The Blistering Stupidity of Fallout 3

In anticipation of the release of Fallout 4 in just a few months, games writer Shamus Young has penned a fairly long five-part essay on the writing of Fallout 3, in which he examines the game's plot, themes, characterization, and worldbuilding. If the title of the newspost wasn't abundantly clear, he really didn't enjoy it:

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.

Keep in mind that what I've outlined here isn't even the worst stuff. I skipped over Little Lamplight, Dad's Vault-killing adventures, and the fact that the writers didn't seem to notice all the ways that supposed good-guy Three Dog is actually a monumental selfish, delusional, self-aggrandizing asshole. I've just stuck to the crucial elements of the central premise and story.

Sure, you can find a couple of plot holes in Fallout 1. No story is perfect, and it's hard make big stories hold together over the long haul. But this isn't just (a couple of plot holes). This isn't nitpicking, over-analyzing, or looking for things to complain about. This is a story in which every single aspect of the setting and characters was fundamentally broken from inception. What we're told isn't supported by what we're shown, none of the characters pursue their goals rationally, and the player is constantly obliged to make nonsensical choices.

Despite rampant cheating, hand-waving, railroading, false-choices, and copious amounts of exhaustive over-explaining[3] the writers couldn't put two concepts together without creating a plot hole and having someone act irrationally. It's not that the pieces don't quite fit together, these pieces don't even work in isolation. Everything is wrong and goofy and desultory. This is an incompetent heap of misunderstood concepts and recycled story themes that the writers never understood.


We've got this false dichotomy between fans of the games where you can either have:
  1. The fun, atmosphere, exploration, and [relative] stability of Fallout 3, or.
  2. Rich lore, vibrant characterization, and consistent themes of New Vegas, but the gameworld looks bland, there are invisible walls[6] everywhere, and it crashes all the time.

Do not fall for this. The Fallout 3 story didn't need to be stupid. They could have just turned the world of Fallout into a mutant shooting gallery, but instead they constructed this long, strange, nonsensical, thematically disjointed, morally confused, horribly paced story with overlong dialog and contrived choices with no emotional payoff.

This shouldn't be an argument between Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas. This should be an argument between Fallout 3 and the BETTER version of Fallout 3 we could have gotten if just one person had stepped in and either fixed the plot, or changed the plot to tackle a subject commensurate with the skills and ambitions of the writing staff.

While Fallout 3's writing was very disappointing to me, I will say that Skyrim had a significantly more functional plot, and that a few of the Fallout 3 DLC packs had rather interesting stories and developments. I didn't see anything alarming story-wise in the gameplay sections of Fallout 4 that we have been shown so far, so I'm hoping Bethesda has learned a few lessons, especially because they seem to be focusing on story more this time around.