Hero of the Wastes

I am addicted to the apocalypse. I love it. Nothing makes my heart skip a beat like the notion of apocalyptic horror. Pre-apocalypse stories involve a ragtag group of unlikely heroes that are bound together by the secret, cryptic signs that the world is about to end. They always try to save the world with their newfound realizations. No one believes them, of course. How could the world possibly end? It's lasted this long, right? Then BAM, the bombs drop, or the plague hits, and only our heroes are safe. The future of humanity now rests solely with them.

Post-apocalypse stories are similarly driven by some singular knowledge. The Wasteland or zombie hordes are held back by the last bastions of civilization. Their secret knowledge of what came before, modern technology, science, and history make them all-powerful in a powerless world. The post-apocalyptic world knows nothing of the world that was, that perfect utopia. They know a poisonous, hostile world. Only the hero truly knows the breath of human knowledge. Can he use it to save them all?

In short, the apocalypse takes anyone with the right knowledge and makes them the most important person in the history of mankind. I can't get enough.

Warning: Fallout 3 spoilers at the end of the article

Fallout is the perfect example: The Vaults, the last refuges of civilization left, teach you the ways of science and technology and then usually send you out on some errand, to face the Wasteland alone. Stepping out of the Vault gate releases you into a weird, dirty, violent world where all of mankind's achievements lay rusting in the ever-present desert. From the first time you teach a farmer basic crop rotation, to the Brotherhood of Steel's advanced science hidden beneath layers of space-age Power Armor, Fallout delivers classic apocalyptic scenarios.

Though when I think back about all my favorite apocalyptic stories, Fallout has a special place in my heart. Because with Fallout, it's not just some charismatic everyman hero out there: It's me. I'm the man with the gun and the dog, walking down that decaying, dusty road. It's my story they're telling.

It's no accident then that the original Fallout, like its inspiration, Wasteland, is one of the most open-ended RPGs ever made. Just watching someone else's apocalyptic story simply won't do in a video game. No, a video game is unique in that it's not just the developer's story they're telling; it's yours as well. And the only story worth playing in the apocalypse is the story the man with the knowledge: The hero. The one who walks out that Vault door, armed with the sum total of human knowledge. The person who has to face the Wasteland and decide what to do with the bits of information in his head. Humanity's last best chance for survival. It's what makes apocalyptic heroes truly heroic, or--in some cases--truly villainous.

Choice is integral to the apocalypse. The entire point of being the most important person in the history of mankind is that you're now the most powerful person in the history of mankind. Every time you run into an inhabitant of the Wasteland, you've got one up on him. “I bet he doesn't even know who Abraham Lincoln was”, you say to yourself, “let alone how this plasma rifle I'm holding works.” With great power comes great responsibility, and great opportunity to kind of act like a dick.

When you're a villain in Fallout, you can truly revel in the epic nature of your betrayal of humanity. When you load a game and decide to wipe out a town in Fallout, you know that it's gone. That's it. There won't be rebuilding or regrowth, the world won't heal. The world is dead, and now you've made it deader. The satisfaction of shooting some guy in the face is that much more satisfying knowing there's not a lot of guys to shoot in the face anymore. If you want to be evil, the Wasteland provides ample opportunity.

Likewise, your good deeds are that much more meaningful when there's less good to go around. Something as simple as giving a bottle of non-radiated water to someone who is hurt seems like the equivalent of Oprah buying everyone in her audience a new car. “Clean Water? Really?” the man asks, “For free? I don't believe it.” You feel that you've contributed substantially to the well-being of mankind by simply handing some guy a cheap bottle of water. It's this epic feeling of weight to my choices that I love about apocalyptic gaming.

