(To warn you, again, the whole ending's gonna get spoiled)
Originally this was going to be about the small settlement of Arefu. The Arefu quest stands out as a pretty abject failure, the perfect example of when Fallout 3 falls flat on its face. A boy murders his family, runs away with a gang of "vampires" and, with enough speech skill on your part, will eventually go back to live with his village without any visible regret. I love a happy ending, especially when it involves killing family members!
The lack of gravitas is pretty silly. That everything returns to normal after you give the parent-murdering kid a quick talking to is pretty absurd, especially taking the expertly handled Tenpenny Tower into account. I'd love to explain myself further, but I had this experience with Fallout 3 that blew Arefu out of the water:
I beat it.
The end came quicker than I'd expected. For such an expansive game, Fallout 3's main quest can't be longer than ten hours (even that seems like a stretch). I left my childhood home inside the comforting radiation-proof vault in search of my missing father. I found him in the D.C. wasteland, and he convinced me to work with him on his life's ambition: purifying the Earth’s water of radiation. Later he sacrificed himself to keep the project out of the hands of the evil shadow-government known as the Enclave. After his death I managed to get the rest of the pieces in line. And here I am. I've defeated the Enclave and I'm finally poised to activate the device, but there's a problem: the chamber is filled with a lethal amount of radiation. Whoever goes in there to start the purification process isn't coming out.
That's where it breaks down. The game conveniently ignores that I've been surviving radiation through the use of anti-rad medicine for as long as I’ve been playing. It ignores that I can run around inside the chamber, surviving the "deadly" radiation for basically as long as my anti-rad supplies hold out. It also ignores that I have someone traveling with me who is immune to radiation (not only that, there's two other radiation-immune characters I could've had traveling with me).
Fawkes, my companion, refuses to save my life by entering the deadly (though, not deadly to him) chamber. The game’s cops out by having him say "I wouldn’t want to deny you your destiny."
This reminds me that these characters aren't real. Oh yeah, I'm playing a video game, and right now it's not even a well written one. If we’re not allowed to have a game with sensical human emotions (you saved Fawkes's life earlier, and now he refuses to save yours) can we at least have one that’s internally consistent? Where did this super-lethal radiation come from? Is my nearly radiation-proof suit not good enough to protect me now when it has been in every other encounter?
But I feel, as hopeless as the ending sequence is, that the ending itself hurt me the most. Earlier Fallout games had endings that weren't perfect, but they were had fleshed out, and largely satisfying. Every settlement the player interacted with was given its own aside, describing how the player's actions had shaped the future of the world. There was something to tell you what difference your efforts made (if any).
There's no lengthy exposition at the end of Fallout 3. Instead, the final cinematic is ninety seconds long and split into four or five discrete chunks, each exceedingly generic, and each with a 'you were nice at this part!' or 'you were mean at this part!' version. Then it’s over. That's it. Go home kids.
Bad endings don’t necessarily make bad games. I don't think what I did in Fallout was wasted, but the piss-poor sequence laid a sense of pointlessness over some of the quests I’d completed. Some of them demand exposition because what happens is more than experience points and quest rewards you’re given. What really threw it into relief was the one I did immediately before finishing the game: The Oasis.
In the furthest reaches of the wastes there is a talking tree that a group of people have begun to worship as a god. Older Fallout players will recognize it as Harold, once a ghoul-like person with a tiny sapling sticking out of his head. Now old Harold's got a problem, the tree which was once a cute affectation has rooted him in place. He's been here for decades, and he can't take it anymore. He wants you to kill him, but his followers won’t have it. They don't want to let him die because the tree that entombs him is slowly bringing greenery back to the wasteland. Moreover, they have their own agendas. The leader of the village is afraid of the oasis being discovered and ruined. He wants you to stop the tree from spreading anymore spores, so the oasis can be kept a secret. The leader's wife wants you to accelerate the spores, so the wildlife will cover the area in a matter of years instead of centuries.
As you walk into the cave with Harold's heart you’re filled with choices. Can you take away what might be the world's only hope at restoration? Can you deny an old man his right to die when doing so might save the human race? The oasis is the only place in the game where you can hear wildlife. The chirping of the birds follows you as you go towards the cavern.
I chose to help the spread of the trees. I did this even knowing that games sometimes like to mess with you, and that spreading the trees might result in an unstoppable kudzu that drowns the world. When I spoke with Harold, he understood that these people needed them and decided being alive wasn’t half-bad. My reward was a job well done, and after Tenpenny it was nice to have something go my way. I looked forward to seeing the result of my actions in the ending cinematic.
But those results never came. Nor did I learn what became of the slaves who set up an outpost at the Lincoln memorial, or if Megaton somehow managed to wipe itself out after I disarmed the dangerous nuclear bomb. Some quests, like Tenpenny, don’t require further resolution, but it’s hard to imagine anyone who could follow Harold's quest and not want to know what result their actions had.
I guess it’s a little much to think that some hammy narration by Ron Perlman would fix all the problems I had with Fallout 3's ending. It had pacing problems, it had a basically no-threat build up to the final scene (thanks for killing those bad guys, giant robot!), and it had the ridiculous moments outside the radiation chamber where I had to decide who lived or died even though everyone could've made it out alive. No shortage of issues popped up in the last three hours, where before it had been a pretty expertly handled game. It's just a shock when something so strong turns so bad so fast.
A lack of American Graffiti-style closure to each of the side missions wasn’t Fallout 3's only flaw. But still... I keep thinking back to Harold and that tree. Did I bring greenery back to the nuclear desert, or did I damn a desolate world with an overabundance of life?
I guess I'll never know.