Fallout 4's story fails where New Vegas' doesn't

Fallout 4's story fails where New Vegas' doesn't

Fallout 4 has proved to be an improvement on both Fallout 3 and New Vegas in countless ways, from the addition of the surprisingly compelling settlement construction to the diversity of the gloriously silly and disturbingly grim Boston wasteland. One thing has stubbornly refused to improve, however, and arguably is a significant step back, and that’s the story. New Vegas is still the Fallout with the strongest narrative chops, I’m afraid. 

It is, perhaps, strange for me to espouse the merits of New Vegas’ plot. I’m a man who can often be found in dark corners ranting about how lacking in ambition videogame narratives are, but here I am, putting a simple ‘amnesiac seeks vengeance’ tale on a pedestal. It’s the premise that feels most appropriate for the the wastelands of Fallout’s vintage-future world, however, a setting that’s tragic, but also peculiarly optimistic, where a person can effectively die, come back, hunt down their killers, or maybe just ignore it all and befriend a super mutant.

Really, though, I might just feel this way because I love being evil. 

While you're reading about Fallout, why not check out our Fallout 4 PC review

NB: Minor story spoilers for all Fallout games follow. 

The world of Fallout is a harsh, unforgiving place, rife with bandits, slavers and drug pushers. Look past the jokes and the satire and it’s a relentlessly macabre world where monsters store trash inside blood-smeared flesh pods and wealthy men hire wanderers to set off nukes in town centres. And the games embrace this, letting you join the ranks of the worst kinds of people, eat human flesh and even sell companions into slavery. 

There are few games that let you be so bad, let alone ones that almost encourage it. 

Yet the Fallouts have typically been games that put you in the shoes of a saviour. The original Fallout sees the protagonist set out to find a water chip and save their vault and its sequel starts off similarly, giving players a mission to find a Garden of Eden Creation Kit in an effort to save their tribe. Fallout 3 shake things up a bit by forcing players out of their vault after a riot, but that kicks off a game-spanning quest to look for Liam Neeson dear old dad, a water-obsessed scientist. So once again, the narrative pushes players into being the type of person who would care about doing good, even if that person is also a drug-addled cannibal. 

Then we get to New Vegas. As an unlucky courier, players are shot in the head for reasons that aren’t clear at the time, survive and then go on a mission to hunt down their would-be-killer. It doesn’t get much more straightforward than that, and for Fallout, it’s a perfect beginning. Your past is simply that you were someone who got screwed over. The quest, then, is a primal one, either the need for revenge or the need for answers. There’s no need for suspension of disbelief, because a goody two-shoes is just as likely to want to search for the man who attempted to murder them as a loopy maneater. 

When a game lets you do just about anything, it’s the story’s job to get it to make sense. Take Baldur’s Gate, for instance: The Bhaalspawn’s quest is, much like the courier’s in New Vegas, a revenge tale or a quest for answers, letting the player choose how to frame it depending on the alignment they selected or just based on their own roleplayed motivation. At no point does New Vegas or Baldur’s Gate make it feel like you’re being forced down a specific path. You play the ultimate tabula rasa, a person with no background and the potential for anything. In comparison, Fallout 4’s story just gets in the way. 

The problem isn’t even that you’re searching for your missing son. Even evil people have kids, and they’d probably be miffed if their offspring was kidnapped as well. The issue is that, right out of the box, you’re playing a caring mum or dad, and a loving husband or wife. It goes one step further, even, giving you a perfect life with a white picket fence and not a care in the world, aside from the impending apocalypse. Even your pre-apocalypse career is decided for you, making you an army veteran whose service to their country netted them a family ticket for Vault 111. 

It’s the opposite of a blank slate. 

After the prologue, you’re free to be as damaged and evil, or as good and friendly, as you want. But your origins and the main quest make it all very awkward. Not just because the sappy hunt for the fruit of your loins forces you into the role of concerned parent, but because the urgency of finding a lost baby is weirdly juxtaposed to tens of hours of building villages, picking flowers, joining a bunch of factions and storming towers of super mutants because you heard something on the radio. 

I haven’t touched the main questline in at least 15 hours, probably a couple of weeks of in-game time at least, which sort of flies in the face of the implication that I will do anything I can to find my son. I obviously won’t. But eventually, I will have to, or I won’t be able to finish the game. 

