Sunday, July 28, 2019

Fallout 4's Sole Survivor is a Synth Theory: Shaun as Evidence

Quick Question Before We Begin: Are any of you fine folks good at getting assets out of games? I'm looking for a picture of the infamous chair from Xenogears, but I can't find a sprite of it online that doesn't already have 1 of the idiots in the cast sitting in it. Can anyone help me out on this, find or rip the sprite of the stupid thing by itself? I'd be very grateful!

Anyway, on with the rant.

Is the Sole Survivor a synth?

The possibility that Nora or Nate could, in fact, not be the real parent of Shaun, but simply 1 of Fallout 4’s innumerable artificial human replacements, is something that a few of the more imaginative players put forth when Fallout 4 was a recent release, one which was generally dismissed as the realm of fanfiction and nothing more. And for good cause: there was not a single tangible piece of evidence to point to as cause to believe it a possibility, and the fact that we start the game on the fateful pre-war morning in which the world was destroyed seemed like ironclad proof that Nora/Nate was the real deal. I dismissed the idea as just an interesting but ultimately baseless notion.

I also dismissed the nutjobs that had certain ideas about 1 particular secret that Rose Quartz might be hiding in Steven Universe, too.

Yes, it seems that time makes fools of all of us in some cases, save the few crazies who piece together a ludicrous theory from scraps of nothing. Just as SU episodes in the past year have blown our minds with revelations that make previous innocuous details suddenly heavy with significance and foreshadowing, so, too, did the Far Harbor DLC suddenly shine a light of feasibility on the possibility that Fallout 4’s protagonist is, in fact, a synth. Suddenly tiny details, like the Railroad’s chair outside Vault 111, had a new possible importance (did the Railroad set up recon because the Institute had been in the area frequently lately--say, to put a brand new synth in the cryo chamber, and then “awaken” it?), and, in an especially clever twist, the greatest evidence for Nora and Nate’s authenticity became the greatest evidence otherwise (the fact that we, the player, only know them from the point of that single prewar morning forward is worked into the story itself, as the earliest thing that Nora/Nate can her/himself recall in specific detail--and the fact that the Memory Den only brings forth a single memory from her/him that has happened during the game’s own course brings even more suspicion to it all!). It’s a brilliant move, honestly, because there’s just enough tiny, tiny related details in the game’s course that Nora/Nate being a synth could be plausible, yet nowhere near enough to possibly be able to assert it for sure. This unanswerable question becomes, in a genius stroke of writing, a part of Far Harbor’s overall theme and exploration into the concept of Truth, and an example of how personal truth is not always so hard and fast within reality as we’d like to think. Is the Sole Survivor a synth? It is impossible to prove one way or another, based on what hard evidence the game has given us.

But there’s more to finding the truth than just sniffing out the material details. When Sherlock Holmes fails...go Hercule Poirot. Follow the trail of human nature.*

Forget whether or not we can prove that Nora/Nate is a synth. It can’t be done. But what we can do, is prove whether or not the question should even arise. What we can prove is whether or not Father, AKA Shaun, would have created a synth of his parent to begin with. Does it fit Shaun’s personality to do so?

Before we begin: because this rant’s gonna be long and it gets tiresome pretending that I value Nora and Nate equally as possible protagonists, I’m just gonna refer to the Sole Survivor as Nora from here on out for my own convenience. Sorry, everyone who denied themselves a superior voice acting performance** and narrative spirit. Just, I dunno, copy-paste this rant into a document program and find-replace all the “Noras” with “Nates” if it bothers you overly.

So, does it fit with who Shaun is for him to have replaced the real Sole Survivor with a synth? To initiate Nora’s search for him, a set of trials to prove the boundaries of her parental love for bring her into the Institute with the intention of making her his successor and its leave his child synth self in her care...does it make sense for him to do all this for a synth? And not only that, but to have done all this for a synth when he had the opportunity to use the real Nora, instead?

No! No indeed. long as you take Shaun at face value. No, as long as Shaun is the relatively normal psychological entity that he presents himself as.

But if Shaun is a sociopath? Yes. Yes it does.

See, here’s the thing about Shaun. He’ll argue to his mother’s face against the notion that synths are people. As with the rest of the Institute’s members, he contends that synths are not real. And he believes that. But what he isn’t telling you--what he might not really even consciously realize himself--is that, if we measure other people’s reality to ourselves in terms of our ability to identify with their minds and hearts, our ability to empathize with them, then to Shaun, no one is real.

Shaun does not possess empathy for others, regardless of whether they’re men or machines; he almost says so himself in the game: during an argument, you can get him to tell you that he doesn’t feel strong emotions, that he didn’t have the kind of upbringing that taught him the importance of loving others. Not an outright self-diagnosis of psychopathy, but pretty darn close! Close enough that it throws certain other things about him into a new light, like the fact that methodology of the Institute under his reign has been one of cold, scientific barbarity, in which humans are kidnapped, experimented upon, and replaced with synths with no regret whatsoever.*** What remorse he expresses about these sacrifices never goes beyond words, words he simply knows he’s supposed to parrot the way all Institute members have parroted them. He doesn’t care about the surface people that he hurts, only the results he gets from their pain...and that’s because he can’t care about them, doesn’t have the capacity to feel the emotional reality of any human being beyond himself.

