(Spoilers for Fallout 4 ahead.)
I don’t hate most of Fallout 4’s main quest line. I actually think it’s the most interesting main quest Bethesda has produced since Morrowind, at least until the last quarter of its contents. F4 cleverly sets up a complicated political/military/economic struggle between multiple factions of varying shades of morality and competence, and then asks the player to navigate a route between them. If most players are like me, they did their best to maintain an uneasy neutrality between all the factions for as long as possible. After all, I really did like and dislike elements of all of them. I liked the Minutemen’s benevolence but was unsure of their ability to project power. I liked the Brotherhood’s efficiency but wondered how far removed they were from being especially intelligent raiders. I liked the Railroad’s goals but wondered if such a small organization could really accomplish much in the long term. Finally, I loved being reunited with my son in a technological marvel but many of the Institute’s practices were highly ethically questionable.
So I bounced between all of the factions for most of the middle of the plot, feeding them information and scoring minor victories for each when I could without damaging another faction too dearly. Every time I was offered an increasingly transgressive quest, I agonized over which path to take and talked to as many people as I could to explore every possible option. I actually thought Bethesda was doing a remarkable job of allowing me to maintain this balancing act for so long.
However, the game could not allow this quest structure to continue indefinitely. At a certain point, the player is required to make choices which permanently alienate each faction until his allegiance is only to a single one (not counting the Minutemen who are typically excluded from the late-game conflict). Unfortunately, it’s right around this point that both the player’s narrative control and the plot itself collapse. While it is difficult but possible for a game to allow a comfortable level of player agency throughout most of its story and then reign it in right near the end, the problem with F4 is that the plot doesn’t adequately justify why it takes away so much player agency. The result is a feeling of frustrating dissonance between what “is” and what “should be” for the player as a once intriguing plot based on conflicting loyalties and shifting sands gets railroaded into one of four unsatisfying conclusions free of legitimate narrative interactivity.
I have previously written about the nature of narrative interactivity in video games, especially as they pertain to “graphic adventure games” and the inherent limitations of choice complexity. As far as I can tell, Bethesda’s overuse (or maybe just incompetent use) of narrative choice in F4 wrote them into a corner at the end of the main quest line. The player was given a lot of control over a complicated situation, and rather than allow the player’s control to take him down a huge array of varied potential narrative paths, the developers jerked on the leash at the last minute and restrained the player to only a handful of options.
To illustrate my point, consider the differences between two quests in F4. The earlier quest, which allows a decent amount of narrative control, is “The Battle of Bunker Hill.” The latter quest, which arbitrarily eliminates player agency, is “End of the Line.”
The Battle of Bunker Hill is a quest given to the player by Father while he’s working for the Institute (either earnestly, or as an insider agent for the Railroad or Brotherhood). Father asks the player to go to the city of Bunker Hill to locate and retrieve four escaped synths who are being protected by the Railroad. From this simple prompt, the player is given a wide array of options for how to respond. He can commit to completing the task as Father asks, he can warn the Railroad and set up a trap for the Institute while trying to maintain his cover, or he can warn the Brotherhood and lead an assault to destroy the synths and ambush the Institute.
Admittedly, the degree of player choice here is not as great as it could be. Regardless of what the player does, all three factions arrive at Bunker Hill for a shootout. Who the player sides with just determines which factions are hostile to the player in this battle. It would be nice if the player could attempt to coordinate some cooperation between multiple factions, but that’s understandably difficult to systematize in the game and sensibly fit into the story.
Even still, the array of player choice is pretty interesting. The player has a chance to help and do damage to any of the three factions all while trying to maintain his ostensible support for the factions in the grand scheme of things (supposedly killing all of the soldiers of a single faction will prevent the faction from finding out the player was responsible). The narrative interactivity is in place and the player has an interesting decision to make.
Then there is “End of the Line,” the quest which forces the player to choose between the Institute and the Railroad for good. Despite knowing the player’s sympathies for the Railroad, Father orders the player to kill all of the Railroad’s leaders so they can no longer threaten the Institute’s interests in the Commonwealth. The player can either go through with Father’s orders or ignore them and continue with the Railroad’s quest line to destroy the Institute. The player can also inform the Railroad of Father’s orders, but they just tell him to “buy time,” which is just about the easiest task possible in a Bethesda RPG.
In a game where the player was just some pawn being passed between powerful forces, I would probably be fine with accepting my fate as some hired gun who does what he’s told. But in a game like F4 where the player is supposed to be an efficacious and powerful force in the world, who up until this point had made important decisions on his own behalf to steer the Commonwealth in certain directions on his own initiative, this level of linearity is unacceptable.