Worse, outside of the main story, I’ve become a hero by mistake. I’d hardly done anything at all, let alone anything noble, before being made General of the Minutemen, a group of do-gooders who look out for the little guy. I’m reminded of the moment when I discovered that Lando ‘Smooth Talker’ Calrissian was made a General of the Rebel Alliance after only just almost getting three of the Alliance’s biggest heroes killed. 

It’s just as bad with the Brotherhood of Steel. I helped one of them out, Paladin Danse, in the hopes of getting a fancy, high-tech reward, and *boom*, I’m being offered yet another job. Later, Danse essentially admits that he’s in love with me and that I’m basically the perfect Brotherhood Knight. The entire time I’ve been with him, I’ve been sarcastic, I’ve made fun of the Brotherhood, and I shot one of his buddies in the arm. 

Thankfully, you can choose to decline these offers of employment, but the fact that they’d offer these jobs and go on about how awesome and noble I was so damn quickly utterly breaks the illusion that I’m some wasteland badass who might eat your mum if he was hungry enough. And it has had a massive, and I think negative, impact on the way I’ve been playing the game. 

In contrast, Fallout: New Vegas lets you side with a bunch of escaped criminals and take over a peaceful village five minutes in. And not long after, it introduces the murderous Caesar’s Legion and lets you help them out after they’ve killed and crucified an entire town. This is all within the first hour or so. One hour into Fallout 4 and I was freaking out about my lost son and saving people from raiders. 

There isn’t a Fallout game I haven’t played twice. And, always, I play a villain first time around. It’s usually easier, because evil people seem to get richer quicker in RPGs, and it’s fun because I’m getting to make choices that I’d never in a million years make out here in the real world, where I’ve never considered a meal of long pig. In Fallout 4, I’ve deviated. I started off bad, but my villainous acts were either ignored, or they just felt weirdly out of character. 

Companions tend to favour characters on the side of angels, as well. Out of the 12 potential companions, only a couple are really tolerant of villainous behaviour, and your dog, Dogmeat, doesn’t really care either way, but given how adorable he is, if he wasn’t a dog, he’d probably have issues with murder and mayhem. This is particularly frustrating because companion affinity has replaced the karma and faction systems from earlier Fallouts.

Instead of generating reputation with the whole world or a multitude of factions, Fallout 4 barely recognises player morality at all. Doing certain quests for specific factions cuts off future quests with others, but beyond that, the only thing that matters is what your allies think of you. And it’s all a bit arbitrary. For instance, a good companion might not be a fan of you eating people, but if you do something they like, putting on some Power Armor, for instance, then that will eventually repair the damage. This does mean, however, that it’s extremely frustrating to get through an evil playthrough, because you’ll constantly be upsetting your companions, requiring you to go through the stupid motions to win back their favour, which isn’t exactly something a care-free serial killer is going to do. 

New Vegas’ companions were, admittedly, mostly ‘good guys’, as well, but New Vegas also had faction reputation that determined how the rest of the Mojave wasteland viewed you, and they at least accepted all of the heinous acts you might want to commit. And their motivations didn’t get in the way, either. Fallout 4’s cast, on the other hand, mostly make their motivations clear from the outset, and the ones you meet first are all positive and hopeful. 

There’s Piper and her journalistic search for truth and justice, Paladin Danse’s desire to save people from the perils of ancient technology, Garvey’s quest to rebuild the wasteland and protect people, Nick Valentine’s quest to solve crimes and help you find your son, Strong’s hunt for the ‘milk of human kindness’ – they’re all just so damn nice. It’s exhausting. 

Many of these issues have cropped up in other games that purport to allow you to be whoever you want to be, true, but Fallout 4 manages to bundle in every obstacle that it can fit while still, technically, letting you do what you want. I feel like I’m playing a game with my parents looking over my shoulder. I can already hear my mum sighing. 

“Well, Fraser, we know you’re 30 now, and we can’t make you do anything, but wouldn’t it be better to not eat that family of farmers? How about you help them out with their ghoul problem instead? We won’t be mad if you ignore us, but we will be disappointed.”

That said, dear old mum would probably be disappointed regardless. Fallout 4, despite constantly pressuring you into being good, also forces you to kill a lot of people. If you meet someone out in the wasteland, chances are they’ll try to kill you. And then it’s kill or be killed. And there are so rarely conversations beforehand or ways to try and defuse the situation. Most human life in Fallout 4 simply wants to kill you and serves to give you XP when you end up killing them. An early encounter with a drug pusher strong arming a woman into paying her son’s debt gave me some hope, as words saved the day in that instance. I’ve only seen something similar once since then, in over 30 hours. 

