Praise be to god. In the year of our lord, two thousand and fifteen, the creative professionals at Bethesda have bestowed upon us the grace we do not deserve.
Fallout 4 hath arrived.
It may as well be a hallowed moment. It’s been nearly seven years since fallout 3, and news on the sequel has been surprisingly quiet, save a few leaks. As far as anticipated titles go, Fallout 4 has remained in Half-Life 3 speculation territory for years. You could forgive a starving fan base for going a little nuts last week.
And admittedly, what we saw in the trailer and at the Bethesda E3 conference is pretty gorgeous.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Our hearts doth deceive us.
Let’s clear up a couple of things before I lay into what may be one of the industry’s most beloved games of the last 10 years. The scene where you first leave the vault and see the sprawling wasteland before you? Stunning. Wonderful. A perfect way to shove you out of one environment and into another. Designers should study it as an example of how to nail a specific tone.
The story premise? Pretty good. Go searching for your missing father in an unknown, dangerous wilderness? Intriguing and dark.
That’s about where my praise for Fallout 3 ends.
Here’s a big problem with most RPGs, especially Bethesda games: fans of the genre are willing to forgive any sin if the world is big enough, the characters strange and “funny” enough, and there are a decent variety of weapons.
Such concessions do not a good game make. If the last decade of development has shown us anything, tone, consistency of character and pacing play not just an equal role but perhaps a dominant one in making these ultra-large gaming spaces feel real, lived in and alive. The Last of Us is not an RPG, clearly, but its juxtaposition of dilapidated buildings and brightly coloured flora do a better job of conveying the tension between living and dead than Fallout’s brown wasteland.
The bigger and more impressive our technological ability to create massive worlds, so too does the responsibility lie in filling that world with the living.
This speaks to Fallout’s core sin - often overlooked in favour of gaming freedom: the inconsistency of tone.
In the original two games, the contradiction between the 50’s artistic style and the dark, barren world is used to emphasise fear and a sense of uneasiness. In Fallout 3, this juxtaposition is never fully conveyed. Characters like Three Dog and the various “personalities” in Megaton are quirky – they stretch the believability of the world itself. Are we to believe these people could actually exist in the environment the game has created?
This type of humour exists in the first two games, yes, but the top-down approach provides the type of distance an FPS erodes. Such silliness confronted face-to-face disrupts the serious and dark tone the game has already attempted to convey. It’s one thing to create a serious game with moments of brevity, or vice versa. Juggling both consistently does not work.
The personalities of these people speaks to a bigger problem – the game’s utilitarian approach to character. Thinking back over the past generation, there are several characters who stand out to me for whatever reason – they’re funny, have a sad story, or are simply acted well. Sully in Uncharted. Ellie in The Last of Us. Hell, the nameless soldiers I sent to their deaths in XCOM were characters enough for me.
Yet the people of Fallout are never fully realised. The constraints of an RPG notwithstanding, characters inhabiting a desolate wasteland should be memorable to combat the dreariness of the setting itself. It’s a hard line to straddle, and characters like Three Dog are clearly an attempt to provide some memorable moments in the midst of depression. But being memorable doesn’t mean throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. Character is more than a collection of anecdotes or references to off-screen action.
There’s a quote from Sam Cooke, often attributed to Bob Dylan, that a good singer isn’t just pleasant to listen to. It should convince you it’s telling you the truth. The same goes for character. When the people in Megaton talk to me, I don’t believe them. I see the cracks.
The handling of the father character is perhaps the greatest sin. This figure, a personality built in your head over hours of gameplay ala Harry Lime in the Third Man, is downright boring in your first encounter. Liam Neeson couldn’t have given a flatter performance – and who can blame him. There’s no emotion here. Players expecting a colourful moment are left with something soggy.
Let’s consider a game with a similar tone – This War of Mine. Clearly, a different game with a different tonal sensitivity, and one Fallout shouldn’t try to copy. But characters without dialogue *can* have personality. The game just has to work harder to convince you.
Why is it the characters in This War of Mine feel more alive than those in Fallout? Because their motivations and hard choices are made clear. In Fallout, no one is interesting, and as a result, every choice you make is easy.
Poor voice acting and stilted animations don’t help matters, either. Unfortunately, these problems combined provide a sad diagnosis - Fallout 3’s characters are as lifeless as the world it attempts to portray.
I think people like the idea of Fallout more than they like many aspects of the game itself. I don’t blame them. Parts of the world are gorgeous and wonderful to explore. One of the greatest pleasures in a Bethesda game is coming across landmarks and areas you had no idea existed – and finding a quest there. It’s wonderful.
But that joy doesn’t have to come at the expense of so much. If this is a world meant to be inhibited by character and personality – as the Fallout 4 trailer suggests - then Fallout should do the world the decency of providing it with some.