Saturday, October 18, 2014

Fallout 3's Tenpenny Tower Quest

Wow, this totally was not supposed to be this long a rant. Oh well, all the better with which to be controversial. This one’s probably going to replace the Fallout: New Vegas Karma rant for Anons coming out of the woodwork to tell me I’m wrong and an idiot. Even my sister, without whom this rant blog would entirely be an unreadable mass of garbage, disagrees with my stance on this issue. Ah, well. Let the anger begin!

It’s no secret that I love me some Fallout. It’s an intelligent, deep series that examines the heart and soul of the United States against the most engaging, cool example of a post-nuclear apocalypse setting you’re likely to find anywhere, with solid plots and characters who are iconic for the aspects of humanity and culture that they represent. And of the Fallout games, my favorite is Fallout 3 (though they’re all very close to one another in terms of quality). Of them all, I think it uses the setting the best, and has the most epic story and characters of the series, with the strongest thematic power. But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect.

No, Fallout 3 does have its problems. The Mothership Zeta DLC is an empty time-waster of a sidequest that fails entirely in its mission to elicit even the tiniest chuckle from you. The ending, while no longer utterly horrible as it originally was thanks to the Broken Steel add-on, is a short, dissatisfying shadow of the endings for all the rest of the Fallout games. As much as I love the Capital Wasteland, much more could have been done to expand the exploration of it (why the hell are there so damn many buildings that are boarded up and thus completely unable to be explored?). And, of course, there’s the Tenpenny Tower quest.

Basic summation of this quest: there’s a place called Tenpenny Tower, which is a functioning, intact hotel tower in the wasteland, complete with walls, a gate, and a fairly competent hired security force. It also has its own power source, and merchants happen by regularly to provide it with food and other necessities. So basically, it’s one of the most attractively safe, comfortable, and stable locations in the hellhole that is the Capital Wasteland. It’s run by a guy named Tenpenny, a foppish aristocrat-type who charges residents money to let them live in this comparative paradise. There’s a pack of ghouls who want in, and have the money to pay the residence fees, but Tenpenny’s a bit of a bigot and won’t let them. The Tenpenny Tower quest in the game is basically you getting to decide whether to help the ghouls get in or to keep them out for good. If you side with Tenpenny, you go and kill the ghouls and their leader, Roy Phillips, and that’s the end of that. If you decide to help the ghouls get into Tenpenny Tower, you can either assist them in sneaking in and killing everyone, thus taking the tower for themselves by force (or even just go in and kill all the folks living there yourself), or you can go to the tower’s residents and speak on the ghouls’ behalf, convincing the people by reason or intimidation to tell Tenpenny to give the ghouls a chance.

Obviously, there is a decent, morally sound way to go about this quest, and multiple lousy, morally bankrupt alternatives. Any player who’s a jackass, or at least playing one, has the option to solve the problem with violence and the murder of innocents, to forgo the promotion of peace and unity in favor of racial cleansing. On the other hand, if you believe in peaceful unity between peoples whose differences are only surface-deep, you have the opportunity to pursue a peaceful resolution that promotes tolerance and brotherhood, that embraces diversity instead of fearing and shunning it.

If you do the right thing, things go well. Once the ghouls settle in, the residents who gave them a chance universally agree that they’re not bad folks, and the ghouls likewise seem to enjoy not only living in this rare safe haven, but also their new neighbors. Everyone’s happy. Yay!

Well, for a few days, anyway.

After a certain period of game hours, if you return to Tenpenny Tower after making peace between human and ghoul, you’ll discover that there are no longer any humans in the place. For explanation, you’re told by Roy that there was a “disagreement” of sorts between the humans and the ghouls, and that he had the ghouls get rid of the humans for it.

Oh what the hell, Fallout 3? What the hell?

Why does this happen? This is not a reasonable result! If I take the extra trouble to solve a quest in a morally acceptable way, which is almost always, appropriately, more difficult than the evil way, then I shouldn’t have it come around to bite me in the ass like that! And it’s such a sneaky, lousy way of doing it, too. You get lulled into a false sense of security, seeing the happy ending that you expect, that you were looking for, and only after the fact does the game piss on your parade by letting you know that whatever you do a group of people are going to die.

