Silver Scare: Narrative and Factions in Fallout 4

Note: The following article contains major spoilers for Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas, and Fallout 4.

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Fallout may be washed in the popular media and cultural sensibilities of an America more than half a century before us, but the causes of its civilisational collapse involved international political concerns that are provoking a lot of discomfort in us now. Because of this, Fallout holds a lot of relevance for us as people in the 21st century. The bombs dropped in Interplay's far-future sci-fi as the culmination of a decades-long war over the dwindling resources of an Earth that found itself trapped between multiple crises. Hyper-militarist policy, an energy shortage, and an ever-hungrier consumer culture fed into each other, leading to an irreversible calamity. You might not have picked that up from Fallout or its wikis, but you don't need to. The traces of those strains on humanity stain the surviving America you tread, a rubbish heap of rabid soldiers and rusted consumer goods. By strobing rosy company branding and jingoistic militarism against a backdrop of desperation and decay, Fallout suggests an association between the former and the latter. It speaks to societal sickness in contemporary American culture and ensures you're never too far from a sobering reminder of what caused its apocalypse in the first place.

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While most post-apocalyptic fiction is meant to be horrific simply because it's post-civilisational, half the horror of Fallout is in the civilisation that continues. Sure, many characters in the series live without modern day amenities and protections and have to worry about disease, starvation, and violent attacks, but at the same time, many advanced technologies and institutions have survived or risen out of the ashes of the war. Fallout's future still has supercomputers, fusion reactors, expertly equipped armies, intelligent robots, and more. There's at least a shred of optimism here in that there are grand things to reclaim from the post-war rubble and people who would put them to at least somewhat ethical use, but nothing in Fallout is gained without toil.

Many of the people who aspire to be technologically or organisationally advanced are not morally pure, or worse, represent the same kind of animosity, xenophobia, and greed which reduced Earth to a smouldering wreck in the first place. They're raiders, they're The Enclave, they're Caeser's Legion. The threats of Fallout reside not just in a lack of civilisation but also in that civilisation may be rebuilt in a way that hurts people. So the series is simultaneously looking backwards and looking ahead. It's imploring you to think about what America has been in the past and then, with that in mind, letting you decide what it will look like in the future. Which of the old approaches do you rekindle and which do you snuff out?

Previous Games

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Fallout 3 wore these subjects on its sleeve. It was a game set in the remains of Washington D.C. and the area around it, and it peaked in a battle over the Jefferson Memorial. The good guys fought an army which believed in archaic American values of genetic "purity" and patriotism to the point of zealousness. It's valid to see it as a game that bashed people over the head with the message that the series was about a specifically American and political post-apocalypse, but Fallout 3 was a statement by new developer Bethesda on what they were going to do with the series going forward. It also functioned as an introduction to these RPGs for many players, being the first mainline Fallout game in 10 years and attracting a new audience with shooter mechanics and a first-person perspective which replaced the more niche tabletop RPG style of the previous two Fallouts. It was in Bethesda's interests to re-establish the core concepts of the series.

3 is remembered for its gloriously large but frequently desolate mountains, valleys, and plains. It also became a poster child for reductionist moral choice systems in games. Not only was its "Good" vs. "Evil" karma meter too basic to be realistic or nuanced but that meter followed the boring black-and-white design of most of the game's ethical choices. You could blow up Megaton or not; you could free the slaves or not; you could put a virus in the water supply or not. Obsidian Entertainment designer and director Josh Sawyer would later describe this manner of moral choice design as "not that compelling", calling it the "Jesus/Hitler option". It allows for more roleplaying than if there were no choice, but only slightly, and it facilitates only absurdly extreme ethical expression or characterisation.

