Game * Bethesda Game Studios * Post-Nuclear * 2015
Let’s just get this out of the way right up top. Having visited Boston for the first time this year I can totally see the mindlessly violent and foul denizens of the Commonwealth wasteland spawning from modern day Patriot fans. THANK YOU AND GOODNIGHT.
Okay, I feel better, and now onto the game itself. Fallout 4 is the third Bethesda published Fallout game and it is something of a universal truth that if you’ve played one open-world Bethesda RPG, you know what’s up here. After a brief introduction to your player-made character you’re thrust into a vast world with very little direction. This time you are on a journey to find your lost son after being frozen for 200 years. Last thing you knew, a long shooting war with China was heating all the way up and you were “lucky” enough to score a place in a Vault-Tec vault with your family. Of course, fans of the series are wise to the kind of shit Vault-Tec gets up to, and so when instead of living a tense-but-safe existence with her family they are instead led into tubes which put them into cryo-stasis. After an indeterminate period of time, your character wakes up to see some dude open your spouse’s chamber, steal your kid, and then cap your honey. Then you get froze again.
Eventually someone or something releases you. You scramble your way out of the abandoned vault and past your dead neighbors and emerge fully into The Commonwealth. This is the point in any of these games (Elder Scrolls and Fallout, to be specific) where the character can basically journey forth to do whatever. This is not to say there are not objectives and a relatively clear story path to follow, but the charm and allure of the universe is that you can basically look down at your initial objective and go “nah, I’m gonna see what’s up over there.” In this case, your initial objective is Sanctuary Hills, or your character’s old neighborhood. This is also the point where I stop referring to the player character as such and begin referring to her as “Jillian,” because that is who I have spent the last 100 some hours with, and for my playthrough, that’s who this game is about. She’s a sassy redhead, and I (as always when I have the choice) play her as close to classic chaotic good alignment as possible. Obviously, I will get into this a bit more in the next section, but there are of course some massive liberties taken with this character in the name of “eh, video games.” Anyway, Jillian walks the path down to her old home, and it is at this point that meets her old house-robot and finds out time has slipped 200 years, news which she assimilates with astounding ease. After this not-quite tearful reunion, Jill gets on with it. The Commonwealth is a big place.
It is difficult to summarize a game like this. There is a main path narrative, and it’s whatever, but that’s not why a person spends so many hours in the world. The draw is, and always has been, the depth and detail of the place itself. There are hundreds of stories here, large and small, funny, sad, and fucked all the way up. As Jill travelled around, taking in the wasteland, the map filled in with dozens and dozens of landmarks and abandoned facilities, each containing bits of detail and narrative, all of which serve to build the world. There have been criticisms levied at this game which claim that this game lacks some of these world-building details, at least compared to prior installments. I’m not sure I agree. Fallout 4 is a slow burn, but that’s always been a requisite of these games. It is definitely possible to walk in an uninteresting direction from the onset, as the starting area is way on the outskirts where landmarks are more spread out. However, Jillian was just so enamored with the desolate beauty of The Commonwealth she didn’t really sweat it too much. It didn’t take too long to find a town overrun with Raiders and to meet up with one of the game’s factions and to get into some goddamn power armor and light up baddies with a minigun. Honestly, from there the only time the game slowed down was when I wanted it to, which is to say when I wanted to fight with the crafting system.
Part of the story I wanted to make in Fallout 4, and I will be forthright in saying that the best times I have with these games are the narratives I make up myself while playing, was using the crafting system to liberate and clean up The Commonwealth. The game didn’t make that easy on me, unfortunately. Turns out, there’s no real tutorial about how to use the crafting and base-building mechanic. Since you basically have to play the role of scavenger in order to come up with materials to make things, trial and error learning is time consuming and tiresome. I don’t really mind going on adventures in order to scavenge materials for my base, but I don’t enjoy wasting time building a bunch of junk I have to scrap because the game didn’t tell me to build a fucking floor before I build a house. Never mind that I lucked into figuring out I could scrap junked houses and then, looking at a perfectly good concrete foundation, attempted to use that to build my first structure. NOPE. Anyway, I think it’s cool that the feature is there and that it allows this aspect of play, and hopefully in the future it gets fleshed out a little better.
