(WARNING: a lot of spoilers)
Fallout 4 has turned out to be a mix of elements that are sometimes excellent and sometimes frustratingly brush up against the edges of the more interesting game it did not become. It’s full of interesting side quests and then a main questline that always seems kind of confused and hurried.
First, I should say that the game has a lot of fun moments and little bits like building a structure at Oberland Station with a dormitory on the bottom floor and a bar on top. Chairs of all kinds, and bar stools, and a bar. A jukebox and soft lights and knickknacks on the walls. Sitting at a picnic table and seeing everyone mill about and drink and smoke after a long day of farming. Little things that make the world feel alive, for a moment.
This is an off-the-dome estimate but I’d say something like ninety (maybe ninety-five) percent of the quests amount to: talking to a character, going to a location, killing everyone at that location (one of the enemies will either be named or legendary depending on whether the quest is randomly generated or not) and maybe retrieving an item, then returning to the first character and either telling them you killed everyone or giving them the item you received from killing everyone.
I have found one (1) quest that allowed me to perform intelligence checks to find a solution to a problem.
Basically, the game railroads you into murder almost all of the time. This has no perceptible effect on your character, for better or for worse. Raider dialogue suggest they get skittish about the possibility of synths showing up at the doorstep, but they don’t give a shit when it’s you. The nuclear apocalypse seems to have caused an unexpected mutation: Everyone has developed a new gland, somewhere in their neck I assume, that allows them to perceive unerringly when they are near the person to talk to when it’s time to go do a bullshit milk-run mission, and that person is you. Sometimes, when you have performed enough tasks for a character, other characters will indicate they’re aware of the tasks you’ve performed and that they would like you to perform a task for them now. Your actions have no other cumulative effect. Inescapably, you are personally responsible for a mountain of corpses, most of which were just people defending their turf from the blood-sodden murderous maniac who kicked down their door and started blowing people’s heads off.
This paradox colors the entire game. Preston Garvey is that kid you continued to be friends with in middle school but were increasingly embarrassed to be seen with, and he wasn’t doing anything wrong necessarily but you could tell that his values and interests were growing irreconcilably distant from your own. You become the General of the Minutemen, and sometimes if a settlement gets raided and there are Minutemen around while you are there, they will help you defend the settlement. This is the only useful function any of the Minutemen perform except for giving you quests they inexplicably are unwilling or unable to go on themselves (they never even do anything off-camera). This same function, minus the quest-giving, is also fulfilled by any settlers you’ve got kicking around who will immediately open fire on any nearby threat to their settlement, making the Minutemen even more superfluous because the only thing in the game that can actually kill settlers is you. Other than that, you are the only member of the Minutemen doing any work at all, though Preston and Sturges can frequently be seen idly hammering nails into the outer wall of a well-preserved house, having selected the one part of the entire fucking town that doesn’t need a touch-up and proceeding to touch it up. This important labor precludes them from engaging in any of the tasks that compose the Minutemen’s mission statement.
Preston Garvey is that kid who wants to make a zine, and all of his conversations with you are about his zine, and he wants you to help him with his zine and he’s got a lot of homework right now so you wind up doing the whole thing for him. You typeset everything and do all the layouts and sneak into the library to photocopy everything. “Man,” he says when it’s printed, “that looks good. That looks real good. We did it, man.”
Sturges will help you teleport into the Institute, although he is not the only person who can do so. Regardless of how much effort he expends, he will talk about how we saved the day once the credits roll. Someone elsewhere noted that when you first meet Sturges, he is typing away at the keyboard of a terminal. When you look at the terminal yourself, it is locked. Sturges was just kind of hammering away at keys and hoping no one would notice.
The protagonist always, always, always sounds like a voice actor who’s doing his best, and “his best” involves inserting no real personality into anything he says or does.