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Fallout: New Vegas, like 3, has another big, dead wasteland and retains the karma system but is less historical, and makes a knowing improvement on the lack of nuance and choice in 3's story branches. The previous game used two factions to represent the two moral options offered in the final act, and New Vegas is eager to mine the potential of this faction-based approach. The game's central conflict is over who controls the New Vegas strip and nearby Hoover Dam, and that control is yours to award as you see fit. Factions are useful storytelling tools for open-world RPGs because they humanise worldviews and ideologies, letting the characters teach you about the kind of ideas they represent and letting you explore new people, places, and aesthetics through them. When you make your choice of which faction will control the New Vegas strip, you're not just picking what general, abstract approach to New Vegas you want to implement; you've had to time to learn about the cultures and ruling styles of the factions.

The fundamental choice in the game is not just about whether you want to be naughty or nice, it's more about what style of governance you think would be best for New Vegas when there are no ideal options. If you still want to be evil there's Caesar's Legion there for you, but you can also have New Vegas run by the NCR who have something resembling an actual government ready to go but who have an authoritarian and protectionist streak, there's Mr. House who is laxer with the law of the land but who wants to continue running the strip as a for-profit venture, or you can try to run it yourself with the help of Yes Man. That last option feels like a bit too much of an easy out; the player is always going to think they're the best leader, but New Vegas is more open and rich in its faction interactions, and therefore story, than 3 was.

Overview

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Fallout 4 reuses the story structure from New Vegas, having an introductory linear tale and then letting you side with one of four factions to bring about one of four endings. While the aesthetics and societal relevance of Las Vegas and Washington D.C. are etched deep into pop culture, Fallout 4 is set in Massachusetts, a place whose sociopolitical relevance is buried a little deeper in the history books. Taking on a state less optimised for virtual tourism, Fallout 4 has to dive deep into its setting to build a story out of it, recreating the USS Constitution, The Battle of Bunker Hill, and other chapters early in American history. Not everyone is going to recognise its uncanny impression of Massachusetts the same way they recognised those impressions of Washington D.C. or Vegas, but it's satisfying to see the game pull up some cultural reference points that are a little more inside baseball. It also drops New Vegas's idea of letting you pick yourself as the ending faction.

Set ten years after Fallout 3, Fallout 4 is a more hopeful Fallout, one where post-war America has made some headway, and more ambitious civilisational advancement is possible. Fallout 3 and New Vegas had these grimacing, confrontational main themes, but Fallout 4's is lighter and cheerier, and where most life had been choked out of the wastelands of the last two games, wildlife has slowly returned to Massachusetts. I'm not sure I'd call The Commonwealth healthy, but there are more trees and grass and plants, it's more visually stimulating than the landscapes of previous games, and then there's Boston which stands as its own bastion of progress with its history of computing. There's also the new settlement-building mechanic which lets you whip up furniture and food for villagers in a snap, there's the relatively prosperous and safe hub of Diamond City, and there are The Minutemen who are perhaps the most well-meaning and altruistic faction to ever appear in a Fallout game.

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3 and New Vegas were both in some way about grasping for a biological necessity, a clean water supply, but with a more developed wasteland comes a battle over concerns further up the hierarchy of needs. Fallout 4's ultimate question is over what should be done with the Synths, a kind of android manufactured by the mysterious Institute to perform unpaid labour for them. The big choice is made thought-provoking in that unlike in 3 and New Vegas, the game isn't just asking you who should control its focal resource but whether the "resource" should even be treated as a resource. Unlike with Project Purity in 3 or The Strip in New Vegas, you are given as much power to destroy or liberate the resource as you are to use it and each faction stands for a different idea about what might be done with the Synths. That is, destroy them, utilise them, or free them. You're not prompted about this choice from the outset, however. Most of the people in The Commonwealth are introduced to the Synths not as a resource but as a scourge. The Synths are a discriminated minority in The Commonwealth and an analogue for African-Americans in pre-abolition America, and so the citizens of Fallout 4's Commonwealth feel the same suspicion and fear of Synths that many white people in America have displayed about black people. The game also gives you a reason to fear the Synths.

