I recently wrote my first video game article for the Neon Idols, reviewing Metal Gear Solid V from a narrative standpoint primarily, though with some broader points too. It became a very hard article to write though as the game, which is a canonical game in a franchise I love, was very flawed despite it being a lot of fun at times; and so I move on to Fallout 4, which is a canonical game in a franchise I adore.
I’m glad to say that this review should be somewhat easier for me to write, and though I will criticising elements of the game and it’s narrative, the flaws here seem much less egregious than those of MGSV. The first thing I will say about the storytelling in this game is that it largely did exactly as a good story should – it dragged me around at will, eliciting powerful reactions an emotions. I’ll elaborate on that achingly vague description as we go on, but what the game also did, which is also very powerful, was completely alter my approach to playing it. I think the best way to explain this is by talking you through my personal approach to the game – something many players have going in.
I have always loved the roleplaying aspect of the Fallout series and have played up to it in a serious way, as will become clear. When I started playing Fallout games, I generally went in enjoying being a demon of the wastes, as callously evil as I could think to be (killing Old Lady Gibson but leaving the dogs to live and waste, saving people’s lives and killing them myself etc etc). It can be a lot of fun and was what I wanted to do during my first play through of this entry, but it didn’t last long. At all. The power of the pre-war prologue to the story and the opening action in Vault 111 changed my planned buccaneering approach to more of a revenge rampage – I still planned to be evil, taking out my frustration on the Commonwealth, but now with the caveat that I wouldn’t do anything to jeopardise finding my son.
So I blew my way through the wastes, putting most side missions to one side in the pursuit of my son and The Institute, meeting Piper and Nick Valentine along the way. Though I initially found Piper grating, she quickly grew on me while I found Valentine to be super cool and noble; and though I was still playing ‘angry’ as it were, I already found myself softening some of my actions so as to not disappoint my companions. That brings me to the first real takeaway regarding the storytelling here, and that is that some of the voice acting is very good, especially so with Piper and Valentine. When the writing of and voice acting for the NPCs are so good as to lead you to change your whole approach to the game, that aspect of the storytelling is doing very well. If it wasn’t for the infectious nobility of Valentine and the charming righteousness of Piper, the wastes would have been a much more bloody and dangerous place with me roaming it, and I would have had much less help finding my son.
Speaking of Piper, I mentioned that though I disliked her initially, I quickly overcame that and found myself torn by the first opportunity to flirt with her. I was torn because one of my earliest memories in the game – a moment that informed my entire approach to it to this point – was seeing my wife shot in the head so that Kellogg could take my son. I found a weakness of the game to be that while your character understandably is driven by finding his or her son, they barely speak at all of your deceased partner, but she was very strong still in my mind. This is a person you love, and as far as you know at this stage, their murder was a recent event. So I held off the flirting, thinking I could pursue that in a later playthrough, perhaps when I did a ‘proper’ evil playthrough (though that of course would be anathema to being in a relationship with Piper anyway – it was all very confusing). Yes I probably took all of this too seriously, but it shows that if you’re willing to give it a chance, the game is more than capable of engendering that.
At some point after confronting Kellogg – someone I did take a great deal of pleasure in ‘wasting’, because who wouldn’t – I found myself with Dr Amari, inspecting a part of Kellogg’s synthetic brain for one of my favourite quests, ‘Dangerous Minds’. This quest involves no fighting or salvaging as usual, and is the closest equivalent to the enigmatic Tranquility Lane quest Fallout 3. It also provided the second existential blow to change my play style. The placement of this mission, just after the act of killing Kellogg is a narrative triumph and one of the strongest bits of writing in any game I’ve ever played. Right up until the start of the mission, Kellogg is the main bogeyman, the focus of all your anger, and seemingly unimpeachable as an evil villain, but over the course of the quest and seeing Kellogg explain to you, personally, why he is how he is. It doesn’t make what he did right, and you don’t forgive him, but more impactful, you recognise a man who has been driven down a path of necessity just like you are. In my case, I didn’t feel guilty for killing him, but I felt a large part of my anger at him subside. I had killed him, it was over, and with the extra influence of Piper and Valentine, decided I didn’t want to be like him; I wanted to stop the cycle of violence. From doing something as ridiculous as literally wandering around the neurons and synapses of characters brain (somehow), I went from being on a rampaging quest with a vanquished bogeyman to wanting to be a part of a recovering wasteland. I still wanted to find and destroy those responsible for taking my son, but that aside, I wanted to just act to help the wasteland and its inhabitants, rather than being so singularly minded and violent. Such an effect on my experience solely down to good writing and timing is incredible, and the period between that and reaching the Institute was perhaps the most narratively enjoyable as I’ve had in any game.
