Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Fallout 4's Strengths and Weaknesses as a Fallout Game

Warning: This rant is long, and it is filled with Fallout fanaticism. Like, really long, really filled. If you don’t love this series passionately, then do not expect to care a lot.



The Fallout series is, overall, a highly loved and appreciated one by gamers far and wide. And for good reason! Every (canon) installment of the series to date has been fantastic, and 3 of its 5 installments are on my list of the Greatest RPGs, with the other 2 titles very close to making said list. Every time I update that rant, they very nearly make it on there; in fact, if I were to extend it even a single spot more than its current 25, Fallout 1 would be on it to join 3, 4, and New Vegas.

Funnily enough, though, as uniformly excellent as the series is, there are still a lot of hardcore fans who will insist that a certain installment isn’t up to code, and, in fact, sucks. Some of the oldest fans hate Fallout 3 and point to New Vegas as a ‘true’ successor to the legacy Fallout 1 and 2 created. Others eschew Fallout: New Vegas for similar reasons, insisting that its feel and aesthetic is overrated, inferior to the new vision that Bethesda had for the series with Fallout 3. Others insist that the games never should have lost the turn-based grid style of the first 2 installments. And so on and so forth.

Such hotly contested debates seem wholly ridiculous to me. I mean, honestly? The quality of the Fallout series is so consistent that the differences from 1 title to the next (with the exception of the transition from 2 to 3, I guess) in terms of aesthetic, characters, and storytelling style are so small that it seems like a bunch of people screaming at each other not about whether apples are better than oranges, but rather whether red delicious apples are better than honeycrisp apples. Fallout 3 has a more epic story with more moments of greater emotional weight, Fallout: New Vegas has better characters and more meaningful choices to be made, Fallout 3 has a wider and more significant view of humanity and American culture, Fallout: New Vegas has more thoughtful themes of culture and historical metaphors, both of them lack the lonely post-apocalyptic creativity of the first Fallout, yet the true aesthetic and soul of the setting is only achieved by the later games, Fallout 2 is the one that established some of the most fundamentally essential parts of the series’s historical lore...and on, and on. But while each installment has certain aspects that it does best, what’s really important, what really makes each Fallout title excellent, remains present and powerful: the setting’s hold over us, the engaging characters and situations, the creative plots and lore, the ambient storytelling, and most importantly, the examination of American culture, and humanity as a whole. Regardless of how crisp and sweet/sour you like your apple, they’re all tasty regardless, and they all make great desserts.

So, naturally, Fallout 4 has its set of fan detractors. I work with one, in fact. The guy has logged something like 500 hours on the game, and insists that it’s the weakest installment yet. His reasons for thinking this are valid, although I disagree with him that they’re enough to put it at the bottom of the list. But while I do see some folks who say that Fallout 4 is the worst of the series for such-and-such reason, as I see folks say about every Fallout offering, I don’t actually see many people who say the opposite. Usually there’s some balance--about as many people who say Fallout 3 is the best as there are who say Fallout: New Vegas is better and that 3 was trash, about as many people who insist that the original Fallouts were the only true ones as people who say they weren’t any good, etc. But while lots of people obviously loved Fallout 4, there don’t seem to be all that many staunchly defending it or noting what it does better than its peers. Well, maybe they have better things to do with their time.

I obviously don’t.

So, what I want to do today--yes, the real rant is only now starting, a full page after you started reading it, and yes, I am a bastard--is to speak on what I think Fallout 4 does really well, and where it’s weaker than its peers. It’s been done by many for the rest of the series, so why not put something out there to give it a similar treatment? But I do this with the understanding that Fallout, every (canon) Fallout, is excellent. Fallout 4 here is not the only excellent one just because it has certain traits below that it does better than the rest. And it is not the only bad one because it has certain characteristics below that the others do better. These, to me, are just its special qualities.

Alright, so, first of all, I think Fallout 4 really raised the bar in terms of ambient storytelling. Now, ambient storytelling--as in, letting the settings and supporting data and lore tell tales as you explore, creating a litany of stories of life against which the main plot is stitched onto--is a feature of the Fallout series already, and damn if Fallout 3 and New Vegas don’t do a great job with it. But Fallout 4’s ambient storytelling is...well, it’s just frankly amazing! So much careful thought and detail went into the Commonwealth and its history in this game that it’s staggering once you start piecing it all together. And I daresay most players won’t even realize half of it as they go along, simply because it’s so subtly in the background that it’s sort of like the details of life itself--like passing a person on the street and thinking nothing of the fact that they have an entire lifetime of history propelling them forward, intersecting with your own for just a single, thoughtless moment.

