The best experience I’ve had playing Fallout 4 the first-person shooter was playing Fallout 4 the role-playing-game; a game complete with character backstory and a solid understanding of what motivated Yvonne, my newly created wasteland wanderer.
But, what a minute you’re no doubt thinking, isn’t Fallout 4 (2015) both an FPS and an RPG? That’s what the Bethesda-led incarnations of the Fallout franchise are known for being – a heady, but workable combination of the two, mixing the joys of a shooter with the in-depth storytelling of a novel. A kind of Quentin Tarantino meets post-apocalyptic Grapes of Wrath.
That sounds awesome, right? It totally is, but Fallout (which is considered both an FPS and an RPG) is much more of a shooter than an RPG. If anything it’s a FPS sprinkled with RPG elements. However, before we talk Fallout 4 let me go back in time to 2010.
Fallout: New Vegas (2010) is one of my favorite games of all time. It isn’t just one of my favorite first-person shooters nor one of my favorite role-playing-games of all time but, quite simply, one of my favorite games ever. That’s a pretty bold statement to make, I’ll allow, considering the game’s status as being lovingly made but legendarily buggy. Six years on and (this pains me to say) the glitches still, at times, make it feel like a beta-test.
So in 2015, when Fallout 4 came out, I was excited. I was excited enough to nab both the limited run Pip-Boy Edition of the game (complete with functional Pip-Boy) for the XBOX ONE, as well as an equally limited run Fallout 4 Loot Crate. The game wasn’t even out yet and I was already 100% sold on it. If Fallout: New Vegas had rocked my world then Fallout 4 would rock it even harder.
Unfortunately, after my initial playthrough of Fallout 4, I was left underwhelmed. Even with having completed the main story and dozens of side quests in a cool, slightly excessive 150 hours. I was unsatisfied not because the game lacked anything, but for the opposite. Fallout 4 is a huge game in every possible way: the map is gigantic, the settlement building is epic, the recorded lines of dialogue record-breaking, and the side quests go on literally forever. In some ways, I imagine it to be the future of gaming – a vast, digital world that you could play within for a thousand hours.
But – and not to be a complete Dudley Dursley – I didn’t like it. I wanted more.
When I say I wanted more, I actually mean I want less. A vast map full of innumerable nooks and crannies, settlements that I sunk literally dozens of hours into building up and tearing down like a deranged shotgun-wielding Thomas Jefferson, and side-quests that go on forever (no thanks, Preston) is a bit…much. It’s too much. I don’t want a second life, I want a narrative that (while gripping) eventually ends. I want Cowboy Bebop, not One Piece.
Here’s the thing, Fallout 4 has a story. An interesting, complex, and emotionally engaging story that is (I would argue) a better story than the one in my beloved Fallout: New Vegas. Your character (either a man or a woman – hallelujah!) has a backstory, a goal, and the motivation to achieve that goal. Sort of.
My issue is that for every inch of main story you walk you trudge through a dozen feet of side quest. Experiencing a first playthough, however, you almost don’t notice. Again, this is a rich world worth exploring, but emphasis is less on telling you a story and more on letting you just get out there and experience a post-apocalyptic East Coast. That’s great, but problematic, because Fallout 4 also has a story to tell.
And that story is a doozy. You’re a parent who, within the span of 20 minutes of in-game time, experiences nuclear holocaust (including seeing a bomb actually detonate on the horizon), being cryogenically frozen, temporarily unfrozen to witness the murder of your spouse and kidnapping of your child, re-frozen, only to unfreeze a second time to explore a vault whose only inhabitants include skeletons and the crawling, mutated horror that are radroaches (cockroaches exposed to radiation). Oh, and by the time your character is unfrozen for the final time more than two centuries have past. This happens to your character in what is, for them, twenty minutes. Twenty minutes. This isn’t just a doozy, this is literally grounds for howling-mad insanity.