My addiction to the narcissistic nature of the apocalypse and games like Fallout has always contrasted for me with my utter boredom playing some of its contemporaries like Icewind Dale or Baldur's Gate. High fantasy always seemed just so bland to me by comparison. It always involves the chosen ones using artifacts they didn't make on things they don't understand. Someone stands cosmically a bit to the left, and the whole plan's kaput. It's about history and legacy, and as such I play the game feeling like it's already written. There's no magnitude to these events; I was chosen because I was there. And if I win, it's because it's destiny, or courage, or the fact that my spiritual package was huge. Something I was chosen for and really had very little control over, in other words. The history of the world is told to you by the author, and the history is more important than the man.

By comparison, the Wasteland is all about me and what I want. I'm the hero because I'm the one with the tools, the knowledge, the know-how. I know that a virus is what causes Super Mutants to be created. I can keep the virus from getting out, or spread it myself. I know how to fix that nuclear generator, or break the last working one in existence. I am the arbiter of history because I'm the only one who knows it, which means I'm the only one who can write it. It's the ultimate power trip.

Which is ultimately why Fallout 3's ending was so disappointing. Of all the choices that the Capital Wasteland provided the player, the only choice you had in the end was whether or not to kill yourself. The Master in the original Fallout offered a multitude of choices in how you face him. Almost every way you could do something in the game, you could use on the final boss. It was a truly satisfying ending because it was all about choosing what you wanted to do with the final villain. Fallout 3 gave you a binary choice: good or evil. Somehow, about ¾ of the way through the game, Bethesda forgot about that story you were telling, and decided instead to tell you their own.

The ending of Fallout was open-ended and was all about the player. Your choices in the game ultimately decided the fate of everything you touched. The ending told a tale of the Vault Dweller's exploits in the Wasteland, each town getting its own epilogue written by the player. Fallout 3 simply had a binary ending: You did or you didn't. Fallout 3 not only failed to provide any resolution to the various stories the player encountered in the Capital Wasteland, it failed to take into account all but one of the player's choices in the ultimate story of the game. In the end, the story of the Capital Wasteland was written by Bethesda, not the player.

It's not to say I didn't enjoy Fallout 3. I was glued to the keyboard. Fallout 3 is, in fact, a great game. The other ¾ of the game is a brilliant example of player choice and how to let the player have fun running wild in a fascinating world.

But in the end, Fallout 3 just forgot the central tenet of the apocalypse. It's my way, or the highway.

Comments

At the end, it was clear the radiation would kill me, but I had my super mutant friend there to help me. So I was like oh, he won't die, I can just ask him. He looks at me and says, sorry but it is your destiny alone.... Are you kidding me? He totally would be fine, there's no reason I had to die. I had about 100 people tell me the ending sucked before I got there, so the blow was softened somewhat, but I was still disappointed. However the part leading up to that ending fighting against the giant robot was hilarious, especially the things he was shouting about communists. My guess is they had the ending at the start and built the game around it, and where the rest of the game expanded and became awesome the ending got left behind. There's about a million technical glitches wrong with this game that need patching, but I'm going to go ahead and say they should release a patch that gives us a real ending, because this one is just broken. Go ahead Bethesda, if you want to go change it I'll pretend this little incident just never happened. Just don't let it happen again.

I had the same experience with my mutant friend, I mean earlier in the game he goes into a radiated area to get the GECK, i get to the end and its like really? I feel that they really dropped the ball at the end of that game, it's like they lost sight of how awesome the setting is in fallout and decided to move back to the black and white choices of every bloody game out there.

I never realized it, but this sense of being an Important Person amidst the ruins of civilization is a really, really good way of describing Post-Apoc. scenarios.

I found it was somewhat missing in Fallout 3, though. You nail it perfectly when you say that we were living Bethesda's script. Guess that's why the experience rings so hollow for me.

I wasn't good enough first time around to have a mutie friend. And when I started playing back through all Jesus-like, the knowledge of that terrible ending just discouraged me and I went off to play Resistance. I hadn't done a whole bunch of the side-quests, so I pretty much got "The wastelands were hard and cruel...he chose to kill a true hero...the end." Sucked. I'm going to play the old ones because apparently they aren't as disheartening as this one.

