It’s All Over but the Crying: Grief, Future Shock, and Fallout 4

From the time I started a new game in Fallout 4, I first wandered out into the wastes in about 20 minutes, recruited my canine companion after about an hour, and wielded power armor and a minigun in a fight against a deathclaw in about an hour and a half. The Sole Survivor was on his way to becoming a wasteland bad ass in about 10 hours, and is currently a veteran of the Commonwealth who can kill most anything in it.

And all this from a guy who was literally just sealed up in a vault and witnessed the simultaneous murder of his spouse and kidnapping of his child. Then he wakes up to a new world that has corrupted everything he used to know and love. He literally has to learn to live a new life while dealing with the traumatic loss of his family. To say this character is adaptable is like saying that the atomic bomb is a bit dangerous.

The first couple of hours were filled with action, and the game successfully removed the protagonist’s familial ties from the picture in order to remove all the barriers to my fun, while simultaneously providing a driving force for the plot. The beginning of Fallout 4 has a lot of things, but what it doesn’t have is pacing. In its attempt to get players free-roaming the wasteland as quickly as possible, Fallout 4 sacrifices the slow build its protagonist requires to be believable.

The experience starts out well enough — the player gets to experience a morning in the life of the character before the bombs fell along with the fear and anxiety of being rushed into the vault, questioning what will happen to the people without vault admittance, and the sadness of knowing the world you know is gone before becoming a victim of misplaced trust in the Vault-Tec corporation.

After this, though, the emotions get much heavier. A mysterious group of people unfreeze the chambers that hold the dwellers in stasis and the main character can only watch as a mercenary-type person shoots her husband (or his wife — whatever) after the character’s spouse refuses to give up their child. But the reaction we get to this event is minimal — the player’s character lets out a scream, followed panic upon release from her stasis pod, and then a vague sadness and promise to avenge her husband’s death and find their son. And then we’re off to explore the post-war Boston. A few hints of human emotion — stress and fear — crop up before exiting the vault, but this does not seem like a person who has just undergone serious emotional trauma.

Because I’m a human with parents, I’ve seen more episodes of police procedural shows than I care to count. And this particular part of Fallout 4 reminds me of the phenomenally quick grieving process characters on many of those shows go through. People tend to need to die in order for murder investigators to solve crimes, and those people generally have loved ones whom the police need to interview in order to capture the murderer. But people don’t watch crime shows to see people grieve — they want to see a crime solved in 45 minutes. So when the investigators talk to this deceased person’s loved ones, those loved ones usually express some sentiment of grief before setting the sadness aside and answering the questions the investigators pose with little emotion. It’s jarring if you really think about it — if that person was me, I highly doubt my reactions would be as stoic as those characters on TV. This is all done for the sake of pacing — if this was a drama focusing on how crime affects peoples’ lives, the pace would slow down and more time would go to showing how these people felt. But because the focus is crime-solving, the plot needs to advance, so the emotions need to be swept aside in a timely manner.

Fallout 4 takes basically the same route here — players are confronted with an emotionally distressing situation, but what the game thinks we want is just to get out there and explore the wastes, so the protagonist gives a gesture of grief and then moves on so we don’t have to deal with any crying. You can argue that Bethesda wants us to fill in the gaps with our imaginations if we choose to do so — after all, many Fallout games essentially require this of players who enjoy the role playing part of RPGs. But to present the framework of an emotional reaction and not fill it in just gives us this weird half-hearted experience that ultimately breaks the ol’ suspension of disbelief.