Then of course you reach the Institute, and it feels like a big showdown, maybe the showdown, and everything gets turned on its head. The reveal of the Institute and the direction of your initial glimpses of it through the elevator are wonderful – a bright, clinical and futuristic place that contrasts with anywhere in the Commonwealth, all shown in motion until you finally see your son. It’s a whirlwind of activity and emotional responses, and more is immediately thrown at you through the odd behaviour of Shawn, who turns out to be a synth copy, and then finding out that the old man before you is your son, he is older than you, and he is leading the organisation you hold responsible for all of the wrongs committed against you. Be it anyone else you’d kill that person immediately, but the reveal serves to put you in enough of a flux (for me anyway) to just follow the man in a bit of a daze. It makes the choices in the rest of the game far more difficult, especially after hearing some noble-sounding reasoning for their actions.
The story for the rest of the game isn’t told poorly or insignificantly, but that is the undoubted climax of the game from my point of view. The main quest, for me, though it wasn’t even presented as such, was hunting down those responsible for my wife’s murder and my son’s kidnapping, and once I found answers to those questions, a lot of the urgency and tension behind my play was released. Even my pre-credits climax of destroying the Institute didn’t quite match up. What is interesting is my reaction to the revelations from your first trip to the Institute. As soon as I found out that my son was alive, thriving, and living a very different life to me, whether I would help him or not, I wouldn’t need to ‘save’ or pursue him as before; and learning that my wife had died, in fact, 60 years ago in game time, made me view that dilemma differently too. By uncovering the truth of her murder, and killing the only person left alive who was responsible, I felt I had put her to rest. I was ready to move on in this new life as a saviour of the alternate world I found myself in, and I was ready to move on with Piper who I really felt a (potentially embarrassing) connection to after fighting alongside her so much, getting used to and fond of her personality, her love for her sister, and her charmingly referring to me as ‘Blue’. I didn’t bother much with the other companions apart from a few experimentations with Hancock and Cait, as I wanted to focus on moving on to new horizons with Piper and Valentine as my crew.
This all sounds emotive, and again, I should possibly be embarrassed, but it is testament to some truly great writing that I had such an emotive reaction to the game at several points. It must be said that while destroying the Institute (or your faction of choice) was a necessary end-game, the drop off in vigour of the story is ultimately a narrative mis-step. It was at that point that I roamed more, relaxed more and had more of the fun a Fallout game exploring aimlessly, following loose ends and looking for hidden stories, but the fact that the written ending of the game felt like an afterthought is a definite flaw. In fact, following the journey I had been on, a lot of me wished to not destroy any factions and keep much of the status quo – I saw the benefits and flaws of each one and would have been content to keep them checking each other while I make the Commonwealth generally a better, safer place to live.
This points to another big narrative flaw of the game. I will state before the rest of this point, that there is still lots of replay value to this game, and scope for very varied experiences in the game, primarily depending on the factions you align to. However, an age-old battle between a focused, single narrative and an open-world flexible narrative is far less balanced here than in previous games. Part of the reason I ended up as a saviour of the wastes rather than an psychotic killer was that I honestly found it very difficult to do anything bad. Your hand is very strongly held in the early stages of the game to meet the Minutemen, who you can’t kill which limits your opportunities to actually be a bad person. Beyond that, it feels like there are generally fewer opportunities to do evil unto others, and that mixed with the emotive storyline which strongly frames you in to the position of a traditional hero makes it hard to have a satisfying time as an evil player. Though you can roam as freely as in other games, and there are certainly big choices to be made, it feels like you’re affecting the region far less than in other games simply because you’re being guided much more throughout. Speaking of that opening section of the game, I feel the Concord trip shows this the most; not only in having to meet The Minutemen, but in going through the fun but very contrived set piece where you find your first power armour and take on your first Deathclaw. This is no unique take, but it felt like special moments in previous games were given to you with basically no effort and without any satisfaction. Perhaps the best of this great story is able to take place because the developers hold your hand so strongly, but I certainly think that is to the detriment to the truly open world narrative of the game.
