Contrary to what your high school English teacher or stereotypical 90s father figure insisted, I say vehemently that video games have an intrinsic worth. No longer just fun electronic distractions, our communal favorite past-time now has the ability- which it frequently proves- to be an incredibly powerful artistic medium; capable of all the best qualities the other ‘grown-up’ mediums have always lauded a perceived monopoly over.
Games now have the power to make you feel a myriad of nuanced emotions, exposing you as the player to ever more human experiences that are intertwined with moments of wonderful self-reflection. Though this vein can be seen in a multitude of different genres, I still believe the undisputed monarch of this movement to be the RPG. These games give us a realm of fantasy where we are free to be who we wish to be. Do what we wish to do. Impact the world and its denizens how we wish to do so.
More times than not, in these games we are a gifted individual, tasked with defeating foul beasts and a terrifying great evil; which disproportionately tends to be represented by a dragon, for some reason. But one beloved franchise grounds its universe and struggles squarely in the dormant terrors of our reality. The terror that resides in the very nature of man, laid bare not through the machinations of some ancient manipulative evil but by man’s own hubris and naturally destructive tendencies. This new world born of survival and hostility, complete with remnants of society shaped by a nuclear apocalypse, is simultaneously alien and confronting, yet so very recognizable. It’s at this point the developers pose to you the most important question you’ll confront in the game: Who are you and what impact will you have on the wasteland?
I answered this question the same way I always do: an intelligent and charismatic pacifist, setting out to right wrongs. My words and quick wit are my weapons, and only failing both of those will I begrudgingly fire a weapon. It’s a playstyle that best reflects my own- somewhat flawed- idyllic perception of the world, and due to the way Fallout has always worked, an equally as viable build as one focusing on pure strength or gunplay. It’s with that that I stepped from the vault into a world of infinite hostility; armed only with a smile, a can-do-attitude and a vault suit on my back.
But something was different about this excursion out of the vault. Something fleeting and ethereal that takes a while to put your finger on. Unlike D.C and New Vegas from previous installments, The Commonwealth feels much darker, engulfed in a pervasive melancholy that pervades each location you stumble across and every character you meet. The jauntier, more comical elements associated with Fallout are downplayed this time around, which surprisingly works to great effect, ultimately delivering an atmospherically cohesive and organic feeling world.
It would be easy to assume that this shift in tone would bring with it the rote, clichéd grizzled characters one would expect from such a transition, but one would be wrong. It’s through this lens of a world shaped by destruction and brutality that the characters and environments shine brighter than ever. For you see, for as much vileness and barbarism as you encounter, you also see acts of unadulterated kindness and altruism. The landscape you constantly purvey is scarred by destruction and loss, which makes the small towns you find shine all the brighter as beacons of safety, fraternity and humanity. The hours spent trudging through a dead world, isolated, scavenging trinkets from those who didn’t make it, is elevated by the vibrant and legitimately likable individuals you encounter along the way. It’s then that you realize that feeling that you couldn’t quite pin down before, underneath all of the isolation and hostility shines hope, and it’s genuinely beautiful.
Life in the wasteland is still predominantly a harsh existence though, and these pocketed moments of hope ultimately help to frame and reinforce the oppressive bleakness found outside of the safety of the walled communities; something you’ll become familiar with as you venture forth, compelled to explore. Adventuring into the unknown is equal parts petrifying and sublime, as the world feels organic and dense, filled with both nightmarish encounters and majestic sights. It wasn’t long before I was picking directions to aimlessly wander, and just becoming completely immersed; to the point where I stopped on a hill to watch a radiation storm drift by, lighting up the night sky with flashes of lightening, before hearing a noise and skulking away.
It’s during these pioneering treks that you discover one of Fallout 4’s strongest suits, the world narrative. You see, your ‘quest’ is insignificant in the grand scheme of things. You’re just another person lost and wronged, wandering the waste. It gives you agency, I know, but there are many others just like you. It’s all these stories together, intricately intertwined to form a collective experience, which builds the compelling world narrative. This is achieved most poignantly through the use of environmental narratives. These seemingly inconsequential stories you piece together through scraps of information and things you discover have been some of the most touching and saddening experiences I’ve had in the game. A simple little story about a man succumbing to loneliness and drowning trying to recover a trinket of emotional value, legitimately had me stop and lament for several minutes.
In saying that, I don’t wish to downplay the main and bountiful side-quests you undertake. The superbly written dialogue and accompanying voice acting alone instills each character and companion you encounter with soulful humanity and watching them interact, with and independently of you, builds the believability of the world tenfold. All these little, seemingly independent narratives compound to create a phenomenally realized world with a strong cohesive narrative- unsurprisingly underpinned by a motif of hope- that makes just existing in the world an experience all unto itself.
