Diminishing Returns at the End of the World

I finally figured it out, and it’s embarrassing that it took me so long. I’ve recently started playing Fallout 4 for what is probably the fourth time, the previous three unsuccessful attempts at finishing it. Which is a problem in its own right. It has probably the worst plot setup of any modern game, if only because of its quality in many other respects.

SPOILERS AHEAD

Your child is kidnapped and your wife shot, and yet the game allows you the opportunity for a gleeful romp through the wasteland until you decide to finally go figure it the fuck out. Yes, it’s a facet of nearly every RPG that you can kind of waylay the main quest for however long you want. But! The start of the main quest is not usually so imperative as chasing down the kidnappers of your son and last living connection to anything approaching normality. Think about it: You wake up after 200 years, watch your wife get blown away by some mercenary dude in armor made out of tires, and your son taken away by another guy in a hazmat suit. Then you stumble through the Vault you’ve been secreted in, fighting your way through giant mutated cockroaches, and out into the vast unknown of an irradiated wasteland. A bit of a trip, right? Wrong. You’re as cheerful as ever to meet the acquaintance of Preston Garvey, cosplayer of an era he surely would have been able to piece together by listening to the recordings scattered throughout a mysteriously electrified Museum of Freedom. Even talking to your old robot butler, Codsworth, the first NPC you meet in the game, the main character has the emotional depth of a sociopath’s approximation of an appropriate response to the situation.

Which I suppose was a long winded, ranting way of finally getting me to my point. Nearly every Fallout has followed the same formula, with a notable exception being Fallout 2, which turns the genesis of the story on its head by requiring that you delve into a Vault rather than emerging from one. The Vault, in this instance, is the frightening and unfamiliar thing. A suitable followup, not at all a carbon copy. Queue Bethesda’s remakes. Each one: emerging from a Vault in some feebly different way. Fallout: New Vegas, a product of some of the original Fallout team at Obsidian? No Vault. You’re just some fuck. But tired replication isn’t even Fallout 4’s most glaring error. It’s that you have no real instigator for the plot beyond the player’s own decision. And before anyone suggests “it’s not a bug, it’s a feature”, this can be implemented well and absolutely is not here.

Fallout 1–going way back, I know–had similarly dire circumstances that saw you leave your life as a Vault Dweller behind: The water purification chip on which the entirety of the Vault relies to, you guessed it, drink serviceably potable water, has malfunctioned. You, the Vault Dweller, must go out into the wasteland and find a new one before everyone fucking dies. And die they will. Take too long and run out the most gruesome “days until” counter of all? Dead. You can’t fuck around for too long. There are ways to push the counter back. You can arrange for a shipment of water to reach the Vault, although for a ton of currency. But you still need to get that chip, my boy. Does failing this quest end the game? Yes. It’s a game after all. But conceivably you’re still out there wandering the wasteland in the wake of your failure. Game logic aside, you don’t *need* to get the chip. It would just be very helpful and good-hearted of you to do so.

In Fallout 4, you do need, however, to get your fucking kid back. Unless you are indeed a total sociopath, as mentioned above. But herein lies another problem, Fallout 4 breaks from tradition in one of only two significant ways, and it’s a disaster for the plot. You are an Actual Guy With An Actual Life. Do you get to choose his name, his appearance, whether it’s a ‘he’ at all? Yes. But that’s it. You still operate within the certain parameters that you’re a decorated war hero with a nice family and warm, loving home. Which sets the stage for the next departure. All previous incarnations, especially those developed by the original team, pretty well convey that the era before the Day the Bombs Fell deeply rooted in 1950’s America on steroids. The cheery veneer of everyday life was played up to extravagant ends and the extravagance of everyday life was such that even your average car was nuclear powered. This last item is perhaps the only characteristic that Bethesda carried over with Fallout 4. The wrecked, junked cars are indeed nuclear powered and will explode in a bright, fiery display when shot enough. But beyond this bright enamel of normality, everything was a totalitarian nightmare. Constant war, summary executions, political persecutions. Not a *nice* atmosphere in which you’re only concern is prepping to give a speech at the local veterans’ club. It’s absurd! It drives me insane!

But it’s to be expected, isn’t it? Across all forms of media these days–whether video games, movies, TV, or music–we’re getting soulless resurrection after soulless resurrection. Endless repeats of franchises that should have stayed dead. The sequel to the remake of the prequel to the original. It never ends. What can Bethesda do, but serve up an experience for the player? And only an experience, its approximation of what a Fallout game is *supposed* to be. The aim is not to create art. Just to replicate it. And more than this, the end result is a defanged and peppy knockoff. Nothing is permitted to be grim or carry any reminder that there is a world outside which is less than bright and shiny. Which is to be expected when everything is turned into a commodity, nothing left sacred. All they can hope to do is create a vast amusement park ride with enough attractions to distract from the fact you’re paying $7 for a bottle of soda. And, to their credit, they have. Fallout 4 is pretty fun to play. For a while. Then, eventually, after you’ve ridden enough of the rides, you realize just how much the soda costs and how long the drive home will be after you’ve wasted probably your entire day on something that wasn’t near as fun as you imagined–all just to make up for how utterly meaningless it was to begin with.

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