With all this considered, I would like to compare the narrative and storytelling of Fallout 4 to its Bethesda generation predecessors Fallout 3 and New Vegas. Ultimately, it feels very very similar to both in terms of its feel. Despite many tweaks which I will get to shortly, it feels like ultimately the same game as especially Fallout 3, just in a different setting. Usually, that would be a criticism, but in this case, it is exactly what people wanted. Many wanted a new version of Fallout with a different, interesting story, and that’s what we got; perhaps that’s all it should have been. They took the Fallout model and despite some narrative mis-steps along the way, told a great story with some great writing and visual set-pieces.
- Levelling Up: More General Points About Fallout 4
Disregarding pure narrative itself, there is plenty to say about this game, many of them positive, and many not. I’ll go through these point with more brevity than my narrative discussion, but be aware that nit-picks usually require more words to describe than positive points.
Positive: Combat isn’t usually my first concern but I noticed a big improvement in the combat nonetheless. It felt sharper, more realistic, more fun, and more satisfying, and even further, I was very pleased with the compromise Bethesda came to with the V.A.T.S system. In trailers, the new system looked worrying to me as I though combat would be much more difficult, but V.A.T.S in Fallout 4 still offers the same tactical pause and consideration of previous games, but offers a more dynamic experience where you can wait for opponents to come in and out of cover, allow for changing circumstances, and save up a critical shot for a rainy day. Between the new V.A.T.S. and the new real-time combat systems, the whole experience of combat is hugely improved.
Negative: The biggest negative change made to the game is undoubtedly the dialogue wheel. Again this isn’t an original thought as this has been near universally unpopular, but the dumbing down of the narrative wheel is a terrible delivery system which can mask some excellent and genuinely funny or emotive dialogue. In previous games, you would see exactly what would be said, in detail, and though it may be clunkier aesthetically, it is vastly better for two reasons. Firstly and most immediately, the dialogue wheel doesn’t always make clear what you will say, especially when it just tells you you’ll say something vaguely sarcastic or romantic, but even where it hints at the dialogue more specifically. Secondly, the wheel limits the player to only four options whereas in the past you could get more and would have more variety in what you could say, helping you to create a more unique and definitive character. I liked the fluidity of the wheel and the direction of conversations, but what you see when speaking to a character should be closer to the older lists of dialogue.
Positive: The same style of mechanic of the dialogue wheel is utilised when scavenging. Hovering over a body or container allows you to select items to take with ease while allowing you to look at them in more detail in the older-style inventories if you so choose. This makes scavenging and exploring generally a lot less of a slog than it could be in the past.
Negative: Though there are some notable exceptions such as Vault 81, or the kid in the fridge, it feels like there is a slight lack of diversity in the wastes and slightly fewer unmarked stories and quests to come across. This is based on personal experience so I won’t say that definitively, but my experience was of fewer friendly NPCs and discoveries leading to quests replaced by far more fighting. The wastes have never been safe, but the feeling I got that the vast majority of characters I would come across on my travels would be Raiders, Super Mutants, Ghouls or Gunners to be ploughed through became a bit grating.
Positive: Everything in the game has a purpose. In previous games, a huge amount of things you would come across would be near useless that would just weigh you down frustratingly. Here, even if you pick something up by mistake, it will be of use as relates to the crafting/workshop function which I will discuss in slightly more detail later. This means that finding an aluminium can be cause for celebration and makes exploring and scavenging a more cerebral or tactical experience.
Negative: Though some of them led to interesting journeys, one of my biggest pet peeves of the game were the constant repeated ambient missions, in my case with The Minutemen and Railroad. While the Railroad ones were more diverse and interesting to me, the Minutemen ones really grated on me, often going to the same place to do the same thing including once just having to walk in to a place and telling someone they were saved from their kidnap without a shot fired.
Positive: The new perk system took a while to get used to for me, but I came to enjoy the way it worked with the main S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats being used to unlock perks depending on your strengths with perks being able to be upgraded. This means you can choose to either spread your perks around or specialise a bit more on some areas that you upgrade three levels.
Negative: The new perk system isn’t perfect though. There is seemingly no level limit for characters so it means that after a certain point, you become less specialised in your perks and more over-powered in every way. At the same time, each S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stat needing 10 stars to unlock each perk in its area is too many to get a chance to choose between each one without a ridiculous amount of levelling up. I was level 65 and still had several perks to unlock the opportunity to choose. My ideal solution would be having the same amount of perks but requiring fewer upgrades to the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. points to unlock them and having a limit of say 40 on the amount of levels you can reach.