But herein also lies Fallout 4’s greatest issue. Here we have a world that has clearly been painstaking crafted to feel organic and robust, has been populated by characters that exude humanity and personality, and one in which the environment- being so isolated and oppressive- becomes a character itself. And then there’s you; the player character. You are the weak focal point and the immersion breaker. Not necessarily through any fault of your own, but through the lack of mechanics given to you to make you truly feel part of this world. In making Fallout 4 more accessible- or for lack of a better term, more mass marketable- the game has lost an intrinsic part of its being, the aspect of role-playing.
As with all of the entries to the series, the first task you must undertake in Fallout 4 is character creation. Here you choose your characters face, eyes, hair, makeup preferences, scars, name, etc. Each choice you’re making is a conscious decision, with each preference creating an element of your character. Why that hair? Why the subtle makeup? Why the scarring? What do these choices say about your character? This is followed by your stat distribution. What you choose here effectively shapes your characters personality and how you will play them.
Like I stated previously, I maxed charisma and intellect, essentially leaving the other stats at minimum. My character wasn’t versed in combat. My character didn’t lift weights. They weren’t imposing. They were articulate, sociable and educated. Likely not intended- due to the mechanics, but we’ll get to that- this build gelled best with the modicum of character narrative the game had already imposed upon me, which initially resulted in very minor ludonarrative dissonance. Initially being the key word, as soon, all that story and personality I had imprinted on my character, was revealed to be for naught.
I quickly realized that this amazing organic world I had been given to explore could only be interacted with in one of two ways: either through stunted and non-reflective dialogue or simple base violence. Firstly, I wish to focus on the dialogue and let me reiterate: by no means is the voice acting or script bad, rather quite the opposite. What the dialogue lacks is stat specific options and reflections of these stats. For example, with my intelligence maxed and with an expert level understanding of medicine, my character shouldn’t be confused by the concept of a vaccine during a conversation. That breaks immersion.
In previous installments, stats reflected directly on your dialogue choices. Strength could be used to intimidate, intellect used to solve problems, charisma used to sweet talk, you get the idea. But in Fallout 4 these stats have no impact to dialogue, bar charisma; which has become the default persuade stat, but amounts to nothing more than a method for cap extortion and is essentially superfluous. Limiting parley with other characters to a choice between a sarcastic, aggressive, understanding and quizzical response heavily restricts who your character can be, undercutting any element of serious role-play.
You wouldn’t be amiss to wonder then: what do stats in charisma and intelligence effect? Surprisingly, it’s combat. Fallout 4 has taken a pronounced and seemingly unapologetic step towards becoming a predominantly combat focused experience. Almost every stat and perk is now linked to making your character a more effective killing machine. This leads us into the second way that you predominantly interact with the world, which is through the application of brute force. For as spectacular and as awe ridden as the wasteland is, it is also incredibly predictable. Very rarely does an experience outside of a hub town or marked area of civilization end without violence; with a shoot first inspect later mentality enveloping every encounter. This formulaic gameplay of aggression also seeps its way into how story missions and side quests also receive closure, with you rarely able to end things diplomatically; forced instead to leave bodies in your wake. Offering only this style of gameplay and stunted dialogue often forces me to go against the core of how I perceive my character would act, which constantly forced immersion breaks from a world I desperately wanted to remain in.
There is however a much more disappointing result that will arise from these gameplay choices that goes far beyond immersion breaking. Fallout 4 will be the most homogenous Fallout experience to date. With a game focused so predominantly on violence as its method of resolution and dialogue being the same for every player, Fallout 4 ceases to be one of those games where you can live great feats and regal them to your buddies as even greater stories. Everyone now essentially gets the same experiences, resolved through the same means, with the same consequences. No longer are you a brave and inquisitive vault-dweller but a paying spectator on a tour bus.
War. War never changes, they say. But the Fallout, for better or for worse, has indeed changed and in the process, intrinsically lost what it once was. Fallout 4 straddles an interesting line, choosing to buck its deeper RPG elements in favor of a more accessible and incredibly polished shooter experience. Thankfully, this move to a more homogenous experience hasn’t come at the expense of one of the franchises greatest elements, the atmosphere and the characters. What truly sets Fallout 4 apart is to be found in its subtle and uplifting moments of beauty and humanity. To experience compassion, empathy and a connection to a series of 1’s and 0’s, if not only for a fleeting moment, is a grand task to achieve and something this game has achieved effortlessly. War. War does change. But Fallout 4 shows humanity’s best qualities will remain steadfast and unshaken, regardless.