I do agree about post apocalyptic anything - World War Z by Max Brooks is a prime example of post apocalyptic fiction that absorbs and haunts the reader. Zombies are creepier on the page, in my opinion - the "real" ones are too, uhm, Savini. =) I think most of the movies and books I love have that post-apocalyptic feel, or even pre-apocalyptic. A book I got recently called "The War On America" by Phillip Roth had the kind of tinge of terror that really puts a work over the edge for me - for some reason.

I blame Romero.

"Whoever goes in there isn't coming back out".

"Hah!", says I, quaffing handfulls of Rad-X and donning a pristine advanced radiation suit, "We'll see about that".
The radometer begins its demented cockroach impression as the airlock cycles; I brace myself for waves of nausea from the radiation battling the rad-X in my system. A staggering ... erm... +1 Radiation per second assaults my body... No, not assaults. Oh, please! That doesn't even itch.

Cruel, Bethesda. Oh so very cruel.

The ending didn't spoil my enjoyment of Fallout 3 but did leave me thinking.

Instead of having the feeling of Bethesda forcing an ending on me, after several attempts like those described by casual_alcoholic and InfluenceDevice above, I realized that this was a Kobayashi Maru.

Perhaps if developer tools are released some "enterprising Kirk" will jigger the program to allow a total win?

Nice write-up. It very eloquently sums up a lot of my thoughts and feelings about both the apocalyptic RPG genre as well as Fallout 3 in particular. I think the two major flaws with FO3 is the low level cap and, of course, the ending and the one feeds into the other. Once you get to a certain level, if you have not progressed too far into the main story, you feel compelled to do so. After all, it is the *main* quest, right? Ostensibly the main reason you are playing the game? But the ending is just so poor that it wipes out a lot of the goodwill I'd had for the game.

I keep eying it, with the intent of going back and exploring more because that was really fun. But the sting is still too sharp that I cannot fire that game back up yet. Maybe someday...

Spaz wrote:

I never realized it, but this sense of being an Important Person amidst the ruins of civilization is a really, really good way of describing Post-Apoc. scenarios.

Agreed. The tenuousness and fragility of life and civilization in the wastes lends a terrible weight to every choice. Fallout 3's ending betrays that weight, in a way, by robbing both the player of volition and (at least compared to the ending vignettes of the original game) choices of their ultimate consequences.

Reading about how badly the ending is implemented almost makes me feel compelled to finish the game just to see it before it is patched out with DLC

I'm coming up to the end myself and reading waves upon waves of goodjers and escapists complaining about the ending has pretty much jaded me to the inevitable disappointment. At this point I am level 20, I'm super pimp, and it's time to put this beast to rest.

It can't be worse than Eternal Sonata.

Also, Pyroman, you are clearly a lapsarianist of the finest order.

Nothing to add on Fallout 3 but as a fellow Apocojunkie, I must recommend Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse. Short stories by Stephen King, George R.R. Martin, Gene Wolfe, Orson Scott Card and others. I have not read them all yet but the ones I have read are quite good.

Excellent view on an excellent genre. I wish that we would see more post apocalyptic settings, as they do give you such a great chance to become your character and to participate in a world that is so vastly different from ours, but with the potential to have something like that actually happen. Fallout 3 did such a great job of blending our history with a world that had a very different outcome to several events. The alternate universe created by the Fallout story is amazing and I loved every second of it, much like everyone here, until the end. I do hope that a new ending is released by Bethesda, but if they do not, I am still happy with the memories I have of exploring the wastes, bad ending or no bad ending.

casual_alcoholic wrote:

However the part leading up to that ending fighting against the giant robot was hilarious, especially the things he was shouting about communists.

But that's exactly what Pyro is talking about. That whole ending sequence was basically a scripted sequence that you participated in by walking through it. All the way to the end choice.