The Early Game

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You start as a war veteran living the American Dream with your family in 2077 when word comes that the bombs are about to drop. You are all evacuated into a Vault-Tec vault and cryogenically preserved. Over the next two-hundred years, you awake once, when a party break into the vault, shoot your spouse, and kidnap your son, Shaun. The old world and the comfy nuclear family life it offered die with your partner. When you finally emerge from the vault in 2287, The Commonwealth is buzzing with similar stories of people being snatched in the night, and it's purportedly The Institute's Synths doing the snatching. Fallout 4 plays into the nuclear war theme by having a spectre of Cold War paranoia descend over the early story. People are terrified of possible Synth infiltrators in their midst, and in classic McCarthyism fashion, the one journalist you find reporting on them is treated with firm disapproval and effectively censored. Another great product of Cold War paranoia that makes it into the first act is noir fiction, incorporated via straight-talking gumshoe Nick Valentine.

Himself a Synth implanted with human memories, Nick is our first clue that the Synths aren't the evil they're played up to be, and it's him and that journalist, Piper Wright, that spearhead the first intensive probing into who the Synths are. Wright and Valentine represent the journalism and the police respectively as classic parts of Boston's history and are two of the series' most lovable characters to date. Our quests alongside them lead us to the Memory Den where we enter a virtual dreamscape patchworked together from the recollections of a mercenary working for The Institute. Then, in a marvel of environmental artwork, you trek across the Glowing Sea: a perpetual radiation storm created by one of the payloads of the war. The bizarre and inhospitable quality of the location is sold by effects work that makes it look like you're roaming another planet, as well as the twist that the Glowing Sea has you venturing beyond the boundaries of the map.

The Institute

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By the time we finally learn what's beyond the walls of The Institute, the game has raised expectations for it to a height that it doesn't seem like it could live up to, and yet, Fallout 4 sticks the landing. The series had always invoked the "world of tomorrow" sci-fi dream but in this hollow way where the point was that that was a naive mindset and likely only used to sell washing machines and robot butlers. Despite that, The Institute is the genuine article. The discovery of it is jaw-dropping because the series committed to its depictions of degenerated nature and struggling society for hundreds of hours and across multiple games before making the bold and spontaneous move to place us somewhere that looks like it could have fallen right out of a 50s techno-futurist magazine.

The gleaming promise of The Institute also helps you understand why the intelligent and idealistic people living in it might still support a digital slavery. The idea of a home that provides clean water, comfortable living, and the opportunity for all-expenses-paid scientific research is a rare miracle in the year 2278, and so it's natural that people may see it worth paying a high price for. From an ethics standpoint, however, if the Synths are comparable to humans then the lives of those Synths are not their price to pay. Unfortunately, this picture of mid-century techno-utopia interferes with Fallout's previous commentary that the ultra-convenient space age was a pipedream, just like the opening to 4 interfered with Fallout's message that the American Dream was again, just cultural propaganda.

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In a more personal surprise, The Institute didn't just kidnap your son; your son is now an old man and their director. This is one of the few moments when the game's conceit that you skipped ahead two centuries hits home. While the story sets you up as a woman or man out of time, we have little time to get acclimatised to the pre-war world because the game needs to rush us towards its apocalypse. The post-war world also feels familiar after playing previous Fallouts and other post-apocalyptic games, so there's no sense that we're somewhere we don't fit. However, once we reach The Institute, we see our son, who we remember being a child just days or weeks before, as an aged man, and this forces the protagonist and us to confront that we are living in a different era than the one we started in.

Fallout 4's plot can be seen as an inversion of Fallout 3's in that while in 3 you were a child searching for their parent, in 4 you are a parent searching for their child. While in 3 you rescued your father from a nightmarish place, in 4 they need no such rescue, and they exist in a bespoke paradise. In 3 your father does the noble job of seeking out the miracle-bringing GECK, while in 4 your son does the dubious work of presiding over robotic servants. In both cases, however, your family member is referred to as "Father", and both "Fathers" are dead by the time the credits roll.