The game does have its own stories to tell, and while this game seems to get quite a lot of flak for poor writing and story presentation, I don’t find it all terrible. The dialogue is clunky at times and the “sarcastic” button is almost always disappointing, but there is a logistic difficulty in writing and recording enough dialogue to satisfy however many million player builds. Jillian never said what MY Jill would say, but that’s an unrealistic expectation. Where Fallout 4 gets into trouble with its open-endedness is as the main story lines begin to reach their end and Jillian’s place within various factions is called into question.
I’m going to check myself a little bit before that, though, considering at the time of this writing I’ve put about 100 hours into my experience, which is something I almost never do. In fact, I never finished the last few long-ass games I’ve played (Dragon Age, Witcher III, and Metal Gear Solid 5, specifically). As I get older, games like these tend to drag after the 20 hour mark. The difference with Fallout (and Skyrim before it, which also clocked over 100 for me) is the self-made narrative aspect. I did manage to finish the main story, along the faction line that I chose, but it was never the main draw. That, I suppose, is on Bethesda’s writing staff. Surely if the narrative was more compelling I would have seen my way through it long before I hit level 50. Maybe if the character building was better I would have actually used companions and felt more of a compulsion to see their various quests through. These things are almost beside the point, however, at least insofar as my interest in the narrative aspect of this game is concerned. As I’ve mentioned, I pretty much make my own fun. I have a specific character in mind when I play these games, which is merely approximated on screen. There’s suspension of disbelief involved, but when I’m wandering the wastelands with my trusty pup and propping up various settlements in my own chaotic way, that’s when the game hooks me. The less Jillian talks, the more she’s mine, and the more sense my own story makes. All the credit in the world belongs to Bethesda for making that world possible, and it’s the same kind of open-endedness that makes Minecraft so attractive. Self-made narratives are always going to be more interesting and satisfying than something cobbled together by over-worked game writers. The difference between these two games is, of course, that Bethesda gives me a world I want my story to take place in. It’s a setting. As such, there’s plenty of window-dressing and such that add flavor and life to Jillian’s story, but that’s where my problems with the game seep in.
The post-Apocalyptic world of Fallout 4 is populated by various groups of people who are driven by various, often single-minded, philosophies. On the basic level, you have settlers, raiders, mutants, traders, and assorted weirdos. Settlers are neutral whatevers, raiders and mutants are baddies, traders trade, and the assorted weirdos often lead to fun sidequests and various vignettes. That’s your base level of NPC interaction and they alone give the world a lot of flavor and life. Beyond that come the main factions, all of which add their own history and intrigue to the world. They break down thusly:
- The Minutemen. This is the first group the player interacts with if they proceed through the game as intended. You quickly learn that they are made up volunteers from around The Commonwealth who have banded together to form a sort of security team. Not quite police, they focus on the safety and welfare of settlers and other citizens who just want to live life not being hunted and eaten by the various threats of the wasteland. They operate by cleaning up and securing farms and settlements across The Commonwealth where people can carve out a life for themselves. There is little central leadership, and is more of a meritocracy when it comes to planning and whatnot. Obviously, level 51 Jillian is the most capable individual in the area, so she gets to be The General. These are cool guys, if a little on the stodgy side for Jill.
- The Brotherhood of Steel. This is the authoritarian sect that operates throughout the series. They have decided that humanity is not to be trusted with technology since they blew themselves up that one time. Therefore, the BoS travels around collecting all of the technology, which they then use in order to better arm themselves to go out and impose themselves on the various societies that have risen from the ashes. They show up in The Commonwealth in the form of a small team of soldiers whom Jillian promptly rescues from certain death, because she’s cool like that. Then they lay their fucked up, hypocritical world view on her, and Jill’s like… nah. She’s not an Army type, and these guys are all about hierarchy and repression. Eventually a big old airship shows up and the BoS appears flying around in their future-copters and Jill “joins” in order to figure out what they’re after. Turns out they just want to exterminate entire races and oppress local governments. Fuck these guys.
- The Institute. This is the faction that is (literally) at the center of The Commonwealth. Thing is, for most of the game, they are an unknown quantity. It takes a long time before they manifest as anything other than rumor and hearsay. Honestly, the game does a good job of building up the legend of the Institute before revealing them to you. Turns out, they’re crazy scientists full of hubris. According to their leader, your son (whaaat?), they are the one and only last true hope for mankind. Which they endeavor to create via… synthetic people? I don’t know, the motives of the Institute are a little muddy, even when laid out to the player towards the end of the game. Insofar as Jillian is concerned, these guys are way far up their own ass and since they have little regard for life outside of their bubble, and zero regard for the synthetic life they’ve created, they can go fuck themselves.