It’s like...you can gather stories of the people of the Commonwealth from the computer entries they’ve made, the vocal records they’ve left, even just their skeletal remains’ location and surroundings. That’s true of any Fallout. But this game ratchets up just how much of that occurs, and it begins to carefully interconnect the many, many tales of the Commonwealth together far more than the ambient storytelling of the Capital Wasteland or the New Vegas area did. For an example...Nick Valentine has a quest in which you track down Eddie Winters, an infamous prewar mob boss, right? And, understandably, traces of Eddie’s influence on the prewar Commonwealth can be found here and there through the game where appropriate; you don’t just encounter stuff about him for Nick’s quest and nothing else. Well, 1 of the connections Winters has to other parts of the Commonwealth is Wicked Shipping, a local shipping company whose warehouse HQ you can find as you roam around. Now, it was established (prewar, remember; this is all in the past) that Winters had an arrangement with Wicked Shipping in which they’d secretly deliver some of the radioactive waste that they were paid to transport to him, instead of where it was supposed to go. This is because, as discovered through Nick’s personal quest, Eddie figured out how to become a ghoul long before the nukes made the creatures common.

So here’s the thing: at the Wicked Shipping warehouse, you can find a manifest for the shipments they were making the morning that the bombs dropped, involving 4 trucks. And if you follow up on this manifest, you will find, indeed, that 3 of those trucks are near the areas of the Commonwealth that they were supposed to be making deliveries to, and you can loot them using the key you find in the warehouse. But, 1 of those trucks is not where it should be--it’s nowhere even near its manifest’s destination. Instead, you find this missing Wicked Shipping truck near a location in the Commonwealth that was a part of Eddie Winters’s operations! This, then, is the truck that secretly delivered the radioactive materials to him, instead of where they were supposed to go (as indicated by the manifest). No tape, document, or computer entry spells this out for you, and unless you’re familiar both with every tiny detail of Eddie Winters from Nick’s sidequest AND the details of Wicked Shipping’s manifests and history--which you have no game-given reason to be, as it’s not part of any quest--you’d never think twice about this truck’s location. And yet, here this tiny, background connection between a quest and a small part of prewar lore sits, its placement unassuming, unobtrusive, and yet carefully considered by the writers.

That’s the sort of thing I mean when I say that Fallout 4’s ambient storytelling is off-the-charts excellent. There is so much subtle detail and thought put into the stories of its locations and the way all their histories and events interconnect across this huge chunk of Massachusetts that you can explore. It’s humbling to know that the writers could keep track of themselves this thoughtfully. And the sad thing is that unless you’re looking for it--really, really looking for it--most of this care and attention to details will pass you by. Who would look upon that Wicked Shipping truck with anything more than a glance for loot upon finding it? Who would remember the missing truck on this manifest--if they bothered to search for the trucks it lists to begin with--strongly enough to realize, finding it perhaps dozens of hours later, that there is a purpose to its seeming misplacement?

And that’s just 1 connection made through Wicked Shipping! The fact that they’re transporting radioactive waste also connects to a whole branch of lore points regarding the companies that were polluting the Commonwealth before the bombs dropped. By no means is Eddie Winters the only substantial part of Fallout 4’s lore interconnected with this small company whose warehouse looks for all the world to be a one-and-done explorable location.

I’d also like to note that the thoughtful detail of the ambient storytelling of Fallout 4 isn’t just limited to side content and exploration--it does also affect and enhance the main story’s components, too, often so subtly that one might not realize it. Take, for example, the terminology of the Institute. It doesn’t take too sharp an eye and ear to realize, after listening around the Institute for a while, that these self-important dickwads use terminology as a weapon of oppression. By absolutely always insisting on referring to Synths as machines, by calling changes to their personality ‘debugging’ rather than ‘brainwashing’ and procedures to fix or better physical attributes of the Synths ‘upgrades’ rather than ‘surgeries,’ the Institute uses vocabulary to distance themselves from their creations in order to keep their members away from considering the ethical implications of their new slave race. After all, saying that a Synth’s growing wish for freedom is a bug in his code is much more palatable and less likely to raise moral red flags than expressing the exact same idea as a flaw in his personality.

