Maybe someday I’ll write a Fallout rant that isn’t 5+ pages long. You never know. It could happen.
Definitely not today, though.
Fallout 4 allows you to select from 4 separate factions to determine the fate of the post-apocalyptic Commonwealth of Massachusetts. You can choose the Minutemen, which is basically a collaborative military force of the Commonwealth’s farmers and other common populace all pooling their resources to become a self-sufficient and protected series of communities. You can support the Brotherhood of Steel’s east coast chapter, fresh from Fallout 3’s Capital Wasteland. You can side with the Institute, who see the future of mankind in scientific advancement and replacement. Or, you can throw your lot in with the underdogs of the struggle, the Railroad, whose goal is to be the champions of Synths, helping them to live safe, sound, and most importantly, free.
This sounds like a fair number of choices, of course, as many as Fallout: New Vegas offered, and technically it is, but the less ambiguous ethics of Fallout 4’s factions means that, ultimately, it actually becomes a choice between 2 groups, instead of 4. If you’re playing an immoral, evil character, your only options are: A, the Institute, which remorselessly commits atrocities regularly against the people of the Commonwealth and values directionless scientific advancement toward some intangible, undefined ideal of future human perfection over the actual, living human beings working and suffering to make a decent, livable society in the Commonwealth, or B, the Brotherhood of Steel, which has been twisted and ruined by its current leadership, becoming a fanatical military group of bigots who define humanity by specific genetic conditions rather than valuing self-aware intelligence and empathy wherever it may be found.* And if you’re playing as a character who is not a complete asswipe, your choice is between the Minutemen and the Railroad.
Comparing the Minutemen and the Railroad, the choice seems simple enough. While it’s clear that the Railroad has a noble cause in standing up for the Synths’ freedom and wellbeing, as any organization trying to assist slaves and the downtrodden is noble, the Minutemen, pound for pound, accomplish the greater good with their cause. The Minutemen provide protection and stability to the entire region’s otherwise vulnerable settlers, farmers, and traders. They help establish and build settlements, they directly oppose hostile elements that prey on the weak like raiders and super mutants, they send armed patrols through the Commonwealth, they establish trade routes and lines of communication between settlements, and they jump to assist towns and settlements even outside of the ones who have agreed to be a part of their alliance. Well, okay, you do a lot of that stuff yourself as the protagonist, but, y’know, the idea is that the Minutemen as a whole are doing that. They oppose the Institute because it threatens the entirety of the Massachusetts populace. In essence, the Minutemen are helping pretty much everyone, by default including what Synths the Railroad has freed and established in the Commonwealth, and on top of that, they’re establishing an overall society from which higher levels of safe civilization can emerge and prosper.
The Railroad, on the other hand, just frees a very specific group of people** from slavery, and tries to keep them safe. They oppose the Institute specifically because it enslaves those people, not necessarily because it’s evil overall. Agan, this unequivocally makes the Railroad a morally good cause, and were it just them, the Brotherhood of Steel, and the Institute, there would be absolutely no question which faction was the right one to side with. And to some extent, they’re still laudable even by comparison to the Minutemen, for the people of the Railroad are putting their lives on the line by directly opposing the greatest threat (the Institute) with the least resources to do so. More than that, they are the sole voice and shield for an entire race of oppressed people. Even the Minutemen are at best ambivalent about Synths, so without the efforts of the Railroad, a great number of conscious, feeling, thinking people would be utterly helpless to escape from their enslavers. Though in some ways the Railroad can be criticized for turning its back on the regular people of the Commonwealth (although what exactly people expect this tiny, frugal coalition of mostly non-fighters to do about the grand problems the Commonwealth suffers through is beyond me), in other ways they are more noble than even the Minutemen, for the Minutemen themselves do stand to benefit from their good deeds, while the Railroad’s members risk everything completely selflessly, having nothing to gain personally from helping the Synths who cannot help themselves.
Regardless of whose ideals are truly higher, though, it’s quite clear that the Minutemen do the greatest good for the greatest amount of people. The Railroad performs a service to freedom and morality that the Minutemen do not in freeing and specially safeguarding Synths, but the Minutemen perform many more acts of good that the Railroad does not. So, ultimately, if the issue of deciding which faction to support in Fallout 4 truly was a question of which one was better, I would wholeheartedly advocate choosing the Minutemen as the faction you ally with to take down the Institute and save the Commonwealth. Completely and totally.
The thing is, though, that unlike all other faction combinations, with the Railroad and the Minutemen, it’s not an either-or scenario.*** And that being the case, the fact is that the Sole Survivor can do the most possible good for the Commonwealth, short and long term, by allying with the Railroad.
