Sunday, 3 January 2016

Fallout 4 - Plotting it's own downfall

picture from
The game begins with a lengthy introduction sequence, in which your chosen character and their partner and child are home on a sunny and pleasant day. No time for relaxation, household chores or bringing up baby, as you soon have to make your way to the local Vault to hide from the oncoming nuclear apocalypse.

There's no need to acclimatise to the vault and underground living, because you are all to be kept in suspended animation until the situation above-ground improves. At some point, mysterious people invade the facility, kill everyone except you and your son, and kidnap your son, leaving you back on ice.

You wake up an undetermined amount of time later, with a singular quest: to find your son. You have very little clue on how to do this, and as you awaken into a horrific and ruined country, scarred by war and still in a state of chaos after 200 years, the trail seems quite cold.

Home sweet hoome
As an opening, this is actually rather good. It gives you a clear objective, and good motivation. What parent wouldn't want to find their son? Unfortunately it quickly breaks down, as you get drawn into a world filled with needy people and flawed factions vying for control of the region.

The open world is filled with so many locations, often with their own self-contained stories. These are often the best parts of the game, as you stumble across recordings, notes or computer logs that tell a story about the area. Even better are the ones like the USS Constitution, a tourist attraction that has rebelled against it's mundane programming.

These little stories provide an additional reason to wander the wasteland, beyond the mechanical scavenging and hoarding that you'll likely do anyway. They add a real character to the ruined shell of this once prosperous area, and took up the majority of my time as I played through the game.

Father and son (deliberately made as ugly as possible)
It's the factions which get in the way, and you'll most likely meet your first quite early on. I rescued the Minutemen from a raider attack, and then was swiftly made "General" and put in charge of uniting the Commonwealth under their banner. They don't really affect the main plot at all though, which I found to be quite an oversight. They merely provide a way for you to avoid allying with a couple of the other factions (initially at least).

In Diamond City, the major city at the heart of Boston, you learn your son was kidnapped and taken to The Institute, and you need a way inside. You have to construct a teleportation device, and that requires help from at least one faction. Once there, you find your son is old and eventually find out that he wants you to take over as head of The Institute.

Your main quest choice becomes to side with The Institute and your dying son, the Railroad who want to destroy the Institute and free the Synths (Bladerunner-esque artificial humans), and the Brotherhood of Steel who want to destroy the Institute and the Synths (and any other non-humans, or anyone who abuses technology). At this stage, all the work you've done with the Minutemen becomes inconsequential.
Fellow Vault 111 members fared less well than I
The main problem here is that all of the factions are unpleasant in one way or another, and the biggest two (The Institute and The Brotherhood of Steel) are arrogant, controlling and basically evil. Diplomatic solutions are very thin on the ground, and after I made my choice to side with the Brotherhood of Steel (more because I had done in previous games in this series), my options were to completely destroy The Railroad and The Institute, and it was made clear that all synths, ghouls and supermutants were to be destroyed, despite those which you find around the wasteland who are no more dangerous than the hundreds of violent and aggressive humans you find.

The Minutemen seem like the most inclusive of the lot, but I was unable to side with them in the end, despite having claimed large amounts of territory in their name. The game seemed to neglect to tell me what would happen now that the Brotherhood had total military superiority over the area, nor what that would mean for the town of Goodneighbor, a town run by a ghoul and home to various miscreants, criminals and drifters.

A quick dialogue with your son glosses over the death of your partner and why you were left alone in the Vault. Your main motivation reduced to the whims of the previous director of the Institute and the heavy-handedness of his hired goon. The synth problem itself seemed to have no resolution at all either that I noticed (aside from the Brotherhood vowing to hunt them down and execute them, of course).
The Silver Shroud is a particularly good side-quest
Throughout the game you see and hear about synths replacing normal humans. The motivations for this seem unclear, especially since they seem to get no benefit from it other than spying on other groups, and since they spend their days hidden underground unreachable by normal means, this seems to have little value. The Institute's grand plans all seem rather vague, and siding with them seems bizarre given what damage you find out they've done to the world.