Now, here’s the thing: this is an important characteristic of the Institute faction that you can easily glean from talks with Father and other Institute members, overheard conversations between Institute scientists, and journal entries you read. But there are actually a lot of small details nearby and around this specific subject that strengthen this point and support your suspicion that the Institute’s using the same trick as dirty politicians and totalitarian communities. One small, easily missed, but exceptionally significant detail relating to this idea, for example, is found in the recording of Kellogg’s operation to put the implant in his head. During the procedure, an Institute scientist mentions how pleased the group is with him for having brought them the ‘genetic material.’ Kellogg, either unsure of what they mean or, more likely, not impressed with their use of vocabulary to evade self-awareness, clarifies that what they mean is the child he kidnapped from the protagonist (Nora/Nate’s son, Shaun). The Institute scientist acknowledges that Kellogg is right, but still refers (now pointedly, I think) to Shaun only as the ‘DNA sample.’

Now, this part of the conversation accomplishes a direct purpose in giving you an idea of the time period in which the recording was made. But it also establishes very clearly that the Institute likes to morally distance itself from the things it does that are ethically questionable. Instead of admitting that they stole a child, the way Kellogg does (he, at least, is honest with himself about his monstrosity), they insist on only referring to Shaun at that time by his value, scientifically, to Kellogg. They distance themselves from the unethical actions they’ve taken, by using terms that lack humanity. It’s telling about their character overall, but it is also a very strong confirmation of any suspicion you might have that the way they refer to and regard Synths is more propaganda than it is fact. If they refused to acknowledge the humanity of the child they kidnapped in order to keep themselves from questioning their actions, they’d certainly do the same of the people they’d created to be slaves. A few little lines, contained within a different part of the lore of the Institute, provides a wealth of information and understanding to a major faction of the game, and puts the entirety of that faction’s dialogue into question, opening new avenues of understanding to us as the audience about the Synth question. Again, very skillful ambient storytelling, subtle but substantial, small enough that you might not notice it, large enough that it’s a damning piece of evidence against any theory for taking the Institute’s terminology as legitimate.

If you would like to get to know some more of Fallout 4’s unparalleled ambient storytelling excellence, I heartily recommend Oxhorn’s Youtube channel, particularly his playlist for Fallout 4 lore. The guy has put an amazing amount of time, observation, and thought into this game and series, and even though I pride myself on being meticulous in my explorations of these games, he makes me look like a bumbling doofus with his ability to suss out details and connections, extrapolate likely theories, and even explore the ethical ramifications of the game’s decisions and cast. I know his video lists look daunting, but if you love this series and want to truly know and appreciate the painstaking effort its creators put into crafting its every detail, you will want to check this guy’s channel out.

So, another thing I really appreciate about Fallout 4 is its cast. Now, I’ll definitely give Fallout: New Vegas full credit for having the best companions with the most depth and originality--almost no one in any other Fallout compares to Veronica, Boone, Raul, or the whole Dead Money bunch--but to be fair, party members are not the only part of the character equation. They’re the most important, yes, and in most games, they’re all that really matters with the cast...but in the case of Fallout, the size and importance of the Fallout world means that the NPCs who inhabit it are actually very important parts of its storytelling. And in that sense, I think that Fallout 4 is very on-point. The plot-relevant people of the Commonwealth stand out and have memorable and engaging personalities, to an extent more than any Fallout game before this. Every Fallout’s full of singular entities you meet along your travels, but it just feels like more of them are more personable and memorable in this game.

And hey, maybe Fallout: New Vegas has the best companions of the series, but Fallout 4 is actually pretty close behind. A good half of its party members are nuanced, interesting characters, and I have to say, as far as unique appeal, they’ve got all the other games put together beat. Piper, Codsworth, Hancock, and Curie are all terrifically likable individuals, and Deacon is (heresy incoming) even more appealing than Veronica was. And then there’s Nick Valentine, who is just the fucking best dude ever, and the 1 other Fallout companion who stands at the same level of quality as a character as the best that New Vegas can offer. And as far as villains...Fallout 4 has the best of the series. I’d weigh Elder Maxson against Presidents Eden and Richardson any day, Kellogg makes for a much more threatening and interesting personal antagonist than Autumn or Horrigan, and Father easily outperforms Caesar. Only The Master from the first game is as compelling as any of the Fallout 4 villains.

