Fallout 4 character development: plot versus gameplay

  |   John Kemp   |    Opinion
This article contains spoilers for both Fallout 4 and Farscape. Yeah, Farscape. You'll see.

I’ve had issues with certain disconnects between the setup for the story, the development of the story, and the gameplay itself in Fallout 4 since I first played it. In this article I’m going to try to explain why I think there’s a problem and suggest some ways it could have been alleviated.

So what’s the problem with Fallout 4?

In a nutshell, playing as the female character presents a very clear disconnect between the setup for the main game content and the game you end up playing. To be clear, I’m picking on the female character here because we are given no evidence of any survival or combat experience. The male character at least is a retired Army veteran (2nd Battalion, 108th Infantry Regiment for those interested).

Picture the scene. You are a 50s housewife with a law degree, bustled off to a shelter due to impending nuclear war. Waking from cryosleep, you see your husband murdered and child stolen before you pass out. Eventually you wake again to an abandoned facility, with no staff present and no way to wake any other inhabitants. Leaving the shelter, you are greeted by a scorched wasteland filled with the ruined remains of what used to be your town, your friends long dead. Pushing down the fear, loneliness, and grieving… you are handed a suit of power armour and a minigun, take out a Deathclaw, become the leader of multiple settlements, and scour the wasteland of evil-doers. Wait… what?

The problem is that Fallout 4 is fundamentally a power fantasy. You can be the king/queen of the wasteland! You can restore order where only chaos reigns! But this brings with it a narrative problem: how do you go from being a nobody to being more skilled and powerful than people with years of surviving in the wastes and the skills that the situation brings with it? How do you topple groups that have existed, and been feared, for as long as anyone can remember? How do you use technology that you’ve previously never even heard of, let alone been trained with? Fallout 4 makes no attempt at answering these questions in a believable way. Instead it simply shrugs and hands you some of the most rare and powerful equipment available as soon as you’re out the gate. Not only are you handed the equipment, but you, with no combat experience, can immediately use it with no instruction to take down what should be one of the most feared enemies in the game. Throughout the game you continue to be able to use anything you find and kill anyone (and anything) hostile you come across.

Oh, by the way, apparently you’re looking for your son—the only other surviving member of your family and your only link to your old life. That can wait until you’ve cleansed the wasteland, right? So not only do you instantly gain several years worth of experience in the skills you need, but you also put off your desperate search for your son while you roll up your sleeves and fix the entirety of Boston and the surrounding area.

Where has it been done better?

Now let’s look at an example of character progression that has rated as one of my favourite since I first saw it: John Crichton in the TV series Farscape.

John starts and ends in almost exactly the positions that our Fallout 4 protagonist does, progressing from someone completely out of their depth thrown into an unfamiliar situation up to someone who can go head-to-head with the best and stand a fighting chance. Much like our housewife/lawyer dropped into a post-apocalyptic Massachusetts, John is a human astronaut flung halfway across the universe and into the middle of what is essentially a rebellion against an evil empire. At the start he is confused and scared and is basically ignored by the aliens around him who have much better things to do than stop and talk to him (like staying alive). At the end of the first season he reaches a turning point where he is sick of being chased, powerless, from place to place and launches a dramatic, though foolhardy, counter-attack. This ends with him floating in space having just ejected from a transport pod that he has set on a collision course with a moon in order to set the entire surface on fire as a distraction to cover the rest of the crew’s escape in Moya.

Hey you bastards, John Crichton was here.

This isn’t a carefully planned and executed strategic maneuver, it’s an act of desperation. He was driven to that point, forced to take his life into his own hands rather than constantly having it at the mercy of others. And it very nearly backfires. The end of season 1 is almost the end of John Crichton. He survives, of course, and by the end of Farscape’s run he has gained enough confidence, enough skills, and enough leverage that he is able to walk into a meeting between the leaders of the most powerful civilisations in the series and lay down his demands.

What do I want? What do I want? I have not been chasing my ass all over the galaxy trying to pull out chunks of my brain. I have not been sneaking FemBots and Skreeths into places where I live. You want something. You. You want what’s inside my head. You want what I know about wormholes. Because I can leap tall galaxies in a single bound. I can scorch planets with a wave of my hand. And you- and you, and you… you can’t do jack.

This progression is exactly what is missing in Fallout 4.