Not only did they apparently try and take over the Commonwealth with Terminator-like Synths, but you later find that the Supermutants in the area are entirely their fault. The chaos above-ground which they seem so keen on controlling is largely of their own making. The Brotherhood, for all their fascist tendencies, at least seem to have a coherent plan.

I suppose I should have picked The Railroad, but at the time I met them I had barely scratched the surface of the other factions, and didn't realise how unredeemable they would be. By the time I acknowledged that I was supposed to pick The Railroad as the "good" ending, I encountered a bug which meant I couldn't access their base (or perhaps I'd gone too far with one other faction? It wasn't clear, but I couldn't enter the church that the Railroad use as their base).

Christmas in Diamond City
So rather than creating some sort of reasonable peace, trying to find people on all sides with clear heads and sit down to find a solution, instead I had to resort to mass murder. My final act was to detonate the nuclear reactor beneath The Institute's base and cause a massive nuclear explosion that would further scar the Boston area. My journey from being a vengeful parent in a crazy post-apocalyptic world to becoming responsible for the deaths of thousands took me around 97 hours.

I haven't even touched on the two other main factions found in the Boston Commonwealth. These are The Gunners and the various raiders groups. They have huge numbers, control various locations, and yet are hostile to you at all times. They are a wasted opportunity to add depth to the Minutemen questline, adding a proper adversary to fight against rather than allowing the growth of your settlements turn into busywork.

Similarly, integrating the other factions (and including Diamond City and Goodneighbor) into the settlement system could really have made an interesting change. That way, your main quest could have been to take a faction and conquer the wasteland by fair means or foul. This would probably mean dropping the "find your son" quest, but that could also be handled differently.

I found many models on my travels, but no use for them
To make the Synth threat more acute, perhaps after you are the sole survivor of your vault, after a certain point you encounter a Synth that looks identical to you. After you defeat the synth, this would provide adequate motivation to discover what is actually happening and the plans of the Institute.

Removing your son from the equation would also help with the conflict between the main quest and the urge to explore and wander the wasteland. Without the apparent urgency to find your son (you can actually ignore this as long as you like), it allows you to take on the wasteland at your own pace, and discover all possible factions before you make any decisions about which side to favour.

I'd also like a way to progress through the game without involving yourself directly with a faction at all. In Diamond City you find Nick Valentine, a Synth who has left the Institute. He's working as a detective, and it would make for a very interesting alternative path if you could become a detective partner and explore the wasteland with the intention that none of the factions should gain prominence (or at least without your help).
The USS Constitution in flight
Writing a plot for a game of this scope is always going to be a struggle though, but so often with Bethesda they want a big grand story to tie things up, no matter if it fits in with the rest of the game. Skyrim and Oblivion both also had their main plot seem urgent and yet the more interesting stories were the smaller, more focused ones that were scattered throughout the games.


  1. Actually, I sided with the Minutemen, so it is possible.

    I didn't do it on purpose as such, I just tried not to piss anyone off as much as possible, playing all sides until they demand I kill someone I liked (I didn't really like the Institute so they had to either go or agree to stop being dicks at some point.)

    Doing that seemed to trigger something as I ended up with the option of storming the Institute with the Minutemen.

    If that didn't happen, the Railroad seemed like the next best option, but I think they demanded I kill the Brotherhood, and though they were a bit elitist, they weren't actually evil.

    I can see how the Railroad and the Brotherhood wouldn't want to live in harmony in the long run though, but I reckon the Brotherhood could have softened their stance on Synths over time. When I brought Nick into their base, they made lots of snarky comments, but at least they didn't try to kill him - that's a start at least.

    1. Odd, I never got the impression that the Minutemen story was going anywhere. I guess I should have done more settlement building, but I found that pretty dull after a while.