Isn’t that very peculiar? In a game about rescuing your son and resurrecting Boston, the main way you interact with people is by shooting them with bullets that somehow decapitate them. So there’s no escaping this bizarre disconnect between the story and gameplay. If you’re an evil bastard, then nothing is going to feel right, and if you’re a generous, charitable hero, then you’re going to be forced into slaughtering hundreds, if not thousands of people and probably feel a bit ambivalent about the whole fiasco. 

Despite this, I’m thoroughly enjoying Fallout 4. I’ve probably put more hours into it in this short space of time than I have with any game I wasn’t reviewing in 2015. Indeed, since its launch a few days ago, I’ve only taken breaks to watch The Apprentice, eat and work. But I’ve really had to make a serious effort, changing how I played entirely, to become immersed in the world and comfortable with my character. It shouldn’t be this tough. And even after the personality transplant, I’m still finding myself struggling, because nothing about my character or his motivations make a lick of sense. 

Paladins
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Xerkics avatarFormer PM Julia Gillard avatarAnAuldWolf avatarSilentius avatarSmoke Fumus avatarHtorne avatar+7
Former PM Julia Gillard Avatar
7
Former PM Julia Gillard(6 days 7 hours played)
2 Years ago

I think you've managed to eloquently capture everything I've felt about Fallout 4 compared to New Vegas, but have struggled to put into words. I've played the game for about 60 hours now, and I have to say that I am definitely enjoying myself. But as a fan of the original Fallout 1 and 2, I think that Obsidian, in New Vegas, captures the spirit, humour, and role-playing elements of the original series in a way that Bethesda cannot seem to grasp.

**Few minor spoilers ahead, so fair warning for those reading.**

One of the best points you made was that an origin story can really hamper the "open world" feel of Fallout. Having an origin story that presupposes a military background, a seemingly blissful marriage, and a strong bond with your son makes for awkward roleplaying (and I still hold that the Fallout series should primarily be about roleplaying).

In Fallout 2, you can decide to be a puny opportunistic nerd who couldn't shoot a bullet straight to literally save his own life, and thinks that his village healer should lay off snorting that "healing powder". And because your backstory is limited to "your tribal village decided that you're the chosen one; so here's some cash, an over-sized PDA, and a onesie, please go down to the local hardware store and buy us a GECK please", who you were before doesn't really matter.

This is not to say that good RPGs must always have blankslate player characters.The Mass Effect and Witcher series have protagonists with established histories and character traits. But the games are designed around the concept that you are playing as Commander Shepard or Geralt and that you are shaping "their" paths. And because of this, things like having full voice acting for the main characters doesn't feel out of place.

But Fallout, to me, was about creating a my own character and shaping my own story. Their history should be left hazy enough for you to fill in the gaps with your own imagination, their voice is whatever you want to hear inside your head, and their reasons for being out in the wasteland can be as noble or self-serving as you'd like so long as you are prepared for the consequences.

It definitely felt weird being offered the position of General by a guy I'd known for all of 20 minutes when he didn't know if I was considering feasting on his flesh later (spoilers: I was but apparently he's immortal; sad days). In New Vegas, you only became interesting to the powers that be when you had something that could help them further their own goals.

If I had to guess, the game's introduction was more about showing off the moment before the bombs hit, the new power armour, and the deathclaw battle, than about the main character him/herself. While the "wow" factor was certainly there, I would question whether that's a fair exchange for the narrative setbacks.

This is only one aspect of what makes a good story. I could talk for ages about the characters in NV being a little bit more complex, engaging, and believable in their mannerisms and motivations to make them seem more human/ghoul/mutant/canine. Or the factions and how the benefits and problems each brings can be observed through the experiences of different NPCs making it hard to classify them as stereotypically good or evil.

Now, like I said earlier, I've been playing Fallout 4 for almost 12 hours a day so I am actually enjoying playing and I think I'll enjoy replaying too. It gets a lot of things right: combat is scary and exciting, crafting and scavenging is great fun, and the landscape is densely packed full of things to explore. However, I haven't really gotten that sense of narrative, or plot/character development from Fallout 4 that I got from NV.

I hope in future we can get the best parts of both these games, because like most of you reading this, I love the Fallout series. And a world as interesting and rich in potential as it is deserves the best parts.

