Fallout 4 has an emotionally powerful plot. The problem is that it doesn’t let you play with all the game mechanics.
Fallout 4 deserves the praise and awards it has received. With its atmospheric post-apocalyptic setting, its exciting combat, and its intriguing plotlines, it was far and away one of the best games of 2015.
But while the Fallout 4 plot and the Fallout 4 mechanics are both excellent, there’s a mismatch between them. It’s a mismatch that, once it hits you, can make for an unsettling game.
The latest in a series of hugely popular roleplaying games, Fallout 4 saw players return to the wasteland of a post-apocalyptic America. The past, as well as the future, is different in this world. America achieved the technological vision of 1950s futurists, not the reality we experienced. There were robots in the home. Nuclear materials caused mutation, not just sickness and death. 1950s culture continued for decades.
Then came the nuclear war. Hiding away in a bunker, a lucky few survived. You play one of them, emerging generations later to explore and rebuild in a blighted wasteland.
Fallout 4 provided a huge and unusual world for players to explore. There were roleplay conversations with a vast cast of NPCs, as well as straight up fights against raiders and mutants. Like its predecessors, it provided a good balance of action and thought. Every Fallout 4 plot twist revealed something new.
Matching Plot and Mechanics
Any game, whether it’s a computer game, a board game, or a tabletop roleplay game, has two essential elements.
On the one hand, there’s the mechanics. The rules of the game, whether written into a computer program or instructions for dice roles. These create possibilities for players and encourage them down certain paths. If you play Dungeons and Dragons, with its many combat rules and weapon specialties, you’re going to want to fight, so that you can use those mechanics. If you play the Fate RPG, in which fighting uses only two skills among many, you’re going to want to talk, charm, and think your way through more often than you shoot.
This is one of the big challenges for games designers. Combat games need to focus on combat mechanics, games of intrigue on social mechanics, and so on. Sonic the Hedgehog doesn’t just look like a frantic, high-speed, chaotic chase. It feels that way because that’s what the mechanics do.
What Was New in Fallout 4
This gets more challenging the more complicated the game is, and Fallout 4 is certainly complicated.
A lot of what it contains is similar to Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas. A wide range of skills let you develop your character in different directions, from a fast-talking schmoozer to a gun-slinging death-dealer. There’s enough emphasis on combat skills and situations to force you to fight a lot. But there’s also a lot of emphasis on talking, winning people around to learn more about the world and gather useful information.
The old emphasis on exploring is there two. By littering the map with useful items, the mechanics encouraged players to explore widely and in depth.
What it brought in that was new was the settlement building. You could now play an active part in rebuilding a blighted world. At certain points on the map, you could establish settlements, encouraging people to come there. You built beds to sleep in, walls to shelter behind, sources of food and water, even defenses to keep out a hostile world. These places make it easier to equip yourself by building better guns, armor, and medicine with the supplies stored there.
The Fallout 4 DLC added to this, with the addition of extra workshops and options to build.
Fallout 4’s Plot
There is a plotline in the game that ties into all these mechanics. Recruited by the Minutemen, you could become a saviour of the wasteland, helping humanity rebuild.
Using the combat mechanics, you clear out dangerous places.
Using the social mechanics, you learn more about who and what threatened your people.
Using the building mechanics, you build safe new homes for humanity.
But this isn’t the main plotline of the game.
As plotlines go, the Fallout 4 main plotline is far stronger and more compelling. At the start of the game, your child is stolen, carried away by unknown villains. You stalk the wasteland, driven by a parent’s desperate desire to protect your child. You investigate what happened and who is behind it, set on vengeance. But there are surprises along the way.
It’s an emotionally powerful plot. The problem is that it doesn’t let you play with all those mechanics.
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Think for a moment about how you would feel watching a film that played out like you play Fallout 4. The protagonist’s child has been stolen. She sets out on a mission of vengeance. Overwhelmed with a desperate rage and a desire to protect her family, she encounters a group of people in need. She saves them from a villain. They tell her what she needs to know. And then…
She stops to build walls and beds for them. Goes collecting parts for her gun. Plants some potatoes. Makes a stew.
What happened to that thirst for vengeance? The mother or father who can leave their child with kidnappers while they scavenge for old screws starts to look like a psychopath.
But this is what the game encourages you to do. Especially for experienced Fallout players, the building mechanics were the hot new thing. We wanted to play around with them and see what they could do. To collect aluminum, copper, and steel to build something we hadn’t seen before. To construct gun turrets and watch attackers get mowed down.
Meanwhile, our children were out there in the wasteland, suffering from… Well, I’ll find out later. Right now, I’m busy building a top level scope for my laser musket. I just need to find some adhesive first.
It’s a shame because this theme of rebuilding fitted the setting perfectly, and a compelling central plot could have been made that more directly tapped into it. As it was, players face a choice – be true to their character’s desires or be true to what they want to do in the game.
Fallout 4 is a great game. It has a powerful central plot and a lot of fun mechanics to play around with. But if the two fitted together better then it could have been even more amazing.
Now excuse me. My son is lost out there in the wasteland. I’ve been neglecting him while I feed my buffout habit. I’m almost ready for the rescue. I just need to go build one more thing first…
Featured Image: Bethesda