But just because Shaun doesn’t care about others, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing he does care about. He certainly does care about the Institute: its vision, its progress, and its experimentation. No evidence needed for that one; just about everything he says and does proves it beyond any doubt. And even if he can’t connect to the feelings of other people, he does have his own emotional needs that he’s interested in satisfying--after all, he deliberately sets up Kellogg to be killed by Nora during her quest, as a form of revenge on Kellogg for having taken Shaun from his parents as an infant and thus denying him the joys of being raised by a loving family (a loss and need that Shaun at least recognizes in himself, even if he doesn’t understand what that is, much like an infant recognizes it’s hungry for the first time and cries out for sustenance, even though it doesn’t know what food is). He assumes that retribution is something his mother also wants, but it’s clear from his reaction and words, if she tells him it wasn’t, that it was actually about his own satisfaction. The possibility that it was something that would give Nora closure is, at the very most, only half the reason Shaun set the scenario for Kellogg’s demise...and even that is more easily seen as a part of his experiment with Nora than any empathetic connection to her needs.

See, that’s the crux of things with Shaun: it’s all an experiment, and it’s all about seeking to fill the emotional hole that his lack of a loving family created within him. He can’t make sense of humanity through any sort of personal connection, so he instead seeks to understand his species through his intellect, through scientific pursuit alone--and thus he experiments, and seeks to replace the irrational, problematic human race with one that he can understand, because he himself has created the new race and programmed it. He has multiple reasons for unthawing Nora (whether she’s the original or a synth), but the reason that stands out to me as the most true and important, and that which he himself admits to, is that he wanted to see what would happen. He wanted to understand his parent, wanted to understand the family and love he had never had...but he didn’t go to Vault 111 himself, thaw her out, and have a heart-to-heart. He didn’t take the leap and put himself into an unknown, organic situation. No, he instead crafted a few scenarios, put events into motion, and sat back to watch what would happen from a safe distance. Shaun’s method of finding closure on what he was denied, his way of understanding where he came from, his parent, family and love and what could have’s to make it an experiment.

I mean, just...really think about this for a second. Put yourself in the same situation. You’ve gone your entire life without knowing your parents. Without having a strong, loving bond with anyone else, either as a child or as an adult. You’re near the end of your life, and the what-could-have-beens are weighing upon your mind, now that you know your finite time in this world is nearly up. And so, as the last major act of your life, you decide that you want to finally know your long-lost parent, to know how your life began before it reaches its end, to stand face-to-face with the being that represents an entire other existence you could have had. Everything you’ve wondered about yourself but were never able to answer, is locked within this parent. After over 60 years of waiting, you are going to have a chance to meet your parent, for the first time, and in the last major moment of your existence.

Think about all that. Immerse yourself in sixty years of orphanhood, in the desperation of mortality to know total personal closure with yourself. Imagine having your entire perspective on humanity defined by the act of being torn away from your mother and father, and never given an adequate replacement. Feel all that within yourself, and then ask:

What kind of man in this situation would make this reunion an experiment? Not someone emotionally and psychologically sound, that’s for sure.

So Shaun wants answers to his life, closure on the what-ifs, but his first priority is to stand apart and watch as an observer, to seek very personal answers through very impersonal experimentation rather than direct emotional connection. So...why wouldn’t he replace Nora with a synth?

Synths aren’t real to him, but, truly, neither are human beings, not in the sense of reality that the rest of us experience, a reality built on whatever level of empathetic foundations each of us uses for identifying with others. Insisting on differentiating between “real” humans and synths is something Shaun does, true, but that distinction is really just a convenient way to maintain control over the latter. And Shaun very much likes control--just look at the dictatorship he’s established over the Institute as a whole, where he can simply decide for the rest of them who their next leader will be, or order his fellow researchers to pursue meaningless projects that they themselves know have no useful application or knowledge to be found--like his having a synth duplicate of his childhood self created for no reason beyond use in an experiment to satisfy his own personal curiosities. With that child synth, he’s already filled his own part with someone else, at least temporarily, in this experiment, this little play of his, even though he’s alive and has every reason to just play his own role from the start. So if he’s changed out 1 capable actor in the drama with a synth, why not change out the other one? Even if the experiment is to set events in motion and then see what happens naturally, replacing his original mother with a synth for this indulgent little drama still affords him the security of control at its beginning. And then there’s the simple fact that Shaun prefers to work with and experiment on synths--if nothing else, there’s credibility to the notion that he would replace his own mother with a synth for this experiment simply because everything Shaun is about, science-wise, is synth research.

