I kind of want to revisit Fallout 4 again after this, mostly just to pull a Shamus Young and tear apart how bad the writing and setting in this game really are. And not just to complain about the nerdy stuff that eats away at me as I play (“WHY ARE THERE IRRADIATED SCORPIONS IN BOSTON?! HOW IS F.E.V. EVEYWHERE NOW!? THIS ISN’T WHAT THE BROTHERHOOD OF STEEL ARE ABOUT!”). No one’s motivations make any sense. There are giant, gaping holes in the plot and in the timeline. People do things for no reason, or worse, because the player character in a Bethesda game always needs to be the center of the universe (hence Preston Garvey’s immediate submission of the minutemen to you, the Clearly Better Person, despite knowing you for all of half a day). It’s a master class in how not to write video games.
There are moments that work – I like some of the computer logs I’ve found that help set a tone or express some genuine black humor or bleak desperation. But you get those small moments wandering around and digging into random vignettes scattered around the world. The actual story, taking place right here, right now, to you? Holy jeez.
Anyways, here’s the transcript:
One of the defining traits of western role playing games – descended as they are from the grand tradition of tabletop RPGs – is character building; using both story elements and gameplay systems to express a character to take on a given adventure. And while some recent RPGs attempt to force a role onto the player, like Deus Ex’s Adam Jensen or The Witcher’s Geralt, the tradition of character creation mostly continues: from big budget games like Dragon Age to more modestly budgeted and even crowdfunded productions. Pillars of Eternity came out earlier this year, and before that there was Wasteland 2 in 2014 which even comes with a little freeform biography section for the characters you make to establish backstory or motivation.
The original Wasteland was, of course, the precursor to Fallout, which also inherited the same open ended approach to role playing inspired by tabletop systems. When Bethesda purchased the Fallout franchise in 2007, however, the subsequent games were no longer niche isometric turn based role playing games: Fallout had become a sprawling open world shown in first person where every character is voiced and physical combat gets leaned on far more than other forms of problem solving. And this has created a tension in play styles that I think has come to a head in Fallout 4: it feels caught between its legacy as a tabletop-influenced role playing game that lets you create your own characters, and its current position as a huge, expensive open world action RPG.
To start, let’s take a look at how Fallout used to work. The original Fallout was actually intended to utilize GURPS, the Generic Universal Roleplaying System – a pen and paper role playing system designed to be applicable to pretty much any scenario. When that deal fell through, though, Black Isle invented their own system: the SPECIAL system, which took a number of ideas from GURPS while still being legally distinct. Combining core character stats, skills, and optional traits, the idea was to give players a really really broad palette from which to create characters. Want to make a Mr. Magoo type? Simply pump perception way down and luck way up, and you have a character with a much smaller vision radius but superhumanly good fortune. You could explore the wastes as a sleazy car salesperson by bringing charisma and perception way up but having endurance, strength, and agility be kind of low. Or maybe you’re a super gymnast with high endurance and agility, but slightly lower than average perception, luck, and intelligence. And maybe throw in the small frame or finesse traits. These stats ultimately determine your playstyle, yes, but they also say something about who your character is – what they’re good at and why they’re good at it. If a character has exceptional strength or intelligence, or if a character is particularly unlucky or ungraceful, that informs your understanding of that character. While you can improve your SPECIAL stats later in the game, opportunities to do so tend to be rare and/or expensive – so these core stats feel rather rigid and static and end up defining who your character is both in play style and in a story sense. The super science genius vault dweller is going to have a different story than the hulking strongman vault dweller.
It’s also important to point out that all characters start at average in all stats and have a few points to disperse, but not a lot – if you want to be good at more than one thing you have to start sacrificing other things. This also goes for the optional traits, which tend to have a major advantage and a major disadvantage attached to them. Take chem resistance, for example – if you have it addiction is far less likely, but the benefits of the drugs themselves are shorter lived. Or look at the jinxed perk, where you’re more likely to have a critical miss – but so is every other character near you. You don’t really get anything for free in this system – every positive comes with either its own negative or the opportunity cost to do something else. You can’t be super strong and super charismatic and super agile and super smart. It’s not designed for building super heroes. The whole SPECIAL system in Fallout 1 and 2 is designed to create someone with strength and with flaws, with skills that can help them get through the adventure to come but also the ability to run into situations where they need to run away or rely on friends or even simply fail and move on. Now let’s compare that to how SPECIAL works in Fallout 4.
The most immediate change is that the SPECIAL stats no longer default to five as a baseline with the ability to add points to some categories by taking points away from others. Instead we have a system where every character has a baseline of average at 1 and can only move up as they gain experience. And think about what this does to the roleplaying aspect of Fallout 4 as a result: First, it removes the opportunity for real weaknesses. You can no longer play a character who is a 95 pound weakling or is crazy unlucky or embarrassingly uncharismatic or clumsy to the extreme. So instead of having things you fail at or things that are weaknesses, we now have roundly average characters who simply have things they can’t do because they’re not amazing at them. Or rather, things that they can’t do because they’re not amazing at them yet. The other impact to role playing is that, because each stat is upgradeable after every level is gained the sense that these SPECIAL stats were somehow permanent or reflective of an underlying character has all but disappeared. With no levelcap in place, Fallout 4 is basically a grind to go from average at most things and okay at some things to a godlike superhuman in all skills and abilities.
