Fallout 3 is an odd game. It was my first real experience with the Fallout franchise, and at the time I thoroughly enjoyed it. I didn’t think too hard about the nonsensical, batshit crazy story. The lack of coherence in the world building didn’t bother me. The characters were bland, but they did the job, and I had a huge amount of fun playing it.
But that, right there, is the point. I had fun playing it, largely by ignoring most of the silly story stuff. I wasn’t a professional writer back in 2009, when I originally played Fallout 3, but I was a keen reader and could generally tell when something wasn’t working. And Fallout 3 does not work as a story, on any fundamental or even superficial level.
Fast forward to 2020 and I am a professional writer, so the issues I was only vaguely aware of a decade ago now stand out in stark contrast to the otherwise fun—if poorly aged—gameplay of this title. The whole world is a broken, disjointed mess. The story is laughably sophomoric, except a real sophomore probably wouldn’t be writing anything this embarrassingly inadequate. And the characters are wafer thin and missing any real characterisation or depth beyond the most basic of one-note traits.
And yet, I had a huge amount of fun playing this mess. Imagine, then, how much more fun I, and everyone else, could have had from this game if the world and story had been up to the high bar set by the original game? If I’d given the remotest of shits about Liam Neeson, or Dr Angry, or the Brotherhood of Snooze, if I’d had something to actually anchor me to what was going on, something to care about? That would’ve been nice.
The thing is, we don’t need to imagine. Because we were fortunate enough to receive the wonderful gift of Fallout: New Vegas a couple of years later, at which point Obsidian got to show us how a first-person Fallout should look.
That game showed us that yes, you can have actual role-playing mechanics in a modern game, you can have an interesting world and story (driven by your own decisions!), you can have a game that doesn’t feel like it was written by aliens who don’t understand the basics of being human.
It also made me realise that I really needed to go back and play the original games. As I said above, Fallout 3 was my introduction to the series, at least on any meaningful level. Way back in the mists of time (1997) I tried the original Fallout. Briefly. But my ultra powerful 486 computer at the time—with no discrete graphics card and an amazing 66Mhz of blazing speed available—couldn’t handle the game, so I gave up pretty quickly.
After playing them in the 2010s, especially Fallout 1, I had a new appreciation for the franchise. But I also had a considerably lower opinion of Bethesda, which made me extra sceptical of their other games going forward. Just seeing the incredible gulf between what Bethesda was capable of producing with their massive budgets, and what Black Isle managed with a skeleton crew largely working on Fallout as a side project was an eye opener.
You might have noticed that I said ‘original game’, singular, when talking about the high bar set by the originals. That’s because I’m one of the few people who doesn’t actually think all that highly of Fallout 2. In fact, I’d argue that the tone of that game is a large part of where Bethesda went wrong with Fallout 3.
Despite my overall negative view of Bethesda’s work, I don’t think everything is terrible. Actually, I think they absolutely nailed a lot of things, especially in their overall effort to bring an isometric game to life in 3D.
But while they did a great job of that, I’m not so sure about the quality of the actual content itself. Someone there might’ve played the first couple of games, I guess? But honestly, it feels more like they just looked everything up on fallout.wikia.com and cobbled together a game that vaguely resembled Fallout without really getting what actually made Fallout good.
I suspect they saw the wacky hijinks of becoming a porn star or a boxer, or the weird supernatural stuff involving ghosts and psychic mole rats, or the largely self-contained nature of a lot of the locations that often felt like theme park attractions—a result of the way Fallout 2 was made, with small teams being given areas to work on (like New Reno) while having little contact with the other teams—then saw the positive reception of that game and attempted to do something similar.
Except Bethesda doesn’t have the writers necessary to craft the dark humour of Fallout 1 without it becoming… well, stupid ideas like Little Lamplight or the Antagoniser. The really odd thing, though? I get the strong impression that they really did try to please the original games’ fans. By introducing elements from those games (water chip, BoS, etc.), they hoped to ease in sceptical fans while also cultivating a new fan base who’d never heard of or played the previous entries.
Honestly, their biggest mistake might have been calling the game Fallout 3. That set up expectations, especially amongst the older fans, and doubly so when everyone was already angry at Interplay’s woeful mishandling of their finances, resulting in the true Fallout 3, codenamed Van Buren, never materialising, at least beyond a basic tech demo.
By trying to please everyone, Bethesda ended up making a game that was fun, but ultimately flawed. They hamstrung themselves by sticking so firmly to already played-out ideas from the previous games, instead of letting their creativity flow and coming up with their own concepts. There again, their own concepts now include the Institute (don’t even get me started on those idiots…), so maybe we were screwed either way.