There’s no good way to finish this quest. Even though all the residents of Tenpenny Towers are shown to get along well with the ghouls once they move in, with the only disruptive element to this peace being Roy Phillips, it’s impossible. You’d think that, armed with foreknowledge, you’d be able to get a proper, happy ending to this, but it’s out of your hands--even if you initiate the ghouls moving into the tower, then sneakily kill Roy before he gets there, the massacre will still occur, even though it will still be clear from conversation with other ghouls after the fact that Roy was responsible for the carnage. Post-mortem, somehow. That’s just bad programming! Unless the game wants to actively make Roy essential (meaning that he cannot be killed), then it should properly account for his presence or lack thereof when determining plot events that directly relate to him. It’s so shortsighted that I actually think this lack of an agreeable solution should be counted as a bug!

I mean...look. I accept most cases where a player is presented with multiple ways to resolve a conflict, but none of them will result in a happy ending and/or all options are morally questionable. I don’t hold a grudge against Fallout 3’s The Pitt DLC, for example, for forcing you to choose between 2 factions that are either immoral monsters (Ashur and the raider-slavers) who will at least properly care for the baby Marie, or a faction whose leader may be no better a man, which is dedicated to pursuing a cure for one and all, but likely with little regard for Marie’s health and happiness (Wernher and the slaves). I mean, I’d have liked to have a tidy, good-or-evil choice there, but I accept that it’s more complicated than that. But the reason I accept that is that the game is up front about the moral ambiguity. The natures of the people involved are clear to you, the dilemma and the consequences of your choice in which faction to support are made clear both by basic reasoning and by the characters’ words as they each try to argue you away from their competition. This morally grey decision is on the level with you.

But as I said, the consequences of Tenpenny Tower are not on the level, at least not for the diplomatic route. It’s sneaky and underhanded. The characters on both sides are shown to, with your actions, be accepting of the situation. The immediate results lull you with the promise that everyone will get along exactly as you intended. Hell, Three Dog’s initial report on the quest before you’ve completed it is sympathetic to the ghouls’ plight and says that Tenpenny should let them in if they’re willing and able to pay, and Three Dog is, alongside James and Elder Lyons, one of the biggest, broadest icons of what’s good and right in the game, a paragon and voice for justice and morality. The game makes it very clear what the right path is supposed to be, and tricks you into thinking that it will be like every other time in the game that you choose to do the right thing, and result in a better situation for all who are decent.

And yeah, about that. This is a situation that’s very out of character for Fallout 3. I guess in some games, this unexpected turnaround of your good work might at least be consistent with the game’s narrative, but not in Fallout 3. In Fallout 3, when you go to the trouble of solving quests the paragon way, helping others, making peace, protecting the innocent, all that jazz, the reward is that you succeed in pretty much all other circumstances. If you teach the residents of Big Town how to defend themselves from their Super Mutant attackers, you watch them survive a raid, and that’s the end of the matter. You don’t find out a few days later that Big Town’s new self-defense training went awry and they all began killing each other with the weapons skills you taught them. If you save Sydney and keep her alive during the quest to acquire the Declaration of Independence, she stays alive, safe, and finds a new, better way to live her life. You don’t later come back and find out that she turned out to be a serial killer and you’ve unwittingly allowed the deaths of dozens more by saving her. If you decide to disarm the Megaton bomb instead of blowing it up and destroying the town, Megaton stays a safe, relatively prosperous community of decent people. You don’t later come back and find out that its residents are now attacking other communities and that your decision not to blow the town to bits has resulted in other communities suffering. Nowhere else in the game that I can recall do you get penalized like this for following the morally upstanding path. As a general rule, Fallout 3 is straightforward, and the results of the quests you complete properly match up to what you intended those results to be. If you intend to ruin lives, those lives are ruined. And if you intend to make the world a better place, the world is made better. This bait-and-switch bullshit is not in keeping with the game’s general style.