* * *
A lot of parts of the game feel like they were put together by people who weren’t talking to each other and had no intermediary between them, even parts that should be closely connected. The companions almost always feel like hurdles to clear, without much thought put into making them feel like anything else. Cait is basically amoral and she likes it when you are mean to people. She likes it when you steal things and she likes it when you pick locks in front of her. Piper is fairly morally upstanding, or what passes for it in this game, and she does not like it when you steal but she does like it when you pick locks in front of her. If you pick enough locks in front of Cait, she will eventually confess to you that she has a drug addiction and asks for your help. In this case she told me she has heard of a place called Vault 95 where rumors exist of a solution that might help her. Approximately three days earlier in-game, Cait and I had been to Vault 95 and methodically gone through the place, killing every living thing inside. This appeared to slip her mind and I had no option for reminding her that, say, the blood from the place’s inhabitants was probably still crusting up her hair. Elsewhere in the game, it’s quite possible for me to have killed a named raider by accident, later to run into the person who asks me to kill that raider and to inform them that I already have. Sometimes, after you have been asked a couple dozen times to go kill super mutants and then gone and done so, and talked to Strong the super mutant about super mutants and what super mutants are and what they do, someone will ask you to go kill super mutants and you will have the option of asking, “What’s a…super mutant?”
I got Cait clean, and eventually I had picked enough locks in front of Cait that she wanted to discuss her Feelings. There was a romance option at the end of that conversation, and though my character’s Charisma score was high, the option was highlighted in red meaning I had little chance of succeeding, even if I’d wanted to (I did not). I therefore told her that we were the best of friends and I wouldn’t have it any other way. This made her happy. When I came back to the town I’d sent her to, she said, “I know I’ve said it before, but…” and then repeated word-for-word the confession that led to the romance check. It was still highlighted in red. The game is at once terrified that I will miss the chance to sleep with a digital character, but also wants to provide me with roadblocks to doing so, even after I’ve turned down the opportunity. Cait has now said this entire spiel to me three times. The game really wants you to fuck her. The game really does not want you to fuck her.
Cait does not like it when you flirt with other women in front of her, but if you dismiss her in favor of Piper or vice-versa, she will suggest a threesome.
The companions will tell you their stories if you do enough things they like in front of them. They rarely have any strong stake in the game’s story. They might dislike certain actions, or siding against factions to which they’re sympathetic, but mostly they’ll go along with what you do. There are no dealbreakers. Cait was a slave for five years and has horrific memories of it, but if you attempt to sell a child into slavery in front of her, she won’t like it but she’ll get over it. On the other hand, it’s possible to be kind to people in front of her too many times, at which point she will have had enough, thank you very much, and part company with you.
* * *
Preston Garvey is a load. Preston Garvey is just a goddamn fucking load.
* * *
At one point in the game, you encounter an old woman who’s manic with anger, holding up a shotgun and demanding you go away, because she believes she is a synth. She tells you that she had a grandson, and one night while sitting on watch with her gun in her lap, she must have fallen asleep or something because when she woke up her grandson had been shot to death and no one else was around. She must be responsible, she tells you. She’s a synth, she has to be. There’s no other explanation she can think of, and she is mad with grief. You can talk her into lowering her gun and then offer her sympathetic words, telling her that what happened is not her fault, that she’s not a synth. She will calm down a little and thank you for offering your perspective and say feels better now.
You can then go upstairs and break into her terminal. Due to layout of the building, there’s no way to do so without encountering her and having a conversation with her first. If you do so, you can read about her nightmares and also a diary entry in which she recounts the night she fell asleep with her gun in her lap, and when she woke up her grandson had been shot to death and no one else was around. This experience convinced her she is a synth, says the diary. She can think of no other explanation, and she is mad with grief.
This then enables you to go downstairs and open a new line of dialogue with her where you confront her about her grandson. If you do, she breaks down and says she might as well tell you the whole story: One night, while she was sitting on watch with her gun in her lap, she fell asleep. When she woke up, her grandson had been shot to death, and no one else was around. She is certain that she herself is responsible, and that she is a synth. She can think of no other explanation, and she is mad with grief. You can talk her down, and she will calm down a little and thank you for offering your perspective and say she feels better now.
Should you choose to kill her, you will find out she is not a synth. No explanation for what actually happened is ever given. I checked the wiki.