Positive: The way armour works in the game, both normal armour and power armour is more dynamic. Being able to put together disparate pieces of armour to maximise it from what you have makes armour more dynamic and means that the scavenging for armour requires a bit more attention. Even more, power armour being put together in the same way but with the extra element of requiring fusion core power to use them. Initially, this means that you only ever use your power armour if you really need it, and in my case, I hung my power armour at my Sanctuary Hills base and took a real pride in it. As time went on, I built up dozens of fusion cores which lessened how careful a decision use it would have to be, but the mystique of it was built up by that point anyway.
Positive: Following on from the point about constructing armour from disparate parts you find, the level of customisation of armour and weapons, including naming them, is a really nice point of progress in the game. Personally, I didn’t upgrade my perks in the right ways to make the most of it, but the detail with which you can upgrade armour and weapons allows you to make unique pieces of armour and weaponry that you can be proud of, can mould your style of gameplay, and can make for more memorable combat experiences.
Positive: Related to the combat in the game, I like the way radiation affects the player in this game when compared to former games. While it was previously unclear in previous games how radiation would affect you, at least until you became sick with radiation sickness, but in this game, each bit of radiation exposure weakens you as a player, and depending on the radaway you have, you have to decide whether you can tolerate your HP levels and monitor it throughout, which seems more natural and relevant to the gameplay.
Positive: The way companions can be used and utilised has improved for this game – gaining specific perks with them (using Valentine to unlock terminals, for instance) and gaining further perks if you reach a maximum bond makes each companion suitable for different situations and gives them the ability to be deployed tactically. The ability to choose which weapons and armour they equip too gives the player a further and welcome tactical edge when compared to using companions in previous games.
Positive: While I mentioned that I found the mix of enemies in the game to be a bit repetitive in the sense that they, generally speaking, fell in to 4 categories: raiders, ghouls, gunners, and super mutants and there were times I got a bit bored of that palette. This was offset strongly though by the extended ranking of enemies in this offering, especially the inclusion of ‘legendary’ enemies. Going through the game, taking down enemies can be a lot of fun and hugely satisfying, but there is an extra edge of excitement when you find yourself fighting a legendary enemy, and an extra feeling of satisfaction when you beat them (and get their rare loot). It’s also clever how more of them spawn as you grow strong and ultimately overpowered. In the latter stages of my game, I did enjoy scything through basic enemies with one-shot kills, but the more frequent legendary enemies would cut through the complacency and add some variety to the experience.
- Final Points
Lots of karma gained there by Bethesda, and certainly more than any karma lost. There are a few important final observations though to mention that are neither positive or negative. Perhaps the most major one is the workshopping and settlement building tool. It can be frustrating as hell, but it is also and most importantly a really inventive addition to the game. The key point is that it isn’t mandatory – apart from a few exceptions – and so it’s a no loss situation. I did a little bit of building after meeting my son and made Sanctuary Hills a true sanctuary for the Commonwealth (though I didn’t care about anyone else. I also like the role playing potential of it. In my next ‘evil as possible’ playthrough I plan on building nothing for anyone but myself, and building myself a huge, impenetrable tower; whereas in future heroic games, I will make more use of settlement building and supply routes to try and make something like a working infrastructure for the Commonwealth. That makes it a really instinctive addition to the game and one they will need to keep in future game.
Another (and final, I promise) point I would like to make is about the game’s graphics. Much was made of them being poor for a next-gen game. This is understandable in a way when you compare it to 2015 contemporaries in games such as Metal Gear Solid V or Star Wars: Battlefront, it is very far behind, but to me, it was a non-issue. This is a personal view, but circumstantially, I know others felt this way – that a photo-realistic game would be too much of a departure from a really quite distinctive aesthetic and would have been hugely detrimental to the game. There had previously been complaints about dull, lifeless maps, to which I say, bluntly, IT’S A F**KING NUCLEAR WASTELAND! Fallout is a game franchise which places you in a unique and distinctive apocalyptic setting, gives you a basic main quest, and lets you discover the rest for yourself in the way you choose. While Fallout 4 wasn’t flawless in this endeavour, it stuck to that formula, had some excellent story elements, and made some very clever improvements. For me, the hype of the game was a new installment in the franchise done right, and that’s what I got.