A true Fallout would have that end sequence completely optional. For example: if your repair skill and science skills were at 100, you would have a choice of repairing Liberty Prime. If your sneak and lockpick were at 100, you would have a chance of taking an alternate underground passageway under the river and directly into the end zone. If your fighting and explosives skills were up to snuff, you could fight your way through all those Enclave soldiers and blow up the shields yourself. If your speech and charisma were high enough you could convince BoS soldiers to fight through instead of you, with great casualties, but they would be willing to lay their lives on the line for the cause.

See? And you wouldn't even have to change much in the overall level design. But I guess someone at Bethesda though that they knew better than we, the players, how the game should play out. *shrug* I did spend 70 hours in that game. And for the most part it was interesting. But the growing sense of pointlessness eventually soured my experience and I can't make myself even look at it today. Fallout 2, on the other hand, I played through at least 5 full times, and even with all the hours of level grinding I did, it never felt pointless. There was always something to do. Something interesting to see. Something meaningful to attain, or find, or experience.

Hmm... the more I think about it, the more I'd like to see a Dark Tower: Gunslinger game based on the engine.

Surely some modder out there will be able to do that.

Which is ultimately why Fallout 3's ending was so disappointing. Of all the choices that the Capital Wasteland provided the player, the only choice you had in the end was whether or not to kill yourself.

I was also disappointed in the ending, but in the game's defense there are actually 3 choices (even more spoilers lie ahead):

- Kill yourself, using project purity as intended (good)
- Wuss out, leaving Lyons to activate project purity instead (dick move, but not "evil")
- Deploy the FEV, destroying all mutated life in the wastes (evil)

gore wrote:
Which is ultimately why Fallout 3's ending was so disappointing. Of all the choices that the Capital Wasteland provided the player, the only choice you had in the end was whether or not to kill yourself.

I was also disappointed in the ending, but in the game's defense there are actually 3 choices (even more spoilers lie ahead):

- Kill yourself, using project purity as intended (good)
- Wuss out, leaving Lyons to activate project purity instead (dick move, but not "evil")
- Deploy the FEV, destroying all mutated life in the wastes (evil)

A fair point, but still anemic compared to Fallout's original ending.

casual_alcoholic wrote:

There's about a million technical glitches wrong with this game that need patching, but I'm going to go ahead and say they should release a patch that gives us a real ending, because this one is just broken. Go ahead Bethesda, if you want to go change it I'll pretend this little incident just never happened. Just don't let it happen again.

It does look like you'll get your wish:

Jeff Gardiner wrote:

In our third DLC, “Broken Steel,” we’ve come up with a way of allowing the player to continue on past the game ending… by changing it!

http://gamesblog.ugo.com/index.php/g...

Interesting way to encourage sales of the DLC: create an unsatisfying ending for the original game, and then charge people for a retcon to fix it

Also, Pyroman, you are clearly a lapsarianist of the finest order.

I don't know what this means but I'm going to assume it's good and say thanks.

There's also the 4th option of doing nothing...

Hey... what if you had the robot (Sgt RL-3) as your sidekick? Couldn't you just tell the damned thing to hit a few keys for you?

Man, Pyroman, you really got to the root of Fallout 3's ending problem, and it's really epitomized by how unpersuasive and ridiculous it sounds when Fawkes tells you that he can't help because "it's your destiny" to finish the project. It's like some dialogue just fell out of a JRPG--better go back and give my character a spiky emo haircut and find a giant sword somewhere. I felt equally betrayed earlier when they wouldn't let me open the chamber and save Darkman. I'd been hoarding rad-away and rad-x for hours and hours, I know I could've shot all those enclave guys, and it felt like stupid, forced, unjustified drama.

I think another problem with the ending is that it "fixes" the Wasteland. The idea that the huge, profound problems of a post-nuclear DC can be eliminated by two dudes after a couple of jaunts over to some pretty-easy-to-reach Vaults pretty much contradicts the utterly bleak hopelessness of the rest of the world. The game is at its best when it deals with the small and petty scrabbles of the desperate survivors and when it asks you whether you want to aid or exploit these people. It gets kind of weak once it tries to turn you into some historic, world-altering "great man/woman" messiah figure.