And of all the messages to pull this on, too! I mean, seriously? It’s not like this betrayal of your intentions in finishing a quest is happening with, say, the Blood Ties quest in Fallout 3. In Blood Ties, the peaceful, good quest solution is to negotiate an agreement between a small settlement, Arefu, and a group of outcasts who like drinking blood, wherein Arefu will get spare blood packs from merchant caravans and trade them to the poser-vampires in exchange for said posers protecting the town from the wasteland’s many dangers. That’s a good, peaceful solution that encourages acceptance of people’s differences and such, but I could much, much better understand it if a situation like that went sour. Because A, nuts who thirst for human blood and have to get together in semi-cults to teach themselves restraint, some of whom have murdered innocents in the past, are obviously not necessarily a stable, reliable bunch. And because B, it’s a solution centered around trusting the good will and self control of semi-cannibals who are essentially metaphors for alcoholics/junkies/whatever in rehab. Well, in a situation like that, showing an unintended, negative consequence of your good intentions would kind of work, a moral about exercising caution before blindly trusting those with dangerous issues. At least there would be some worth in such a lesson. I could accept such a thing, though you can bet I wouldn’t like it.

But this betrayal of your intentions in the Tenpenny Tower quest? The intent of your peaceful solution is clearly the belief that people should not be segregated by their physical appearance; it’s a message of equality and tolerance, one of the most important messages for society that can be conceived of. What does it say to have the quest’s results turn out the way they do? That you should never try to assist the less fortunate, or attempt to bring different races of people together? That no matter how close you think you are to peaceful coexistence, hate and genocide will always win out? That those of lesser means should stay that way? What kind of monstrous, bullshit lesson is that? There’s no value whatsoever to it; this quest is nothing but poison to the concept of a healthy society!

Plus, this is a Fallout game, and as such, it’s meant to tie itself strongly to the concepts, themes, history, and heart and soul of the United States of America. How does this sneaky turn-around message warning against tolerance and peace work toward that? I’ll grant you that the USA has had a shamefully spotty history of it, but one of the core principles of the USA has been the idea that it’s a melting pot of the world, that any and all are to be welcomed and embraced for their differences, that you’re free to live your life and pursue happiness regardless of what you believe in, what you look like, and where you’re from. Where the hell is that basic, core principle of the mythos of the USA here, Bethesda you jackasses?

I really just don’t know what they were thinking with this. If Bethesda wanted to show us that welcoming newcomers who look different has some sort of danger--which, to be fair, it does, in the sense that dropping your defenses and trusting ANY other human beings always carries some risk with it--they could have had a follow-up quest involving Roy Phillips doing something unpleasant by himself and needing to be stopped. They didn’t need to have him murder absolutely every human resident offscreen with no possible way of preventing the tragedy! Someone on a forum once told me that they felt that this instance was in keeping with a theme of Hell being associated with ghouls in Fallout 3 (since the ghoul city is in an old museum exhibit dedicated to the underworld, protected by a robot named Cerberus, and your ghoul companion is named Charon), since this could be seen as an example of the road to Hell being paved with good intentions. An interesting interpretation, even kind of neat, but I think it’s too much of a stretch. There are many other ghouls in Fallout 3 where the Hell/Hades theme is not present, far more, in fact, and while Fallout 3 is not always direct with its messages and sometimes requires a little thought and interpretation to get the most out of its events, characters, and dialogue, it’s definitely not so subtle as it would need to be for this road to Hell message to be intended. And even if we were to assume for a moment that my friend was correct, that this was the message and theme the writers for Fallout 3 intended, it’s STILL not good enough to excuse the stark contrast to the rest of the game’s narrative, nor just how crappy, dissatisfying, and morally unacceptable this quest conclusion is--not to mention that this lousy conclusion’s inevitability regardless of Roy Phillips being alive or not is an example of poor programming. This is a mistake, a flaw, something that Bethesda just plain did wrong.

Thankfully for those of us using a PC, there’s a solution for Bethesda’s failure: the Tenpenny Tower Alternate Ending mod. Its creator, FMod, has created a simple work-around where, so long as you kill Roy Phillips after the peace is made between the residents and their new ghoul neighbors but before he can start the slaughter, the human residents will be safe. With that done, things stay peachy for the humans and ghouls of Tenpenny Tower, just as the unaltered game promised. It’s a small, simple change, really, but I appreciate this mod a lot, because it does what the game was clearly supposed to do until some pigheaded fool on the writing staff decided to get cute.* If you haven’t yet played Fallout 3, and ever decide to give the game a shot, I definitely recommend doing so with this mod installed. This is why I play RPGs on the PC whenever I can--because if the game’s creators fail to care enough about the game to do right by it, you can always depend on the fans themselves to love the game enough to correct its mistakes. I just feel sorry for console players of Fallout 3...they’re stuck with this stupid, poorly conceived, out of place dick move of a conclusion to Tenpenny Tower.

