I played the majority of Fallout 4 with my wife on the couch next to me. She’s helped me make story decisions, she’s grimaced at the results of the Bloody Mess perk, and she laughed at my meticulousness as I interior decorated. She helped me pick between the Institute, Railroad, Brotherhood, and the Minutemen. As we worked our way through the story though, more questions, specifically “Why did you have to do that?” kept coming up.
The culprit—nearly every time—was flimsy storytelling. Why did the Railroad have to die? Because the Institute said so. It’s the simple, binary open world quest structure, sure, but where’s the nuance? Where’s the negotiation? I’m talking with my son after all, can’t I simply talk with him? No. Instead, I have to walk into a secret hide out, pull out my gun, and deliberately open fire and murder people I had been working with for days. No pretext, no talking. Just cold blooded murder.
I felt things when that happened. I felt a poorly constructed story falling apart, I felt like I was being forced into a raw deal, and I felt used. Because this wasn’t the story I wanted, it wasn’t the story I earned, and, most of all, it wasn’t the story I was sold on.
The underlying promise of an open world RPG is that you build a story. Your character is yours. The circumstances will rarely change, but how you answer each question, how you complete each quest, is up to you. And players have learned through conversation wheels that decisions and flavor text make the person.
The archetypical “man out of time” narrative is exciting. It’s an opportunity to add commentary and flavor to the Fallout we all know. We’ve seen raiders, we’ve seen radscorpions. But our character hasn’t. But in a game that requires you to shoot first and probably never ask questions, you don’t get the flavor the world deserves.
In fact, over the course of the next hundred hours, each moment the player character interacts with something, there is no surprise. Roaches the size of dogs? Completely cool with it. Climb into a suit of power armor and fight some creature called a Deathclaw that looks like it came from the Jurassic period? Sure. Fend off gigantic radioactive scorpions? Simple. Revisit the remains of Fenway Park to find it’s a small city? Nothing. Meeting Nick Valentine for the first time, a raggedy old Synth whose plastic neck is missing, revealing a menagerie of gears clicking away, doesn’t illicit a single response besides the same canned “what is a synth” question.
The Bethesda open world model has taught us a lot of things. Primarily, get ready for a world of massive scale, with a story of equal gravitas. And that tends to be fine when you’re a no-name character on your way to the chopping block, or a child growing up in a Vault. You’re a blank slate and the story can be as big as you want. Of course some Drow Elf can become the Chosen One, toppling empires.
Who’s to say that my Fallout 4 protagonist wasn’t an architect before the War? What if he knows he can’t find his son, so instead he builds homes for people. Or he grew up on a farm and has a vital farming skill the Wasteland sorely needs. Why do I have to save the world? Why can’t I settle down? Why does everyone have to die? Why can’t my wife and son be okay, so when we wake up, we go on living. We make a life. Or there is no Shaun and my character gets the same experience I, the player, got: wandering the wasteland with a partner equally surprised with each new development.