Oh yeah, to throw out some apocoliterature, I'd seriously recommend Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun. It's split across four novels, and it's kind of a covert post-apocalypse novel. At first I thought it was high fantasy, and only after reading about 100 pages did I realize that it actually takes place on our earth hundreds of years after the collapse of a highly advanced future society. Coincidentally, it's also about the rebirth of a fractured world, and while I haven't finished all four novels yet, I'm pretty sure that its story of revitalization will be tempered with regret and disappointment and failure, in contrast to F3's bogus quick cure.

By the way, watching the presidential inauguration while talking about Fallout 3 is pretty bizarre and post-modern. Whenever they show the exterior of the Capital building, I keep squinting to make sure there aren't any super mutants on the steps.

Dakhath wrote:

There's also the 4th option of doing nothing...

Hey... what if you had the robot (Sgt RL-3) as your sidekick? Couldn't you just tell the damned thing to hit a few keys for you?

No one seems to be thinking about Charon, who is also immune to radiation.

The basic premise aside, the lack of choice in the main storyline, even if you don't have a problem with Bethesda's handling of the ending they break their own rules.

There are three NPC companions that are totally immune to the radiation. Yet they have all been scripted to be useless to you.

Stupid stupid stupid.

It's like someone went to the George Lucas school of story creation.

gore wrote:
casual_alcoholic wrote:

There's about a million technical glitches wrong with this game that need patching, but I'm going to go ahead and say they should release a patch that gives us a real ending, because this one is just broken. Go ahead Bethesda, if you want to go change it I'll pretend this little incident just never happened. Just don't let it happen again.

It does look like you'll get your wish:

Jeff Gardiner wrote:

In our third DLC, “Broken Steel,” we’ve come up with a way of allowing the player to continue on past the game ending… by changing it!

http://gamesblog.ugo.com/index.php/g...

Interesting way to encourage sales of the DLC: create an unsatisfying ending for the original game, and then charge people for a retcon to fix it :)

That really doesn't matter to me, because I own a PS3, which means I'll never see DLC for Fallout. Go f*ck yourself Bethesda. Yeah console exclusives are all the rage now, that doesn't mean I can't hate your guts and hope you burn in hell, because I do wish that on you thoroughly.

Obadiahstarbuck wrote:

Man, Pyroman, you really got to the root of Fallout 3's ending problem, and it's really epitomized by how unpersuasive and ridiculous it sounds when Fawkes tells you that he can't help because "it's your destiny" to finish the project. It's like some dialogue just fell out of a JRPG--better go back and give my character a spiky emo haircut and find a giant sword somewhere.

The inability to use Fawkes is a slap in the face. Not only are you railroaded into the ridiculous choice, but the writers couldn't even be bothered to work around a blatant loophole like a rad immune ally.

When I think back on it, I'm actually willing to accept a great deal of railroading from this game, because in most cases it leads to what I would consider to be a pretty awesome experience (as with the giant robot). And when you are riding the rails, most of the time you're given an illusion of choice and the freedom to act in minor ways (even if they may not ultimately impact the outcome). Most importantly, the tools you have generally continue to function properly within the confines of the scripted experiences.

Not so with the ending. Your massive set of tools that you've been developing for the entire game is completely useless here - there's nothing at all you can do other than following the script. You even have one tool (Fawkes) that could solve the problem at hand, but the game won't even let you use it. It's just plain sloppy.

I completely agree that for the game to be a "true" Fallout, there should have been many different ways to solve the final conflict. And Pyro's hit the nail right on the head. I don't want to be a minor character in a supposedly epic tale about what one person can do when unfettered from the safeguards and limitations of civilization. (This was an issue with Oblivion, too, but it mattered less because the fantasy genre doesn't generally allow its protagonists to go around murdering entire towns.) I ended up playing it like Oblivion, screwing around, doing minor quests, exploring, and that turned out to be tons of fun. When I hit the level cap, that was the real ending.

