Monday, June 27, 2016

Fallout 4 and Missed Opportunity

Disclaimer #1: The following contains minor spoilers for the beginning of Fallout 4.
Disclaimer #2: I have not finished Fallout 4 and am only a few hours into the campaign, thus if there are any late game revelations about the following, I have not yet seen them.

Fallout 4 has a fantastic intro. It's an intro that I believe lives up to the studio's pedigree despite what I'm going to talk about. Waking up on a storm battered ship in Morrowind, escaping from prison along side a king, being saved from execution by the timely arrival of a dragon, seeing the early years of your life as you grow up deep underground. The studio has always had a knack for openings that draw the player into the world while setting up the grand adventures to come.

Fallout 4's intro is no different. The game opens with you, the player, standing in front of the mirror, getting ready for another pleasant morning in the idyllic Sanctuary Hills. Your beautiful wife stands behind you, lovingly commenting as you alter your character's appearance. When you're finished, she takes her turn getting ready and the player is free to roam their simple house awash in Fallout's altered version of 1950's America. 

Your infant son, Shawn, lies in a crib with a rocket ship mobile, his wooden blocks scattered around the room. A forgotten board game sits in a closet. Your household robot is waiting for you in the kitchen with a steaming cup of coffee. You spend the morning watching TV with your wife, calming your crying son and dealing with a pushy door to door salesman. It's the American dream bottled down into a short, ten minute experience and it works wonderfully.

Then the world ends and you're running. Where to or why you're not so sure. You just know that it's safety, safety for your wife and child in a world suddenly changed, in a world forever lost. You make it, one of the last to reach the Vault as the bombs fall. You watch as the mushroom cloud grows in the distance, as the elevator starts to descend into the earth. Technicians waiting for you at the bottom assure you that everything's going to be alright, that you, your wife and your child are going to be safe and sound and provided for. You relax, trying to figure out what this new life will entail. You finally let your guard down and let yourself breathe, right before the people you trust stick you in a tank that cryogenically freezes you.

And here's where I think Fallout misses a great opportunity, while you're there in the tank. I love the idea of freezing the player, of taking the fish out water approach with the vault dweller. Like the player, the character didn't grow up in this wasteland. They're use to fast food, the nightly news and all American apple pie, not super mutants, rad roaches and Synths. It's a great way to marry what the character is going through to what the player experiences. My problem is what happens while you're in the tank.

They shoot your wife in the head. 

They shoot her right in the damn head and they take your baby and then you go back on ice like the world's worst Captain America impression.

You wake up, cold and alone and venture out into the world. Into your neighborhood shattered by the bomb. Into the ashes of your once perfect house. You wander off into the wasteland in search of a son you may not even recognize, unsure of how long you've been asleep.

And I know why they do it. They want to motivate the player. What better motivation than kidnapping your only child and shooting your pretty, lovely, complimenting you while you fix your hair in the mirror, wife. They do it because they don't want to deal with the baggage, they don't want to anchor the player with this nagging wife whining about her missing son. They want to motivate the player while simultaneously giving him the freedom to conquer the wasteland however they want.

They know what they're doing. They put her in that classic 1950's dress, give her that pleasant, homely voice and the slender figure and then they shoot her in the head. You can't do anything to stop it. You can't fix it. All you can do is take her wedding ring off her cold dead finger and swear revenge like some 80's action hero.

I hate it because it's easy, because it's cheap and easy. And I hate it because it caused them to miss something with so much more depth, with so much more reason.

Imagine what would have happened if they hadn't shot your wife in her adorable little temple. Instead, they kidnap your kid and push her back in the ice box and the two of you thaw slowly out together. She panicking, crying. You wrap your arms around her and tell her everything's going to be all right. The two of you emerge into the wasteland together. You pick through the ruins of your shattered house, comfort your house robot that's been slowly going insane from two hundred years without anyone to talk to. Try to put the pieces of your lives back together.

Narratively, it's a far stronger option. But that's not the only reason I thought they should have gone that way. You see, Fallout 4 has a problem. It has the same problem every Bethesda open world game has. The player has to find their son, it's the only thing that matters to them, the only thing on their mind, a singular goal to motivate them through the trials ahead. Except it isn't. There's the minutemen to rebuild. There settlements to grow. The Brotherhood of Steel to join or fight. The question of the Synths and what should happen to them. The wasteland of the commonwealth is a complex and ever evolving place that the player is asked to weigh in on. Hours into the game I haven't even begun to look for my son. But my settlement has defensive turrets and some pretty sick lights, so clearly my priorities are in order.

This isn't a new problem for open world games, even outside of Bethesda's. So often the player is tasked to save the world, to close the Oblivion gates, to find Ciri and prevent the endless winter. Yet all around them are distractions. Races and card games, companions and damsels in distress. What bothers me so much about Fallout 4's opening is that the player's spouse gives the perfect solution for this problem.

Why does my character, who wants only to rescue their son, give a damn about the minuteman or their settlements, why does he care whether or not they are safe? I think the player would care a lot if their wife was still alive, if she was back at Sanctuary Hills, trying to pick up their life while the player was out trying to rescue their son. Why does my character team up with these random companions, often after only a simple conversation when they could walk through the wasteland side by side with the person they swore to spend the rest of their life with? Shooting side by side against super mutants and the like? Why does my character care about the food supply of settlements, of rebuilding society when there's no one to rebuild it for?

Even the two areas of growth for the character, their moral alignment and their relationship with companions would be made deeper by the presence of the player's spouse. In the beginning of the game, while your player is looking at their eyes in the mirror, your wife remarks that was on the reason she fell in love you, because of those eyes. Wouldn't it be better to have her comment on those same eyes hours into the game, how they've hardened thanks to the horrors of the wasteland, or how, even after everything they've been through they still have that same kindness she fell in love with?

The same applies to companions. Maybe she's supportive of the synths, or doesn't trust you bringing one around the house. There's a throwaway line in the beginning about her taking time to trust the handyman with your son, how does she react to a walking, talking Synth in the house? What about your female companions? Is she jealous? Does the player feel more drawn to a tough woman of the wasteland than to his sheltered wife back home?

There's so much room to explore, so many avenues to go down with these characters that would enhance the experience while simultaneously helping to ground the player in the accomplishments around him, that give the player reason for their actions. Instead they took the easy way out.They took the simple route. Why worry about any of this, why give this person character, give them hopes and dreams when they could shoot her in the head and be done?

The last thing I'll say is this, one of the first things you get after waking up is a recording your wife made for you, safeguarded all this time by your trusty house robot. It's a tear jerking tape of your wife and laughing son telling you what a great father you are, of how much your wife is looking forward to the two of you spending more time together as your try and raise your son in a rapidly changing world.

It's a great tape, one of the rare instances in games when audio logs actually have a meaningful impact. It's shame, cause I would have like to see far more of that interaction between wife and husband.

Instead I'm left with only a corpse sitting in a Cryo tank. With a wedding band in my inventory to symbolize all the conversations that were lost. All I'm left with is a wife that was shot in the head.