like, but obviously you’re the only one subscribing to this absolutist “Complete Ludonarrative Consonance or GTFO” position.

              And yes, this entire endeavor is indeed a “waste of time” if you’re not willing to go along with the parameters Ruts set down in the beginning. Ruts, being a writer, has decided we’re stuck with the original structure, gameplay, and artwork, and he’s seeing what can be fixed within his limited role. You claim this entire endeavor is a “waste of time”, but the same can be said of the argument you’re having here. You’re picking apart his design piecemeal when you’re not even accepting the premise of the exercise. And you’re doing so in this brusque and occasionally confrontational style. I don’t know if you just enjoy arguing or you’re bad at modulating your tone, but just… relax, man. This is supposed to be fun.

            • Daemian Lucifer says:

              Creating a videogame narrative separate and wholly unrelated from the experience of playing it is cutting your legs off before you even learn to walk, which is metaphorically okay

              Which is exactly what fallout 3 is now.And Rutskarn explicitly stated that he wants to improve it by having his story reflect the themes of the rest of the game instead of going in its own direction.You know,precisely the thing you are advocating for.

      • Hector says:

        Why not move the tutorial as an optional area before you’re forced out of the Vault? You can spin it as a bit of of a light-hearted tension-draining moment since the player is experiencing some pretty heavy plot.

        “Welcome to the Vault-Tec Post-Nuclear Role-Playing Environment! In today’s lesson, series 3 of *glitch/scratching noise* we will teach you the basics of combat.” You can have some goofy Vault Boy stuff to fill in how to play, give tips and so on, and otherwise help set the player up for success. You can also use it as a good moment to add some in-jokes that Fallout eveterans might get without putting off new players.

        This also allows the player to experience an in-universe tutorial, leaving out the heavy-handed out-of-character stuff.

    • Gordon says:

      I mean,

      There’s no reason not to have the “are you sure” character sheet finalization after the tutorial tunnel. And no reason you can’t still have the “emerging from the vault” moment. I guess some of the weight of being suddenly and terribly alone for the first time in your life is gone, if there are some raiders there, but that’s not really the point you brought up.

      Second, you were forced out of the Vault in the original opening, too. Escaped, technically, but I like this opening for thematic reasons because it’s an object lesson in the powerful bullying the weak.

  13. I’m really loving this series, Ruts, some really neat stuff here!

    But . . .

    “Laser turrets hone in on you.”

    *twitch twitch*

  14. Sleeping Dragon says:

    RE: your opinion on James, following him and his impact on the world.

    I would looooove a reinterpretation of the character as this well meaning (and perhaps even genius) but somewhat impulsive individual who doesn’t always think long term about his actions. Like: he dropped the purifier on impulse to protect you screwing his associates in the process, then he dropped you on some impulse to get back to the purifier screwing (to some extent) the vault in the process. It would be hilarious to keep following your dad and patching up his fixes for all the wrongs he found along the way:
    -the town was attacked by raiders so dad reprogrammed the robots from a nearby site to “protect the townsfolk”, but the robots are now overprotective not even letting people eat on their own for their safety;
    -locals were short on food so dad cooked up some chems to make the molerats grow faster, but now they keep growing and we have molerats the size of brahmin running all over the place;

    Like, when you caught up with dad you could be all “Dad stop and think about what you’re doing! I know you mean well but I’ve been fixing your messes all along the way!” and he’d be pretty surprised by all of this already chasing his next idea (say, the GECK).

    • Since James is central to the plot, his characterization needs to be consistent with the theme. (Actually, all characterizations should reflect SOME aspect of the theme.) If the theme was something along the lines of “there are more consequences than just the immediate” or something like that, this sort of character would make sense.

      So, we really need to encounter examples of James either having or pursuing strength, and then handing it over to weaker persons as we travel the wasteland. There are options in the TYPE of strength he can exhibit, whether or not he SUCCEEDS in his goals, but that should always be what he’s trying to accomplish.

      • Sleeping Dragon says:

        Oh I know, and I know that Rutskarn is trying to work within the established themes so I didn’t mean that I’d love to see him go in this direction in the rewrite, just that this would make for a funny twist to this dull and flat character. Also, FO3 does such a poor job of conveying its themes I honestly don’t think my suggestion could do much worse than the original game.

        • No, you’re right, it’d just change the theme of the game as Rutskarn proposed it.

          I don’t think Original Flavor Fallout 3 can really be said to HAVE a theme, so if you were doing your own version there’s zero reason why you couldn’t pick this as your theme and go with it.

          Actually, I’m not sure ANY Bethesda game can really be said to have an ABSTRACT theme. They tend more toward themes such as “shouting at dragons”.

          • Sleeping Dragon says:

            Now that you mentioned it I think that may be the actual problem. Those other games may have atmosphere (Morrowind) but the story doesn’t really try to convey a theme. In case of FO3 I believe they wanted to have one and just failed miserably.

            • Gordon says:

              Hm. I think Morrowind did have a definite undercurrent of relativism, thematically. The story is full of stuff that is both true and untrue depending on how you look at it, and this persists through aspects of the setting that don’t even relate much to the main story. The Empire is either decadent and crumbling, or powerful and expanding. Hlaalu are either amoral criminals or progressive minded businessmen. There’s a dedication to comprehensively exploring not only all these factions, but how these factions are perceived. If I had to boil down a theme for Morrowind, I might say “History is the work of the editor, not the actor.”

  15. Daemian Lucifer says:

    I am not trying to write New Vegas.

