Like the lingering pockets of radioactivity in Fallout 4‘s post-apocalypse Greater Boston, discussions about the game’s narrative shortcomings and flubbed opportunities have been experiencing an extended half-life in my social media circles. This excellent write-up by Daniel Ford — a solid dude and author of The Paladin Trilogy — touches on many of the problems that made the Fallout 4 feel somewhat underwhelming in hindsight, but I also felt obliged to toss my own two bottlecaps into the ring by discussing an issue that negatively and quite needlessly impacted my experience with the game.
There are going to be spoilers a’plenty from here on out, so consider yourselves warned.
The protagonist of Fallout 4 is a pre-WW3 suburbanite who seeks refuge from an impeding nuclear attack in a local Vault with her (or his) spouse and infant son. Unbeknownst to them, the underground shelter is actually an experimental facility for preserving its inhabitants in long-term cryogenic suspension. At some point, the protagonist wakes up just long enough to see her spouse murdered and child abducted by a gravel-voiced thug and his cleansuit-garbed accomplice. The protagonist is sent back into the deep freeze, waking up only after some unexplained systems failure that forces to to flee the Vault and enter the savage, post-apocalyptic hellscape of the 23rd Century.
That’s a pretty compelling narrative hook, one that would function just fine in the curated pacing and focus of a film, prose, or funnybook work. Within the free-roaming context of an open world game, however, it just causes a persistent feeling of cognitive dissonance.
Fallout 4‘s world is full of distractions to the point of tedium. The are scores of interesting places to explore and even the smallest of settlement has its share of quest-giving NPCs. This meandering approach has been part and parcel of the franchise since its isometric inception, and is one of its core strengths. In previous installments of the series, the overarching narrative that impelled the meandering was urgent, yet not ovewhelmingly so. The original Fallout may have used a time limit mechanic, but it still offered ample slack for players to take in the game at their own pace.
A replacement water chip, a pre-war artifact, a missing father — these are objective that can plausibly support a bit of open world wool-gathering. A stolen infant, on the other hand, suggests a far greater sense of urgency.
“My husband and been murdered and by baby stolen! What? Yeah, I guess I can go retrieve a stolen locket for you.”
There’s no logical reason why the protagonist would waste time tooling around when the life of his or her child is at stake. Mechanically, the player can’t do it without a certain amount of looting and level-grinding, but again that’s illustrative of how Fallout 4 undercuts its own narrative intent.
Contrast that with Red Dead Redemption, a open-world free roaming game set in the Old West. John Marston, that game’s protagonist, has to bring his former criminal associates to justice at the behest of the government. To maintain leverage over Marston, the Feds imprison his wife and son. Ensuring their safe return is Marston’s is main motivation.
He attempts a direct approach right out of the gate, only to get shot down. Marston’s subsequent recovery and reassessment of his mission is where the playable portion of the game begins. The convoluted hoops he has to jump through — from harness racing side-quests to an overlong (and very problematic) sojourn to revolutionary Mexico — all have a place in the greater narrative of building contacts and gathering intel. It’s still very unwieldy in places, but it does make the effort to justify the convoluted twists and turns the story takes while running down the open world game checklist.
Fallout 4 does none of that heavy lifting. In fact, it back-burners the core narrative for long stretch of the game, only to dredge it back up again with a pretty predictable plot twist aimed at contriving feelings of loyalty towards an otherwise odious faction.
“These people have done nothing to convince me that they are anything other than malevolent but, hey, my son’s cool with them!”
The kicker is that Fallout 4 was at its best for me when I ignored the main plot entirely. I didn’t need a missing kid to motivate me. Having my character explore and come to grips life in post-nuke Massachusetts was a compelling enough thread, and should’ve been the basis of the core narrative. You’ve got a timelost stranger in a strange land who emerges at a time when factional power struggles are approaching a critical point and thus becomes the decisive variable which will decide the future of the Commonwealth.
During the early parts of my playthrough, my character sported a spiffy french twist and a suit of pre-war casualwear. She attempted to restore her old home and neighborhood into some semblance of How Things Were. Over time, though all that fell away as she made a new circle of companions and set of responsibilities. She went from survivor to scavenger to Protector General, each step binding her closer to the world in which she had awoken. Every victory and every betrayal counted for something. As a player, it made me feel like I had a personal stake in these events, while my character’s look and habits changed to better fit her role and her surroundings.
That level of attachment, where the role-playing aspects take on a deeper level than dialogue prompts, is what every videogame RPG should strive toward. Yet Fallout 4 achieved it in spite of an overarching narrative that actively worked to derail it.