Fallout 4: Bethesda’s Storytelling Masterpiece

Posted by on Tuesday, 1st December, 2015

[WARNING: This discussion includes huge spoilers for the main storyline of Fallout 4. Proceed with caution.]

Bethesda is well-known for creating enormous, pulsating open worlds in games like Oblivion, Fallout 3, and Skyrim. Usually, however, the stories at the center of these games have been mediocre to say the least. (Oblivion: “Gates to hell are opening up and we have to close them.” Fallout 3: “Your dad is missing, and we need water. Perhaps these two problems can be solved together.” Skyrim: “A mega-dragon is planning to destroy all existence and we have to stop him.”)

With Fallout 4, Bethesda has finally sculpted an intriguing masterpiece of storytelling. It’s not perfect, but the best stories rarely are. The main story of Fallout 4 places a series of intriguing dilemmas at the player’s feet and forces us to wrestle — all alone, and with a great deal of missing information — with their implications.

Do Synths Dream of Electric Radstags?

The main dilemma at the heart of Fallout 4 is: Are humanoid robots (called “synths”) people? They have all the external features of real humans, after all. Hath not a synth eyes, to paraphrase Shylock in The Merchant of Venice? Hath not a synth hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Okay, so a synth’s “organs” are aluminum and circuitry, and its “passions” are the result of a program — but why does that matter? If I get an artificial leg, does that make me less human? Don’t we humans operate according to the “programming” we receive as very young children?

The Institute has made a name for itself creating sophisticated synthetic humans, using them for all sorts of purposes — some benign, some malignant. The biggest problem facing people in The Commonwealth is: How do we know who’s human and who’s not? We can assume that the Diamond City detective Nick Valentine is a synth, since we can see metal and circuits under his torn-up skin. Is that a problem? He’s a nice, interesting person regardless. Some characters look fully human, but we later learn that they’re actually synths. Why is it an issue?

Some folks in The Commonwealth are convinced that loved ones have been abducted and replaced with synth replicas. (I saw one intriguing theory online about how maybe they’ve been synths all along, and The Institute is simply recalling an older model.) Several random encounters in the game can turn violent because of human/synth uncertainty. The Institute also has “Coursers”, elite synth assassins used to locate and (if necessary) terminate rogue synths.

All of this is familiar territory to fans of science fiction; Isaac Asimov’s classic 1950 novel I, Robot takes a careful look at how humans and robots interact according to (and sometimes around) his “Three Laws of Robotics”: (1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. (2) A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. (3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. (Please note that the movie version of I, Robot is nothing like Asimov’s superb novel. In fact, the differences are so great that although most movies boast of being “based on” or “adapted from” a novel, the movie poster for I, Robot indicates it is “suggested by” Asimov’s novel.) These laws would be an excellent premise for a video game of their own, but so far we haven’t gotten that experience.

The most intriguing antecedent for Fallout 4, however, is from the American SF master Philip K. Dick. His 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was the basis for the movie Blade Runner, which remains one of the most important SF movies of all time (along with Robocop and The Matrix). In it, servant androids (or “andys”) are treated as slaves by residents of off-Earth colonies. Their proto-consciousness leads some of them to reject this desperate existence and flee to Earth.

Because of the sophisticated human-like capacities of the andys, however, distinguishing human from robot is very difficult. The story follows a bounty hunter named Rick Deckard, who has to track down runaway andys and apply a test of empathy (the “Voight-Kampff test”) to locate artificial intelligence. As with many of PKD’s stories, the lines between reality and artifice get blurry and morality gets a severe gut-check. (He returned to these themes in his 1972 novel We Can Build You.)

What Side You On?

The Institute tells us it must use these synthetic humans — servants, soldiers, assassins, and other — to recreate humanity at its best. Intriguingly, this information is revealed by the player’s own son Sean (aged 60 years past the player character’s timeline, looking therefore like your own grandfather). A classic bait-and-switch moment happens when the player first enters The Institute, after we interact with a synth version of ten-year-old Sean.

The real Sean (who goes by the name “Father”, befitting his role as patriarch of The Institute) was taken from his parent’s cold, dead hands, in order to provide an ideal set of genes for biological experiments or something. (This part of the story is a little murky, and to be honest I was rolling my eyes through the pseudo-scientific bits anyway.) He grows up to take the helm of The Institute, and vows to crush all opposition to his vision for a better world.

On the other end of the spectrum is The Railroad, a group of radical activists committed to the proposition that synths deserve to be treated as fully human. The Railroad considers synths capable of free will, and therefore believes The Institute is engaged in a radical evil by “enslaving” synths. Their membership is not unanimous about how far this view should go — at one point, the character Deacon explains that everyone in The Railroad agrees that the newest synths (Model 3) are sentient and deserve to be free. Some, however, insist that Model 1 and Model 2 synths should also be “liberated”, while others find this to be absurd, since those robots have much less sophisticated programming. Another character, Virgil, refers to The Railroad as “those kooks” and wonders when they’ll start “trying to liberate toasters”.

(The Railroad is based — in name and purpose — on The Underground Railroad, which helped African-American slaves escape in the 19th century. One of the most heroic members of that group was Harriet Tubman, who freed herself from slavery, then made 13 missions to rescue 70 other people from slavery. I highly recommend the Wikipedia article about Ms. Tubman; I wrote most of it.)

