Over the holidays I told myself I was going to finish Fallout 4. This didn’t happen for a variety of reasons, one of the most glaring ones being that despite how hype Bethesda made me for the game, it didn’t exactly live up to everything I felt was promised. These situations where a game is just so utterly in the middle are frustrating. It’s not that the game was bad, and I did have fun playing it, yet ultimately it was like plain sponge cake: good for a while, but not interesting enough to keep me coming back for more. I know I’m not the only one who feels like this—lord knows there are only so many Minutemen missions you can do before you avoid getting in Preston’s dialogue radius. However, where some people are on the side of criticizing the game’s awkward building system, or the combat system, I’m more in the group that thinks the writing is what kept this game from being great. There are lots of things I could critique about it, but one of the things that struck me the most was how uneven the narrative power (and even in-game social power) between the women and men was.
First, let’s talk about the protagonist. The Fallout series is typically lauded for their ability to allow the player to make a character whose every little facet is decided by the player—from looks to personality. The personality part was mostly achieved via meta (since the character had no in-game voice), but enforced by picking stats such as intelligence and perception that actually affected the in-game choices and dialogue that was available. For example, a character with high intelligence may be able to discover when a trick is being pulled on them, while a character with low intelligence won’t be able to prove why the situation may seem just a little bit strange. None of these aspects were gender-locked, and players were encouraged to make any story about their character that they wanted.
In Fallout 4, however, for the first time, players were presented with characters that had actual stories. You could play as Nate, the army vet, or Nora, the lawyer, and experience the game through their eyes. The problem isn’t that they gave us characters to play—Bioware fans have possibly already played as the pre-determined characters of Commander Shepard and Hawke—but in the differences they presented us with. As Nate or Nora, eventually you’re thrust into the Capital Wasteland, a land where the rule seemed to be “kill or be killed”. As an army vet, Nate was already placed into a position where he had an advantage, or at least a better chance of surviving the outcome. Now as a lawyer, it could be argued that Nora would be hypothetically better at brokering deals or drawing people to her side with words: some sort of implicit balance between brains and brawn. However, I never felt like this was the case.
While in the previous games, all character stat aspects (ie: intelligence, charisma, strength, etc.) seemed to open up paths for dialogue, the only narratively functional stat in Fallout 4 was charisma, which controlled every optional piece of dialogue, or every persuasion check. In a way, this sounds logical, however, it also makes Nora’s job functionally useless. She was a lawyer; while she could or could not have had charisma, she most definitely had smarts. However, by taking out any narrative need for intelligence, Bethesda has effectively made her worse off in the narrative than her husband. How did she survive, not having army training at her disposal? I dunno, maybe it was because she was pretty.
I’ll admit, though, this is a somewhat subtle difference between the player characters that could have easily been overlooked (both Nate and Nora’s professions are only briefly mentioned at the beginning of the game). However, what’s impossible to miss is the divide between the male and female companions you can get in the game, and their importance to the story. Out of the twelve human-like companions you can recruit, only three of them are women. And out of those three, only one is “vital” to the main plot (as compared to three from the men’s side). Companions, in somewhat of a different way to games like Dragon Age, do not have to be recruited. Indeed, most times, in my experience, Fallout doesn’t go out of its way to show you where any of them are, or even hint that they may be recruitable. However, given the linear nature of Fallout 4, this becomes impossible. Your first quest sends you right on the trail to meet Preston Garvey, the leader of a Samaritan group called the Minutemen, and without little fanfare he passes the reins on to you. From there, you need to find a way into Diamond City, and do that with the help of Piper, a reporter. However, your true goal in the city is to speak with private detective Nick Valentine. (Just to round it out, the third plot-important guy is Paladin Danse, but admittedly he’s only important peripherally in that he bring the Brotherhood of Steel to the Commonwealth.) While Preston and Valentine have these large, important quests introducing you to them, Piper doesn’t—she does get a side-quest, but as far as I’m aware you can skip that entirely.
Additionally, the personal quests/woes of the ladies seem a little bit less thought out than their male compatriots. If we were to compare the same three characters—Preston, Valentine, and Piper—it does seem like more impact was given to Preston and Valentine’s situations than Piper’s. Preston’s quest is about reinstating the Minutemen as a cross-Commonwealth militia, protecting its people in the name of good. To do this, you reclaim their old hideout (dubbed “The Castle”) and fight a huge monster which feels pretty cool. Upon your success and friendship, Preston reveals that he was on the verge of suicide because things were so bad, and you helped reinstate his faith in the world and the Minutemen. Which is really cool. Valentine, alternately, houses the memory of a cop who died before the nuclear fallout and is out for revenge against the mobster who killed his fiancee. Using clues collected from various precincts, Nick gets his revenge, although he confides in you that he’s still not certain what his place as an individual is since his entire personality is only thanks to the dead cop. I’m up for discussing the extents of humanity with my robot friend, yeah, neat!
And Piper’s all about getting justice for… everything. She desperately wants to protect her town from a nefarious group who has been turning people against each other by sending robotic copies to impersonate loved ones, until they strike and kill. She discovers that the mayor of Diamond City is one of these robots, and demands he step down, and you as the player can choose to either kill him or bring him to trial (or let him go, but come on). This is a great quest that validates her passion in life and moral compass, however, unlike Preston or Valentine’s quests, Piper’s quest has a narrative restraint on it which either places it near the very, very end of the game, or entirely post-game. Which means if you’re like me and never finish the main plot, you’ll never get to see it. There is a flimsy reason why this could be—to give the player time to actually find the nefarious group—but honestly, I don’t think taking out the current mayor and putting in a new one would seriously hinder the game at any point (he does not have a large role).
Looking at the other two ladies, Cait and Curie, their missions leave a sour taste in my mouth as well. Curie, too, is a robot, however after finishing her life’s work (a panacea that cures all human illness), she yearns for a human body to explore the world in. However, players have discovered that after getting Curie her human body, she—the most narratively intelligent character in the game—receives a drop in her intelligence stat, giving her one of the lowest intelligence stats out of all the companions. In Cait’s case, her story is about her dealing with her drug addiction. With the player’s support, Cait comes to the conclusion that she does want to get clean, however instead of actually allowing her to go through the recovery process, she finds a machine that removes all effects of addiction entirely with no effort. While this is obviously amazing from her perspective, it’s a little bit disrespectful for people who struggle with addiction, in addition to simply being a lazy way to cop out of writing her overcoming her vice on her own—her fellow male companions were given the right to struggle with their underlying issues without an insta-cure. (And yes, I know there’s an in-game item that functionally clears all drug addiction, but that’s more for game mechanics than serving any narrative purpose.) Additionally, the player’s ability to come onto Cait while she was so vulnerable, when she felt like you were the only one in the world who cared about her, seemed extremely creepy and inappropriate to me.
While Fallout 4 is not a bad game by any means, it certainly didn’t live up to a lot of the hopes and dreams its audience had for it. By attempting to simplify the game and add shiny new things they weren’t exactly sure how to implement, Bethesda ended up giving players a narratively unsatisfying experience that felt incomplete and somewhat sexist. Bethesda has never been known for their writing talent, but after the popularity of New Vegas I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I hoped that Bethesda would have taken some cues from Obsidian Entertainment. But maybe they have learned something from this, at least I certainly hope so. I guess we’ll find out in seven years when Fallout 5 comes out*.
(*This is a joke.)