America's capital is an irradiated wasteland, almost devoid of life. Somewhere out there, far to the west of the Washington Monument, sits Tenpenny Tower. Tenpenny's citizens, effete shop clerks and socialites, likely consider it the sole surviving bastion of civilization. They buy fancy clothes and sip expensive liquor, cozily protected by their gated community and cadre of armed guards.
Elsewhere, in the rubble of a nearby subway tunnel, lives a group of people gruesomely deformed by radiation. They are ghouls, and they are hatching a plan to take up residence in the tower. Their offers of money were rebuked with threats and violence. Now, their leader has decided to take the Tenpenny by force.
You arrive as the conflict comes to a head. The Tenpenny guards offer a pretty hefty bounty for murdering the ghouls, who they see as vicious, dangerous savages. Although, with enough coercion, Mr. Tenpenny (the tower's owner) can be convinced to let the ghouls take up residence. He does so with hesitation, and he adds threat of violence should the ghouls "act up."
Roy, leader of the ghouls, isn't too happy with this, but he says he'll take it. It certainly seems like the right way to do things. Both sides were ready to murder each other, and you’re provided plenty of positive reinforcement by way of karma bonuses (the game’s way of saying you did the right thing) when you convince the most bigoted of the Tenpenny residents to hit the road and make way for the ghouls.
As you head back to the tower, feeling satisfied about a job well done, the game informs you that Mr. Tenpenny has been killed. Roy has murdered him. And, in the following days, all other non-ghoul residents are killed as well. The "good karma" reward tastes a little acrid in your mouth. Didn’t you do the right thing? You drove out the bigots, you paved the way for acceptance, you did everything right, but somehow you managed to let a group of innocent people die. Especially heinous is the death of an older man, a dapper adventurer (now retired) who'd employed a ghoul sidekick in his earlier days. Though he was a little blasé, he at least had the sense to know that ghouls weren’t the disgusting monsters that most people believed them to be. Now he’s dead, just like everyone else.
Indeed, the only way to prevent the eradication of either side is to murder the leaders of both groups. With Tenpenny out of the way, Roy has to be eliminated. Killing is the only chance the two groups in tower have at coexistence. Even then, the deaths of the leaders doesn’t always work, and it feels more like a programming error than a moral solution.
Tenpenny Tower is the setting of a morality play as good as any we've seen in gaming. Certainly it's easier to empathize with the downtrodden subway dwellers (a female ghoul remarks that the way Roy looks at her makes her feel like a human being again, instead of a malformed creature), but it's difficult to find severe enough fault in most of the socialites to justify murder. Sure they were judgmental, and some despicable, but most of them never actually harmed anyone. They certainly didn’t deserve to die.
Every solution to the Tenpenny quest ends in murder. All that's left is for you to decide how many people have to be killed. Roy believed he was fighting for his rights, but once he seized power he proved to be just as vindictive and bigoted as those he'd usurped. There are no laws about discrimination in the wasteland. Does anyone, ghouls included, have a right to be anywhere? Roy says it himself: you can only keep that which you can hold on to.
There's no good answer to the situation at Tenpenny Tower. I almost wish I'd never been there, and it makes me wonder what would happen if I just left it alone. Would Roy eventually seize the building, or would Tenpenny siege Roy's camp? Or would they stay there forever, waiting while the quest sat unresolved my log book? It’s probably the latter. It might still be too much to expect from a game to give us that sort of depth, but I can't help but think on it. Fallout 3 has made me uncomfortable with my agency, and a part of me still wishes I'd left well enough alone.
Fallout 3 is brilliant in a lot of ways, but it doesn't get everything right. Later in the week I'll talk about another encounter I had in the wasteland.