Recently, Bethesda held a Fallout 4 “free weekend” on Steam. For about four days, the game was available to any and all to download and try out. Very probably you could play through the main story and then some in that amount of time, should you be dedicated enough to do so. Lots of people are that dedicated to Bethesda’s open world games, but then those people all bought Fallout 4 already, so I’m not sure who this was for. Maybe Todd Howard thought it would be a great idea to put it out there so that I could play it for a little while and then write an over-long blog complaining about it. He knows I would never make the decision to give Bethesda my money, so this works out nicely. Thanks, Todd.
Fallout is a series of “post-nuclear” RPGs which began in the late ’90s. Developed by Interplay, its first two instalments were isometric, turn-based death marches into the wild unknown of an America which had diverged from our own timeline somewhere around the 1950s. In this reality, space age visions of the future came true, and the goofy retro-futuristic science fiction setting is today instantly recognisable, with its gangly robots and giant talking supercomputers sitting nicely alongside a fixation on body horror that is without doubt a child of the 1980s. When Interplay bigwigs decided that what Fallout fans wanted instead of an actual Fallout 3 was an X-COM style squad tactics spin-off, no one complained. But then they decided that what the series really needed was a third person shooter with a nu metal soundtrack developed exclusively for consoles. Much as I might lament what the series has become under Bethesda’s stewardship, its previous master did not treat it kindly either. Eventually Interplay suffered insane losses, and amid the vulturing of its assets Bethesda purchased the rights to the series.
The Fallout 3 we eventually got was Bethesda’s first attempt at translating the wasteland into its alarmingly bad Gamebryo engine. In that masterpiece of jank, the player was tasked with rescuing Liam Neeson from a mad scientist and purifying some water, against the wishes of the Enclave—the villains of Fallout 2, resurrected presumably out of laziness, but more charitable views might paint it as an homage, as they might all the other lazy cribbings from previous entries—who want to use the purifier to infect the water with some kind of toxin that will kill all creatures contaminated by radiation, so that the world can be made safe for repopulation with their pure genes. Unlike previous Fallout stories, in which the player was encouraged to invent their own character with a history and traits of their choosing, Bethesda’s approach sought to create the Heart-Wrenching Personal Story™, with Liam “Taken” Neeson as the player character’s father, who escaped from Vault 101 (gee, how’d you come up with that one?) to fulfil his life’s mission: clean drinking water for the people of former Washington DC. The game begins with the player character’s birth (during which their mother dies), moving through their childhood and teenage life in the vault. One day all hell breaks loose, dad’s gone, and you gotta get gone too! It’s prescriptive to a degree which precludes real role-playing, yet it is but a taste of what was to follow.
Fallout 4 also features a prescriptive introductory sequence, but handles it quite bizarrely. It is 2077, the year of the nuclear war that tore the world apart and created the world of Fallout. A man stands before a mirror, his wife staring at him. He says to himself “War. War never changes.” This is the series’ well known catchphrase. From the classic games through to the newer entries, a playthrough always begins with a monologue, which in turn always begins with that phrase. However, in previous entries it was spoken by Ron Perlman, a gruff-voiced narrator with no relation to anything in the game itself. This time, it’s the male player character who delivers the monologue, and for the first time the protagonist is fully voiced. Where previously you picked dialogue options from a menu, free to imagine what you sounded like, now you have no option but to play a monotone goon. You can choose to play as the female if you wish, but from the get-go the choice is heavily skewed in favour of the male: he voices the introduction, he’s the default option at the character creation screen, in which he and his wife stand around staring at each other with the cold glassy gaze of Terminators in front of a bathroom mirror as you stretch, colour and otherwise skew their faces, making the same three comments, two of which are “there’s the handsome man I married” and “I clean up pretty good”, over and over until you’re defeated into just saying “fuck it” and going with whatever sub-Jon Bernthal looking mess you’ve ended up with.