However, I did finish the main quest out of curiosity, having heard terrible things about it, and I've got to say, I liked the ending. Not the epilogue, nor the leadup to the ending, or most of the main quest, for that matter. Just the bit where I punched in the code. Isn't there anyone else out there who liked that? Figuring out the code?

The way I see it, figuring out the code is the game asking you: do you care about this story? And if you do, you know the code. (It also helps if you're an unrepentant adventure gamer who still fills whole notebooks with useless scraps of info.) If you don't, you go get a walkthrough, or look for a way to solve the puzzle with the tools at your disposal, which leads to annoyance and frustration. Then it's a terrible ending, I admit. It's probably a terrible ending for an "open-ended RPG," too, but I really, really liked it as a final puzzle. Why must every encounter in the game be about your skills or weaponry? Why can't a game have one, just one puzzle, if it's a good one? Honestly, it was one of my favorite moments in the game, and I think it's the bit I'll remember years from now, when looking back on it. That, and the first time exiting the vault, but that's something I've experienced before in the first Fallout.

Why didn't Fallout3 do the town epilogues? At the end of Fallout 1/2, it gave you a quick overview of what happened to each town as a result of your actions. That was cool.

I agree, stevesan - what happened to the cannibals? what happened to the Republic of Dave? Although, there are a lot of towns, much more than the original Fallout, maybe it was decided it would be too long as an ending, but I put enough time into that game so I could put up with sitting through something like that...

Nyles wrote:

Just the bit where I punched in the code. Isn't there anyone else out there who liked that? Figuring out the code?

I liked that too, although the answer didn't occur to me until I flicked through the notes section on the PipBoy. Having Thomas Jefferson's statue appear out of the murk was a nice touch too.

Zelos wrote:
Nyles wrote:

Just the bit where I punched in the code. Isn't there anyone else out there who liked that? Figuring out the code?

I liked that too, although the answer didn't occur to me until I flicked through the notes section on the PipBoy. Having Thomas Jefferson's statue appear out of the murk was a nice touch too.

Yeah, when I first saw the central vat, I thought there was a huge, freaky mutant in colonial garb in there. I figured it out a while later and was amused at how dumb I'd been. I've been to the Jefferson Memorial multiple times, it's one of my favorite local monuments, but something about the atmosphere of Fallout 3 made me immediately leap to this conclusion: "It's a trap! Someone bad is in there!" Living in, and loving, D.C. makes playing this game a really interesting experience. I suspect it's less compelling for other players, unfortunately.

I actually really appreciated the faithful recreation of major D.C. landmarks. It really felt like exploring the ruins of a real city rather than just a generic wasteland. Personally I like NYC as a setting more since that's where I live, but that's a little overused so D.C. was a nice change of pace. And yeah, seeing the statue of Jefferson for the first time as you die is a nice touch and would have worked better in say a different story.

Q: Why can't I send mutant/robot/ghoul instead?
A: They wrote the ending before they made the companions and didn't have the time to change it or whatever. So the choice was to either have those companions or not and they chose to let you have them. Read this in some FO3 post-mortem.

Nyles wrote:

However, I did finish the main quest out of curiosity, having heard terrible things about it, and I've got to say, I liked the ending. Not the epilogue, nor the leadup to the ending, or most of the main quest, for that matter. Just the bit where I punched in the code. Isn't there anyone else out there who liked that? Figuring out the code?

Yes, I did enjoy the two minutes re-reading it took to work out the code. I was being unduly harsh as I had to endure much to get there with my use of brain instead of mainly firearms being unrewarded. I should instead, perhaps, be crediting the game designers for at least making it a 'Eureka!' moment, rather than a huge boss fight.