Note: This was originally written back in December, when this game was actually new. I managed to not actually publish it at the time. Whoops.
In the past two years or so, I’ve devoted a lot of energy to studying and practicing plot mechanics. They were a problem for me as a writer for a long time, but I’m finally really getting into the swing of things. It’s with that recently-polished insight that I approached the new Fallout 4, and I’ve found that, as a mechanism for delivering a coherent experience centered around character and plot, it has some serious problems.
I really, really wanted to like Fallout 4. So badly, in fact that I bought a Playstation 4 so I could play it. But now, after having the game for less than a month, and playing for around 40 hours (at least), I feel no urge to continue. In fact, I think continuing to play it would be bad for me – it leaves me feeling empty and drained.
On one level, I shouldn’t be too surprised. I’ve been playing the Fallout games for nearly 20 years (Jesus . . .), and was pretty disappointed with Fallout 3 – it felt lifeless and boring compared to the first two games. And while Fallout 4 shares a lot of problems with Fallout 3 – a combat system that’s no fun, inventory management that’s just a boring hassle, enemies that are boringly samey, and a setting so visually boring it could be used to prep patients for oral surgery – It’s that sense of lifelessness, and even pointlessness, that feels the most familiar.
In other words, the writing sucks.
This is, of course, the same thing a lot of us said about Fallout 3 – and it was mostly true then, too. When Bethesda got the rights to Fallout from Black Isle in the early 2000s, there was a lot of skepticism – the tone of the first two Fallouts was just too different from Bethesda’s heavy Elder Scrolls fantasy RPGs. And for the record, I really loved the writing, including plotting and characters, on Skyrim – that was a game that gave you purpose, and led you through a series of small and large, but always meaningful, goals. The tone was right for the experience (also, Skyrim looks amazing. Fallout 4 looks like someone spilled brown paint).
But Fallout has always been a more human, more mature, and more subtle story than The Elder Scrolls – at its best, both a satire of the worst parts of our own culture, and a meditation on the experience of total loss. But Bethesda never truly picked up those threads from the original Fallout games, with Fallout 3 really feeling like a rote exercise, especially in the humor department – Bethesda don’t seem to get satire.
That continues in Fallout 4, while the story seems even more lackluster (though my memories of Fallout 3 are themselves getting mercifully scant at this point). Moment to moment, the story totally fails to give any meaning to your actions. Critics basing reviews off the first five or ten hours of gameplay seem to have been baited into thinking the exact opposite . . . but before I go there, let me just tell you about a minor quest I just finished up.
While wandering the wasteland, I found the corpse of a soldier, with records suggesting I should find, and maybe help, his fellow squadmates. I traced a handful of distress signals, and ultimately found the sole survivor of the expedition, holed up in a bugout bunker. He offered to let me have any of the junk in his bunker.
And that was it.
There was no final challenge. There was no twist – for example, it didn’t turn out that the survivor had double-crossed his squadmates. There was, in fact, very little payoff at all to give meaning to my play experience (and, just for the record, the ‘play experience’ of this quest, the actual stuff I did, was extremely unremarkable). I didn’t learn much, except that this world is dangerous. I wasn’t clear why these people were conducting a dangerous operation, or why exactly (the most interesting thread) they had to destroy some of their most valuable munitions.
That’s a pretty representative taste of the lost opportunities that abound in the stories here.
The characters are no better, residing mostly in the world of cliché or total nondescription – a guy who wants to help people, a reporter who wants to get the scoop, a super mutant who wants to be . . . stronger, I guess? The most interesting person in Fallout 4 isn’t a person, but a cyborg detective, whose possession of an actual personality almost seems like a satire of how boring all the humans are.
(In fairness, there’s another character, a mercenary, who is interesting. But you literally kill him before you find out he was interesting. You basically get to spend fifteen minutes with him).
But back to that opening sequence. The story of Fallout 4 is set up as an effort to humanize a central character who, in the previous games, was a bit of a blank slate. The setup (and I think this is the same for male and female protagonists, but I might be wrong) has the main character tricked into a state of suspended animation, from which he wakes up just briefly and witnesses his son being kidnapped. When you wake up, you immediately set out to find your son, moving relentlessly towards this crystal-clear goal.
Oh wait, NO YOU DON’T.
This is the thing that makes Fallout 4 seem totally pointless. In the previous games, the first hours were spent discovering the world, understanding your place in it, and answering questions about your own identity. Killing stuff and talking to people was part of that process, giving it all some clear forward momentum.
But in Fallout 4 you know exactly who you are, and exactly what you should be doing – but the larger game doesn’t want you to focus too much on the thing the story has so clearly set up as the most important thing for your character.
For the first thirty hours of the game, while I spent a good bit of effort advancing the main storyline, I was also cajoled by the game into spending a LOT of time on a series of fetch-and-kill missions connected to building a kind of municipal defense network, and a bunch of other peripheral missions that had no apparent connection to finding my son.
What father, in a real or fantasy world, would dawdle around with any of this bullshit after he found out that his son (spoiler alert) had been kidnapped by some kind of evil cyborg gang? When it so constantly encourages you to pursue side-quests that distract from the key goal, the game makes your character feel meaningless and without motivation. If it were true to its own premise, 85% of the content in Fallout 4 would have to be trashed and rewritten, because you’d just be doing the seven or eight quests that led directly to your key goal. But then it wouldn’t be ‘epic,’ I guess.
All of this makes me really suspicious that the whole “kidnapped kid” angle was added at the last minute, or was some sort of political compromise. Bethesda is good at setting up open-ended, open world experiences, where the player feels, in an odd way, motivated to do nothing – at least, nothing specific. In addition to playing the first two Fallouts, I played Daggerfall and Morrowind on release, too – and loved those games on their own terms. (Oblivion is another story).
So, now I’m weighing whether to keep or sell Fallout 4. It’s a boring game. Frankly, the most fun part of it is the new crafting system, which means I have – in another bit of meaning-destroying absurdity the game thrusts on you – probably spent more time improving my guns than trying to rescue a boy that is the only living testament to my beloved dead wife.
Who doesn’t get mentioned one time after the opening sequence, by the way.