But you know what? I actually applaud Bethesda’s efforts with Fallout 3. Yes, the game has severe thematic and tonal inconsistencies, and the less said about the story the better. But the atmosphere is fantastic, and the locations have the overall look and feel of the gothic architecture seen in the originals, even the massive carved heads on buildings.
The desolate loneliness, while making precisely zero sense, story-wise (which I’ll cover properly in the main series as we go along), was often chilling and melancholic, at least until it was spoiled by some dumbass raider yelling about how they were going to wear your intestines as a necklace.
Exploring the wastes was fun and engaging as long as you avoided the main story. Finding new locations was almost always a decent experience, and in those early days when I’d first started playing the game, being killed by an unseen raider was actually pretty scary and challenging. That sense of challenge admittedly didn’t last long, but still, you get points for actually making me feel something, Bethesda.
Oh, and they also get points for the image included above; that’s the Interplay logo, a nice little nod to this game’s progenitor. To me, that shows that someone, somewhere at Bethesda actually cared.
I said at the start of this first post that Fallout 3 is an odd game. I’m going to add to that to say that Fallout 3 is a frustrating game. It could’ve been amazing, it could’ve been a true classic for the ages, but instead it’s a passably enjoyable romp as long as you turn your brain off whenever anyone in the game is speaking.
So how could it have been fixed? Honestly, I don’t think it would’ve taken much beyond what’s already there. The world itself is solid enough, albeit in need of some serious tweaks and changes such as things like what people eat. Yes, that’s important world building and is a part of the overall whole. It’s not something you can reasonably blow off, especially not in a game where survival is a big theme.
Characters… yeah, these would need a lot of work, but a good amount of that would come about naturally by fixing the world itself. As things stand, the characters are largely stupid and make no sense because the world they inhabit is stupid and makes no sense.
The story is atrocious, but could be fixed by changing a few aspects of it to focus more on the player rather than other characters (something Bethesda is often guilty of; they err on the side of giving NPCs moments instead of giving them to the player). I won’t be talking too heavily about this simply because other people have already done so, and I’d rather not repeat what they’ve already said. To sum up Shamus’s points, using his own words:
“Dad built a water purifier that didn’t work, for people that didn’t need it, and then made it release radiation it shouldn’t have, to prevent it from falling into the hands of people trying to fix it. This killed the man who had no reason to sabotage it and didn’t kill Colonel Autumn, who had no means to survive. This put the Enclave – an army with no reason to attack – in charge of the purifier, which was of no value to them. Then the player entered vault 87 to recover a GECK, a magical matter-arranger that they shouldn’t need and that would be better put to use in virtually any possible manner besides fixing the purifier. Colonel Autumn, who shouldn’t be alive, captured the player with a flash grenade that shouldn’t have worked that was thrown by soldiers who had no way to get there. The final battle was a war between the Enclave and the Brotherhood of Steel, to see which one would get to commit suicide trying to turn on the purifier that neither of them needed. This resulted in more sabotage that threatened to explode a device that shouldn’t be explode-able, ending with the death of the player character, who had the means to survive but didn’t, and who was never given a good reason for doing any of this.”Shamus Young – Twenty-Sided
When summed up like this… yeah, the awful kind of stands out, doesn’t it? That said, this series will be me talking about where I feel Fallout 3 went wrong, primarily in its world building, and how it might be fixed and improved without straying too far from what’s already in the game.
Instead of talking heavily about the story, I’ll be focusing more on the world itself. World building is one of my favourite aspects of writing novels, to the point where I can sometimes get so involved in the process of creating a world that I forget to actually start writing the damn book, hah.
I’ll be looking at the world of Fallout 3 and seeing how it might be improved, while not making such drastic, sweeping changes that it’d cost a fortune. I want to look at ways to spruce up existing content/locations and have them make more sense, be more connected to other locations around the wastes, and have more reason for being. That, and to inject some sanity and consistency into proceedings. No more theme park nonsense where nothing connects to anything else.
Oh, and one other thing: yes, I will be criticising Bethesda. Heavily. I dislike a lot of what they’ve done to this franchise, the same issues plague their Elder Scrolls series, and I frankly have zero hope for Starfield being any better either, especially not after the Creation Club and Fallout 76 debacles. I still like the game, and it’s okay for you to still like the game, or to think it’s better than Fallout: New Vegas. You’re not wrong for having an opinion or a personal preference.
In short, criticism isn’t an attack, it’s what we do with things we like—or, in some cases, dislike—because we care and want something we enjoy to be better. I’m a writer myself, I receive criticism as a consequence of putting my work out there for people to read. It’s a natural and healthy part of the creative process, so please don’t take my criticisms of Bethesda as a personal attack. Thanks.
Without further ado, then… Part 2 will kick us off with some more griping about Bethesda and why Obsidian did a better job at Fallout. I did warn you I’d be critical of Bethesda.