Let’s examine the goals of the Minutemen, shall we? Ultimately, the Minutemen want a safe, stable Commonwealth civilization in which everyone is free and secure to pursue a positive life. In pursuit of that end, the Minutemen need several things to happen. They need a strong and dedicated leader to take the reigns of their group. They need to retake their old base of operations, the Castle. They require settlements across the Commonwealth to pledge to support the Minutemen. By extension, the Minutemen want those settlements linked, by trade and other social relations, and built up to be strong, productive, and self-sufficient. The Minutemen want to force the predators of the weak and innocent out of the Commonwealth--the raiders, the Gunners, the super mutants, etc. They need to establish a strong and large enough force to send patrols through the Commonwealth to keep its roads and ruins secure. And, of course, the Minutemen must bring about the end of the Institute. With all of this accomplished, the Minutemen will have the strength and momentum as a military force and as a collaborative union of the people of the Commonwealth to build a greater community of the Commonwealth’s citizens.
Here’s the thing, though: all of that can be accomplished for the Minutemen, without actually choosing them as your endgame faction.
If you support the Railroad instead of the Minutemen, very little changes for the latter. Even while committed to your alliance with Deacon’s bunch of Synth-loving super spies, you can still accept the role of and act as the General of the Minutemen. You can help Preston and his Minutemen buddies retake the Castle, and then help them to reestablish it as their HQ. You can dive into radiant quests and settlement building, and thus acquire all the same settlements and support for the Minutemen from the people of the Commonwealth, and enhance them to your satisfaction. You can still return to those settlements to fight off attacks, and you still have exactly as many opportunities to eliminate raider gangs and other hazards through exploring the Commonwealth. Actually, you can do slightly more by siding with the Railroad, since a few of the post-game sidequests they give you has you hunting down a raider gang that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to attack. You can still have built up the Minutemen enough that their members are seen now and then patrolling the Commonwealth. And finally, it doesn’t really matter to the Minutemen whether they’re the ones to end the Institute, or whether it’s the Railroad that does the job--the important thing is simply to cease its threat to the people of the Commonwealth.
So you see, as long as you’re willing to dedicate the time and effort to do so, the Minutemen can have their goals accomplished even if you decide to side with the Railroad as your endgame faction. The good that the Minutemen accomplish is greater than the good the Railroad accomplishes, but it’s also not mutually exclusive to the Railroad’s good--you can support them both.
But of course, the question then becomes: isn’t the same true, in reverse? Since the Minutemen do not object to or obstruct the Railroad’s operations, couldn’t you also just choose the Minutemen as your faction to oppose the Institute, and still do the majority of the quests to help the Railroad? In fact, since the Minutemen don’t require you to act as a double agent in the Institute for so long as the Railroad does, you could argue it’s better this way around, since you won’t be forced to even mildly assist the Institute as a Minuteman the way you would as a Railroad agent.
Well, the answer is no. It’s not an equal matter on both sides, I’m afraid. If you support the Railroad, you can still accomplish every goal of the Minutemen and put them in the position to do all their good for the Commonwealth. But if you support the Minutemen, you cannot accomplish quite as much of the good the Railroad could have.
There are 2 major parts of this imbalance. The first is that in the attack on the Institute, the Railroad has specifically coordinated the captive Synths there to join the fight for their freedom and be involved in escaping from their captors. I’m sure that, during the Minutemen’s attack on the Institute, plenty of Synths use the opportunity to escape, but given that they weren’t expecting it, there’s a greater chance that many of them get caught in the middle of the fighting and perish, or don’t escape in time. And for those Synths who do escape the Institute during the Minutemen’s attack, they have no immediate protector, plan, or provider in the Commonwealth to help them, putting them at risk. The Railroad’s attack on the Institute, on the other hand, accounts for the freedom-seeking Synths of the Institute, and the Railroad has experience with guiding and safeguarding new Synths in the Commonwealth. So, ultimately, more good is done for the lives of the innocent and the free by the Railroad than the Minutemen in the final Institute attack.
The other reason, and the more compelling one, I think, is quite simply a case of which of the 2 factions needs the prestige more. See, the Commonwealth knows of the Institute’s demise once it happens, and Travis Miles does a report in which he acknowledges the Sole Survivor and the appropriate faction as the ones who ended the nightmare. Thanks to the gentle urgings of Diamond City Radio and Publick Occurrences, the people of the Commonwealth know that they owe a debt of gratitude, and to whom. And that goodwill is something that will benefit the Railroad’s cause a lot more than the Minutemen’s.
Oh, make no mistake, the Minutemen require goodwill to operate. It’s incredibly vital to them, in fact. The Minutemen is an organization that can’t survive if the common man doesn’t have faith in it. People’s willingness to trust and cooperate with the Minutemen is the lifeblood of these citizen soldiers, because the Minutemen ARE the people.