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Finding Shaun becomes the start of another act rather than an end to the story because his ascendance to overseer of this shadowy organisation and The Institute's use of Synth labour open up new questions and possibilities. Some of those questions arise from ambiguity over whether the Synths are actually people or just perfect replicas of them. The game dances around this mystery which is not helpful when finding out whether the Synths experience emotion and personhood is fundamental to making decisions about whether they count as slaves and if we should emancipate them. If the Synths have no degree of self-awareness then using their labour isn't any different from operating machines like microwaves or vacuum cleaners, but if they are self-aware then The Institute scientists, including your son, are futuristic plantation owners. The game gently eases you into the question, pairing you with Nick Valentine and asking if he should be treated as a person and then once you enter The Institute it expands the question outwards to whether all Synths should be treated as people. You'd just wish that when the game asked you a bigger question, it gave you greater insight into the answer.

We could say that we know Synths have human experiences because Nick had them but then he wasn't created like the other Synths; he is a digitisation of the memories of a dead police officer. There's a similar fallacy in basing our view of Synths on DiMA from the Far Harbour DLC: he is one-of-a-kind and not representative of The Institute's technology. Curie, an NPC who eventually becomes a Synth reports emotions such as embarrassment and attraction which suggest a capability for such things in their hardware, but even then we're left with a Chinese Room problem where we don't know if she's a person or just doing a convincing impression of a person. Dr. Amari, an expert on consciousness and machinery, tells us Synth brains are part-way between human brains and circuitry, and we could assume from that that Synths half-experience personhood but that would be an assumption. Shaun, an expert on Synths, says in plain English that they are not sentient and he shows nothing apart from complete honesty with us, so there's very little chance he's lying but still no guarantee that what he's saying is correct. It could be that despite being a robotics scientist, Shaun does not fully understand the nature of the Synths.

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There would be nothing wrong with writing a story where there was a question over whether robots should be treated like people when we can't verify their personhood, but that's not the question Fallout 4 poses. The game rarely acknowledges the ambiguity over Synth consciousness and does not give you the dialogue options to recognise it either. All you can do is either express allegiance towards factions who believe absolutely in Synths as people or towards factions that believe absolutely in Synths as objects. There is no middle-ground or discussion of these positions. I think the most rational conclusion is that the Synths are in fact people, but not because of anything that Fallout 4 expresses diegetically. It's because the story uses a framing that compares the Synths to African-Americans, real people.

In addition to creating confusion around the Synths, the game never explains the end goal of The Institute, and so it becomes hard to make ethical decisions involving them. These MIT successors say their technology is the best hope for The Commonwealth, but never show us a plan for how that technology will increase the standard of living for the citizens. On the contrary, The Institute has an isolationist streak and phobia of sharing with the outside. Perhaps they're simply lying about their species-saving intentions, but it's never made clear, and the ambiguity is never acknowledged.

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Despite the blurriness of some of the aspects of The Institute, they do have the most compelling character writing of the four factions. The interactions with Father are something your character has a personal investment in and siding with or against The Institute is not just about ethics and what you want the future of The Commonwealth to be, but what kind of relationship you want to have with your son. By the end of the game, you've either betrayed him and destroyed his work or joined hands with him and realised his dream. Either of which matters all the more when he sees you do it from his deathbed, even if having Father on his deathbed at the end of the game feels gushy.

The relationship between you and Shaun is eccentric in that you can both act as parental figures to each other. He's your biological son, and both you and Shaun may think of him that way, but he's also your boss within The Insitute, calls himself "Father", and is older and probably smarter than you. Related to this, there is nuance in that the questions of whether you still love Shaun and whether you approve of his actions are independent of each other, and your opinions on them may change over time. The game lets you tell Shaun your feelings towards him both when you meet him as an adult for the first time and when you say goodbye to him as he dies. So you may decide that at first you don't feel that Shaun is your son but you grow to love him despite thinking he's doing something monstrous. Maybe you feel and express an inalienable love for him all the way through the story, or maybe you meet him in The Institute ready to embrace him, see the kind of person he is, and develop a venomous hate for him. Any of these outcomes can be concurrent with you realising or sabotaging his plans. Fallout 4 may only have as many factions as New Vegas did, but this touch allows for far more ways to relate to this faction than New Vegas lets you relate to any of its factions.

