Oct 18, 2017

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The failure of the Fallout 4 story

Abstract

Many people seem eager to criticise Fallout 4 for various reasons. Most of those reasons are technical, however. The textures don't have enough resolution, the animations are not up to date, and so on. While all of this may be true, it is not what my main concern of the latest iteration of Fallout is.

Some criticise the main story for being primitive. But then again, that was always true for Bethesda games. So how is Fallout 4 any worse?

Well, because while it may not be that bad on its own, it definitely does not fit with this kind of RPG.

And this little rant of mine will tell you how!

Spoiler warning

Obviously, in order to criticise the main story of Fallout 4, I need to reveal a bit of it. I will not tell you how it ends. Only how it begins, as that is sufficient for the purpose of this text.

I will, in order to make my point, also compare it to the stories of other games. Namely Morrowind, Oblivion, Skyrim, Fallout 3 and The Witcher 3. Again, I will only touch the initial story setup and maybe the first few quests. I will not reveal any endings or major surprises.

If that is still too much information for you, I advise you to stop reading now.

A quick note on other issues

This article does not aim to be a complete review. I really focus on only one single aspect of the game because I deem it so important that everything else can be considered minor annoyances.

That being said, I don't actually have a problem with the graphics of Fallout 4. Granted, we have seen better. But top-notch tech does not automatically guarantee atmosphere or beauty. The tools you have are one thing. What you are to do with them another. Bethesda's engine might not be the most modern tool in the box, but the level designers sure know how to use it.

If you look past the occasional blurry texture or clunky animation, the game presents an organic and exciting world. Whereas other, technological superior games often have generic, sterile looking worlds, the designers of Fallout 4 managed to create a good illusion of a living, breathing, organic world. There is actually a certain macabre beauty to the post-apocalyptic wasteland.

That, to me, is far more important than the pixel count of some isolated texture and whatnot.

As far as the cumbersome controls and user interface are concerned: Yes, those are a bit of a problem. Or to be more precise: Yet another shining example of how developers make an UI and controls for their main focus group (consoles) and then are too cheap to get a proper PC adaptation. It's sad, but hardly news.

Historical context: Bethesda and their stories

Calling it historical might be a bit of an exaggeration, considering I will only go back a few years. But in the gaming industry, that may as well be the Middle Ages.

Bethesda games were never known for their great stories. Sometimes, they are a bit better. Sometimes, they are a bit worse. But the basic concept was always a simple one.

In Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim, you are the Chosen One™. Divine destiny leads you to battle with, and eventually victory over, some ancient evil. And in Fallout 3, you try to find your missing father after he disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

None of them are not really good candidates for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

But that was never really the point of a Bethesda game. The story is there for people who'd like to have one. But the titles are primarily sandbox games. You don't have to follow the main story, you can just explore and adventure on your own. You'll find interesting items, quests and little stories littering the world, inviting you to follow them.

A typical quest in a Bethesda game looks like this: The main story sends you to a major settlement. There, you run into a guy who needs your help and wants you to do something for him somewhere else. On the way to that location, you encounter a woman in distress, asking for assistance. And in the course of that, you stumble across an information about some long lost, powerful artefact in a forgotten dungeon somewhere. At that point, you're lucky if you still remember what you were supposed to do in the main quest.

So the games never really had those complex, convoluted storylines one might get in a more linear RPG. But at least they did not force you to follow the main quest. Which brings me to the problem with Fallout 4.

The exits are there, there and there

Let me, for the purpose of this article, introduce the idea of what I have decided to call an "exit point".

An exit point is a point in a story where it makes sense to drop it and not pursue it any further. For example: If the villain is currently threatening to kill your love interest and you say: "Screw that, I'm outta here!", that would not be an exit point. Because it makes no sense in the story to do that. If you love someone, you don't abandon them. Roleplaying means that you are playing a character and your character wouldn't do that.

What actually would be an exit point: If a random stranger tells you: "Hey, I have heard rumours about this evil guy in his secret hideout. You should probably investigate." Because there might be something to it, there might not be. You don't know that guy. Maybe it's a trap. Your character could also reasonably decide to brush these rumours off as just that - rumours. Not following up on them would still be consistent with your role.

Let's look at the main quest of Skyrim to get a better understanding of the concept of exit points.

You escape Helgen with Ralof (let's say you teamed up with him instead of Hadvar) and are immediately told that it would be best if you split up. That's a golden bridge to abandon the main quest right away. You are given a plausible reason within the story of the game to go your own merry ways.

And if you don't do that and follow Ralof to Riverwood, you are given even more opportunities. Gerdur wants you to inform the Jarl about the dragon. But where's the rush? Do you really care about the people in Riverwood? There's no reason forcing you to go to Whiterun right away. You can, if you want to. But you can also postpone it until you happen to come to Whiterun anyway.

