Now that I have your attention, let me begin by saying that I don’t hate Fallout 4. I hate Skyrim (not really for any logical reason I just think its fun because a few of my friends and a lot of other people really enjoy it and its funny to see them get so worked up about my opinion, which doesn’t at all make the game any different for them, it only affects me), but Fallout 4 for all its similarities with Skyrim and departures from the ‘original’ first person Fallout games isn’t actually as bad of a game. In fact its pretty fun vanilla, and has quite a good deal of play time value at least on a single character.
My problem with Fallout 4 is that its trying something new in its narrative design but not trying to change its mechanics to emulate this. This is a problem that Skyrim doesn’t have, and no other Bethesda RPG that I’ve played seems to have it either. In Skyrim, Oblivion, and Fallout 3 and New Vegas, you play as a blank slate. Your dialogue and choices throughout the game of who to help and who to hinder as well as how you talk to people give you a greater sense of who ‘you‘ are. Your character doesn’t really come in to the world with any direct goals other than self-preservation or personal interests. In Skyrim you’re escaping from being executed/dragon attack, in Oblivion you’re escaping prison/assassination attempt (both of these openings are very similar in their game play and architectural design despite the location difference and make me wish that more fantasy games could start without your character escaping or being released from a fucking prison like so many of them do).
In Fallout 3 you’re escaping being shot during a riot; running out of your ‘home’ in a sealed-off underground vault which you and your family have been detained in indefinitely by the crazed Overseer with the rest of the population who all preform largely menial tasks and guards who work for the Overseer keeping them all in line with no proper escape for the people inside unless the warden-I mean Overseer wills it and everyone has to play by the same rules otherwise the guards will make your life worse and you might get smaller food portions or be socially ostracized, either way the Overseer will make your life hell…
Why does everything have to start in a fucking prison?
In Fallout New Vegas you’re a courier who’s been shot in the head and you can go find your killer if you want to I guess. Either way you should probably leave town because there is fuck all to do there.
You can tell which one is my favorite because it doesn’t start in a fucking prison.
The commonality between all these openings is that even though you get this clear directive of what to do you still feel universally invested in what you’re doing because its “you” who is in danger/has been wronged/had the bad thing happen to you. Only “you”. Your “you” in the game doesn’t have to care about anyone but themselves unless you want them to. You have a blank slate that you can write your story on in your own head and act like the character you made because role playing characters that you came up with yourself is fun (think I’m wrong? Play D&D. That shit will have you so engaged you might forget your corporeal form after a few hours)
And then there’s Fallout 4. Not that its opening is bad at all, or even that its main quest line is bad, its just so not a game for your own personal character. The game opens with “your” wife/husband being killed and “your” son being kidnapped. The aim of the game is now to get your son back, because that is what the voiced protagonist is telling you to do and WAIT A MOMENT WHOAH THERE LADS AND LASSES VOICED PROTAGONIST WE HAVE TO DISCUSS THIS SHIT… BECAUSE ITS FUCKING DUMB!
I’ll try and keep this brief, because I’m already writing more than I wanted to on this. Giving the protag a voice actor is an alright idea, the same as with the idea of the personal engagement in the McGuffin of your son in a game which isn’t mechanically designed around creating your own person. Take the Mass Effect series as an example of this. Limited character creation, such as not being able to choose a last name lends to the character feeling like their own person, which ties in with the voice actor and the limited dialogue options. You have two set paths to go down which will get you outcomes to your tastes, indicated by the paragon and renegade morality system. In the end, though, your Shepard isn’t evil. They can be an arsehole, sure, but the game’s objective is to save the galaxy and that is a good thing. Saving all life in our galaxy is good! So you can’t be evil. You can’t join the villains. The game tells you where to go and in the end you hit an option where your choice is which colour filter you want the game to have in the end (I chose green, because being one with the machines sounds SIIIIIICK) and you get to watch a little “Where are they now?”-esque film clip which gives you some closure. There. Done.
