Gradual Evolution, Not Rapid Mutation

by Arthur B

With Fallout 4 Bethesda don't make any big risks, but they do refine their process markedly.
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Playing one of Bethesda's Elder Scrolls or Fallout games is, to a certain extent, what I do instead of taking a long vacation to somewhere unfamiliar. I pick a time when I'm going to have ample days off work, I sit down with the game, I take breaks to eat, drink, and exercise so that I don't end up like one of the feral ghouls prowling the wasteland in the game, and I plough through the content until I am done. Like one of those absurdly long tubes of Jaffa Cakes that you can get this season, or one of those boxed sets you can get of a fat stack of an artist's albums in lovingly rendered CD-sized replicas of the original vinyl sleeves, Bethesda's RPGs aren't things you indulge in in moderation - they're optimised for excess, binging on them and wallowing in them until you cease to have fun.

Fallout 4 has maintained that tradition. In fact, Fallout 4 has followed the lead of Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas in more or less every significant respect. To a large extent, it is the same game as either of them. Equally, though, I think it's the best iteration of that particular game.

Fallout 4 kicks off with a little prelude set before the nuclear war that gives the series its title; in a mid-21st Century which looks a lot like the 1950s, you play either the mother or father of a typical nuclear family - your pick, with both of them being customisable to a large extent, and with your baby boy Shaun having an appearance determined in part by how you craft the appearance of Mom and Pop. On a sunny day leading up to Halloween in your happy suburb just outside Boston, the nice man from Vault-Tec - the corporation that sets up and runs all the fallout shelters - stops by to sign your family up for the local shelter, Vault 111. As luck would have it, nuclear war breaks out mere minutes later, and you and the family have to hustle to the Vault to get in.

However, as veteran players of the series know Vault-Tec regarded the Vaults as opportunities for rampant social experimentation, and you never quite know what you're getting with any particular Vault. In the case of Vault 111, what you get is cryogenic experimentation - you and your spouse (your spouse carrying Shaun) are hustled into "decontamination pods" which turn out to be freeze chambers, and you are put on ice for the next two hundred years or so. At some point during the long freeze, a mysterious group of individuals unfreeze you enough to become conscious of their presence and watch what they are up to through your pod's viewport, but they don't open your pod, leaving you helpless to witness them cracking open your spouse's pod, snatching Shaun, and shooting your spouse dead, before they refreeze you (but not before making an oblique comment about you being the "backup"). A while later, a systems glitch unfreezes you again and opens your pod, freeing you to escape Vault 111, explore what has become of Boston, and try and track down your baby boy - or at least find out what has become of him in the indeterminate amount of time you were frozen for after he was taken.

There's a certain extent to which every Fallout game from 3 onwards demands a certain burden of suspension of disbelief. Considering how much time has passed since the war, it is truly amazing how many structures are still standing, how many computers are still working, how much stuff hasn't been repurposed by the survivors and how much the survivors haven't expanded. It's also amazing how many places you can walk around without spontaneously bleeding from your gums and losing all your hair. Fallout 3 was perhaps the biggest culprit here, since it was set in the area around Washington D.C., which was depicted as being impressively trashed but not trashed to the extent which you'd expect a city hit by multiple advanced high-yield strategic nukes to be trashed. New Vegas was in general more believable on this front, because you'd expect Las Vegas to be a reasonably low priority when launching a nuclear war anyway, though at the cost of sometimes feeling like a game where no nuclear war had taken place at all in its backstory.

With 4, Bethesda hit on the idea of deciding that whatever anti-missile technology the US had managed to avert a direct nuclear strike on Boston, but there was at least one major strike on the outskirts of the city. This leaves enough standing of the city to make it recognisable (the Freedom Trail, a real-life tourist walk where you can gawp at various Revolution-relevant sites, is implemented in the game), and many of the enclaves within it make some sort of logical sense in terms of the bits of surviving buildings and infrastructure they have reclaimed and used for their own purposes. Diamond City, for instance, is a shanty town built in a baseball field which looks like it has become genuinely well-established over the course of over a century, rather than being a settlement thrown up in a hurry last week like some of the locales in 3 seemed to be. Oh, and nobody's silly enough to build a settlement around an unexploded bomb. At the same time, you can still see why there would have been mass death and general depopulation in Boston - there's all sorts of signs you can find here and there of the massive civil unrest and the total unravelling of the civilian and military infrastructure in the wake of the nuclear holocaust that you can uncover as you explore.

On top of that, having a nuclear strike site some way southwest of the city allows for some nice contrast. One of the main criticisms of 3 was that the terrain was a bit samey - it was all brown, everywhere, and everywhere seemed more or less equally trashed. Here, instead, you have a mostly-intact Boston and some pleasant if occasionally war-scarred rural territory around it…. and then you have the Glowing Sea, where Bethesda take the gloves off and show what a nuclear wasteland would actually be like, rather than the pleasant fantasies of rebuilding that Fallout typically trades in. A hellish expanse that you literally cannot survive in without power armour, or a hazmat suit, or a huge stack of anti-radiation drugs, the Glowing Sea is an utter nightmare. inhabited by the nastiest creatures the game has to offer, a very few recognisable ruins amidst the rubble, and the occasional hardened military facility that serves as an eternal reminder of the human folly that created this hellish place. At its very centre is the shrine of the Children of Atom, who rather than the comedic presences they were in 3 are walking nightmares here, giving themselves up willingly to radiation sickness and the blight of the area and luxuriating in the hideous force that created this Hell on Earth.

