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The Power of the Atom: Fallout 3’s Megaton
Upon exiting Vault 101 Fallout 3 players are temporarily blinded by a searing white light, and it’s a symbolic moment. After living underground for your entire life, you feel the natural light of the sun for the very first time.
It’s one of many such moments. The majority of players will find themselves in the nearby town of Megaton, named, you soon discover, for the un-detonated nuclear bomb around which the town was built. After resolving The Power of the Atom, the quest which revolves around this weapon, it is perhaps the most potent reflection of Fallout 3’s world.
The seeming absurdity of this scenario – who on Earth would choose to live in the crater on an atomic bomb? – serves two purposes. The first is to explain, principally to series newcomers, and the importance of nuclear energy to the Fallout universe.
Before the apocalyptic war of 2077, there was Nuka Cola (radioactive soda) which people willingly drank, well aware of the isotopes within. There was Vault-Tech, a company predicated on the basis of selling slots in secure underground Vaults in order to allow some to survive the inevitability of a nuclear war. There was, in essence, a fascination with the terrible finality of nuclear power.
After the war is over, it almost makes sense for some at least to worship the bomb. Nuclear fire cleansed the world in fire, could the atom not do so again? The ridiculousness of their belief is somewhat excusable, given the harshness of the world the people of Megaton find themselves in. It’s also notable that the principal reason for Megaton’s location was the aspiration of one day being granted access to Vault 101.
In other words, the prospect of permanent residency in an ancient confined vault proved more alluring than the threat of potential nuclear annihilation. That shows the horrifically brutal world of Fallout is to players, in most cases, very early on in the game.
The second purpose of Megaton being constructed in this most unlikely of places is to introduce the game’s morality system: karma. At no other point in the game is the decision quite as stark as detonating the bomb – killing perhaps two dozen people, the equivalent in this depopulated world of tens of thousands – or ensuring its permanent deactivation.
Indeed, the reasoning for leveling Megaton is to create a better view for eccentric British expat Alistair Tenpenny. Such a trivial and base reason for destroying a town, one of the Capitol Wasteland’s few successful settlements, proved illuminating and a valuable introduction to karma, which few games with similar moral compasses provide, at least not so early on, and not with such distinctly different outcomes to your choice.
The choice offered players the dual perspective of seeing Tenpenny’s childish glee at the destruction of the city and the cool contrast with Mister Burke, who expresses a restrained form of awe when the bomb lights up the horizon. In this manner, the Bethesda team revealed the nature of the game and the player.
If you saved the town or hurl it into oblivion, you likely remember it and played the rest of the game in reflection of your decision. You may not remember much of Fallout 3, but chances are you remember The Power of the Atom (or as I’ve dubbed it: How I learned to stop caring and love the bomb).
And if you choose not to complete the quest, then you illustrated the nature of Bethesda’s games and the prominence of player freedom within.
Now all that’s needed is a Dr. Strangelove cameo.