Once you’ve gotten away from the plastic surgery bathroom nightmare, you are treated to the world’s frostiest middle class domestic environment. The robot servant Codsworth bods about the place making chummy conversation while trying to do a John Cleese accent, and there is a Baby Thing you can play with, sort of, left unattended in a bleak room. After being forced to open the door for Paul Eiding (Metal Gear Solid‘s Colonel Campbell), a vault placement salesman, whose job it is to quickly get you signed up for a place in Vault 111 (really pushing the boat out there guys) and introduce you to the anti-role-playing and frankly abysmal dialogue system, you are then forced to placate the crying Baby Thing. Within ten seconds, Codsworth alerts you to a news report on the television, and you are forced to go to the living room to watch someone talk about an imminent nuclear attack. You are of course then forced to run with your family to the vault, which as it happens is just up the road. Kind of funny they only got around to registering you three minutes prior and you’re approved for entry already, but that’s because war, war never changes. Or something. Shut up.
Once you’re in the vault, you, your wife and the Baby Thing are for some reason placed inside cryostasis chambers and frozen. At some point a man who looks like Vinny Caravella’s evil brother arrives, unfreezes your wife, kills her, steals the Baby Thing, and then freezes you again. When at last, in 2287, you are thawed for good, you rush over to your wife’s pod, steal her jewellery, and depart, determined to find your Baby Thing. You exit the vault and return to your neighbourhood, finding it in ruins. But somehow, miraculously, Codsworth survived, and wants to help you, though it is in denial about the death of your wife. But you are a man unstuck in time, before you lies a world that was once your own, but now, now… Hang on a minute… You’re not any of those things. Sure, the “character” you are “playing” just about qualifies for it, but how are you supposed to get into that headspace? The wife he loves has been killed, but your level of interaction with her doesn’t extend beyond her staring at you in the mirror, then telling you to open the door for Paul Eiding. You don’t know her, you barely spent five minutes with her. And the Baby Thing? You literally had to be forced to interact with it, otherwise it would have been possible to miss its presence entirely.
So here you are, lumped with the blandest man in the United States, or what’s left of them, and you have to somehow find it within yourself to care about avenging and/or rescuing “characters” who have only existed for you, in all their mannequinoid flatness, for the past few minutes. Call me crazy, but maybe, just maybe, if you want me to become attached to things which are to be the protagonist’s sole reason to go on living for the bulk of my time controlling him, you should have let me spend more time with them. How far can you stretch that kind of an introduction out for a game that is largely about shooting abominations in the face? I don’t necessarily need ten hours of gameplay in which I take my family to the zoo or a picnic or whatever, but maybe we could have had multiple episodes across a period of time, showing us courtship, engagement, wedding, childbirth, buying a house etc., as Fallout 3 did in order to establish at least some kind of connection to the father character, however tenuous and dramatically unfulfilling it ultimately proved to be.
Rather than that, though, what I would have done is have the whole family emerge fit and healthy from cryosleep into a terrifying new world where they have to adapt quickly, learning to survive and thrive by hunting their own food and defending themselves from marauding gangs. Moving as a unit across the world map, they would seek out a place to call home, and the story would be delivered through a number of chapters, each one corresponding to a year, over the course of which the child would mature and become a skilled survivalist as their parents face the trials of growing old in an unforgiving wasteland. Then if over the course of the game my lovely wife, with whom I have experienced great hardship, were to be killed, then I might feel something, approaching what the character themselves should be feeling. If my son, who I had spent hours of play time protecting, were kidnapped, perhaps then I would be motivated to go and find him. Perhaps then any of what Bethesda’s writing staff wants to be meaningful to the player in Fallout 4 would actually be meaningful. But it ain’t. This is a Bethesda open world RPG: don’t worry about the story, or the setting, or the people in it, go forth and shoot things, because war, war never changes. And we’re going to keep saying that over and over again until it becomes absolutely meaningless, just like the story in this game.