SPOILERS FOR FALLOUT 4
Fallout 4 is another Bethesda game. That’s not to say its bad. It’s quite good. But it continues the trend of games made by Bethesda that strip features out because it seems like the freedom that adds to the game is what players want. In conflict with desire for player freedom, like in past games, is the idea that the main story has to be mandatory. Player choice isn’t valued within the parameters of the story like it is outside of it.
In The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, the best role playing game Bethesda has ever made*, players could join a number of factions and complete quests. At a certain point in each of the questlines for those factions, the player would have to make the decision to side with one group over another. If the player wanted, for example, to become the leader of the Fighters Guild, they would have to assassinate a critical member of the Mages guild, locking themselves out of the rest of that guilds quests and potential rewards.
However, in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Bethesda eschewed this design philosophy to pursue a player experience that, while more user friendly, eliminated any meaningful consequence for player action. Even going so far as to make non-player characters critical to that games lackluster plot invulnerable and allowing the player to become the leader of every faction. As a result, the political tensions found between guilds in Morrowind were gone. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim had similar problems and continued streamlining systems by changing the way level progression was handled.
I cannot continue this topic without bringing up Obsidian’s Fallout: New Vegas. That game focused on the interplay between groups of people in a way I could only dream that Bethesda’s own games could, but even that game isn’t without fault. New Vegas held the players hand and took them on a tour of its landscape before setting them loose, whereas a game like Morrowind said, “You’re a prisoner being freed, here’s a thing you can go do. Or not.” Oblivion and Skyrim did the same. It didn’t put any sense of urgency on player action in the way the Fallout games do. In Fallout 3, the player leaves the vault with the goal of finding their father. In Fallout 4, the player leaves the vault with the goal of finding their son and getting revenge. Those are goals that have urgency inherent to them. Meandering is counter-intuitive to accomplishing those goals.
Fallout 4 tries to split the difference. It ditches the wasteland tour of New Vegas, giving the player the aforementioned “find son” objective, while dropping them into an open world and saying “have at it” like in the Elder Scrolls. It is a bizarre amalgamation of previous systems. Somewhat aware of the freedoms offered by Obsidian in New Vegas but not reflective on them. It is a Frankensteinian monster, conflicted about whether it really wants the player to be free to do what they want (as demonstrated by settlement building and how crucial resource gathering has become combined with the increase in number of radiant quests) or whether the player should be tethered along and made to experience its story as mandatory (as demonstrated by invulnerable NPCs and more limited dialogue trees).
Bethesda’s primary stories have never been the draw for me. Because of this, immortal characters that aren’t literal gods, eliminating meaningful dialogue choices, and funneling the player character down what is essentially a linear story experience, robs the newer Bethesda games of what I had hoped they would become post-Morrowind. Exploration, meeting people unprompted, hearing their stories, and discovering quests and things to do in the game without being told to do those things were always the better aspects of that game.
But the Fallout series and The Elder Scrolls are not the same. They don’t share an origin point and the newer games in both series are only similar because Bethesda knows its formula and knows it well. The Elder Scrolls have always been first person games with a focus on exploration. Fallout started out as an isometric role playing game in the vein of tabletop systems. Chris Franklin talks about that and makes excellent points in his video about Fallout 4 with regard to how Bethesda’s systems limit the ability to play a role while encouraging player experimentation. Fallout 4 is not a game about playing a role. Neither are the Elder Scrolls games that have come post-Morrowind. I would contend, however, that Morrowind‘s role playing was not just based around a classic tabletop-esque rule system. It was the other systems that allowed for a different kind of role playing. I have that same desire for the Bethesda Fallout games as well.
My favorite addition to Fallout comes in the form of settlements. Building towns, telling its inhabitants to do specific tasks, and generally having a use for all of what would have just been junk in previous games is fun. But the implementation of settlement building and management would have been even more interesting if something akin to the political rivalries present in Morrowind or New Vegas appeared here as well. If the other factions, not just the Minutemen, had the capability of establishing small towns, it would enhance the scale and the stakes of the late-game faction conflict. One repeatable quest for the Brotherhood of Steel hints at this possibility: Proctor Teagan, the man who sells the player weapons and armor if they’re affiliated with the Brotherhood, asks them to go and procure farms for Brotherhood use. If you do this you lose access to that farm as a possible Minutemen settlement. Coming close to this is one solitary mission for the Railroad that has the player establish an old drive-in movie theater as a safehouse for synths. That same location can be used as a base for the Minutemen.
I find it telling that the faction associated with settlements, the Minutemen, is decidedly neutral to the other factions in the game. The game can be completed by siding with any of the four factions, but if the player fails one group or another they can fall back with the Minutemen and get an ending anyway. Because Bethesda wants to allow freedom, but also wants the player to experience their narrative, they made narrative and settlement building, for the most part, separate. It’s a missed opportunity for a unique blend of player interaction and systems-based role playing.
IGN’s Jared Petty thinks that Fallout 4 should be the last Fallout game, and I don’t necessarily disagree. I would love to see what Bethesda could do with this formula outside of Fallout or even The Elder Scrolls (make a cyberpunk game pls), but I’m worried that if they created a new franchise they would once again focus on making their main quest mandatory instead of allowing the players the freedom to choose not to participate in it, ala Morrowind. Role playing through intersecting systems is a powerful capability that games alone have access to. It would be wonderful to see more developers explore that.
*Morrowind may not hold up as well as I’m describing.