The Fallout 4 That Could Have Been
This post contains spoilers for the Fallout franchise.
A Cover is Worth a Thousand Words
You know that old saying, "never judge a book by its cover"? Tell that to someone in marketing. They'll probably laugh at you.
The cover for a video game is just like the poster for a film. When a design team creates cover art, it is their goal to distil the core essence of the experience they are offering onto the front of the box. The production team needs to to sum up the features, the setting, the characters, the aesthetic, and the story of their game into a single cohesive image that instantaneously tells the viewer what they're getting into and what the focus of the game is.
In this discussion, I will be talking a lot about focus and about themes. On a macroscopic scale, I'd like to break down the design focus of Fallout 4, versus where it could have focused its potential to become a truly unique instalment to the Fallout franchise.
The Heart of Fallout
Don't get me wrong, adventuring through a retro-futuristic post-apocalyptic wasteland may be the body of the Fallout experience, but it is not what gives Fallout its soul.
At the end of the day, Fallout isn't really so much about smacking raiders upside the head with a lead pipe so much as it is about exploring the ethical questions and conundrums that arise in the face of an apocalyptic disaster that has pushed humanity as a species to its very limits.
The ultimate confrontation in the original title, Fallout, forces us to confront the ethics of unwillingly turning people into Super Mutants with the justification that it will make them more suited to survival in the wasteland. Fallout 2 explores the Enclave and asks the question of whether it is even possible or acceptable to retain old-world values in the face of the new world in front of humanity.
When the world is no longer suited to our survival, what sacrifices can be made in the name of survival? Can we retain our humanity as we once knew it, or do we need to change to accommodate the world that has changed around us?
These are the kinds of questions are the heart of what makes Fallout so memorable. It's not the classic music or the quirky fifties costumes, Bethesda.
We Get It, Fallout Has Power Suits
Remember all that E3 marketing material for Fallout 4? Power suit in a garage. The box art for Fallout 4? Power suit helmet.
There are so many different facets to the Fallout universe, but the one element that Bethesda insists on keeping in the public spotlight is the one that is potentially the most iconic to the Fallout franchise: the power suit.
And this is no accident.
Everything about the final box art design for Fallout 4, from the lighting of the shot, to the dirty worn-down logo text, to the rusty retro-futuristic suit helmet— it's all a clear visual callback to the cover art of the original Fallout title from 1997.
So what does all this tell us about Bethesda's perception of what Fallout 4 was supposed to be?
It shows us that Bethesda's focus for Fallout 4 was to bring back the spirit of the previous instalments of the franchise and re-live the feelings that made those original games so memorable.
There is an immense amount of effort put into incorporating elements of the "classic Fallout experience", from power suits to Nuka Cola to all that fifties-era music.
That's great, but I'd venture to argue that many of the design decisions in Fallout 4 laid the foundation to go its own way and focus on a completely new kind of story.
A New Kind of Fallout
I started this article off with a mock-up of what my vision for what the true focus of Fallout 4 should have been. The world of Fallout 4 opens a whole new chapter in the question of what it means to be human.
Much more intriguing than any of the trite rehashed "Fallout-isms" and scenery, Fallout 4 puts something completely new on the table: the synth.
On the surface, the idea of futuristic android politics, cyberpunk secret societies, and noir detectives sounds more Blade Runner than it does Fallout. And in a way, it is. That's okay.
The conflict between the Institute and the Railroad brings a new high-scifi spin to the Fallout franchise, but it perfectly embodies the kind of core themes explored by its predecessor titles:
- Can we justify injustice against a group of people in the name of the survival of humanity?
- Should we use the knowledge and power structures of the past to guide us into our future?
- Do we as humans need to rethink how we see ourselves in light of a world that has changed around us?
Fallout 4 gives us a surprisingly nuanced conflict between the Institute and the Railroad. The Institute may have some of the most advanced technology in the world, but is it really acceptable to allow it to continue to exist, given the injustices it perpetuates against synths? Are synths even actually people? Is it justified to destroy an institution that holds so much of remaining human knowledge in a destroyed world? Does the Institute have a right to effectively act as coloniser to the outside world?
What if, instead of starting the game out with a pre-War walking simulator to show us more of the same kind of zany fifties-esque characters and predictable Vault-Tec shenanigans that we've already seen countless times already, Bethesda could have chosen to make the player character a synth to bring them into a new mysterious and intriguing world, explore how synths are treated when they are created, and show the player first-hand how and why they actually escape the Institute?
There are just so many questions to be explored. Yet, none of these questions are really explored to their full potential.
Conclusion: The Fallout 4 That Could Have Been
As I said at the start of this article, a cover really is worth a thousand words, and the heart of the problem really is visible right on the cover.
Bethesda made a clear choice to make the primary focus of their game be the Fallout memorabilia instead the measure of a man, and it shows.
Many of the narrative elements feel cobbled together and shoehorned into place. For example, let's talk about the Brotherhood of Steel (or, more importantly to Bethesda, "WE NEED THE GUYS WITH THE POWER SUITS").
So far I've spent most of this article covering the complex ethical questions that make Fallout the franchise that it is, and how synths play into these themes to give Fallout 4 a new unique twist.
How do the Brotherhood of Steel play into the exploration of the morality of artificial humans. Well, they... don't. Neither do the Minutemen. And these are the game's primary factions we are talking about here.
The problem is that synths and their struggle isn't the core focus of Fallout 4. There are no overarching and cohesive moral themes that can be applied to the conflict between the four factions present in the main storyline to Fallout 4. The ultimate goals of all the factions ultimately end up being played out as "we want to destroy the other ones". Where is the nuance in that?
Bethesda could have chosen to develop solid and detailed quest lines exploring just the Institute and Railroad, explain to the player in depth what the different facets of their motivations and unique goals are, and allow the player to weigh in on the ideological future of the Commonwealth. Instead, Bethesda chose to make four different factions with relatively linear plots that boil down to "mercilessly destroy all the other ones and kill everyone".
Maybe Bethesda didn't have a cohesive vision for what they wanted their game to be, or more likely they just thought that they couldn't sell a Fallout game unless it had power suits and a theme park of Mad Max action.
The potential is there, but it's a shame that we'll never see the true gem that Fallout 4 could have been.