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While I don't want to create the sense that this is a story at risk of snapping any heartstrings, The Institute plotline works better than a lot of the other plotlines because it was properly set-up in the early game and so gets pay-off in the late game. You strive hard to find Shaun right from the start of 4, and you're given a personal connection to him. We can't say the same thing for the other factions or their members.

The Railroad

While The Institute is a marvel of the future, The Railroad is a reignition of the past. The real Underground Railroad helped black slaves escape their owners, and The Railroad help Synths slip away from The Institute with the eventual goal of destroying the organisation. This resistance's headquarters are an example of how the game uses the bases of each of the factions to paint a picture of who they are. The Railroad HQ is a basement underneath the Old North Church: the oldest church in Boston and a former lookout post meant to warn of invading British troops. This history is echoed by the Railroad themselves having to keep a diligent lookout for possible Institute invaders. Churches, in general, were used by the Underground Railroad to ferry slaves away from their former masters and to find this basement hideout you have to follow Boston's Freedom Trail. The faction is literally embedded into Boston's historical institutions, and like their namesake, they must play to their stealth and cunning as they do not have the large workforce or technological horsepower of The Brotherhood or Institute. They are very much the underdogs of the story.

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As surreptitious backdoor operators, the group have you play double agent inside The Institute to liberate the oppressed Synths. Here the game efficiently reuses The Institute's quests without it feeling like the simple product of budget constraints. Oddly though, the Synths never feel all that humanised, and the plan to bring about Synth abolition also involves a lot of murdering Synths because The Institute program them as soldiers. Perhaps the massacre of Synths is a grim necessity, but it's another one of those things that seems like it should be a primary concern for the characters but never seems to become a topic of discussion or bother them all that much.

If you side with The Institute or Brotherhood then, at a certain point, you'll be asked to scrub out The Railroad, and if you've spent any time with them, then that mission plays as a punch to the gut. You're picking on the little guy and abusing your superior access to technology. The actual process of the culling involves killing plenty of named characters, and it only adds to the guilt that the last part of the attack is carried out under your volition. You have to fire the first shot, and you are the only one making the assault, there is no backup. If you're allied with The Institute, Shaun will at least show some discomfort over the attack, but if you're siding with The Brotherhood of Steel, you'll find their leader will not. It's one of the best demonstrations of The Brotherhood's callousness.

The Brotherhood of Steel

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Like The Enclave in 3 and Caeser's Legion in New Vegas, The Brotherhood is this game's unashamedly evil faction. They may have been the good guys two Fallouts back, but it was the benevolent Owyn Lyons who led the East Coast Brotherhood at that time, and now the pious Arthur Maxson has taken the reins. On the one hand, this does say something about how the chapters of the organisation lack any unifying philosophy and are only as kind or cruel as their leaders, but it also dilutes the personality of perhaps the most recognisable Fallout faction. They feel like a needless rehash of The Enclave, displaying that organisation's same righteous interventionism and xenophobia, only this time directing it towards the Synths where The Enclave pointed it at non-humans.

Your character takes unnaturally quickly to The Brotherhood's doctrinal way of life and becomes wholeheartedly invested in their cause without any indication of how this might be a product of their prior experiences. In another lazy wrinkle in the writing, The Brotherhood's grand plan is the same thing they did in Fallout 3: they build Liberty Prime to crush their opposition. The march alongside Prime is good for all the reasons it was good the last time around and bad for all the reasons it was bad. Prime's dialogue describes a mid-century American uber-patriotism that is so extreme it's hilarious, and it's fun to watch him reduce his targets to dust in seconds. However, because Liberty Prime can make such short work of its enemies, you become ornamental in all the fights, and if you try to enter the fray, you're liable to get nuked by Prime anyway. The Brotherhood also react more implausibly than most factions to one of the endgame plot points.