1 more quality to Fallout 4 that I think it stands out especially well on: the protagonist. Look, I know everyone’s got it in their heads that player choice is something inalienable and ultimately important, and everyone gets all in a tizzy the moment they don’t have a dozen different ways for their character to approach the problem of wiping his or her own ass, but...I’m sorry, it needs to be said: player choice isn’t that fucking important. In the grand scheme of things, it really isn’t! It’s great if you can have a lot of choice for who your character is and what they do, but if it gets in the way of a smooth, functional story and purpose, then it isn’t worth it!

There are plenty of RPGs which can pull off a lot of player choice without sacrificing the narrative too strongly (like Fallout: New Vegas, in fact), and that’s great. Some RPGs really bend over backward to make player choice a huge thing but still function as a coherent plot, like The Witcher 2, which is almost 2 games in 1 for allowing the plot to grow around how the player wants to play Geralt. And some RPGs actually manage to make complete player choice a core element of their story and themes, perfectly blending them together, like Undertale. Awesome. But in general, it’s easier to tell the story you want to tell when the protagonist isn’t a completely unknown element in it. That’s why even though we have some simply astonishingly excellent RPGs in the west, the lion’s share of quality RPGs are Japanese in origin (or, in recent years, indie RPGs following JRPG formulas)--because the Japanese aren’t fucking handicapping themselves to give the player the choice to play as serial killers, bigots, and tyrants in every damn title.

So yeah, in Fallout 4, you have considerably less control over what the protagonist says and does. Nowhere NEAR a lack of control, mind you; she/he can still have many different values and usually has at least 2 different ways to respond to stuff, but still, that’s a lot less than the many dialogue trees previous Fallout games have allowed for. Well, frankly...it’s an improvement. Because this more concrete protagonist of Fallout 4 has actual personality traits, regardless of whether she/he is a saint or a monster, and an overall character that comes through thanks to either a great performance by Brian Delaney, or an excellent performance by Courtenay Taylor. The story tailored around the protagonist is more personal and emotionally substantial than any Fallout before, and knowing the protagonist’s history and motivations means that as we explore with her/him through the post-apocalyptic Commonwealth, the events and places we encounter have greater meaning, for we see the tragedy and relief, the regret and the joy, that they cause the protagonist, and understand why they do so. A concrete protagonist also means more compelling friendships and romances with party members, and greater substance for important supporting characters in the story that connect to her/him (notably Kellogg and Father). Whatever personal enmity there was between the Chosen One and Frank Horrigan, or the Lone Wanderer and Colonel Autumn, it had to be largely imagined, for the games were unequipped to really create any sort of emotional relationship between hero and villain. Even the Lone Wanderer’s relationship with James, though present and significant, is largely one-sided, with Liam Neeson’s character doing all the heavy lifting for establishing and selling the father-child relationship. Not the case for the enmity between the Sole Survivor and Kellogg, or the bond between Nora/Nate and Shaun. They’re real and visible from both sides.

You’d never get the tension and anger of Nora/Nate’s confrontation with Kellogg from a variable hero like the Vault Dweller. You’d never get the sweet, warm fuzzies of Piper’s confession of love for Nora or Nate with a malleable main character like the Chosen One. You’d never get the anguish and sorrow of Nora/Nate telling Shaun how disappointed they are with him atop the Cambridge rooftop out of a pliable protagonist like the Lone Wanderer. You’d never get the wistful reminiscing of Nora and Nate about the world as it was from an unknown leading figure like the Courier. Nora and Nate being distinct characters creates atmosphere, injects feeling into the game and the characters that interact with them.*