Sticking their noses into the hornet’s nest (as always) is the Brotherhood of Steel. Although they were the level-headed saviors of Fallout 3, they showed some zealot colors in New Vegas (and I haven’t trusted them since). Now they’ve declared war on The Institute, with the intention of wiping out the synths. (If The Brotherhood can’t control the technology, they believe, it shouldn’t exist.) They don’t get along with The Railroad, so there can be no mutual peace.

And then there’s The Minutemen, a ragtag group of ordinary people just trying to keep The Commonwealth free. (They’re based on the 18th century New England colonists who organized themselves into small militias able to react quickly — “within a minute” — to aggression from the British.) They’re the group we fall into by default, since we meet them in Concord at the start of the game. Unlike the other three factions, The Minutemen don’t really have a downside or major shortcoming. (Some people accuse them of being boring, which I guess is a problem for some people.) Even the NCR in New Vegas wrestled with authoritarian tendencies, making an alliance with them problematic at least.

The Dilemma of Bunker Hill

Eventually, “Father” sends the player to Bunker Hill, where some rogue synths are trying to escape. (The location is significant, given the actual Battle of Bunker Hill, which took place in 1775 and ended with a victory for the hated imperialist British forces.) Once we run into the synths, we realize that they are afraid, and the lived reality of humanistic AI confronts us in one of those Magical Moments of Gaming that we all hope for: Are these real people, who deserve our empathy and help? Or are they merely Roombas gone haywire, in need of a reboot and a hard drive wipe?

At first I figured I was being forced into The Institute’s mindset, but in that moment I realized I had a choice — a real choice, with serious consequences. Foremost among these was the Courser who was there to make sure I didn’t do anything stupid, and defeating him wasn’t easy. But more important was the question that had been lurking in the background all along: How do I feel about these .. synths? They begged me not to send them back to The Institute, and suddenly I realized that I cared about them.

So I let them go free. This meant turning my back on my son’s organization, the projects to which he had devoted his life. It’s also important to note that The Institute has done amazing work with growing food, preserving endangered species, and pioneering valuable methods for rebuilding humanity. So while I felt for these particular synths, I wasn’t sure I wanted to cut all ties with The Institute. Still, I knew “Father” wouldn’t be happy.

He wasn’t. Speaking with me on a rooftop of the ruins of the Commonwealth Institute of Technology (an obvious allusion to MIT), he revealed his Sith mindset: “If you’re not with us,” he said, “you’re against us.” I tried to find another way, but he was adamant that there could be no personhood for the synths. Forced to choose between my love for my son and doing the right thing, I expressed my profound disappointment (which I was delighted to see as a dialogue option) and followed my conscience. The Institute revealed itself as an experiment in fascism; they claimed to have benevolent long-term goals, but don’t all fascists?

Naturally, this led to war. Once I declared my allegiance to The Minutemen, “Father” sent a swarm of synth soldiers and Coursers (including several legendary units) to wipe me and my comrades out at The Castle. (This was another Magical Moment of Gaming; I ran out of ammo with quite a few baddies still alive, so I ran around raiding corpses and spamming stimpacks, cleaning out the armory and cursing myself for having sold that missile launcher. I was exhausted by the end of that fight.)

When the smoke cleared, I realized The Institute had to go. “Father” had tried to kill me, and even if I wanted to forgive him, I didn’t believe that we could coexist peacefully. Fortunately, the game knew how I felt and The Minutemen approached with a plan to “take the fight to them”.

We went in and fought through more synths, issued an evacuation order (another opportunity I was delighted to get), and set up us the bomb. One final conversation with “Father” resulted only in a successful persuasion attempt to shut down some of the synths, so fewer people would die. He’s conveniently on his deathbed at this moment, saving the player from an awkward decision about how to decide his fate. (I’m not sure how I feel about that. It would probably be more satisfying to make a choice there, but obviously destroying The Institute is a symbol of the same choice.)

Sean’s Aura

I figured everything was settled, and I prepared to escape and spend the rest of the game in a relatively peaceful Institute-free Commonwealth. But the game was waiting with one last twist of the story-knife: That ten-year-old synth version of Sean has been reprogrammed to think and act just like my actual son. He calls me “father” and fears for his life.

This is the genius of Fallout 4: After all the lies and confusion and missed opportunities, here is a chance to get my son back. Obviously he’s not really my son, but .. does it matter? After all, I let those synths go free at Bunker Hill because the distinction between human and android is superficial at best.

So maybe taking care of this artificial child is a 99% perfect resolution to my quest — and no other resolution could come close to my original expectations. After all, when the war is over, he lives with me at my home base and makes cool stuff out of the random crap I find lying around. And isn’t that what all parents really want from their children?

Robot Sean lacks what the German cultural critic Walter Benjamin called the “aura” of authenticity, but if I’m content to hang a replica of Munch’s The Scream on my wall (and a Simpsons version of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks on the other wall), why am I bothered about the 1% of Sean that’s not authentic? Especially in this video game, where there’s no possibility of running into a circumstance where the difference will matter.

Fallout 4 is a beautiful inversion of The Matrix: That story demands that we choose reality over artifice, no matter how atrocious reality is. In the wastelands of post-apocalyptic Boston, however, the artificial may not be better than the real thing, but I’ve come to prefer Fake Sean over the real “Father”. Whatever problems might exist in Fallout 4 (and there are plenty, even with the story), that’s a victory of significant proportions.

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