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If you side with The Minutemen, Railroad, or Brotherhood then after you sabotage The Institute and prepare to leave the building, you're approached by a Synth replica of your son who asks if he can come with you. Never does any NPC seem freaked out by this and if there's one faction that should have cause for concern it's The Brotherhood. They've shown nothing but white-hot loathing for The Institute and their Synths and consider you one of their most loyal soldiers. Then a person who is clearly a Synth shows up in an Institute uniform, asking to go with you, you can agree, and The Brotherhood makes no comment about this or effort to stop you. It's not possible to suspend your disbelief through this.

However, there are well-conceived elements of The Brotherhood. Again, the game knows how to build a faction headquarters. The Brotherhood is introduced when their blimp, the Prydwen, pierces the Massachusetts sky, loudspeakers blaring, and this blimp serves as the apex of their operations for the rest of the game. While the Railroad and Institute are nestled away safe underground, the Brotherhood is confident in letting you know they're here. The Prydwen signals technological supremacy, travel here from outside the region, and that they literally treat themselves as above other people. The Brotherhood also do have control of an airport which matches their prowess for engineering and organisation.

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For anyone who picks The Brotherhood hoping to once again engage in the escapism of the evil option, there's a fiendish twist. About halfway through their subplot, it turns out that one of The Brotherhood's most devout warriors, Paladin Danse, is himself a Synth. He runs from the Brotherhood, and they hunt him down. Danse has become a close colleague, if not a friend to you, by this point and has given unquestioning help to The Brotherhood. Despite his pleas for mercy, Maxson gives him none, commanding you to execute him. For anyone who thought they might have been able to treat the enemies of The Brotherhood as dehumanised firing targets, here's a moment that might give them a change of heart.

The Minutemen

The Minutemen are the polar opposite of The Brotherhood; they are a compassionate and humble faction. While western RPGs are often full of groups who want to rule the kingdom or exterminate alien races, The Minutemen start off just wanting to help the everyman. Along with The Railroad, they're proof that Fallout 4 understands that meaningful social change can't just happen through expansive, formal organisations; it also has to happen at a grassroots level. In the case of The Minutemen, if they don't help small settlements farm food and ward off thieves, no one will. The group represent the need for immediate and regular humanitarian aid, a value which has been forgotten in the Fallout universe, as signalled by you finding them in a broken down history museum. The faction come a long way, eventually retaking Fort Independence. Their use of a castle and their quests involving building turrets and walls secure The Minutemen as a faction about defence rather than offence. The procedurally-generated quests in which you aid settlements on their behalf get old fast, but apart from that, The Minutemen could have their quest line end at the fort and be a loveable faction. Fallout 4 has other ideas.

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We know by the late game that The Minutemen are a defensive organisation who act on a local level. These are facts about them as much as it's a fact that The Brotherhood acts through technology or that The Railroad act in a stealthy capacity. But the game wants The Minutemen to be one of the factions which we can carry through to the ending, and that means that they have to go through the same motions to get there that The Brotherhood or Railroad do. They have to break into The Institute, murder their personnel, and blow up a nuclear reactor. Nothing about this is defensive or humble.

There's also no clear reason why they go to war with The Institute. The Minutemen attack The Institute because The Institute attacked Fort Independence, but The Institute only start that battle if you're already allied with The Minutemen and then voluntarily attack The Institute outside of any formal quest. There's no way in which you get to express what your motive was for attacking The Institute, so it's another one of those elephants in the room that the script tries to avoid dealing with. It gives the impression that The Minutemen have somehow accidentally stumbled into a war over something nobody understands or talks about.

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Fighting The Institute in the fort is one of the worst combat experiences in the game. You lose all confidence in The Minutemen as a hope for The Commonwealth when you see them die over and over to the Synths. As enemies, the Synths are just a wave of bullet sponges, and you'll be sick of the fort as it only lets you fight Coursers either in an exposed courtyard with little cover or in cramped corridors. Once you destroy The Institute and The Minutemen stand valiantly over Boston you've essentially just reached the same ending that The Railroad does anyway, liberating the Synths, except there's no sense of winning that liberation. Where The Railroad had an understanding of the injustice of Synth slavery, penned a plan, and was prepared from the start to sacrifice their lives for the cause, The Minutemen just tripped and fell into ending slavery as if that's a thing you can do. The tail end of The Minutemen plotline is a rancid cocktail of bad storytelling, bad messaging, and bad gameplay, all dragging each other down.

