“The Power of the Atom” might be the most famous RPG quest in history. It’s a quest that’s invariably cited whenever Fallout 3 comes up in conversation, usually as the clearest cut example of how your personal choices can impact your playthrough.
This quest does have at least one critic though, even if his thoughts are couched in praise for Fallout 3 as a whole. Leonard Boyarsky, who helped create the original Fallout, feels like the motivations in the quest could have been stronger.
“I think it was visually impressive. I feel like there needed to be a little more motivation behind why someone wanted to nuke it,” Boyarsky says. “But I loved playing Fallout 3. It was the first time I got to play a Fallout RPG that I hadn’t been involved in developing. So that was very interesting, and I was a little bit jealous that they were making a first-person, full 3D Fallout and I wasn’t the one behind it, at least artistically.”
In case you don’t remember, “The Power of the Atom” has you make a stark choice: disarm the nuclear bomb housed within Megaton, or activate it and wipe its citizens off the map. It’s considered the quintessential Fallout quest because it involves a nuke; it features a bit of social commentary (the instigator of Megaton’s destruction is a local real estate owner who wants a better view), and it has far-reaching consequences. It removes a major landmark from the map, results in the death of several characters, and makes a large number of quests inaccessible.
“A lot of people loved it,” Boyarsky says.
The rub, it seems, is the actual roleplaying. Why blow up Megaton? Because the reward is a penthouse suite at Tenpenny Tower? Because you’re a psychopath who enjoys mass slaughter? It’s probably not because you like Alistair Tenpenny, an old coot who snipes at visitors from his tower suite and is described as having “a madness reserved for the obscenely rich.” Probably, you—as the player—just want the excitement of pressing the big red button and watching something blow up.
Boyarsky’s comments, and those of narrative designer Nitai Poddar, shed some light on their own philosophy in designing The Outer Worlds—the Fallout-like RPG released by Obsidian last week. Notably, The Outer Worlds also has a big choice early on, concerning where to divert power. There are multiple communities with different outlooks, and you basically have to choose which one to back (though there’s a third way if you work it right).
In making such a decision, The Outer Worlds narrative designer Nitai Poddar says the team wants players to feel as if the stakeholders on each side have clearly-defined and complex motivations. “In Emerald Vale, we’re always thinking about the real motivations behind the main characters behind either of those factions. We’re not just treating them as spokespeople. We’re treating them like, if they were real, how would they feel? How would they react to their situation? What kind of argument would they make to the player to try and get them on their side? If those motivations are believable, the choice is a little more interesting, a little more difficult.”
The Outer Worlds takes this approach because systems like economics and philosophy don’t exist in the absence of people, Boyarsky says. “At the end of the day, it’s people who are driving these things. Good people will try to do good things, and people who have nefarious ends in mind will try to do bad things. But no one is purely good, or purely evil, and this resonates with people, we feel, if you have motivations that are believable in an absurd situation.”
In short, where the destruction of Megaton is instigated by a cartoonishly evil old man—a bit of social commentary on how the rich can be awful (not undeserved in light of today’s social climate)—The Outer Worlds is aiming for what the developers are hoping is more layered storytelling. Whether they succeed is another question, though plenty of people have had nice things to say about The Outer Worlds’ writing so far.
I suppose it speaks to the difference in philosophy between Bethesda and Obsidian. Where Bethesda is focused on creating an open sandbox environment for players to explore and manipulate as they please, Obsidian is much more focused on roleplaying in the old-school tabletop sense. In a game where player agency is king, motivations don’t matter as much because the ultimate aim is total freedom of choice; whereas in The Outer Worlds, you are encouraged to fully embrace your character. This difference in philosophy is perhaps most clearly reflected in missions like the ones set in the Emerald Vale and Megatons.
If you want to hear more on this subject, you can find the rest of my conversation with Poddar and Boyarsky in the latest episode of Axe of the Blood God, our RPG podcast. The Outer Worlds is now available on PC, Xbox One, and PS4.