And hey, maybe it does take away some amount of the player’s ability to choose everything about his/her main character...but even if you count that as a major, core part of Fallout, there’s still a positive to this tradeoff. By establishing Nora and Nate’s personalities and history as prewar citizens, another core aspect of Fallout is enhanced--the comparison it draws between prewar and post-apocalyptic humanity. The unchangeable evil and virtue of humanity is a major part of the Fallout series, particularly its later installments, as its ambient and direct storytelling strive to show us a mirror between prewar and post-apocalyptic--how the idealized, surface-level-perfect 1950s-style society before the war was only a varnish on the darkness in humanity, and how the brutal, violent, twisted world after the apocalypse nonetheless cannot stamp out humanity’s light. Nora/Nate, having come from one and now become instrumental in the other, provides an opportunity to sell this theme of “War (Humanity). War (Humanity) never changes” better than ever before, and the game capitalizes on this quite well, with Nora/Nate having many opportunities to note the similarities and contrasts between both the evils and the virtues of the current world and the one from before.

Now, those are some of Fallout 4’s most important virtues, the ones which make it shine compared to its other family members (not necessarily shine more or less, just differently). I’d also like to point out a couple of its weaknesses, ones which the others of the series don’t suffer from.

First of all, the Synth thing. The defining conflict of Fallout 4 revolves around Synths; you can’t get away from it. Synths are a monumentally important part of the main story, the side stories, and even the ambient storytelling of the game, the heart of its conflicts--the Institute wants to base itself around them, the Minutemen oppose the Institute because of what it does with Synths, the Railroad seeks to rescue Synths, and the Brotherhood’s presence is solely motivated by a desire to destroy the Synths. Even the excellent Far Harbor DLC involves Synths almost as heavily as the main story does (although to excellent ends, creating an engaging and ethically complex story that explores the concept of truth quite interestingly). And, well, don’t get me wrong, this works just fine, but...Synths just don’t feel quite right as a part of the Fallout universe, or at least, as such a big part. It’s just a tiny bit too much of a dose of science fiction, to me, perhaps simply because the plot point of Synths so thoroughly saturates the game. I mean, obviously Super Mutants are a strong sci-fi element, and they’re essential parts of Fallout 1 and 3’s plots, but they’re not absolutely everywhere you look in terms of Fallout 1 and 3’s stories. They were something of a shocking reveal in Fallout 1, and while the main story revolved around them, the majority of the rest of the game’s storytelling did not. In Fallout 3, they’re an important part of the lore of the Capital Wasteland, but important though they are, the game eventually becomes more focused on the Enclave as an enemy. The Super Mutants don’t just inundate every storytelling angle those games had, the way Synths do in Fallout 4.

And don’t get me wrong, I understand that the Synths are useful metaphors for various aspects and themes of American culture that the game explores.** And the game does very well with them in this sense. They just feel a step removed from what’s appropriate for the series’s lore, to me. I suppose that’s subjective, though.

The other thing I think is a weakness for Fallout 4, as a part of its series, is its ties to its setting. Look, Fallout 4 does a great job with portraying and exploring Massachusetts and its people. It does. And I say that as a guy who lives in, and has always lived in, MA. They reference and use a lot of our state’s history and culture--there’s a whole faction called the Minutemen, there’s a sidequest named The Big Dig, Eddie Winters is almost surely based off of Whitey Bulger, plenty of Boston landmarks like Fenway and the Freedom Trail are prominent parts of the story, they've got location references to stuff like Filene's and Cheers, 1 of the most important characters in the game is named Shaun (although if they were really going for authenticity, it’d be more like 15% of all the game’s characters would share the name across at least 3 different spellings), and guards armor themselves in protective baseball gear and grouse about people asking them to park the car in Harvard Yard. The game does an awesome job with the Massachusetts setting.

Just...I dunno, not as awesome as it could be.

Look, this might just be home court bias here, but as great as Fallout 4 does, I still feel like some of its predecessors better capitalized on their settings. Part of Fallout 3’s great, epic feeling as a whole came from how well it utilized our nation’s capital to tell its tale. The culture and soul of Las Vegas was a present force throughout Fallout: New Vegas, and even was incorporated into much of its story’s aesthetics and themes...even the game’s plot eventually becomes an all-or-nothing gambit reminiscent of a tense card game! Fallout 4...it does so much, but there’s so much that feels like it’s missing. How can you have Salem in the game, without having anything of significance present there? College-intensive state that it is, how can MIT be the only university of importance in the game? Shouldn’t the world-famous Mass General Hospital be more than just a potential site for radiant quests and a few fetch missions?