Beyond the fact that it makes sense for this sociopath to decide to use 2 dolls to enact his play instead of just 1 when he feels no greater personal connection to humans than he does to synths, Shaun’s actions and words at the end of the game also make sense of the possibility that the Sole Survivor is a synth. Unfreezing Nora, creating a child synth Shaun for her to find, watching her take revenge for both of them against Kellogg, observing how far she’ll go to find her child...this whole experiment has been like a child playing with his dolls, expressing himself through what he has them do in ways that he can’t through words or conscious understanding alone. So the fact that, no matter what faction you side with, Shaun will always entrust the care of his child synth duplicate to Nora is telling: it’s not a turn-around of Shaun’s mentality toward synths, it’s him asking Nora to continue playing the game of house he’s created, asking her to take care of his most important toy.

It’s a legacy perhaps as vital to him as his legacy with the Institute itself: after all, do we know that his final words to his parent in the plot’s Institute path, “You’ve made a boy’s dreams come true,” is about the Institute’s success? He’s not saying “you’ve made a man’s dreams come true,” he’s not saying “You’ve made your boy’s dreams come true,” he’s deliberately referring to himself as a child entity, unattached grammatically to his mother. And as a boy, was his dream really the furthering of the Institute’s goals and the cementing of its dominance in the region...or was it the dream of having the loving family that was denied to him? That sure sounds more like the dream of Shaun as a boy than the ambitions of the Institute, which better suit the dreams of Shaun as a man. I think that in this ending, Nora has made his dreams come true by being a successful part of an experiment, a childish play to see what his life would have been like that he could, in his last days, live vicariously through. Creating the child synth Shaun means that this play can go on after his own death, a legacy of a second life for Shaun along the path he never had a chance to travel the first time that will last as long as the Sole Survivor’s life...and if she was as much a synth as the child she cared for, why, then the game could be played forever. A legacy of the family Shaun wished for, overcompensated for its being stolen from him the first time by making it eternal this second time.

We all seek a way to make ourselves immortal, a way to comfort ourselves with the thought that even if we don’t continue forever, something important about us will. Some people want to leave their mark upon the world through their work. Others seek immortality through the family that will outlive them. Shaun wishes to do both: his own flesh and blood continuing to lead the institute, a living legacy of his work, and a parody of the domestic life he’d missed out on, a living legacy of his family. And in both cases, his legacy can last forever, if he uses an ageless synth instead of a human.**** And the whole point of leaving a postmortem legacy on the world is to make it as close to a piece of immortality as one can manage, right?

So in the end, the answer to the question is a resounding Yes. Yes, it is within Shaun’s personality to have replaced the Sole Survivor with a synth. Well within his character, in fact. It fits his methods, it fits his mentality. It fits what we know about him from his own dialogue, and it fits what we can infer about him through circumstance and seeing what he has created. It fits the needs of a sociopath, it fits the needs of a man who yearns for the loving childhood he never got to have, and it fits the needs of a man seeking to leave as lasting a part of himself in the world as he can while his mortality looms over him.

This does not prove that the Sole Survivor is a synth. As I said before, that cannot be proven, at least not as Fallout 4 stands now. But it does prove that it’s not only possible in terms of simple, face-value material evidence, but also in terms of narrative intent, in terms of the character and soul of the game’s central figures and ideas. I daresay, in fact, that it would add even more depth to the fascinating character of Shaun, and resound elegantly with the themes and ideas that Fallout 4 puts forth. On the surface level, whether the protagonist of Fallout 4 is a synth is a choice for the player to make, a choice on what to believe...but below the surface, as you explore the layers of storytelling within the game, there is, to me, no choice to be made, for Fallout 4 is a more thoughtful, more meaningful, more nuanced and fascinating story when Nora is, in fact, a synth, in large part because of what it means for and confirms about the character of the game’s villain. To me, the Sole Survivor is a synth.

* Also, just for the record: Hercule Poirot is way better than Sherlock Holmes. Yeah, that’s right. I just fucking typed that.

** Although, I’ve said it before, but I do want to repeat it: Courtney Traylor does the better job as the Sole Survivor, but there’s definitely nothing wrong with Brian Delaney’s performance. I daresay in most games like this, he would have been the more compelling voice actor. Traylor just really nails the role with her perfect combination of wistful regret, determination, and wry humor, is all.

*** Now to be fair, that was also how the Institute was operating prior to Shaun’s command, too (otherwise he wouldn’t have even been there to start with). But he certainly didn’t lessen the immoral, inhuman practices of the Institute at all while he was in charge, and by all accounts actually stepped them up.

**** It doesn’t fit in with the general tone of the rest of the rant, but it’s also worth noting that making the next great leader of humanity (in his eyes, at least) a synth would also be thematically appropriate in terms of Shaun’s role as the heart and soul of the Institute. After all, would that not be a fittingly literal example of the Institute’s work as the future of humanity?


  1. I don't read rants of games I'm slated to play in the future, but I do glance at the footnotes for punchlines and external references.

    "Also, just for the record: Hercule Poirot is way better than Sherlock Holmes. Yeah, that’s right. I just fucking typed that."

    Aw yeah boi.

    1. I see you, as well, are a man of sophistication.