    Correct,you are trying to remake fallout 1.Which makes sense,since fallout 3 already drew so much from it,but failed in doing it in any meaningful satisfying way.

    • Gordon says:


      In what way is this Fallout 1? The fact that you grew up in a Vault? Fallout 1 didn’t even have the theme he’s talking about, it was all about “you can’t go home again” and irreversible consequences.

      I mean, I GUESS it could be suggested that the overseer is now sending you out to recover a vital resource for the Vault, but the framing and emotional contexts are so different it hardly even seems worth bringing up.

      • Daemian Lucifer says:

        With an overseer depicted like this,you also can never go home.Also,he said that he is not going to change much,and fallout 3 already draws so much from 1,only in a stupid way.

  16. BlueHorus says:

    I LOVE that take on the Overseer. So much better than the shortsighted loon who killed the doctor’s assistant, set the vault at each other’s throats and had someone beat his own daughter up (in front of him!) for no good reason.

    If I could give my people one luxury, it would be waste. Two luxuries, it would be choice.

    Two sentences. Two frickin’ sentences, and Rutskarn improves so much of F03’s story.

    Looking forward to the next.

  17. Packbat says:

    I like your treatment of the themes so far – it’s a compelling interpretative lens, and an approach that feels pretty well suited to the kind of game Fallout 3 is.

  18. I always thought the biggest issue with Fallout 3 was the lack of hindsight and dialogue. Had they taken the time to add more dialogue and foreshadowing alongside a narrative based main plot, I might have found the main story somewhat interesting.

    About the only places/things that ever really nudged my interests were Mr. Braun’s vault life simulator, Rivet City, and Megaton’s nuke, partially because those cities seem to give the biggest choices with the most dangerous or redeeming qualities (IE blowing up an entire city vs. Not blowing it up, the recurring consequences thereafter.)

  19. Bob Case says:

    Arg, this is gonna be painful to read. Fallout 3 could have been so much better, but all I get to see is the hypothetical Rutskarn version.

    It always bugged me, in many incarnations of the game: just how much do the vault dwellers know about the surface? Is all they know propaganda supplied by the overseer, or does some real knowledge sneak its way through?

    It would be in the vault leaderships’s best interest to control knowledge of the outside world very closely, yet this never seems to quite happen the way you would expect.

    Even in this Rutskarn version, I’m curious: how much does the overseer actually know about the outside world? And how much of this knowledge makes it unfiltered to the average vault dweller?

    • Sleeping Dragon says:

      In case of FO3 specifically I don’t think it’s ever established how much an average vault dweller (like the PC) knows about the surface other than the “nuclear wasteland”. That said I’d assume in the case of this specific vault the description of the surface may be exaggerated but is not completely outrageous.
      -Older vault dwellers know your dad came in from the surface, which proves there’s not only human life but some kind of civilization out there (since your dad was learned in medicine and other fields), although they are apparently forbidden from revealing this knowledge to the next generation;
      -When it’s decided that you need to follow your dad out you don’t get the “life is impossible out there” reaction, it’s more in line with “it’s dangerous out there”;
      -The overseer did actually send some scouting parties out, according to his terminal they definitely made contact with Megaton. Similarly to the first case I believe it’s been turned into a big secret but again it sounds more like a difference between “it’s too dangerous to reveal ourselves” rather than “if you go out there you instantly die”.

      FO1 I believe the vault dwellers lived in complete isolation and had no knowledge of the surface whatsoever, even the overseer seemed to have extremely limited information, mostly that you won’t die the moment you step out of the shelter.

      Most other vaults we encounter have either fallen victim to their experiments, have been raided or willingly opened up by the time we encounter them.

    • guy says:

      In Fallout 1, I’m pretty sure Vault 13 opened for literally the first time since the bombs fell after the water chip broke. Your briefing is pretty much just “Vault 15 is over there.” At the end of the game, you’re banished to keep you from telling anyone about conditions on the surface and contaminating the isolation experiment any more than necessary; by Fallout 2 there’s been an uprising. That also comes with a brilliant “laugh and cry” moment when you get to Vault 8 and discover they did in fact consider the possibility the water chip would break down and provided spares, but there was an error in shipping, with the result that Vault 13 has a totally unnecessary GECK and Vault 8 has hundreds of water chips.

  20. DwarfWarden says:

    You know, I’m probably the only guy who thinks this on the planet…..but I actually like Fallout 3’s opening up until the alarms go off.

    Yeah, I said it. I liked it. I liked how you got to know the other residents a bit before running away on a journey. I liked how it gave you connections to Amata and Butch. I liked how you had to take a test to pick tagged skills (though the questions should have been a lot more clear-cut as to what skills they were and don’t get me started on the idiotic result of Laundry Cannon Operator and how that should have been Trash Burner due to the heavy weapon Flamer connection). It was something I felt a little more connected to rather than Fallout 1, which due to technical limitations had the unfortunate effect of “We’re in trouble here’s a boot in the ass go get a computer chip”.

    Ruts’s improvements could have been perfectly woven in, too. I hated the fact that security guards, with no reason or warning, suddenly decided they needed to murder a kid just cuz the old guy said to. I hated how in the quest where you return to the vault you get booted out even if you convince them to start trading with the outside world and letting outsiders in. But that glare of the sun as you exit the vault was just a complete 3D animation of the line of text from the first Fallout game says as you step into natural sunlight.

    Having the Overseer demand his doctor back would have been a really good improvement, though. Not entirely sure why the dev team at Bethesda thought it would be logical to have the Overseer’s grunts torture a scientist to death when scientists are in high demand, but they’ve never been good in the logistics department.

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