Crawl Out Through the Fallout (of Disappointing Narrative)
Let me preface everything I'm about to say with this: I think Fallout 4 is a fun game. I've played hours and hours of it since its release. I bought the Season Pass and played most of the DLC. It is, in fact, the final piece of DLC that has led me to the following conclusion:
As much fun as I've had with it, Fallout 4 is still a disappointing piece of storytelling in many ways.
When it comes to my gaming habits, I am a Narrativist through and through. I don't care nearly as much about mechanics as I do the story the game tells me or allows me to create. I love the Fallout series and have intensely played and replayed all of the core games; Fallout, Fallout 2, Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas and so of course I was slavering for Fallout 4. I was dazzled (and intimidated) by the construction system, I enjoyed the combat, and I found most of the companions interesting, if a little bit thin.
But ultimately, now having played Automatron, Far Harbor and now Nuka-World, I ultimately feel disappointed by the storytelling in this entry, both at a macro and micro level. I'll start with the latter.
Let's talk about two specific locations; Easy City Downs and The Combat Zone.
Easy City Downs is a former horse track (I actually thought dog track, but it seems that the Fallout Wikia disagrees) taken over by Triggermen in order to stage robot races.
What a great idea! That is thoroughly Fallout to me. Repurposing the things and ideas of the shattered world. Repackaging its vices. Yes. I dig it.
It is purely a combat encounter. That's it. That's all. There are lots of different approaches you can take, but they come down to this; when you show up at the Downs, you're going to kill a bunch of Triggermen and raiders and robots. The means and method is entirely up to you, but that's all that's gonna happen.
Is that really how this would've gone down in any previous entry in the Fallout universe? Why can't I take it over and run races? Why can't I cut some kind of deal with Eager Ernie and take a percentage off the top by promising that the Minutemen and/or Brotherhood will keep looking the other way? Why can't I scour the Commonwealth for rare robot models and modifications to bring to the races? Why can't I build my own robot using the tools from Automatron and race it to earn caps? Why not some questlines or radiants where I have to track down some raider who's fallen behind on the vig and extract caps or flesh? There are dozens of quest and story-telling possibilities with this location and the game makes use of precisely none of them. I mean, sure, there are different kinds of quests that can bring you there; kidnapping, bringing back an escaped synth, and so on. But all of them boil down to just shooting/stabbing/punching/blowing the place up.
The Combat Zone (the reference in the name to Boston's former red-light district is one I only got because I've read so much Robert B. Parker, but I chuckled) is in the same boat. You walk on in there and watch Cait knock the crap out of some nameless, faceless raider, or you would, if you weren't busy getting attacked by the entire audience the moment you walk through the door. Again, it's not hard to see the narrative potential here, for fighting, betting, moving up in the ranks, working with or against Tommy Lonegan. A friend of mine (incidentally the same guy who did the wonderful map for Ordination and the future books in The Paladin Trilogy, to whom you should pay money to create maps for your own books and/or RPG campaigns, I can put you in touch with him) suggested that Cait should only have become available as a companion if you worked your way up through the ranks in a series of Combat Zone fights.
While Cait's story (why is it that some companions here have involved stories and questlines and demonstrate growth, but most don't?) is really interesting to me, the Combat Zone is just more wasted potential.
I think I can sum up my ultimate disappointment in Fallout 4 this way: instead of using its best ideas to ask “what kind of story can we create for the player here?” the game only asks “what kind of firefight can we have here?” or “what kind of settlement can you build here?” Can we say that's true of previous entries in the series? Sure, in any prior Fallout game you could waltz in and shoot up the place. But it seems to me as though 3 and New Vegas really did a lot more storytelling with their locations and ideas than 4 does. Is there any place in 4 as charming and memorable as Little Lamplight? Do any of the gangs or raider groups in the base game have the life and depth of the 3 Families of the Vegas strip? I would certainly say no.
Now I know the settlement building really works for a lot of people. And I played around with it, and it can be fun, but I never played with Lego and I don't want to play Minecraft. Sure, custom designing my character's home (and eventually building huge pegboard walls to display my massive collections of weapons) was kind of fun. But why can't I just appoint someone to run a settlement for me, like hiring a steward for my Manors in Skyrim, once I have it up and running? Also how in holy hell am I supposed to get a settlement's happiness above 85%, which I have absolutely never, ever achieved?
These are rhetorical questions, so please don't feel a need to answer them. But if you've got a good answer, feel free to share.
This brings me to Nuka-World, which I think I finished this morning. Yes, it just came out. No, I didn't find that it had a heck of a lot to do other than “go to an interesting location and kill everything in it.” The amusement park setting was a really neat idea, but since most of the park is not operating when you show up (and likely is not going to be until you finish almost all of the quests) it's mostly just new scenery to kill ghouls and robots in. And I think there is a huge problem, this late in the game, with asking the player to suddenly work on behalf of some very thinly sketched raider gangs.