Many people have tried to depict the aftermath of nuclear conflict in various fictional contexts, but usually in the service of lighthearted adventure stories - and the Fallout series for the most part has been no exception. The Glowing Sea, conversely, is a dire warning on the level of Threads or When the Wind Blows. Several game design studios have presented us with wastelands in gaming, but this is the only one where guiding my character through it made portions of T.S. Eliot come unbidden to my mind. ("...what branches grow/Out of this stony rubbish?")

One thing Bethesda's Fallout games have so far strived to do is to make the player character a complete cipher. That's not the case so much this time - you even have voice acting and a dialogue system not a million miles away from the early Mass Effect ones, complete with the thing where you occasionally say something you didn't intend to say because the terse description in the options menu didn't carry with it the same implications as the line as delivered - but Bethesda still do a good job of pitching to you a main character who has a very specific personal story from the get-go, but could still be played as benignly or as malignantly as you choose to make them. You could try to be a good Samaritan in the wasteland, trying to be a living embodiment of the values of a happier time; equally, you could decide to go the "outraged mother bear" route and react with ferocious violence to a world that snatched your kid away, and any response between the two is just as supported. (You could also utterly neglect the main plot if you decide that you're not actually bothered about your brat in the first place - the voice acting is sparse enough that you'll only go on about how desperate you are to find your kid if you keep plugging away at the main missions and keep choosing dialogue options where you talk a lot about your kid.)

The actual gameplay of the previous games is effectively unchanged, with the major addition being an extensive crafting system which ranges from producing your own arms, armour, and other bits of equipment using the correct workstations to actually building and reshaping entire communities. If you want to, you can get deeply into that aspect of the game, recruiting new communities to your growing empire and attracting settlers and building resources and defences to keep them happy and secure and so on. If you aren't into fiddling about with that system, it will be as though it barely exists.

As with New Vegas, the main plotline involves you eventually choosing to side with one of several factions. There's the Minutemen, who are the default faction you end up siding with if you end up pissing everyone else off; a militia dedicated to growing communities and keeping them safe in the Boston area. There's the Brotherhood of Steel, a fan favourite faction from the previous games, who are out to keep tabs on high technology and ensure it is used for the good of all. There's the Institute, the terrifying and elusive boogeymen who lurk in the shadows and kidnap people and replace them with Synths (think Blade Runner-style replicants). And there's the Railroad, who think that the Synths are people and deserve to be free.

The nice thing about the main plot is that it never, at least to my knowledge, ever steps in the direction of confirming the personhood of Synths one way or another. They might be genuine people, with genuine artificial intelligence, just as self-aware and conscious as you and I. Or they might be incredibly advanced fakes, which are good at faking the appearance of having emotions and empathy and an internal thought process and consciousness, but are actually no more self-aware than a toaster or a smartphone. This is crucial to avoid the situation you had in New Vegas, where some factions were clearly more benign than others. Here, if the Synths were genuinely, objectively, "real" people, then treating them as property is no more than slavery. On the other hand, if they are philosophical zombies, then treating them as property is wrong only to the extent that they fool us into thinking they resent it, and letting them out into the wild to potentially compete with human beings may pose a genuine existential threat - the spectre arises of a world with no genuine people, only machines that simulate genuine people perfectly, a world of incidents with no consciousness to experience them.

Characters in the game will express one point of view about the Synths or another, but to a large extent they seem to be taking it on faith one way or another. The only people really in a position to know whether the Synths are genuinely thinking are the Institute, but to my knowledge there isn't a document lying around in the Institute giving a definitive answer one way or another, and naturally they have profound institutional (hah!) reasons to work on the assumption that Synths don't really think. I don't know whether the absence of concrete evidence one way or another (or stuff which seems to be intended to be concrete evidence) is deliberate or not on Bethesda's part, but it is crucially important, because it allows them to construct a scenario where siding with any particular faction is potentially morally defensible, even if there are also legitimate questions to be raised about any particular group's position. (For instance, some factions in the Railroad apparently want freedom for things which pretty obviously don't have artificial intelligence anywhere near on the level that the advanced Synths do.)

Of course, which faction you eventually side with will largely shape the ending of the game, and there's an interesting thing here. See, you have here a plotline revolving around synthetic life and the human response to it. The Brotherhood of Steel see it as a threat and want to destroy it. The Institute wants to control it. The Railroad and Minutemen both, if you follow their endings, ultimately end up freeing the synthetic lifeforms and work to create a future in which the two can eventually co-exist - in other words, creating a society which is a synthesis of the artificial and the biological. And if you don't pick one of these options, you don't get to complete the main plot.

In other words, Bethesda took the end to Mass Effect 3 and made it good.
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