- The Railroad. They’re like the Underground Railroad, you see, except for saving black slaves from a life of oppression and servitude they’re saving synthetic people from the same. Not that subtle, I agree, but it brings up the future quandary about the self-aware A.I. of the future. Is it going to be like Skynet from The Terminator, or Data from Star Trek? In the world of Fallout 4, it seems to be a little bit of both. On the one hand, you have Coursers, who are straight up terminators. On the other, you have self-aware synths who yearn for freedom. The Railroad have made it their business to free as many of the self-aware synths as possible, despite the many dangers inherent to this end. Obviously, The Institute isn’t very keen on this, since they do not recognize artificial intelligence to be equal to humanity, and view the synths as tools. Additionally, the Brotherhood of Steel is gunning for them since they’re aiding and abetting the release of sophisticated technology upon the world, and the BoS can’t deal with that. Because they suck, so, so much. Anyway, the Railroad are at the very least noble in their cause (if not always in their tactics), so Jill’s cool with them.
In fact, I finished out the game by siding with The Railroad, but this brings with it various issues of narrative. In order to complete the game as a Railroad agent, there is a lot of subterfuge and sketchy behavior involved. Jillian was asked to infiltrate the Institute, taking advantage of her son’s goodwill to further her own ends of destroying everything Shaun holds dear. This goes on for a long time! While Jill was pretending she was down with The Institute, she was planning a synth rebellion at the same time. Jill was asked by Railroad leadership to keep her cover up while the planning went down. Fine. Meanwhile, she’s out running around with Coursers and acting counter to Railroad principals, and eventually Jill was named her son’s successor as leader of The Institute. That’s the point where I began to fear that my game was glitched and I wouldn’t be able to complete The Railroad missions. This is, after all, Fallout, such things are not unheard of. Finally my fears were allayed, and I was finally tipped off that the rebellion was on. But wait! First I have to go murder the entire Brotherhood of Steel, only then could I fucking nuke The Institute.
And here’s where everything goes sideways, because Jillian isn’t down to do any of that shit. She’s a live and let live kind of cat, you know? Now some semblance of motive is given, since the BoS attack the Railroad base first… but still. Jill’s a diplomat, not a soldier. That’s why she’s not down with the Brotherhood of Steel in the first place! This, sadly, is not an option. Instead of choosing to ring up Brotherhood leadership, who Jill totally has contact with, and work something out, she infiltrates their airship, murders a bunch of people in the face, and blows up their entire base. While the game doesn’t allow the player to straight shoot kids in this game (and why would it?), they are on board the ship and obviously perish in the explosion. So now Jill has that on her head.
As if that wasn’t enough sociopathy for my character, Jillian is then instructed to invade The Institute and blow that up too. Never mind that she’s essentially the leader now, there’s no option to peacefully settle the matters of synth production and slavery. Jill is the Director now! Let her direct! There are obviously schisms within the scientific community inside The Institute, and there’s no reason Jillian couldn’t use all of that technology for the betterment of humanity without running a kidnapping and slavery operation. She’s pretty smart and charismatic, she could do it! Alas, no. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe if I had played out The Institute story I could have done all that. But there’s really no narrative reason why Jillian couldn’t run The Institute alongside the principals outlined by The Railroad. Instead, Jill nukes the place, killing however many people within The Institute proper and likely on the surface as well. Great.
After the deed was done, the first thing Jill did was travel back to Sanctuary to look up Nick Valentine, the only person in the Wasteland that Jillian has formed a proper relationship with. Nick is clearly conflicted, but seems to support my apparent decision to blow everything up. But then maybe he’s just scared of his deadly new friend. Who’s to say? In order to complete the story laid out by the developers I was forced to abandon my own narrative, and essentially surrender my Jillian for theirs. That doesn’t feel great, but I don’t know what the solution is. More narrative options? For a game creaking with content already, that seems almost greedy. Fewer narrative options? Perhaps. I could have certainly played without paying much attention to the given storyline, but then I’m interested in what the creators have to say. So then we’re back to the artistic tension that is inherent to all games, between what the creators want to say and what the player wants their story to be, and that’s a whole intractable thing I don’t even want to get into right now. Suffice to say Fallout 4 had more to say to me when it wasn’t presenting its own story through the world they’ve built, and allowed me to create my own tale out of the setting and world that they’ve made.