How could this be applied to Fallout 4?

So how could Fallout 4 be written differently? Could they have implemented the progression from powerless to a turning-point act of desperation to a force to be reckoned with? I would say yes, and it could have led to some great scripted scenes, but it would also have been a very different game. So let’s talk about how that could have played out.

The first point of departure from Fallout 4 would be when the player reaches Concord. As the player is about to enter the museum a Deathclaw smashes its way out of the ground behind them. Before the player can react, a mysterious figure in power armour drops from the roof of the museum, distracting the Deathclaw from killing the player and drawing it away down a side street in a dramatic running fight. This sets up the fact that both power armour and Deathclaws are things not to be messed with lightly and emphasises that the player doesn’t have any power in this world—either the Deathclaw or the power armoured person could have accidentally killed the player and not even noticed. Shortly thereafter, once the player has met the Minutemen, they take you to a settlement and provide some basic living conditions for you, give some weapons training, and so on. This act of the game largely consists of scavenging supplies and training up. You probably have one or two Minutemen escort you around when you leave the settlement. So when does this situation change, you ask? That brings us to our turning point.

Having found the hideout of a low-level lackey of the man who stole your child, you and a couple of Minutemen scout it out to try to find any information you can. Said lackey is inside a room with two henchmen, idling boasting about the very act you’re here to investigate. Hearing them mock you and casually talk about the danger your child is in, something snaps inside you. With the Minutemen urging you to stay were you are, you pick up a piece of piping, step into the room, smash the back of the leader’s head in, grab a couple of discarded pistols off a bench, and aim for the heads of the remaining two. The two henchmen are caught off-guard with no weapons in their hands, and when they see you they don’t make any attempt to grab any. They’ve spent their lives facing down foes that are consumed by rage, hurt, hunger, and a full range of similar emotions, but what they’ve never seen is the sheer ice-cold killer determination you have in your eyes right now. You demand information, they give it to you, and you order them to leave. With barely a glance at each other they get out of there. As soon as they’re gone, you sink to your knees and drop the guns, shaking from the adrenaline and the knowledge of how differently that could have played out. This isn’t who you are, but you realise that it’s who you need to be in order to find your son. Back at the settlement you find Preston and tell him that you’re done with self-defense, you need to become a killer.

From there we get the standard Fallout progression as you become better with weapons, survival, and all the other skills needed.

Could this have been implemented in Fallout 4? Possibly. The problem, though, is that the modern Fallout games are, and always will be, a power fantasy. It simply isn’t in their nature to artificially reign in the player, no matter how much it is needed by the plot. Fallout 4 simply went much too far in the other direction, making the disconnect between plot and gameplay more obvious than ever. Furthermore, cutscenes are used very sparingly, but my version would likely require them. In fact, when I imagine these scenes in my head I see it in the style of a Telltale game. As an aside, my opinion is that the Fallout universe is ripe for a Telltale story, but an alternate Fallout 4 will probably not be at the top of anyone’s list.

So that’s my vision for an alternate Fallout 4 player story arc. It would potentially solve the glaring disconnect between the elements of the plot and gameplay, but at the expense of not being a modern Fallout game anymore.

Is there a smaller fix?

Almost certainly. Parts of what I suggested above would have fitted fairly neatly into the existing game: don’t give the player, a complete nobody with no training, some of the rarest and most sought-after equipment the moment they step into the wasteland; similarly, don’t have the player immediately take down one of the most powerful creatures in the game; have the Minutemen run the settlement instead of the player; have them give the player training with the weapons and armour found in the game. Essentially, give us a reason to believe that the character is becoming proficient with these things instead of just dropping straight into power fantasy land. And maybe reinforce the urgency of the character’s main objective a bit more.

What do you think? Did the issues I’ve mentioned annoy you when you played Fallout 4 or did everything fit together nicely? Did you just ignore the story and play it as an open-world sandbox RPG? Would my version be an improvement or would it take away too much from the modern Fallout formula? Was the story they pitched simply not compatible with the type of game they created? Let me know in the comments or catch me on Twitter at @KempPlays.

Tags:  Fallout 4
John Kemp
I am a software developer by day and dip into a range of related activities in my spare time, including working on my own software projects, writing, proof-reading, and, of course, gaming of both the digital and boardgame varieties. I am slowly starting to sink my teeth into game development.