* * *
Sometimes, Fallout 4 is a child, insisting that you play only within the tightly-defined rules it has come up with and ignoring you if you don’t. You are pretending to be Superman, and it is pretending to be Lex Luthor, and when Superman punches Lex Luthor, it petulantly insists that you did not do that and it is not hurt. “This rock is Kryptonite, actually,” it says, holding up a pebble. “You’re weak now, you have to fall down.” You’re not. You don’t. It might be something if the game would throw a tantrum if you refused to play along, but it never does. It just pretends you didn’t do that.
When I finally made it to the Institute and found out what happened to my infant son from the beginning of the game, I was honestly pretty excited on a storytelling level. It seemed pretty meaty: You’ve finally found your son and he’s older than you and he’s also basically Hitler. This was what I kept coming back to. The Institute is committing slavery, but they’re also able to make new slaves at the touch of a button and wipe the memories of runaway slaves. They create entities that can think and feel and then insist those entities cannot think or feel, and punish them for acting as though they can. They are also making great scientific strides that could finally, after centuries, lift humanity out of the shitpile the world has become. What do you do? What can you do?
I have a longstanding policy in the Fallout games of killing slavers on sight, but this was my son, for God’s sake. Then, while strolling through the Institute, I overheard a conversation between two scientists in which I learned the synths experience REM sleep and are dreaming. At a terminal, I learned the paterfamilias of the Warwick family had been abducted and tortured until they could make a convincing copy of him, then presumably killed, far underground, never seeing his loved ones again, never understanding why. The copy would gather data about the family’s farm and then, once they had enough data, the whole family would be killed, likely by the hand of an entity they believed to be their husband, their father.
A scientist turned to me in a room in the Synth Retention Bureau wing and said, “The synths may seem human, but don’t let that fool you. They’re not.”
The shotgun blast tore her head clean off her shoulders, bouncing twice I think when it hit the ground, a trail of blood marking its path through the air for a quarter-second. Two Institute coursers drew their guns and walked towards me, directly into a garden of hastily-placed plasma mines. Their artificial bodies ripped into pieces, flinging everywhere. I methodically walked around the Institute, killing everyone in sight. Most of the Institute’s denizens drew guns in a futile attempt to stop me, whereas others cowered behind bulky terminals, hoping I’d miss them. I did not.
For their crimes, there were no courts I could appeal to. No police to call. There were no judges, no juries. Just me. In a lawless land, there was no difference between what was moral and what I could not be stopped from doing.
Everyone was complicit. Everyone had to die.
A cloud of white lab coats appeared on the periphery of my vision alongside a few laser blasts. I spun around, unloading exploding bullets into them, not seeing what I was firing at. My son was one of them, and he died, like they all died. I did not stop. I launched a mini nuke into the center of the place, a cash-register sound and experience tally informing me that I had sheared all life from the Earth in a fifty-foot radius or so.
By the time I was done, there were only three sentient beings alive in The Institute: Two children (one synth, one human), and a synth who had not attacked me. He wandered among the corpses serenely, occasionally stopping to say things like, “You must be so proud of what Father has built!” I got on the elevator and left, receiving a warning that I’d better run, that they would get me for this. I don’t know who was supposed to be speaking.
The Institute was now a tomb, a formerly sterile place of clean white hallways now littered with mouldering bodies and smeared with chunks of viscera. Heads and legs and eyeballs lay alongside dropped coffee cups and folders and pens. Two children and one happy idiot ambled aimlessly, alone, uncomprehending, the living buried with the dead.
I returned to Sanctuary, to unload some of what I’d picked up down there – the lab coats of my son and of the Institute head scientists. I got a notification that the Castle needed to be defended. The last remnant of the Institute’s synths descended upon my base in a desperate final assault, only to be torn to pieces by the Castle’s defenses and my personal arsenal. The masters lay dead, and now so did the servants who’d sided with them. As my minigun spun to a stop, its red-hot barrels cooling, the last synth in the Institute’s army clattered to the ground.
And Preston Garvey turned to me and said, “Hey, I know a way we can finally strike back at the Institute.”