I don’t remember when I first played a Fallout game (I think it may have been Fallout 2 on someone’s computer around 1999, or so) but I do remember enjoying the experience a great deal. The storyline was immediately engaging and the universe was cool and weird and exciting.
Which, of course, is why it all appealed to me.
I never got any of the games for computer as I’ve never been big on playing games on computer. However, when Fallout 3 was announced for Playstation 3, my remembrance of briefly playing Fallout 2 meant that I was excited to experience the world of the post-apocalyptic Capital Wasteland.
And what an experience it was.
Throughout both Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, the tales of the wasteland were not lost on me. Those tiny interactions that improved both the depth of the setting and the darkly comedic tone were easily my favorite aspects of the games. The alignment system, called ‘karma,’ meant that I could play through more than once, alternating between divinely-inspired heroism and the most malefic forms of villainy, or even neutrality (‘If I don’t make it, tell my wife, “Hello.”’).
When I entered into the world of Fallout 4, I excitedly made my plans. As usual, I would make my first run through as a hero. Once that had finished, I would then play as the most evil bastard you could imagine. However, this plan soon hit a snag: the karma system was gone.
I was shocked, obviously.
Without some system to determine how NPCs in the world reacted to your actions, how could you be good or evil?
As I played through the game, I hit upon the same frustrations that many others have complained about — the lack of choice and the linear plot, alongside the concept that, no matter how much of a bastard you try to be as the main character, everyone seems to think that you are just dandy (or they repeatedly try to kill you until you kill them, which offers its own frustration as some of them are impossible to kill because they are important to the plot). After some initial annoyance with this, I relented and played through the main plot.
As it unfolds, the big storyline is remarkably predictable and, frankly, kind of dumb. It still had those elements of Fallout that I love, but it wasn’t nearly as engaging as 3 or as insane as New Vegas. Perhaps, looking back on it, Fallout 4 had its own brand of quirkiness that I did find appealing, but it was hard to notice while I was slogging through the plot.
And then, as they say, everything changed…
I’m not going to spoil this game for anyone, but at the point at which one would imagine the plot entering into its penultimate chapter, the third act introduces the true point of the game’s morality exercise. Without warning, the plot that had been hackneyed and foreseeable undergoes a metamorphosis and it changes the way the player engages with everything.
Rather than choosing good, evil, or neutrality, the player is forced to make a choice between opposing viewpoints that will not allow the other viewpoints to exist. No single one is good or evil, but rather prioritizes variations of morality in different ways. Each one presents a variation on what is important in this world that has been blasted to ruins and choosing any one of them forces the player to compromise some other aspect of the world.
Well, like the Rush classic, Tom Sawyer, says, ‘If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.’
I saved and played through one of the endings. The result, especially since I had opted to play a more heroic figure, was… disconcerting, so I went back and tried again. I played through each potential story ending, analyzing the result, very specifically, with my character. Each choice had its own antagonizing results: loss of NPCs I enjoyed, loss of allies that were great to have around, loss of resources that were remarkably useful, potential loss of equipment that was advanced beyond what I had discovered — no choice was simple.
And this was the antagonizing aspect of Fallout 4 that actually made it fun.
When the main story is complete, when all the enemies are dead and one side stands tall because of your character’s actions, there is a sense of loss that you feel no matter the side you’ve aligned with, and there is still much left to do.
When the credits have rolled, each faction issues a statement to the player which basically amounts to: ‘Good job, hero! Now, the real work starts!’
This begins a series of random missions based off the needs of that particular organization that can, to an extent, become repetitive, but are still generally satisfying. This; along with the inevitable downloadable content yet to be released; provides more forays into the Commonwealth and gives more opportunities for exploration, adventure, experience points, and loot.
As I await the DLC, I will continue to offer my brand of protection to the Commonwealth. I’ll seek out those last few stories that are threaded through the game and protect the people who are descendants of the brave souls that survived the apocalypse. I’ll build up the communities that have placed themselves under my protection and build my arsenal and skill set in preparation for the challenges to come. I will journey with those allies who are willing to fight alongside me and help them find their own paths.
But I will do all this knowing that I had to make sacrifices to get to this point. Good people died along with the bad and the Commonwealth is forever scarred with the remains of those I was forced to destroy.
But that’s what war is: sacrifice.
And, ‘War.’ as Hellboy’s Ron Perlman tells us in the beginning of each Fallout game, ‘War never changes.’
Fallout 4, ultimately, took me on the journey I’ve come to expect from Fallout and, in fact, upped the emotional ante a great deal. It was a powerful journey that has kept me playing to explore the various layers of gameplay that are available and have left me excited for what is to come.
In the end, it was engaging.
It was cool.
It was weird.
All my favorite things.