* Much like what the Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod does for Mass Effect 3’s ending. Man, I am chomping at the bit for that one to be finished up. I’m gonna happy rant about that mod so damn hard when it’s done!


  1. Ah, Tenpenny Towers. I actually do not mind the scenario much in the context of at least one person in the tower mentioning a mental degradation of ghouls. Whether this is misinformation or unfortunate truth, it does serve to keep the Bad End from coming completely out of nowhere. I was more offended by the whacky karma setup than anything else.

    That said, the issue of killing the killers before they kill not preventing the killing is pretty awkward. Even considering the suicidal urges so many NPCs get when they traverse a catwalk, this is awkward.

    What is your sister's disagreement, exactly? Does she not mind the situation overall, or is it a particular nuance of your rant?

    Also, you're out of your mind if you think this will beat the Ceaser's Legion shitstorm. I wanna know where the hell that was linked to. And you can take your PC and get the fuck out of here. I'm not bitter.

  2. Ah, Tenpenny Towers. I actually do not mind the scenario much in the context of at least one person in the tower mentioning a mental degradation of ghouls. Whether this is misinformation or unfortunate truth, it does serve to keep the Bad End from coming completely out of nowhere. I was more offended by the whacky karma setup than anything else.

    That said, the issue of killing the killers before they kill not preventing the killing is pretty awkward. Even considering the suicidal urges so many NPCs get when they traverse a catwalk, this is awkward.

    What is your sister's disagreement, exactly? Does she not mind the situation overall, or is it a particular nuance of your rant?

    Also, you're out of your mind if you think this will beat the Ceaser's Legion shitstorm. I wanna know where the hell that was linked to. And you can take your PC and get the fuck out of here. I'm not bitter.

    1. My sister feels that this damned if you do, damned if you don't scenario is more realistic. She acknowledges that the scenario may seem out of place when all situations of the game allow for a morally good solution that remains uncompromised, but she feels that in terms of the setting and premise of Fallout 3, the realism gives it a proper place. She recognizes that she doesn't play Fallout, though, so its flaws on the symbolic level that much of Fallout 3's quests and characters operate on are not something she can judge, but she thinks that the surface-level virtue of realism outweighs that, anyway. I fervently disagree, but eh, I can respect her opinion on the matter well enough.

  3. Considering the character of Roy before the deal is made, I'd actually agree with the realism argument, even as I acknowledge that I compromise theming in doing so. It might be why I found the fact of killing Roy giving you a karma loss more offensive than the offscreen massacre itself.

    I suppose it comes down to whether the event should be taken in as a singular story unto itself, or something representative of the game's overall themes. The latter perspective makes this incident problematic, surely, but the internal logic of what happens works fine. Besides the ineffective assassination and karma hit for killing the killer after the killing, but that's sloppy coding rather than sloppy writing.

    Still, there is something painful about the best console resolution being to not play this part of the game. Where bigots and jerks live in luxury, and the ghouls live like sewer rats. But Dashwood keeps his ivory tower, and he's all I really care about.

    1. I forgot to mention this in the rant, but I find this situation extra distasteful that Dashwood is one of the guys who's killed by the attempt at a morally sound solution.

      Anyway, yeah, I guess that realistically speaking it's a sound enough outcome given Roy (although honestly Roy never came off to me, until after the fact, like he was the type who would take his reverse-racism to the point of mass murder). But while Fallout's just fine on an overall level for realism, the series has never had any qualms whatever about trading a moment of realism in for a moment of theme and style. It had always, and has always since, shown clearly that it cares first about the message, the theme, the purpose, the metaphor, all the deeper parts of itself, than it does about the things that ultimately amount to barely more than window dressing, such as realism. I think it's a very dangerous decision to trade away thematic depth and integrity for realism just in general, but to do so in a series where all the rest of the time theme and allegory are clearly the priority is just a massive blunder.