3
rajiv85 Avatar
2
2 Years ago

Bethesda have converted the fallout 1 and 2 series which was deeply about the story into a shooting game. What a mutilation. As an original fallout fan am really dissapointed by the new fallouts. Even fallout 4.. not good at all. Never interested in those new fallouts. It is NOT fallout. It is a bad imitation at best. I looked a bit at the new fallout 4.. first thing is that u always see a gun poking in front of you all the time. Even in real life no one walks with a gun like this all the time. Also when you move the environment keeps moving up and down until you simply feel dizzy. What a horrible ??.. of what Fallout originally was. No comparison.

2
HazardGirl Avatar
3
2 Years ago

Yes yes yes, all of this! You said it beautifully. I'm enjoying Fallout 4 but it doesn't have the heart and soul I love about Fallout that was always present in NV. Despite there being a lot of good things in 4, I would be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed. I can only pray that any future games will take the right cues from the right places.

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Silentius Avatar
192
Silentius(6 days 13 hours played)
2 Years ago

In games that simulate morality I find it hard to take on any role other than the good guy. Even when the evil character arc is well designed and fun, as in say Mass Effect 2, I can't help but do the right thing. I've tried numerous times to take on a nasty persona, but I always wind up defaulting to 'generic hero type A'. . . I guess I suck at 'role playing'!

2
AnAuldWolf Avatar
867
2 Years ago

I don't think that's the case at all. I think you're just a big old wuss like me with an overemphasised sense of ethics. I think what's going on is that -- in video games -- some people just prefer being jerks, others enjoy a neutral middle-ground, and some (like us) enjoy being goody two-shoes. I even take it so far as to do non-lethal runs in games where I can.

Undertale, to me, proved this beyond the shadow of a doubt when I saw just how many people there were complaining that Undertale made them feel guilty for turning their character into a genocidal crazy person. So I think it just goes from person to person.

Everyone's going to have their innate inclinations.

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HazardGirl Avatar
3
2 Years ago

Oh hell I thought I was the only one who felt frozen trying to make bad decisions (uhh no pun intended). There's so many things I have no interest in doing but saying "no" or even replying in a negative way just feels wrong... in a bad way. I'm on edge in every interaction.

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Xerkics Avatar
399
2 Years ago

i would hazard a guess that they tracked figures for previous games on steam and checked how many people actually had bad karma/ did evil content and it probably didnt warrant spending resources on that if it was low and they thought there was no demand for that. I would like to have an option to do stuff like that but i wouldnt normally be interested in actually doing it.

I havent realised that some factions cut of quests for others.

1
Former PM Julia Gillard Avatar
7
Former PM Julia Gillard(6 days 7 hours played)
2 Years ago

If that was the case, it becomes a bit of a vicious cycle. If they make being evil unappealing, then fewer and fewer people will try it.

But being evil in game can be a whole different kind of fun, because who among us hasn't wanted to shoot a stranger they just met in order to steal their lottery ticket?

2
Smoke Fumus Avatar
1
2 Years ago

This comment has been deleted by a moderator.

1
KeefBaker Avatar
393
KeefBaker(2 days 12 hours played)
2 Years ago

Also I'd like to add I've not run into anything unrelentingly batshit yet. Sure, a few disturbing implied things or stuff read off a console, but anything as loony as "The Republic of Dave"? Not yet.

1
Einhander Avatar
1
2 Years ago

I've put several hours into Fallout 4 and I have to say that the story isn't terrible but it doesn't compare to fallout 1 & 2. That being said I have disagree with the NV story I felt that it was too broken up and just not good in general. I think out of all of the fallout games NV was probably the worst in terms of story. Out of all of the fallout games my favorite was Tactics I loved the story and how all of the choices impacted the gameplay. I sill enjoyed the gameplay from all fallouts and 4 is no exception. All of this is just my opinion but I don't think fallout 4 has a lower caliber story than NV , I also think that Bethesda just does better gameplay development than story writing the originals were much more engaging than 3 NV or 4.

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Holy Dave Avatar
2
Holy Dave(2 days 4 hours played)
1 Year ago

Yep, fun game with a dead heart.

1
there-is-a-madman Avatar
2 Years ago

Thanks. I had this itch to find out if anyone else was seeing this problem and you itched it.

Looking back at New Vegas you can do everything from killing almost every living thing you come across to being a pacifist, and support very diverse factions along the way while having a smart enough system to coherently mold it into a ending epilogue that satisfyingly tied up the loose strings. That's actually a pretty stunning accomplishment that I don't think was ever really consciously appreciated by the majority of players and critics.

