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.

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