To further remove your ability to sculpt a character or play style from this system, there are level caps for each perk. So, for example, you can’t just continue to dump points into sneaking once you have 3 Agility – you need to reach certain level thresholds (often more than 10 levels apart) in order to increase your stealthiness. This means that you’re forced to put points into other skills and perks, so really can’t specialize or play a “stealth character” so much as you can prioritize unlocking stealth first because that’s how you like to play.
What I’m getting at is that the character definition systems in Fallout 4 really don’t facilitate playing a role. At least not in a traditional role playing game sense – yeah, you get to pick your character’s name, gender, and face and yeah, there are some limitations on you early in the game before you’re super human that restrict your play style a bit. But the sense of creating a person with a set list of skills and abilities and that reflect a backstory or general personality type no longer is there. And this gets reinforced by the game’s other systems, most notably how dialog has changed.
Historically the game’s tried to provide a variety of dialog options to facilitate role playing in different ways. Low intelligence characters would have special dialog options, and high science, speechcraft, barter, or other skills could open up additional dialog branches. Again it’s systems existing to facilitate role playing in an environment where, because of the nature of computer RPGs in comparison to table tops, not every potentiality could be considered. Even Fallout 3, Bethesda’s first Fallout title, managed to hold onto this. In the intro sequence the player character gets thrown a birthday party attended by Butch, the resident bully. After the player gets a sweet role as a present from an elderly vault dweller, Butch demands his share. The game offered several options as a response – from the submissive to the passive aggressive to the aggressive aggressive. You could be snarky or you could be a tattletale or you could give in to his demands or you could try to broker peace by offering him half – each would say something about who you’re trying to play as.
In Fallout 4, however, that’s all been replaced by a simple four-option system that seems to present four options because… that’s how many face buttons are on a typical controller? It doesn’t make any sense – four is too many for a yes/no/please repeat setup, but too few for an expressive breadth of options. It almost always feels like a padded out yes/no or a really limited role playing setup. But worse than the arbitrarily consistent number of options is the fact that you get a terse word or two to describe your selections – often not really enough to know what some of the answers will entail. Like, look at this exchange. “You Used Him?” could be an accusatory tone, like, “You used him?”. Or it could be “You used him?”, expressing shock at The Institute working with such a scoundrel. It could be the disappointment of a parent hearing that their son got his hands dirty: “You used him? You were involved?” Without any additional context those three words could go any of those ways and possibly more. This problem plagues any dialog option that doesn’t warrant a yes/no, and sometimes even those get confusing with the “sarcastic” choice. LIke when Piper offers to help if you do her interview: There’s the option to agree to do it, to not do it, to ask what it’s about, and to… “sarcastic.” Is it a yes to the interview? A no? Does it matter? Who knows! What’s odd is that this isn’t the only game to suffer from this: Mass Effect has had this problem for years and for some reason Bethesda thought it was a good idea to emulate here. Deus Ex Human Revolution also does it, but it at least explains what each option is. But neither of those games are renouned for their dialog options, and Fallout 4 is arguably worse than either.
The point is, the role of dialog has been greatly diminished. Not complexly excised, mind you – you can still end a few quests without combat by passing a charisma check. But it no longer feels like another avenue to expression; you’re no longer looking at a series of five or even ten options and wondering what your character would say. You’re looking at four (always four) short phrases, trying to infer what they really mean, and realizing they almost all amount to false choices or some variation of a choice between “Yes” and “Not now.”
And all of this sounds really negative, but I’m trying hard not to come off that way – it would be easy to stamp my feet and dismiss all of this as quote-unquote dumbing down. And… well, okay, maybe the dialog system is a little insulting to their audience with it’s “let’s not make them read too much or we’ll scare them away” approach. But a lot of these decisions make sense when you look at the game for what Bethesda seems to be trying to make. As a game developer Bethesda has its own aesthetic – or at least a series of interesting fixations. Their games tend to be a bit genre-defying; exploration based action RPGs that’re as much wandering simulators as they are Diablos. It’s this wholly unique thing that doesn’t really get made by anyone else, a game with all of the loot gathering and stat mongering of an ARPG, but much of the gameplay is spent quietly roaming the countryside for points of interest and discovering the stories (and items) that await you there. And they’ve always been games that don’t really value character expression so much as they value player expression. And that, I think, is one of the key differences between Fallout 1, 2, and to some extent New Vegas, and Fallout 4 and (to some extent) Fallout 3.
