The Missing Story

I’ve been try­ing to think through some­thing that sort of nagged my hind brain for weeks: Fall­out 4. Specif­i­cal­ly what is so off about it. The new set­tle­ment dynam­ic is pret­ty cool, and it’s fun, etc., and I have real­ly enjoyed play­ing it and I want to fin­ish it, but some­thing did­n’t quite work for it.

I final­ly pieced togeth­er was seemed to weak: the sto­ry! The sto­ries are all retreads of pre­vi­ous Fall­out sto­ries. Bethes­da broke no new ground with this title. This is a seri­ous loss, since despite the set­tle­ment dynam­ic, the mechan­ics of the game are the exact same as Fall­out 3 and New Vegas as well: noth­ing changed much.

In Fall­out 3, Bethes­da updates an old game series, one so old it had time to fade a bit in mem­o­ry. Even though lost-child-and-father tropes are very done, the sheer new­ness of see­ing the Fall­out uni­verse ren­dered in the way it was real­ly mat­tered: it had been a decade since the genre-defy­ing Fall­out 2, and while the in-jokes and macabre silli­ness remained, some of the sto­ries Fall­out 3 told were heart­felt and com­pelling: not just the Lone Wan­der­er’s quest to find his father (who was him­self seek­ing to cure the Waste­land of its poi­so­nous water), but the sid­e­quests where you could find com­pli­cat­ed dis­cus­sions about tyran­ny and choice, as well as con­stant loss and heart­break.

Fall­out 3 did not con­tain the most orig­i­nal sto­ries out there, but it pre­sent­ed them in such a nov­el and com­pelling way that it seemed to be almost a rev­o­lu­tion. Fall­out 4 had a chance to cap­i­tal­ize on this, but for some rea­son Bethes­da decid­ed to remain con­ser­v­a­tive and essen­tial­ly present the same sto­ries with an updat­ed graph­ics engine. The basic plot feels recy­cled from 3: instead of child seek­ing father, it’s father seek­ing child. Some of the side quests are recy­cled as well: the Forged are just a retread of The Pitt DLC from Fall­out 3, for exam­ple. It just falls flat. Hell, even the music — a HUGE world build­ing draw for the pre­vi­ous two games, is half-recy­cled. The songs are the same!

To be clear: Fall­out 4 is a lot of fun, and I sus­pect if I did­n’t play Fall­out 3 as much as I did, I would have more good things to say about it. But this is now the fifth episod­ic install­ment of this uni­verse (at least; I’m only includ­ing New Vegas as it was also a very big title release) and it all feels a bit worn through.

The Fall­out uni­verse has enor­mous poten­tial for sto­ry telling. You got a glimpse of this poten­tial in the Oper­a­tion: Anchor­age expan­sion, where the play­er enters a VR sim­u­la­tion of a ground war against Chi­na played out in the Alaskan wilder­ness. Even this is played straight, as a sin­gle bat­tle you have to make your way through (and its dra­mat­ic pow­er is neutered con­sid­er­ably by estab­lish­ing up front that it is just a sim­u­la­tion). Fall­out 4 hint­ed at how great this could be by hav­ing the sto­ry begin with a char­ac­ter who is a retired sol­dier before the bombs fall, but then punt­ed by fast-foward­ing right to the exact same place where Fall­out 3 began: a fam­i­ly trau­ma in a vault where­by leav­ing for the world out­side is how the play­er learns about it.

But think about the sto­ry­telling (and gam­ing!) poten­tial for a long nar­ra­tive arc set in the war with the Chi­nese. Or bet­ter yet, intro­duce the play­er to the uni­verse by hav­ing him sur­vive the bombs, where he has to stave off the grow­ing anar­chy and bar­barism of the for­mer Unit­ed States and cre­ate her own set­tle­ments to try to achieve some form of nor­mal­cy.

Fall­out has ele­ments for this sort of thing every­where. The entire sub­plot about the Broth­er­hood of Steel, and how an alter­na­tive mil­i­tarist orga­ni­za­tion would spring up out of the ash­es of a nuclear holo­caust, is a great fod­der for a videogame nar­ra­tive: you play as the founder, and must win over adver­saries and gath­er allies while gain­ing areas of con­trol, set­ting the stage for expand­ing from south­ern Cal­i­for­nia (where Fall­out and Fall­out 2 were set) to the East Coast (where Fall­outs 3 and 4 are set).

Nor­mal­ly a cliched sto­ry isn’t the biggest deal in the uni­verse — after all, most games are built on clich­es (or at least don’t do much to chal­lenge genre tropes) because that’s part­ly what they’re sell­ing: you kind of know what you’re get­ting with a first per­son shoot­er, an RPG, and so on. And that seems to be what Bethes­da did here — they val­ued sto­ries that would­n’t chal­lenge or sur­prise because that’s not what they were sell­ing.

But it’s hard to see that as some­thing oth­er than a missed oppor­tu­ni­ty. The Fall­out uni­verse is a rich one, full of sto­ries beyond what hap­pened on the east coast of the Unit­ed States 200 years after a nuclear holo­caust. I hope, in future install­ments of the series, the actu­al­ly decide to explore those sto­ries instead of just rehash­ing the same old bor­ing grind.

I recent­ly played a game that stands in start con­trast to Fall­out 4: Fire­watch. It’s a tiny thing, playable to com­ple­tion in under six hours, and the mechan­ics of the game play are extreme­ly lim­it­ed. Even the art­work, while beau­ti­ful, is min­i­mal­ist. But the emo­tion­al core of that game, the way a sim­ple text-based intro­duc­tion punch­es you in the gut, the way every­thing about its pac­ing, struc­ture, and feel con­vey the loss and shame of the main char­ac­ter, is incred­i­bly well done. Where Fall­out announces the filth and revul­sion of dai­ly life but does­n’t acknowl­edge it (as a char­ac­ter from 21st cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca plopped into a waste­land we are meant to find it per­fect­ly nor­mal to be attacked by, and then eat the flesh of, mutat­ed giant scor­pi­ons), Fire­watch wal­lows in the lone­li­ness and painful beau­ty of soli­tude in the Rock­ies. The intru­sion of oth­er peo­ple is unwel­come and always a sign of trou­ble; both for the main char­ac­ter and for the peo­ple he encoun­ters.

I will be replay­ing Fire­watch at least once more because of that: its feel is so vivid, and even though the sto­ry it tells falls flat at the end, its emo­tion­al core car­ries you through repeat­ed plays. Fall­out 4 has no depth to itself, noth­ing under­neath the grey bitmaps and retro­fu­tur­ism. That depth is des­per­ate­ly need­ed for the sequel; I can’t imag­ing pay­ing anoth­er $60 for the same old busi­ness in anoth­er Bethes­da Fall­out game. They’ve blown their wad with this one, and it’s time to move the game and the sto­ry to the next lev­el.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.