The problem is that up until this point (you have to be at least level 30 to go to Nuka-World, and more than likely a player will have completed the main game at least once by now) raiders have been nothing but faceless enemies. Sure, there are a few named raiders here and there, and they are humanized a bit by reading some notes or some terminal entries about how they interact with one another. But a player has to seek that information out, and it has zero impact on how the raiders will act in the game.
After about the first hour in Nuka World, you're introduced to 3 groups of raiders; the Pack, the Disciples, and the Operators. And after dozens of hours of killing raiders at every moment, of them being absolutely nothing but enemies, you're suddenly supposed to see these 3 gangs as people you're supposed to care enough about to do jobs for them, ensure their survival, and balance their ambitions.
Or, of course, if you are horrified by them, you absolutely can get a quest option to kill “just the leaders.” Guess what happens if you kill any one leader of any gang? Every single raider in the park goes nuts attacking you. And you then don't get the option of doing most of the quests in the frickin' add-on. You go and kill the leaders and you report to someone for having done it and that's that.
Let's say you really consider the motives and actions of your character in Fallout 4. Let's say you took seriously the idea of bringing back the Minutemen, and you built settlements, and you defended them, and you wore the Minuteman General's Armor (one of the coolest looking get-ups in the entire game and you can't put ballistic fiber in it, FOR SHAME) and got a Colonial haircut and mastered the laser musket and the revolutionary sword and by God you built enough artillery to blow the goddamn Prydwen out of the sky after you destroyed the Institute and everything it stood for.
Why on earth are you suddenly going to even consider conquering settlements you built for a raider gang? Why are you even going to consider working for the Disciples, a gang whose whole schtick is so putrid and cliched that they feel like they were conceived by the kind of grody gamer whose room is covered in posters saying WHY SO SERIOUS and Hellraisers? I mean, literally, their hideout is full of mutilated corpses, has prisoners shackled to a wall for everyone to torture freely. Their footsoldiers walk by saying things like “that last one died too quickly.”
Now, I get that playing evil is an option some people enjoy. Not quibbling with that. What I am quibbling with is that Fallout 4 has only given you the option of playing mean and then wants you to go 0-60 on evil as soon as you walk into Nuka-World. Previous Fallout games gave you the option of going this way from the moment your boots hit the ground. Want to be an unrepentant asshole in Fallout 3? Blow the shit out of Megaton and watch Mr. Tenpenny applaud from his veranda. In New Vegas you got a good early look at what the Legion were about, and you could absolutely sign up and be a sadistic, awful bastard if that's how you wanted to play. I never did, but if that's your bag I'm not here to judge.
While I do think The Institute is ultimately evil in Fallout 4 and I have yet to complete a playthrough where I sided with them, I can at least see the argument. I can see the space that would lead a person to take that route, genuinely believing they were doing what was best for the Commonwealth, and especially with the added weight of your long lost son giving the sales pitch. I think it's a facade of bullshit and self-interest, and the self-awareness of the Synths you interact with throughout the game (and especially in Far Harbor, which I think had more interesting storytelling than the rest of the game) but I am willing to hear the argument.
You can absolutely miss me with arguments that suggest that Caesar's Legion in New Vegas is anything but utterly, knowingly, deliberately evil.
But with Nuka-World, nothing in the hours of gameplay prior prepares you for suddenly taking charge of raiders, improving their conditions, listening to their dumb justifications for their behavior (after I mowed down the Operators I found some holotapes that I assumed speak to their origins and I rolled my eyes so hard I almost passed out) or doing anything but eradicating them from the Commonwealth. And doing that is exactly what the DLC really doesn't want you to do. The game does not in any way position you to accept raiders as heroic, marginalized, misunderstood, or worthy of your admiration, pity, time, sweat, effort, caps, or thoughts. It positions them throughout as enemies, plain and simple, and then wants to pull a 180 degree switch once you walk through the doors of Nuka World. It hasn't earned that switch. Not even a little bit. The flat, stale storytelling of Nuka-World is probably the most disappointing part of a game that I still enjoyed, but can't love the way I do its predecessors. I go into a Fallout game expecting my choices to matter. Fallout 4 gives you one big choice; side with the Institute or against it. Blow it up or don't. Sure, the faction you do pick then decides whether you blow up the Prydwen or shoot up the Railroad HQ. And seriously, why couldn't I at least try to hammer out peace between the Brotherhood of Steel and the Railroad? You could get the Brotherhood and the NCR to play nice in New Vegas. It was tricky, but it could be done. This entry in the series just gives you straight up or down choices that don't feel like they make a difference except in terms of which bodies hit the floor. I expected more than that.
And seriously, why can't I put ballistic fiber in any damn piece of clothing or hat that I want? WHY?
So what's your experience with Fallout 4? Enjoy it more than I do? Think it's the best entry in the series? For my money, New Vegas is tops, and probably one of my top 5 of all time.