When you stop trying to role play and start just doing things that are cool to you, the player, Fallout 4 becomes a fundamentally different game. And I’m sure there’s a lot of people going “Well duh!” right now, but realize that if you’ve been following the franchise since day 1 it’s both a profound shift and also a subtle one that’s hard to pick up on. You still have a character creation screen, you still have a skill system, and you still have dialog options and relationships with characters. But none of those are about the guy or gal you’ve made. They’re about you, the player. You get to decide what characters you want to bring with you on this adventure. You get to build your own custom guns and custom power armor. Heck, you get to paint the armor with cool patterns and change the color of the headlight. You get to build your own custom villages and play mayor! And as you play you can focus your perk unlocks to your preferred play style! These choices are never framed as “What would your character do?” they’re framed as “What would you want to do; how do you want to express yourself?” The player character, in a very real sense, doesn’t exist in Fallout 4 – the character is you. And it makes sense, right? If their aesthetic is something of a blend of walking simulators and ARPGs, then it stands to reason they treat their characters in a similar manner – that is, a stand in for the player with the recognition that the avatar means nothing. And that is, like, a huge shift for a game that used to want to use tabletop role playing conventions and was subtitled “A Post Nuclear Roleplaying Game.”
And when the game is viewed through this lens – a power fantasy game built for the player about exploring wastes, learning its histories, and collecting its loot while expressing themselves in various ways – it succeeds tremendously. It’s hard to say I didn’t enjoy some of the more absurd moments. And the vignettes left on computer logs or in notes, or even in just the artful placement of a corpse and some items, can be surprisingly effective. And how cool is it to have hotrod power armor chilling in a base I built myself? Yes, it’s a far more shallow, popcorny experience than the more cerebral act of taking on another person’s role through statistics and dice rolls, but it kind of had to be. Fallout wouldn’t be the smash hit it’s become (and it couldn’t justify the huge investment) if it were a niche adaptation of pen and paper staples.
But even though the game’s much more enjoyable when you don’t try to force the concept of roleplaying onto it, there’s still a tension there; there’s a lot of legacy bits from Fallout that simply make no sense anymore. A lot of perks are crammed into weird SPECIAL slots: Why does perception make you better at demolitions? Why does charisma make you immune to being an alcoholic? Why does your intelligence give your PIPBoy a new feature? I feel like a straight-up skill tree (which the new system basically emulates) would be more honest and straightforward.
But the biggest issue is the few times they do ask you to role play. The shift back to “wait, no, the player character does matter” is sometimes abrupt, and rules change arbitrarily. You’re supposed to go after your son, which by any measure should be a character’s number one priority… but the game encourages you to screw around for days and days until you do another story mission, at which point your character goes back to being a driven, desperate parent. And while player agency is usually tossed aside in the interests of the core story – like how you can’t talk your way out of fighting Kellogg, which as a charisma-based character was infuriating – there are times it’s suddenly reintroduced without warning. For example, you can’t kill the first courser you go on a mission with and free the synth you’re sent to retrieve because you haven’t had a few father-son moments the game wants to be sure you’ve had. But once you’ve had those conversations, the player can suddenly decide that capturing synths isn’t for them and they can turn against the Institute. The only way to find out whether it’s an option is to attack the courser and see if they’re immortal for story reasons. If they die, great, you got to express yourself in the game space. If not, well, hey, we have a story to tell and we don’t want you messing it up. The game occasionally asks you to pick between factions or choose how your character would get out of a situation, and it’s always awkward – the game doesn’t put in enough effort to role playing to get us to really care about the narrative stakes and the game has serious trouble communicating the mechanical pros and cons, so most of these decisions feel like shots in the dark. There are all these little moments where the game wakes up and remembers it’s supposed to be an RPG and they feel forced and the options they offer feel flaccid or arbitrary.
So I find myself really torn on how to feel about Fallout 4. On one hand it is a continuation of a franchise that used to pride itself on a very player-character-centric view of the world, one that emphasized creating a character and playing a role. And the fact that it kinda looks – at least on the surface – like it’s still engaged in that approach (and even occasionally asks me to make actual role playing decisions) makes the game feel frustrating at times. But I’m also really a fan of engaging with games on the their own terms; to judge whether they’re a success or failure based on what they aim to do rather than what I wish they did, and in that sense I think the game’s terrific. So do I celebrate the fact that Fallout is now this really entertaining if shallow combination of player expression and exploration? I mean, I like both of those things! Or do I lament the loss of deeper role playing options in exchange for an emphasis on combat that, frankly, isn’t that great? Is it okay to do so even if that’s not what the game’s trying to do anymore? My current answer is to feel both, Schrodinger’s Cat style. Every time I’m forced to kill a character I feel I should be able to talk down from combat I hate the game a little more. But I also can’t stop playing it – there’s always another story, item, or adventure just over the horizon. And hey: When I really want to tell my story about the sleazy medic with a shady past in the post apocalypse, there’s always Wasteland 2.