Fallout 4’s story is like Mass Effects in the way that it gives you an ultimately at least part-way altruistic goal. You want to save your son, or find them at least. That’s really it. Its not like Fallout 3 where finding “your” dad could be to confront him on all the lies he’s told “you” over the years or out of care and love, and you end up getting wrapped up in a bigger conflict that is beyond this personal struggle on the way. This is directly about someone other than “you” and its the first thing you have to do in the game. Now I know that later on you can get the option to say “fuck my son, you cunts killed my s/o!” but that still doesn’t really cut it because by that point: 1-You’ve been saying “MY SON!!!! WHY MY SON I WILL FIND YOU MY SON!!!!” for so damn long that this one dialogue choice out of the four literally means nothing, it doesn’t change your character’s motives at all, and 2-Even if “you” are going after them for revenge, the fact is “you” had someone “you” cared about before the role playing part of the game actually started and you, the player, couldn’t decide who that was past their sex (which has to be the opposite of whatever you are) and what they looked like.
(To continue this explanation, we’re going to assume that the player is male, because I played through as a man and it makes it much easier to talk through my own experiences)
This kind of thing is persistent even in the little parts at the beginning of the game. For instance – you are an ex-soldier and your wife is a law student who has passed the bar and has started practicing (or at least it seems like she practices). That right there is your backstory. That’s something that games like Mass Effect have, where you are playing a set character. Then all of a sudden it shoots you to a stat allocation screen where you don’t have any points filled in. This is something you put in a game where you make someone from scratch. For instance, in Mass Effect, you have to pick a class. These classes have proficiency and weaknesses, but they are all just different types of people who could do the same job. Now look me in the fucking eye and tell me how a man with 1 strength, 1 endurance, and 3 agility could get into the fucking US army, unless its that easy that my 86 year old grandmother could make it. And don’t tell me its because of his 10 luck, because that shit ain’t magic.
My point here is that the character you play as is essentially constructed for you as a character. You just have to insert yourself in that character. Its role playing in its most basic, which is fine if you don’t keep systems which make you want to make your own character. This also doesn’t lend very well to multiple playthroughs, something which I loved doing in the games I listed earlier, because it means that there are limited outcomes to experience because almost every decision is binary. For a game without a morality system, Fallout 4 sure has a lot of binary choices. I was really taken aback with the fact that they just had a crime list and no karma scale like the other two first person Fallouts. Especially since there is not organised rule of law in Boston so who the fuck is going to ring you up on charges? Who is even writing these laws? Is my character so scarred and guilt stricken that he keeps a list of actions that would have been illegal back 200 years ago and then just makes little tallies next to them every time he does one of them? This is something which fits better in a game where I can be good or evil or whatever and don’t need to be told so, like an RPG where you create your own character from scratch. It doesn’t work very well when you are playing a character.
The limit on dialogue options in conversations also makes the game have the feeling of a Mass Effect style RPG, except Mass Effect did it so much better I kind of feel bad making the comparison. Fallout 4’s choices and dialogue options feel more like that of a Telltale game than an RPG’s. In the end, no matter what you choose, the ending is always the same. There is no consequences for your actions, no visible change, you are still an embodiment of the same overarching character, except your outlook on life changed slightly now and the game isn’t even going to bother keeping track of that for you so its really for your internal role playing which should be integrated into the game because its a fucking role playing game for Christ’s sake!