Despite the fact that I don’t actually have 10 out of 10 Intelligence Points in real life, it didn’t take me long to come up with a viable alternative solution to the quest other than the ones presented to the player. I wanted to keep the Institute intact because I (or rather the character I was playing) loved my son and thought the Institute’s technology could do a great deal of good for the Commonwealth. But I also wanted to realize the Railroad’s goals of liberating the enslaved synths. So what I should be able to do is go to the Railroad leadership, tell them to go into hiding, and tell them to cease their activities until the terminally ill Father passes away and I can take over the Institute. Then I can just use my authority to liberate the synths, which won’t be easy, but seems plausible given the level of support for liberation amongst numerous synths and humans within the Institute. Then the Railroad leadership can return and help the newly freed beings adjust to their independence.
Ok, so all of that is easier said than done, but so is 95% of the other things you can do in F4. Hell, later on the Railroad can take down the Brotherhood by storming one of their compounds, hijacking a vertibird (with a pilot who has never flown one before), docking on their blimp base, and then having the player assault and/or stealth his way through the most heavily guarded base in the Commonwealth so he can plant explosives in its center before sprinting and/or stealthing his way back to the vertibird for a daring aerial escape. If that plan is within the realm of F4’s possibly viable options, then so is mine.
There are plenty of other possible solutions to End of the Line within the game’s story potential. Maybe the player can sit down with Father and convince him that synths have free will and should be released from slavery, or at least that the existence of their free will can’t be determined so the Institute should err on the side of caution. Or maybe the player can get the Railroad to issue a formal ceasefire if some concessions could be met or negotiations held, especially in light of the mutual threat posed to both of them by the Brotherhood. Yet with all of these potential solutions, the player is forced into one of two: kill everyone in the Railroad or destroy the Institute.
As I described in my previous articles on narrative interactivity, the reason Bethesda tightens the leash is probably because maintaining or increasing narrative choice becomes prohibitively difficult at a certain point. I can think of dozens of particular ways to approach the problem posed in End of the Line, but for each one of those solutions to be implemented in F4, Bethesda would have to produce vastly more content in the form of writing, animation, and voice acting. And despite their high costs, the actual returns on each new path for the player would be relatively low since the paths are mutually exclusive, and therefore a player will only see a single path unless he does multiple playthroughs. With every branching path potentially creating even more branching paths, the workload multiplies and quickly becomes untenable on the developer’s side.
For much of the middle of the main quest line, Bethesda did a remarkably good job of maintaining a decent amount of narrative choice by allowing the player to choose to work for any of the factions against any other one at will within limits. But as the game progressed and more potential paths opened up, they had to cut back on the number of narrative paths until they converged on a reasonably small number (which turned out to be 4).
It should be noted that these four locked paths don’t just railroad the player into siding with a single faction against the others, they also force the player to make a whole lot of other dumb decisions. For instance, if the player sides with anyone but the Institute, then he must inevitably blow up the Institute. This is an incredibly irrational action for every faction to take. For the Brotherhood it means destroying the most advanced known technology in the world, despite their entire mandate being based on preserving technology. For the Railroad it means destroying the means of producing and maintaining the synths they care so much about. And for the Minutemen it means destroying technology and resources which can bring great benefits to the Commonwealth, and especially to their own territory. Any player with a brain stem should realize this fact and try to prevent his faction from destroying the Institute, but no such option is available, so players can only haplessly observe the idiocy of their allies.
Just as with mechanical complexity, more narrative complexity is not always better, and F4 is a perfect example of this principle. Giving the player a large amount of freedom earlier in the game with quests like The Battle of Bunker Hill only harmed the player’s sense of efficacy later in the game when the level of narrative choice was restricted. While in a regular game with a linear narrative, any level of control over the narrative can feel somewhat significant (ie. the ability to save Meryl in Metal Gear Solid 1), returning the player to a small level of narrative control in a game which gets the player used to a significant level of narrative control can actually feel worse than never giving the player any control in the first place.
That is the folly of Fallout 4’s main quest line. Most of the time, the game asks the player to use his brain to analyze the factions and to carefully consider his options when making decisions within the established game world. Then when the plot gets too complicated, the game takes away nearly all of the player’s control and asks him to shut off his brain again and just listen to the useless NPCs. This turn starts with forcing the player to end his neutrality between the factions and necessarily ends with destroying the rest of the factions (with the exception of the Minutemen and Railroad if you ally with either of them). Bethesda’s attempts at narrative interactivity were ambitious, and even admirable for much of the game, but ultimately ended in failure.