And how in the WORLD do you make a Fallout game set in Massachusetts, and not include Plymouth?! First site and community of the pilgrims, Bethesda? You didn’t think that should be somewhere in the Massachusetts Fallout? Believe me, I appreciate that 1 of the 2 major DLCs for this game is set in Maine, since that was originally just part of Massachusetts, so it’s totally appropriate, but there really should have been a DLC that takes place in Plymouth. The thought of a theme park DLC was a great idea (even if it was executed terribly), but Plymouth really should have had precedence over a DLC concept that could have been added to any installment in the series.

Then again, I am, as I mentioned, probably biased. Anyway, that’s about it. Fallout 4 has its strengths and weaknesses as an RPG, but I thought it might be fun to recognize it for its strengths and weaknesses as a Fallout, too. And fun it was! For me, at least. You’re probably bored out of your mind. Well, sometimes a rant’s gotta be just that--a directionless collection of what’s on my mind. Thanks for bearing with me, at least, and maybe next time I’ll have something a little more solid and purposeful for you.












* This doesn’t really fit into the rant proper, but I’d like to note that the few times the Fallout series has dabbled into solidifying their protagonists at all, it’s always been a positive thing. My favorite part of Point Lookout in Fallout 3 was the fact that it actually allowed us to delve a little into the Lone Wanderer’s head, 1 of the many excellent qualities of Lonesome Road in Fallout: New Vegas was the fact that it actually gave some history to the Courier, and even just the moment in Fallout 2 where you read a plaque about the Vault Dweller on his statue is quite gratifying.


** Off the top of my head, prejudice towards and enslavement of others who are functionally and spiritually no different from you, nationalistic paranoia trends like the Red Scare, and the capacity to question our own existence, purpose, and physical identity.

2 comments:

  1. I officially give up on writing a wot about why fo protagonist should always be blank slates( i already write two of them and internet cancelled them :) ).
    But i have another question. How do your feel about Bethesda ignoring the lore of the first two games?

    Pre war jet for example. While lots of people ovvereacted, i found quite annoying that they contradicted fo2 for no reason.

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    1. It annoys the hell out of me. The more I value a series, the more I value its lore, so when Bethesda does stuff like that, it drives me absolutely crazy. The Jet thing is highly irritating. And for what? They could've just made up any damn chem to take its place.

      It also annoys the hell out of me when Obsidian does it. I'm sorry, Obsidian, who did you just say invented the Mr. Handy? There's only 2 robot-producing companies in your universe to keep track of; how did you mess that up!? And of course, the use of bottle caps as the primary currency of New Vegas does sort of weaken the lore of Fallout 2's currency, since the New Vegas area is far, far more directly tied to NCR's economic influence than the majority of Fallout 2's map, yet everyone in Fallout 2 had completely stopped using bottle caps in favor of NCR's coinage. Don't really mind that flub-up, though, as the idea that every tiny tribal village on the west coast was going all in on some brand new currency used by some place they'd never heard of was idiotic.

      It also annoyed the hell out of me when Black Isle did it. I'm sorry, Fallout 2, but are you serious? The plot point that super mutants are sterile, this monumentally important story detail upon which the entirety of The Master's downfall rests, and you're going to throw it away so that Marcus can say a funny line when he nuts in a hooker? Glad this retcon seems to have in turn been retconned back, at least.

      Anyway, what I'm trying to say here is, I hate it when new Fallout games go and ignore/forget/rewrite their predecessors' lore. But I also hate that people pretend Bethesda's the only 1 that does it. They may be the most frequent offender by far, but Obsidian's got its moments of shame with Fallout: New Vegas's treatment of the series lore, and even the original sequel itself wasn't without sin (and frankly, I'd say the example I gave of Fallout 2 is way, way worse than any of Bethesda's transgressions on Fallout lore). It's very irritating that these things happen, but it's an infrequent problem in many series, and all we can do is try to work around it.

      On the plus side, it does sort of prove that there are times when the fanbase are the only true keepers of a series, regardless of who created it and who holds its license. With atrocities like most SquareEnix sequels, Mass Effect 3's ending, and George Lucas roaming freely in the world, I'd rather we begin seeing fanbases as the stewards of IPs than anyone else.

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