A Fallout 4 Retrospective.

I wanted to love Fallout 4. I enjoyed the third installment, and I bought it the day of release. Since that day I’ve been mulling over why it fell so flat for me.

Im reluctantly allowed to be a woman.

The introduction was my first red flag. The game opens with an FMV intro, the protagonist narrating his experience in the war: “War never changes” he says when we see his face in a bathroom mirror where you can proceed to edit him, or change his gender to female and his wife steps forward to preen in the mirror.

I’m used to starting games and loading into character creators as a man. I’m used to being an alternative. “Can I have the fantasy story but substitute the male lead for a female one?” But rarely do games give the protagonist a voice and narrative at the get go. He’s a veteran. He’s seen some shit. The dark hearts of men, their constant vengeful nature, the innate bloodlust. Build, then destroy.

I’m the wife. My story is a degree on the wall. One asset. “I’m so proud of my wife.” I’d say, if I was playing as a man.

Learn the value of silence.

When I first started FO4, I fell off almost immediately. I attributed it to flat writing (among other things), but really was it different from FO3? Or Skyrim? Both games that I’d spent hours playing and replaying.

I decided to replay FO4, only this time I turned off the dialogue camera and played the game on mute. I listened to music and podcasts instead. Instead of following the beats of the main story, I went my own way. It was like FO4 was explaining the specials to me while I browsed the menu. And while the experience wasn’t great, it was improved. Fallout is better as a shoebox diorama. The stories are shallow, but much their worlds can feel vast. Finding a little hut, unmarked on the map, and a mattress, clean water, a dead body; it feels like discovering a person’s life, however small. The less Fallout shows you around, the more the illusion of competent narrative stays intact.

And let’s discuss the dialogue camera, which moves in shot reverse shot while engaged in dialogue. Something like that works for games that orchestrate their dialogue scenes. Dragon Age or Mass Effect, for example, control what you see, the character expressions, and their poses. But those game are narratively tighter. Dragon Age Inquisition even forgoes this at times, giving us a third person perspective of the conversation instead. That’s because being that close to a face and its movements can cause dissonance in the player.

For example, Fallout 4 has a mechanic where characters will say something sad, pause, then make an uncomfortable face. Less can be more. Human minds are brilliant at filling gaps, but also at picking out incongruences. When possible, rely on the former to prevent the latter.

my character talking about her dead husband

Nor does the player have much control of the player characters anyway. The dialogue wheel obfuscates the actual dialogue, which doesn’t matter much because the dialogue doesn’t offer the chance to roleplay. You can be a dick, be placid, make criminally unfunny ‘jokes’(???), or ask a question. And none of this makes much of a difference because all interactions boil down to ‘yes, I’ll d0 this quest’ or ‘no, I won’t do this quest’. And all of the quests boil down to ‘yes, I did as I was told’ or ‘I didn’t finish the quest’.

Which is to say that Fallout 4 maintains the pretense of a roleplaying game while eschewing what makes a roleplaying game fun. And realizing that was when Fallout 4 became fun for me. When I realized I would engage with the story only from my couch, and not from inside the game. My choices wouldn’t change the world of Boston, but I could experience the pleasure of exploring a shady meat packing factory, or meeting a radio theater group, or discovering the Fallout universe’s ironic Walden Pond.

And I couldn’t fully blame Fallout for that. There’s a way I’ve been trained to play games and cast my disposition before starting one. But there are also ways to subvert that training, and Fallout 4 doesn’t do that.