Another exit point is presented after the Jarl and the dragon attack: You are summoned by the Greybeards. But what does your character actually care about some old coots on a mountain? They're not going to punish you if you don't go there. You can just ignore them and the inner logic of the story will support it.

Yet another exit point appears once you've gotten your education from the Greybeards. You can yet again walk away from the main story. You have learned what the Greybeards were willing to teach you. Now you don't need them anymore. Why waste any more time on them? If that horn is so important to them, they can fetch it themselves.

Let's stop there and just conclude that the main quest of Skyrim is riddled with these exit points. That makes it easy for a player who actually cares about the roleplaying experience to choose their own path.

And now, finally, Fallout 4

And that is why the main story of Fallout 4 does not work with this type of game. Because there aren't any exit points (at least not for a long while).

They have kidnapped your only child! What logical reason could there be to not drop everything and roll over every obstacle to get the brat back?

What father or mother would actually say to themselves: "Oh well, my infant is still in diapers, but he can probably take care of himself for a bit while in the custody of those who made him a half-orphan. I'm just going to fetch some green paint for that old gramps over there so he can paint that wall of his nice and pretty"?

This, to me, makes absolutely no sense at all. Every time I abandon the main quest to follow a side quest, it feels like I'm betraying the character I'm supposed to play. I'm doing what I like to criticise in others so very often: Bad roleplaying. I'm doing what I want, not what I can reasonably assume I'd do if I were in the character's shoes.

So yes. Bethesda never did a great job with their main stories. But at least you could ignore them. Fallout 4 does not even allow that!

So the idea itself is bad?

Not really. If anything, deriving motivation from a more personal quest like, for instance, a missing child, is a somewhat refreshing change compared to all the times you set out to save the multiverse.

And a plot like that can work. Think about The Witcher 3. Its story concept is similar. Geralt embarks to find his missing foster-daughter. And he still does sidequests. And it is believable. Because of a few key differences. Not because Ciri is adopted and not actually Geralt's biological daughter. But because she is a grown woman. Who has been trained at a Witcher school. And who happened to have cool super-powers. And Geralt knows all this. She may be pursued by bad guys, but she can also handle herself. She's not the helpless damsel in distress. And the player is shown that during the episodes when they control her directly.

While Geralt probably would like to find her sooner rather than later, she has been on her own for some time now. And so far, she managed to stay alive and free. So Geralt can reasonably argue that going after one more witcher contract isn't going to be that big a deal.

Or imagine we change the plot of Fallout 4 slightly: Due to the problem with the cryogenic freezing unit which caused you to wake up, you suffer from memory loss. You have forgotten the last few years before the war. Yours is a young family, so you cannot remember your spouse and your child, but still have a general knowledge of the old pre-war world. While this is clearly not the most ingenious of plot devices, it at least gives you a choice: You can reasonably drop the main quest because you do not remember your old life. Or you can frantically try to regain your memory, eventually remember your family and pursue the main quest. It gives you an exit point. Sadly, Bethesda elected not to tell the story in this manner.

But generally speaking, the idea of finding your missing child itself isn't that bad. It's the specific flavour chosen by Bethesda for Fallout 4 that jeopardises the original gameplay concept.

But can't you just...?

Yes. I could. I could ignore all distractions and simply follow the main quest to its logical end. But that has its own problems. First of all, as we have shown before, it's probably not the way the game is meant to be played. The developer did not want strong player restrictions. From what I can tell, they wanted an open world sandbox experience. And the main quest doesn't work there.

Also, this assumes that you can actually come back later to pick up all those quests you earlier ignored. And that need not be the case. Remember that Fallout 3 (without DLCs) was over after the main story? So generally speaking, there's a risk with that. When you play the game for the first time, you don't how your actions will change the world. You might end up unable to engage in certain side quests later.

And finally, the story isn't just that great. A fact that doesn't matter all too much if you can ignore it. But if you cannot, you are placed in an awkward position. You actually want to do something else, but feel morally obligated to do your chores. That brings back childhood memories. Remember the times when your mum told you: "You only get to play in the sandbox after you clean up your room"? Well, would you actually pay money for that experience?

Conclusion

While Fallout 4 might have some slightly aged graphics and a couple of bugs, those are things that can be addressed with mods and patches. Like they have been with other games in the past.

But how do you fix the main story without completely rewriting it? Which, if you wanted to do it right, would require new voice acting, a good alternative story that can incorporate as much as possible from what is already there, and a lot of time.

Bethesda is definitely not going to do that. And a private modder with that skill and resources on his hands is unlikely to come by.

It could happen. But it probably won't.

And that is my primary concern with Fallout 4. It wants to be a roleplaying game and then sets itself up for failure right from the get-go. This problem permeates the entire game and makes it very difficult for me to enjoy it. You don't even need to go into details like graphics or user interface or controls or balancing. If the story pushes you out every time you want to do something, the game is already ruined.

I expected better from a developer who has that kind of experience under his belt.

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