To be fair, Fallout 4 does have more flexibility than Fallout 3 did, but it is unfortunately many steps back from the narrative genius of New Vegas.

It reminds me of Dragon Age II from Dragon Age Origins. Dragon Age II wasn't a bad game, but it didn't seem to understand what made Origins great; The elaborate interweaving of wide-ranging player decisions into a cohesive and satisfying player-driver story arc. Instead, it followed a traditional linear storyline, in which individual decisions had barely any effect on the rest of the game.

That doesn't mean Dragon Age II was bad per se, it was just not an incremental improvement on the original. I place huge importance on a series building on the triumphs of their predecessors, so Dragon Age II was an abomination to me, but YMMV.

Anyways, the Fallout 4 story-line and it's mishandling of the sandbox open-world genre is disappointing to me, but there's still a lot to like here.

0
ted_isted Avatar
1
1 Year ago

Oh how the regressives hate making and choosing your own plot! Why don't they just admit they hate the Minutemen. Because the Minutemen represent complete freedom of choice. And real freedom is not freedom to regressives. There has to be class warfare and isms and complete institutional control before the regressives are happy.

0
Holy Dave Avatar
2
Holy Dave(2 days 4 hours played)
1 Year ago

What the f*ck are you going on about?

1
AnAuldWolf Avatar
867
2 Years ago

I agree. It's no secret that they can't write. As I've said, the only story I want to see out of Fallout any more is the one no one wants to tell. One where you're an agent helping to secure a fledgeling Society 2.0 where you're being a super-spy and playing all the angles to either gain control for yourself, destroy it, or actually bring about peace and a stable future.

You'd have these cool retro-future gadgets and you'd basically be Batman of the Wasteland. And maybe, just for good measure, add in an intelligent deathclaw as your doofy, wisecracking partner (the black humour of Fallout needs the light for it to be seen).

Basically, taking the good ending of Fallout Tactics, modifying it slightly, and running with it. So you have robots trying to figure out what freedom and individuality is, you have deathclaws dealing with how people can't get over that they look so monstrous (leading to a lot of fear, bigotry, and false accusations), cliques forming to recapture the beauty of old and alienating ghouls and super mutants alike, a society having to adjust to nightkin using updated stealthboys and believing in their lack of malign intent, ...and facing off against the biggest obstacle of all: Human nature.

That's the Fallout I dream about.

It'll never happen.

Edit: How would you deal with a deathclaw scientist that wanted to release a designer virus created to make a good portion of the Caucasian populace infertile, his argument being that the rate and numbers at which they breed being the cause of almost all evil in the wasteland (that the amount of life cheapens life)? Would you try to reason with him? Would you kill him? Would you take it for yourself and hold powerful figures at ransom? Would you accept his logic?

You could have so much fun with this. I think about it and I'm coming up with new scenarios all the time, every day. Basically making it a dark parallel of reality today, abstracted through all sorts of clever filters.

Edit 2: And what if you had to deal with two different factions of robots? One that wanted freedom, and another that believed in humanity as gods and that their purpose is to serve diligently because it's the only way to satisfy their programming? And the latter is gaining power and momentum. Who would you agree with? Would you reprogram them? Would you destroy one faction? Would you find a way to help them get over this need? How would you tackle that problem? Do you think that they could be sapient and entitled to rights, or are they just machines following code and that that's the only way that they could be happy?

Going to stop thinking about this, now. It actually hurts too much that I'm not fuelling Fallout with ideas myself.

Edit 3: Last one. What if you had a ghoul being Fallout's Jack the Ripper, but you find out that the reason he's gone crazy is because there's a secret cabal who're capturing and experimenting on homeless ghouls in order to perfect a form of immortality? And what if he was targeting that cabal? Would you be lenient with him? Kill him? Even help him?

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Xerkics Avatar
399
2 Years ago

I guess its no secret you cant write either if we are to judge by the bit above. Lets all be grateful that the plot is not up to you :)

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Htorne Avatar
501
2 Years ago

That sure was a constructive and friendly comment.

0
Xerkics Avatar
399
2 Years ago

It wasnt meant to be.

2
Htorne Avatar
501
Htorne replied to Xerkics
2 Years ago

Well it's clear to everyone how you failed, we are not angry, just overwhelmingly disappointed! How do you plan to mend this mistake?

1