The Imitation Game and Fallout 4

So previously I discussed character development and pacing in Fallout 4 and how these features were ultimately underwhelming. Then I considered writing about relationships with companions in the game, and then I thought about the game’s quest design as a potential topic.

And finally I had a realization — each one of these topics produced the same content. Each time, the argument boiled down to “This feature is enjoyable in spurts, but is ultimately shallow/messy/short-lived.” So what’s the point in stretching this out for a few more articles if I’m just going to say the same words in different combinations each time? Instead, let’s check out why Fallout 4 struggles to create deep, lasting experiences. And because Fallout 4 is a composite of several different features, this deep dive should explore the flaws of some of these features.

To start off, the backbone of the game is its quests, which drive all the game’s narratives. Bethesda has done a great job to make its combat mechanics carry some real weight and feel more like a first person shooter, but they’ve apparently traded that for creativity in mission design. As so many have said before me, the stunning majority of quests are just reasons to venture out and extinguish all life in an area. Some of these are more contrived than others, but the game becomes a series of dungeons and a rotating cast of enemies that attack on sight after a while.

Even when the game does introduce some variety, it’s not particularly compelling. The quest, “Last Voyage of the U.S.S. Constitution” has some refreshing segments that are a welcome change of pace, but eventually the mission devolves into a series of fetch quests. And finding the Railroad (though this isn’t technically an actual quest) is an interesting puzzle that ultimately becomes a little simplistic and silly when you learn that the password to enter the base is so astoundingly obvious it’s a wonder not just anyone can walk into the supposedly secret hideout.

The story is supposed to be compelling, but it dejectedly steps aside each time the player is enraptured by something more interesting than this supposedly urgent plight. “Go save your son!” it exclaims, but then when the player responds with “Nope, I’d rather build a play fort out of old world trash,” it meekly abides. The only way I could ever justify this was by creating a character who, in my mind, becomes wrapped up in the problems of the world and is unable to say “No” to helping other people, even though he has his own needs.

This creates a sloppy, disconnected main narrative and encourages the player to ignore it. It’s like watching a movie and pausing after each scene because something shiny rolls across the floor — sure, you may eventually learn how the story plays out, but you’ll forget why you cared about it in the first place. Or maybe you never cared at all, which is a perfectly reasonable feeling considering how the main narrative is handled, but I’ve already covered that so I’ll try not to retread old ground too much.

Fallout 4 is also filled with dialogue trees galore and relationships with followers. On the plus side, I am elated that Bethesda opted to put an end to the dialogue trees in the game that loop back in on themselves. Being able to repeatedly ask the same questions or treat dialogue like it’s some type of menu with sub-menus to be explored at will is the gamiest of mechanics. Conversation flows like a river and doesn’t typically just return to a previous, unrelated topic without a reason. I hope this is something that’s imitated in future games that implement dialogue trees.

But alas, there is a distinct problem with communication in Fallout 4: Relationships with followers largely feel like they were just tacked haphazardly. Most of the relationships can be improved significantly from actions that don’t relate to actual value decisions or conversation. Pick a few locks and Piper suddenly asks you for life advice.

Games that do relationships well have a slow build through decisions the player character makes and conversations with companions in order to build trust. That feels natural and fulfilling; confiding in the Sole Survivor because he picked up a few old world trinkets doesn’t.

Granted, many occasions arise that can improve or worsen a relationship with a follower because of dialogue options or choices. But the progress establishing a rapport with followers happens far too quickly, giving it a flimsy and unrewarding sentiment when they report that the Sole Survivor improved their lives.

And essentially unrelated to all of this is the settlement building aspect of the game. This could potentially be fun, but I never had the desire to devote a significant amount of time to it. When I do construct my settlements, though, the controls and mechanics are entirely unintuitive and difficult to comprehend. It took me at least a couple of weeks to realize that walls won’t snap to any kind of foundation other than a wood shack floor, which makes no sense — I can’t be the only player who expected to have walls snap when placed over the foundation of the old world houses, or preexisting walls and roofs.

Bethesda’s Fallout has always been a series built around mediocre gameplay in just about every department except for exploration and the discovery narrative. And that’s still essentially the case in Fallout 4, but Bethesda stuffs as much mediocre content into its game as possible while running short on innovation and creativity.

Instead, Fallout 4 is a conglomerate of imitations of successful features from video games of the past. Bethesda said that Destiny inspired the shooting mechanics, and the redundant mission structure of Destiny also appears to have slithered its way into Fallout 4. In addition to that, the relationships are obviously stripped from BioWare games like Mass Effect, the building mechanics are a poor man’s version of MineCraft, and of course it tries to do the compelling linear narrative that’s still all the rage in triple-A gaming for some reason.

The problem is that it doesn’t do any of these things as well as the source material. Fallout 4 is an ocean that’s two feet deep and made up of other popular oceans. The game wants to be the game for everybody and can’t just be itself. And you can argue that the goal of Bethesda games is to put players in that world at the expense of everything else, but I’m not even feeling that. Many of these immersive aspects feel like simulations of simulations of something real.

One of the greatest flaws of Fallout 4 is its desire to imitate instead of innovate. Interestingly, previous Fallout games made me yearn for features such as relationships with companions and building. Now they exist, but they’re predominantly fleeting and unfulfilling. And meanwhile, features like quest design stagnate.

It’s probably unreasonable to expect a triple-A product to be the game of all games given the current conditions of the industry. Fallout 4 sits among the wreckage of games that have tried to do it all and ultimately delivered an insubstantial experience. Even though game developers generally consider a small, well-polished, and extremely fun experience to trump a large, messy, and less fun experience, I definitely think this trend of games won’t die out anytime soon. And as exciting as it is to see games try to make all-encompassing experiences, I’m not convinced this will work.

Unless, of course, you made Dwarf Fortress and have been living on fan donations and updating the game since 2002. Yeah, that’s probably not going to happen with Bethesda.

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