That insanity is what motivates my character and what highlights the excellent role-playing elements of Fallout 4. The character I created for my second playthrough – Yvonne – is broken. She is a mother irrevocably destroyed by the trauma of war and the murder of her spouse in front of her. Yvonne’s sole purpose is to find her son, her baby. Her son – Shaun – is a literal infant when he is whisked away by the primary antagonists of the game: the Institute. How impossible would that be to try and make sense of?
You’re Yvonne, now. Everything you do is motivated by this one, single thing: get your son back. But what does the game throw in your path? Side quests. Lots and lots of side quests.
Play the game for more than a few hours and you start to see what I mean. You rescue a band of settlers who then ask you to join them in their new home – which just happens to be the gutted former cul-de-sac you called home before the bombs fell. They ask you to join them and you do. They ask you to help dig wells, plant corn, fashion beds. So you do. Then you get word there’s a different settlement nearby that needs your help and, because you’re the outstanding Good Samaritan that you are, you help them, as well. This leads you to an abandoned car factory full of bad guys you need to eliminate, so you do. Once you’re done offing all the baddies you realize there’s an unexplored building nearby that you should investigate which leads you to another side quest about…but wait, don’t you have a son to save?
My Yvonne isn’t trying to rebuild the Commonwealth (formerly Massachusetts) one settlement and row-of-corn at a time. She’s not doing favors for the random denizens of this new, harsh world. She’s not taking time out of finding her sons kidnappers so she can be interviewed by a local newspaper, or paint a baseball stadium, or explore nearby historic landmarks for funsies. She’s trying to find her son and will let no man, mutt, or mutant stand in her way. In my mind, some small part of Yvonne thinks that this isn’t happening. It can’t be happening. This has to be a dream, but no, not a dream, a nightmare. In her shoes, who wouldn’t think the same?
A great example of Yvonne’s mind-set comes during a climactic meeting when she confronts Kellogg; the man who kidnaps her son at the behest of the Institute. During this moment, my character’s single-minded if pragmatic path toward revenge (yes, she’ll stop to hack a terminal or lock pick a weapons crate) sharply ends with her first words to Kellogg: “You murdering, kidnapping psychopath. Give me my son. Give me Shaun. Now!”
Those lines are uttered by veteran voice actor Courtenay Taylor with a mix of both steely determination and barely-contained rage; exactly how I would imagine a real Yvonne demanding. She’s made it this far, but only at the edge of a 10mm combat pistol.
“Right to it then, huh? Okay. Fine.” Kellogg replies. You begin a short back and forth with Kellogg that, for me, ended with him stating that “if you’re hoping for a happy reunion? Ain’t gonna happen. Your boy’s not here.” After fighting her way across a radioactive landscape and through an army of cyborgs you can bet dollars to pre-war donuts this is exactly the opposite of what Yvonne wants to hear.
Thankfully, this statement is immediately followed by a speech option that allows my character to declare, with absolute scorn, a simple “Fuck you, Kellogg.” You can imagine how this plays out. True to its first person shooter demands this confrontation ends with Kellogg dead and you only marginally closer to finding Shaun.
While I chose the above dialogue path, it is possible to get numerous other options from Kellogg. One such line talks specifically to the thought processes experienced by my own character. “In another life, you probably would have been a good mother,” Kellogg says. “But here…in this terrible reality? You just don’t get that chance.” How very true.
This is the game I’ve fallen in love with, but this isn’t the game you’re necessarily supposed to play. Fallout 4 is less about the life and more about the times. So much of Fallout 4 is about exploring, but at the expense of the primary story. It’s a side quest machine. Yes, the numerous quests and colorful characters help flesh out and expand an amazing (and amazingly dark) world, but at the cost of Fallout 4’s premise. This is a story of personal loss swept away in a larger tale of a world in ruins.
Fallout 4 is a game with a beautiful and emotionally devastating story that is buried under the weight of the world it is set within. I could go find my son, but I hear Preston Garvey has another settlement that needs my help. Don’t worry Shaun, momma’s coming, right after I help everyone else in the wastelands first.