Fallout 4: A Postapocalyptic Cornucopia of Human Horror, And Error

The author finds that even in today’s best games, a mistake in narrative can have lasting consequences.

By Harold Goldberg

It was weak. I thought the trope on which Fallout 4’s beginning narrative hung was an uninteresting moment – an extremely important failed moment – in a game that really is compelling, one of the year’s best games. That point at which your loving wife is shot and baby child is kidnapped happens within an hour of the moment you begin the game. I’ve watched it over and over, and the reason that beginning doesn’t resonate is because I wasn’t given a chance to get to know these people. My character’s wife is flawlessly beautiful, and my newborn child is sweet and lovable. But I don’t know them from Adam. I could have had empathy, but in a game that may have more than 100 hours of gameplay, the writers didn’t take a full minute to engage me. They could  have and they should  have.

I blame this mistake on the dialog which could have gone deeper. It could have resonated. It could have sent the tone for the full game. It could have been brilliant and it could have been remembered. And all it could needed was a sentence.

The first line of Citizen Kane is simply “Rosebud.” But because of Orson Welles’ masterful, frightening and surreal setup, you want to know more.

The first lines from “The Fellowship of the Ring” are “The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I’m smell it in the air.”

The first line from “Raging Bull” is “I remember those cheers. They still ring in my ears.”

The first line of “The Godfather” is “I believe in America. American has made my fortune.”

The first line in “Fallen” is “I want to tell you about the time I almost died.”

The first line of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” is “If I could just go back…if I could rub everything else out…starting with myself.”

The first line in “Flatliners” in “Today is a good day to die.”

I am not saying that games need, especially almost-great ones like Fallout 4, to be beholden to any other form of media, including movies and books. But the first line of Fallout 4 stuck with me, but not in any satisfying way. The first line spoken during a black and white montage is “War. War never changes.”

The first line just prior to gameplay has your wife saying, “You’re going to knock ’em dead at the Veteran’s Hall tonight, hon.” And your character says, “You think?” It is all so uninspired.

At the unveiling during a much-anticipated event at E3, Bethesda’s ardent and serious Todd Howard said that Fallout 4 starts on a “beautiful Saturday morning with the threat of nuclear war looming.” But there is too much beauty without nuance, and nothing that looms, nothing that is memorable in “You’re going to knock ’em dead at the Veteran’s Hall tonight, hon.” You could say that “knock ’em dead” has multiple meanings and foreshadows what’s to come. But it’s not enough.

I understand that this epic story has to unfold over dozens of hours. I understand that we are presented with an off-white suburbia where, despite threats, everything seems right with the world, that the pace of daily living during the morning bathroom routine (even with the threat of a nuclear devastation) doesn’t often allow for words that are salient.

And yet, the words should have been something great, something to remember.

As I indulged in this post-apocalyptic cornucopia of human horror, the story is indeed multifaceted. Your story is, in fact, terrifying even before it begins to unfurl the main conceit. You wade across a river and feel radiation. You find comfort with a German Shepard called Dogmeat, loyal as any dog can be. But giant mosquitoes can hurt him badly — and kill you. Mole rats gang up on you. The first people you encounter in Concord shoot at you. The rundown museum you enter has a BioShock Infinite-like feeling of creepiness that seems to ooze from the crumbling walls. The seemingly patriotic opposition forces you encounter inside may or may not be good people. Some are, to be sure, weird — like the old woman who promises you she has a kind of paranormal ability, an empath who could just as easily have been a meth addict. But I can help you, she says adamantly.

Nothing is as exactly as it seems. You search a supermarket that appears to be deserted. But groups of feral ghouls (Fallout 4’s version of speeding zombies) slash at you, trying to murder you. And they’re not even the strongest enemies you have to take out in that early mission.

In each of these circumstances, there lies a story.

Beyond the beginning, there are so many moments, moments of mystery, intrigue, horror and action. These moments keep you going, moving forward in a game that is very long. As the ego-filled Donald Rumsfeld once said about Iraq, it’s “a long, hard slog.”

In my Playboy magazine review, I rate Fallout 4 as highly as any game I’ve reviewed this year. It is on par with The Witcher 3. But man, I wish that opening in Fallout 4 had more depth.

Last night, even as I moved past the 20-hour point in Bethesda’s pride and joy, I kept thinking that the opening lines should have been better. It haunted me. All it would have taken was a few words. To me, the glitch where a woman raider levitated into the air and stuck to me as I walked away didn’t take me out of the game. It didn’t take me out of the game when, as I tried to find the suit of armor on a museum’s roof, the software completely crashed on me. I rolled with it. This is a big game: there will be bugs.

It is the opening, those milquetoast words, that I come back to. It is the opening words that prevent this nearly great game from approaching perfection. It was true a decade ago and it’s true now. Narrative, taut and meaningful: it’s the last great frontier in videogames.

Harold Goldberg, The Circle’s founder, has written for The New York Times, Vanity Fair and Playboy.

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