But the fact is that, provided you have appropriately built the Minutemen up, they have that goodwill. Your actions prove to the settlements which join up that the Minutemen can be trusted, and the game shows clearly that the Minutemen have regained their prestige in the eyes of the Commonwealth’s people. Random NPCs can comment in passing their approval of the work you’re doing in leading the Minutemen, and some of them can even stop your companion Preston and initiate a conversation with him in which they thank him for his work as a Minuteman. Hell, there’s enough positivity about the Minutemen that you can encounter a scam artist who seeks to impersonate Preston and take advantage of people’s gratitude by extorting them for donations. So it’s safe to say that the Minutemen can garner as much goodwill from the Commonwealth as they require even without being the ones to put the Institute down.
By contrast, though, the positive publicity of being the saviors of the Commonwealth would be a really, really great boon to the Railroad. The fact of the matter is that most people in the Commonwealth associate Synths with the Institute’s evils, and thus understandably have a paranoid fear of them. That kind of paranoia could lead to many acts of violence against the newly freed Synths attempting to find a place in this new world; this isn’t the kind of fear that is going to go away overnight, death of the Institute or not. But the knowledge that the Railroad, the faction known for being the champions of Synths’ rights and wellbeing, was the one to save the Commonwealth...well, that could go a long way to convincing a lot of the Commonwealth’s people to give Synths a chance, out of respect and/or gratitude to these saviors who think that Synths are worthwhile people. And considering that, with the destruction of the Institute, there’s now a ton of new Synths that the Railroad needs to move through and out of the Commonwealth in an attempt to set them up with new lives, to such an extent that the Railroad is actually openly securing checkpoints along the routes through which they guide their Synth charges, having the approval of the citizens is an important thing. Side with the Minutemen, and the Railroad will simply have to keep to a completely underground operation, and the Synths it cares for will continue to be at risk of oppression from their neighbors if ever discovered.
Admittedly, there is, I suppose, 1 other benefit to the faction that defeats the Institute, which I just brought up a moment ago: the military checkpoints, located here and there across the map. And in that regard, the Minutemen will do more good with them than the Railroad, since the Railroad’s agents occupy these checkpoints with the intention of securing safe passage for Synths, while the Minutemen take the checkpoints simply as a means of providing greater protection to travelers through the Commonwealth. So there is that factor to take into consideration...nonetheless, since the Minutemen will send out patrols through the Commonwealth anyway, and since I think it’s fair to also count the provisioners with which you connect your settlements as an additional measure of patrolling security, giving the Minutemen the military checkpoints is sort of just a case of strengthening one of the acts of good they already perform, while the benefits the Railroad garners from being the ones to defeat the Institute are otherwise outright unavailable.
So basically, that’s why I chose to support the Railroad during my playthrough of Fallout 4. I’ve seen a lot of people criticize the Railroad, and the players who throw their lot in with it, for choosing to help the few instead of the many. And that’s just not the case, because more or less all that the Minutemen accomplish for the greater good, they can still achieve if you side with the Railroad, while the reverse is not true. Side with the Railroad in Fallout 4, and you really can have your Fancy Lads Snack Cakes and eat them too.
* Also worth noting is that the Brotherhood of Steel isn’t really much better for even just the regular people of the Commonwealth. Yeah, they’ll definitely make the place safer, but they’ll have the Commonwealth’s citizens provide the Brotherhood with their food whether the citizens want to or not, and they’ll occupy and fortify whatever location strikes their fancy. The Brotherhood provides assistance by force, and independent of any wishes or stipulations that the people it supposedly protects might have. It’s basically like an organized crime protection racket, if a protection racket actually did offer protection. It ain’t the worst thing going on with the Brotherhood, but it is still a wrong.
** For the sake of this rant, we’re going to forego an argument about whether Synths are people and just jump right to the part where we all agree that they are. If you really want a rant where I lay out the reasoning behind that, then I can provide, but I daresay even the game itself isn’t too ambiguous on the matter, with party members like Nick, Curie, and Danse, characters like DIMA, Glory, and Mayor McDonough, and situations like Roger Warwick’s Synth’s slip of the tongue, the fact that the Synths are capable of wanting freedom, and the ambiguity of Synth-hood being a question for Kasumi and even the protagonist herself during the Far Harbor DLC. So yeah, we’re gonna just roll forward with the understanding here that Synths are people no more or less deserving of rights, happiness, safety, and all that jazz than any human or ghoul.
*** Okay, technically speaking, you CAN support the Minutemen without making an enemy of the Brotherhood of Steel. But members of the Brotherhood do express unease at the idea of the Minutemen being an armed peacekeeping force, and unless the BoS decide to turn around and go home--which doesn’t seem likely to happen; the game makes no indication that they will and they’ve already committed to setting up strongholds and policies in the Commonwealth--contention and conflict are pretty much a guarantee. Two rival peacekeeping forces in the same area is a recipe for problems already, and all it will take is the Brotherhood deciding it wants a particular settlement for strategic/scientific purposes, the Minutemen deciding they don’t take kindly to the BoS strong-arming their farmers into giving up their crops to the Brotherhood, the Brotherhood opening fire on innocent ghoul settlers, or some other inevitable incident of their incompatible ideologies and goals for the two factions to go to war.