Fallout 4 Has Aged Like a Ghoul in 2021

Or... not enough like a ghoul? It's an imperfect metaphor for an imperfect game.

This weekend I did the unthinkable. I beat the main story quest in a Bethesda game. Specifically I finished Fallout 4 — the studio’s last single-player stab at the sci-fi series from 2015. It’s only the second Bethesda Game Studios title I’ve ever “finished,” the other coincidentally being Fallout 3 back in 2008. Like most people I almost never bother beating Bethesda games. I prefer to pick a direction and explore, eating any floor trash I find along the way. Just a little slurpy loot goblin licking cakes off ancient tomb walls while scavenging bullets.

That’s where the meat of these games resides anyway. At least as far back as Oblivion and Skyrim, people don’t talk about their central plots. They remember joining the Dark Brotherhood or the Thieves Guild. They remember nuking Megaton and turning into a werewolf while sculpting lovers out of cheese wheels. The most essential stories feel anything but.

That’s especially true in Fallout 4 — a game that ironically tried to put more emphasis on the player character and their journey through a post-Boston wasteland. The problem is, having seen that journey to its conclusion, I can finally report the game doesn’t actually give a glowing shit about its own premise. It’s genuinely jarring — like playing through as a ghost NPCs can see and here, but who isn’t really there.

If you never played the game (or watched Monster Factory) the intro is this: Your custom character gets locked in a freezer for 200 years while an alternate history North America gets nuked. The events of the other post-apocalyptic entries — New Vegas and the like — fly past while you’re in cryogenic stasis. Said games are mostly about how the world picks itself back up after the bombs. Particularly when the United States before the war was a racist, McCarthyist, capitalist nightmare to start. Very little of that reached your hometown of Boston, apparently, as the land is almost entirely overtaken by disorganized “raiders” when you wake up.

Who these bandits are, where they come from, and what they want is basically irrelevant. Fallout 4 treats raiders like an invasive species of freshwater crab — an endless pain in the ass that magically spawns on its own and out of sight. Almost literally. Fallout 4 is all about “radiant quests,” which is a fancy way of describing the “go here and kill X enemies” missions you often find in MMOs. Not so much in single-player games. But the last solo Fallout is chock full of such repeatable, repetitive tasks that refill zones with nameless foes for you to shoot and loot.

Contrast this to Fallout: New Vegas (a game not made by Bethesda, crucially, but Obsidian Entertainment). The first raiders you encounter are a named crew called the Powder Gangers. In the game’s first 45 minutes, you learn they took that name because of the vast gobs of dynamite they lob. Said deathsticks were taken from the New California Republic: a blobby, neoliberal government annexing its way east. The NCR expands its influence with prison labor, granting the soon-to-be boomy raiders with explosives for blasting railway lines to the other coast. This is a bad idea for multiple reasons. Especially when the greater faction goes to war with another upstart government, the outright fascist Caesar’s Legion. More and more guards get reassigned to the frontlines until the prisoners seize their opportunity (and, you know, gunpowder) to escape and stake a claim of their own.

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In this way New Vegas reveals its overarching conflict, a small-time faction to cut your teeth on, the recent history of its locale, the ambivalent nature of the NCR, the danger of Caesar’s Legion, and a reputation system to balance between everyone caught in the middle. All with a single quest that shows how these elements connect.

Back in Beantown, raiders are sock puppets that exist to be harvested. Their loot admittedly feeds into a more robust crafting system. “Settlements” are the star of the show, with your unthawed thane directing their construction and population with the scrap you gather. Settlements don’t really do anything, of course. At least not without mods (of which there are some really excellent options). They’re just a place to dump all the junk you inevitably pick up on the journey to find your son.

Yes. Your son. While your character remained a popsicle, some bad guys yoinked your infant, Shaun, from another tube for unknown reasons. Bethesda wants you to care about this part of the game so goddamn much. At least if the in-game conversations are any indication.

Fallout 4 replaces the previous games’ dialogue system, stripping it down to just four prompts per exchange. Most of which are slightly rephrased variations of the same sentence obfuscated by Mass Effect style paraphrasing. The dialogue wheel was derided at launch and promptly modded to show what your character will actually say… which really illuminated just how limited your options are.

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Ninety percent of these narrow choices boil down yet further to asking about the kid. That’s where the ghostlike nature of your character really gets eerie. They lived in Boston. They had a life and knew people there. For them, it was a populated, major American city just hours before the events of the game. Now it’s a literal wasteland. Yet at no point can you comment on the specifics — on pre-war places, people, things, or events. Your character might as well never have lived at all, much less 10 minutes away from a Fenway Park that’s been converted into a semi-militarized human sanctuary. This despite the fact that you are literally rebuilding the province from scrap.

It’s as uncanny as a humanoid robot. Which could be an interesting thematic choice, if it felt like a choice at all. The main plot instead seems like it was only included at gunpoint. The game’s core villains — the Commonwealth Institute of Technology — are the first and only major antagonists Bethesda has ever created for the series. Fallout 3 resurrected the Enclave, the bad guys from Fallout 2, while Fallout 76 mostly features super mutants and other Forced Evolutionary Virus monsters (creations from the first game). So the team really had a chance to stretch its wings with the M.I.T. stand-in and its Blade Runner-like replicants.

It didn’t. Skeptic survivors regularly call The Institute “boogeymen” throughout Fallout 4. It’s meant to be mocking, but it’s actually the most accurate descriptor in the game. The murderous members never reveal what they want, why they abduct and kill people across Boston, or how they were able to create such advanced technology.

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The Fallout games exist in a timeline where the microprocessor was never invented. Hence all the vacuum tubes and transistors present across the games’ retrofuture. Bethesda could have leaned on this fact. It could have said that The Institute finally developed proper computer chips in the 2100s — explaining the advanced technology and connecting it all to that greater world like New Vegas before it. Perhaps, obsessed with that new power potentially rivalling the atom bomb, the organization might have tested increasingly unethical technology on people it saw as lesser.

You do get the chance to ask about The Institute near the end of the game. But all the answers, like your own alien dialogue, boil down to one statement: It’s too complicated to explain. From there you can either join The Institute and aid its murder spree (still without any answers to why you should care). Or you can nuke it. Either way, you need to grind more fetch quests to make folks like you enough before the final mission unlocks. It’s an inexplicable slog.

Mods do a lot of heavy lifting, of course. I built myself a jetpack and recruited a sharply dressed ghoul (the goopy, irradiated immortals of Fallout lore) as a new companion with fantastic, entirely fan-performed voice acting. I added dozens of new monsters and weapons to fight them. Bethesda clearly agrees that mods are a huge part of these games. To the point that the line between paid content and fan content gets… blurry at times. In the same way the modding community increasingly influences how these games are made, I wonder if the fact that nobody bothers beating Bethesda titles has begun to influence their stories — or lack thereof.

Particularly now, in 2021, Fallout 4 feels like a skeleton of a game that mods were meant to flesh out. That or a proof of concept for the much more maligned Fallout 76. Base-building, loot harvesting, repeatable quests: they all feel more at home in a multiplayer game than a single-player story that seems comparatively disinterested in telling a story at all. If you’ve got the patience and the interest, seeing what the fans have made is worth the effort. Just know that this ashen sandbox is entirely about the journey and not the destination.