I think this is largely because the game doesn’t end after you finish the main story so in spite of some minor changes like which faction you side with effecting what places you can go in to without having to shoot your way out, which is good, there isn’t much feedback for your decisions. I feel like they knew this was a problem so they went with making the companions approve or disapprove of your decisions, but what if I’m using the dog or I’m on my own? Then I have no feedback for nearly every side-quest in the game. This isn’t dissimilar to the other RPGs I listed earlier in design honestly, but something about the bland 4 options for dialogue make every conversation feel so samey that it feels like nothing changes whether I have the conversation one way or another.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THE NEXT 2 PARAGRAPHS FOR THE ENDING OF FALLOUT 4
So this all really comes to a head when you find out that your son is an old man and leads the Institute and then offers you to join him, essentially making the character’s purpose, as far as the game’s dialogue and writing is concerned, pointless. Honestly, by that point in the game I didn’t give a frank fuck about my kid. I was just curious to see what the twist was going to be when I got there. I wanted to blow up the Institute because I was trying to make my guy a military dog for the Brotherhood and I like killing things, not because my ‘son’ was kidnapped by them. The moment that went from being an investigation to a rescue mission I got disinterested. Why? Because I was trying to play as me and the game wouldn’t let me. I just wanted to work for the Brotherhood. Instead I still have to look for this shit kid that I lost at the beginning of the game and never really gave a fuck about. Furthermore, the game is geared for you to join the Institute. I say this because the entire reason for being of your character up until this point has been for Sean, your shitty son. Finding him and… well just finding him honestly. That is what your character says when he meets people. Its a dialogue option to talk about him to nearly every major NPC. You meet a good 4 of your companions directly through searching for him. He is the game! And then you meet him and he’s the leader of the bad guys, explains that they aren’t completely evil and its just a complex philosophical difference, and that you can join him.
From the moment you meat Sean as an old man, any reason you had for doing literally anything as a character left. Sean was the driving factor of every action you took; every move you made was to get you closer to him, whether good or bad. Finding your son is your motivation, and the Institute is your enemy because they took him from you. And then you find him, and he tells you the people who wronged you are long dead and that he’s trying to fix things. And its just like “Oh… ok. I suppose I have no reason to do anything anymore.” If that conversation ended right there, after he explained things for you, the protagonist would have absolutely no reason to do anything. You used whatever faction you were with and did everything you did just to get to him and when you got there you basically got an answer which told you that it was all for nothing. But then wait! A light in the darkness! Your son asks you to join him. Remember when I said that Mass Effect was smart in not letting you join your enemy as an option for allies, well I said that because of how stupid this is. The Institution was the only seemingly legitimate evil force in the game and it was built up as such, and then they just dismantle all the established hate in a few very reasonable sentences and leave the game without an antagonist. This siding with the villain thing worked in New Vegas, primarily because the game made you evil for it and that said faction was not your personal villain, Benny was. If you want to make a comparison to personal villains you kill Kellog like fucking 5 quests in to the main line or some shit, so the specific guy who wronged you is out of the question entirely, yet you still have to progress with the main quest line to complete the faction quests which is bullshit because at this point the personal conflict you as a player had with another person is gone, and now all that’s left is essentially the concept of a family bond with a son, need I remind you, you as the player do not have.
And worst of all is that right there is the only faction invitation you take on without the backing of finding your son. You have no ulterior motive at this point. So its the only one the character can accept genuinely to give them new direction. Now, to be fair, you can role play here a bit and pretend that you have found greater calling in the faction you are already with, like what I did, but there is no dialogue up to this point which gives a strong indication that you would be willing to give up on Sean for the faction of your choice. There are lines, sure, but they are throw away and starkly lacking in the emotion which is given to lines about Sean. It is so obvious how the story is supposed to play out, which irritates me because it shouldn’t be in a game like this.
Fallout 4 was, to me, pretty disappointing. It lacked a lot of what I liked about New Vegas and even 3 in terms of how you interacted with the world and NPCs. But it also had a lot of fun elements too. The point of this blog post was more to talk about what I found a really jarring use of character development in a game which should honestly have given more agency to the players to have their own character development instead of just giving a set story arch in writing and providing minor variations in how that can transpire. I’ve had this on my mind for a while so I needed to get it out somehow. Hopefully you enjoyed reading it. Peace out.