The Railroad and Minutemen endings also fail to live up to their promises in another way. They have this Earth-shattering explosion across Boston to give a face and power to your destruction of The Institute, but the game doesn't give the same face and force to the emancipation of the Synths. There's no scene of a great exodus of wearied slaves from the MIT, there's no Synth whose struggles under the hand of The Institute you can closely follow from beginning to end, and wandering around The Commonwealth after dissolving The Institute, you'd barely know it's received an influx of ex-slaves at all. It's part of this problem you see in a lot of big budget games these days.

Conclusion

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An increasing number of AAA titles are trying to be progressive and validate the personhood of characters beyond the player, but then they get cold feet and end up running back to the safe proclamations of "Aren't you, the person holding the controller, cool?". They don't fully succeed either as a commentary on the real world or as empowerment fantasies. Fallout 4 exists partially as an exploration of the slavery and racism in America's past and how easy it would be to regress into this abhorrent mistreatment of people with the development of full AI likely coming in our future. However, when pressed, the game cares more about showing you what a big Hollywood action hero you are and how much firepower you have than it does creating emotional ties to its African-American analogues. Arguably, the game should also have more explanation of the fact that elevating the enslaved from a role of servitude and inferiority to the rest of a nation's people requires providing an economy that supports them and a national culture that respects them, not just beating the bad guys.

This game feels like a warning to developers about set-up and pay-off. The early moments of Fallout 4 have cultural flavour, whimsical characters, and a steady conveyor belt in the direction of your goal. For the most part, they nail what Fallout usually nails: Giving you an uneasy sense that traditional American values lead to ruin and decay but showing earnest interest in the history of the country at the same time. It is, however, a serious concern that the story introduces these living metaphors for African-Americans and then refuses to take the hardline stance that they are people. This carries a dehumanising message about real African-Americans and a toxic message about the ethics of American slavery. Failing to humanise the Synths or clarify whether they are people also comes back to hurt it in the late game when players are asked to make metaphysical judgments about the Synths and decide their fate. As with most of the characters, the game doesn't receive pay-off with the Synths because it didn't set them up properly. The game more generally suffers from a failure to elucidate many of the concepts it introduces and forgets the various character and thematic threads it was running partly because of its branching narrative.

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In the tree-like story structure that Fallout 4 employs, the player receives a certain amount of scripted set-up and development in the first half of the game, but then mostly chooses what the development and pay-off will look like in the second. In its eagerness to let the player pursue multiple factions and outcomes that are highly distinct from each other, some of these faction plotlines feature development and pay-off that is out of step with the set-up and evolution of the characters. So you have plotlines like the Brotherhood's where despite there being nothing in your character's background to suggest they would be doggedly loyal to this order of technophiles they learned about literal days ago, you suddenly become one of their most devout members. Another good example is The Minutemen who are set-up as a humble grassroots band of freedom fighters next door, but then they get this tacked-on ending where they're setting off a nuke in the centre of Boston.

This is not to say that there aren't parts of Fallout 4's late game where it makes investments that give a return, nor is it to say that all of the problems in Fallout 4's writing are to do with set-up and pay-off, but there is a throughline. While each faction has their own imperfections, The Railroad and Institute plotlines are probably the best because they stick with the family and Synth politics established earlier in the game, while The Brotherhood and Minutemen plotlines don't and have these factions betray their roots. Despite trying to evolve past the two faction system of Fallout 3 and replicate the great work of New Vegas, it feels like an inability of Fallout 4 to remember its themes and characters from one end to the other makes it so there are only two serious faction options. Thanks for reading.

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