The goal here appears to be to rush us out into the wasteland as quickly as possible so players don’t get bored and turn the game off before getting to the meat of the experience; I know there were many people who didn’t have the patience to get out of Vault 101 in Fallout 3. However, if this is the case, Bethesda is underestimating and shortchanging its audience. Many players — myself included — can and want to deal with the simulated emotional trauma the story presents to us. I can handle it if my character needs to grieve — in fact, it just seems healthy that she do so. Currently, we get a teaspoon of simulated grief and then the character has practically forgotten about the whole marriage except for a few conversation options.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not suggesting that my character should be curled up in a ball wailing for the first few hours. Plenty of characters and real life people alike are forced to move on from a death and be resilient because the only other option is to fail and die themselves. But when the pace of these stories slows down enough for the characters to consider their situations, they tend to express that grief. Or the grief is evident in how the characters go about those actions — you can see the simultaneous grief and determination in their faces and you can hear it in their voices. This would be the ideal route for Fallout 4 to travel, but the effort is minimal. The character’s widow/widower status is just a character detail that we can choose to care about if we want.

On top of all this, the Sole Survivor is hurled into a dreadful world in which the stability of society has entirely collapsed. No place is truly safe anymore (in theory, of course — we as players know that Diamond City is a haven). The notion of future shock should absolutely apply here.

In the game, the passage of circa 200 years feels like a few minutes in a cryo chamber. That’s like going into your house and taking a quick nap, then walking out your door to see society in ruins. There’s no way the character is ready for this, even if she’s expecting it to happen. But whereas we receive minimal vocal and visual indications that the main character was distraught over the loss of her husband, we get absolutely nothing when she exits the vault — no voice, no animations, no facial expressions — nothing. If you hop out to third-person view, the Sole Survivor’s face is blank.

The dialogue options that show the character as stressed, broken-hearted, and shocked are also minimal later on in the game. The only major giveaway that the main character is new to this world is the ability to ask questions about major factions in the Commonwealth, and I haven’t seen the ability to have much emotional reaction to any of this knowledge that is new to the character — it just feels like more data to store away. I never had the impression that this daunting wasteland was at all stressful for someone who just woke up from a pre-war nap.

The only semblance of struggle to adapt we get in the game are organic gameplay moments struggling to earn caps or hold our own against some of the antagonists of the wasteland. That’s great to have these experiences, but again, this needs to be included in the story somewhere. If the character just stoically walks through the wasteland, the gains don’t feel significant.

The process of going  from old world family man to wasteland veteran seems to happen essentially overnight. Diamond City Radio mentions the Sole Survivor’s actions very early in the game, already giving the character somewhat of a celebrity status in the town. Before you know it, people seek the character out to do jobs and even appoint him General of the Minutemen. Yeah, I get that it’s literally an army of one at the time, but Preston basically appoints the player character general because he helped them once with little additional knowledge about the Sole Survivor’s personality. It’s flimsy and feels like a cheap pretext to make the player feel important.

Fallout 4 just spreads itself too thin in trying to please everyone. It strives to attract players who want to hit the ground running and jump into the meat of the game as quickly as possible, while also attempting to appease those who are interested in the character and story. Fallout 4 sacrificed the latter for the former, resulting in a rush out the vault.

The problem with this is that the main character’s relationship with her family drive the main plot — she feels strongly for her husband and child, which is why she braves this harsh new wilderness and seeks out her child. But she doesn’t express that the wasteland is a challenging place to survive and that she loves her son, so building an emotional investment in the main plot is difficult. We’re expected to understand her investment and want to further her goals because we’re supposed to assume the value of familial ties just as Fallout 3 wants us to go after our character’s dad because he’s our character’s dad.

But just because our societal values may tell us that family is important doesn’t mean we as players care about her family. Focusing more on the main character’s love for her family may give us the opportunity to empathize more and thus actually care about the main plot. Right now, the only compelling part is the mystery, but this is just a mere plot curiosity and not an emotional investment — I don’t feel any urgency to continue the Sole Survivor’s plight.

And ultimately, a compelling story is not just about the plot details and Point A to Point B, C, and D — it’s about how all these separate points affect the main character. Even if Bethesda relies on players to color in the lines regarding the main character’s thoughts and feelings, devoting time to the main character’s emotional state and evolution is necessary if it’s crucial to the main narrative. Fallout 4‘s super fast pacing just glosses over these important details. But hey, I guess the wasteland isn’t all the fun for some people if you’re playing some mopey parent.

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