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No, Fallout 4's Story Doesn't Need "Fixed" | Philosophy and Ethics in Games

Welcome back to Philosophy and Ethics in games, the series where I dive into philosophical and ethical concepts and stories from games as I play through them over on Twitch. If you’re new here, my name is Josh “Bearheart” Hawk and I’m an author, photographer and gamer who enjoys deep diving into ideas and thinking outside the box.

Today, we’re diving back into Fallout 4 to discuss the main story and why it’s great just the way it is.

Recently, I finished the main storyline of the game, choosing to side with the Minutemen and destroy the Institute. This wasn’t the initial plan as I didn’t even know I could use the Minutemen to take out the Institute, but it got me curious about the options the game gives you and what the best ending is. I’ve played through the story a few times over the past few years, and this most recent playthrough means I’ve now achieved every end at least once.

While working on another video/article, focused on how the Institute makes good people do bad things, I watched some other YouTubers discussing Fallout 4 from their perspective. The almighty YouTube algorithm, in its infinite wisdom, saw this and decided to start serving me more videos from creators focusing on Fallout 4, specifically those who were arguing ways they saw that Bethesda could “fix” various elements of the story. Watching these videos got me thinking, does the main story, or more generally the individual faction stories, need fixed?

I’m not here to argue that Bethesda’s writing is the best in the world. Honestly, whose writing is perfect? I’m more interested in looking at it from a storytelling perspective in general and what it means to “fix” writing.

Let’s start by looking at what a story consists of. Plot, characters and world building are the main elements that make up most stories. You need someone to go on a journey of some kind, and you need to establish rules under which the world they are traveling through operates. Getting all of those things to be consistent and spinning a narrative people will get lost in is the trick.

The plot of Fallout 4 involves the sole survivor searching for their lost son. There are various side plots that bring in other characters and build the world based on the idea that it’s been more than 2 centuries since a nuclear war decimated the world. The rules of the world, or the way the world operates, are similar to the way our real world works, though there are some major differences.

For instance, nuclear fallout doesn’t always kill people, turning some into what are known as ghouls and leaving others seemingly unaffected. There is a whole sect of religious fanatics known as the Children of Atom who worship radiation, living and thriving in zones that most others would see as dangerous places.

Overall, the game does a good job of establishing the world and giving us a clear picture of what to expect as we wander the wasteland of Boston and surrounding areas. So, what’s the big deal? Why do people think the story needs to be fixed? The answer isn’t really that simple.

See, games are a very different medium to tell a story through. When you pick up a book or turn on a movie, you expect to be taken on a journey where you have no control over the choices being made. When Frodo Baggins leaves the Shire, you know his choices are his alone and you are simply following what happens. Games allow us to participate in the story, to not just follow along as the characters move through, but to become the main character. You aren’t watching Harry Potter duel Voldemort, you’re standing in his shoes and holding his wand.

We’ve come to expect that we’ll have some say in how the story plays out when we pick up a controller or sit down at the keyboard and mouse. Game designers have used this expectation to expand on what would traditionally be a 2-D story, allowing the player to decide the outcome. Don’t like a particular faction or individual? You don’t have to work with them and you might even be the one to bring about their fall.

As stories have become more complicated, the expectations from players have gone up. Bigger worlds should mean more choices, and we expect those choices to matter. We want to shape the world to our liking, the story is just background noise. What do the writers know anyway? The story ends when and how we think it should.

Some of this thinking can be tied directly to the way game developers market their games. They know players want some level of choice in the story, to feel like their participation is more than just being a silent observer. To that end, they’ll promise freedom to players. See that mountain? You can go to it. Don’t like that NPC? You can kill them off. Bethesda in particular had been known for this kind of freedom with earlier releases, like Morrowind or the first few games in the Fallout series. But this open-ended storytelling presents a problem.

The majority of players only want the illusion of choice. They don’t want to spend hours uncovering a story only to find out they accidentally killed off an important character early in the game. Most people want to experience the story at their pace, with the ability to partake in and slightly alter outcomes as they go. Watching a character do something is fun, but being beside them as they do it is even better.

Different game studios approach storytelling in very different ways to that end. With Red Dead Redemption 2, a game I’ll be playing through on stream starting at the end of January, Rockstar lets the player become Arthur Morgan but only insofar as the story plays out. You don’t get to make many big choices, and nothing you do changes the end of the game in a tangible way. There are small marks you can leave on the world, reminders that Arthur was there at one point, but the story is going to play out as it is written.

Fallout 4, on the other hand, lets you decide what groups you want to work with, who you want to explore the world with and how you want the story to end. But that’s where the trouble comes in.

There are really only two endings for Fallout 4. You can join the Institute and become its leader, or you can destroy it. This is by design, but it destroys the illusion of choice for a lot of people because of how the story is ultimately executed.

A very brief overview of the game, for those who maybe are unfamiliar. There are 4 factions you can join and play with in the base game. The first you come into contact with is The Minutemen. They are more or less a civilian army that has the best interest of the Commonwealth in mind. You are promoted to the rank of General, the leader of the group, within minutes of coming into contact with them simply because they are nearly dead and there is no one else who wants the job.

The next group you come into contact with varies based on how you play the game, but for the purposes of this explainer we’ll look at the Railroad. This is a group of individuals who have made it their mission to free a group known as Synths from the clutches of The Institute.

The Institute is the main group that everyone in the Commonwealth fears. They are an underground group, in every sense of the word, that focuses mainly on what they see as finding ways to advance the human race. They avoid the people of the wasteland unless they need to kidnap and replace one of them with a Synth or do some other kind of experiment on them.

The final group is The Brotherhood of Steel. This is a paramilitary group that focuses on hoarding any and all technology, intent on keeping it out of the hands of the common civilian who they deem incapable of handling anything more advanced than the wheel.

Each group has their positives and negatives, and who you choose to side with is based mainly on your personality and personal views. The part that seems to irritate most people, and the whole reason for this video, is the fact that you cannot bring peace to the wasteland and end the game with any more than 2 of these groups intact. There also seems to be some debate on ways each group should be changed to “fix” them, but in reality, the arguments I’m going to make in regard to the main story apply to the individual groups as well.

See, there is a story to be told in Fallout 4. The main character has lost their son and wants to find out what happened to them. As the player, you take charge of how this story unfolds. You decide how important finding your son is, what groups you want to work with along the way, how you want the story to end. But it isn’t meant to be played over and over again for eternity.

The first time I played it, I went in blind. I didn’t know what to expect and as such, I went along the path I thought was the right one. The twists and turns as I went kept me invested. Finding out my son wasn’t a baby anymore was shocking, and finding out 60 years had passed since he’d been taken was mind-blowing. I loved how the whole thing unfolded, and I sided with the Institute because I wanted to help my son make a better world.

I would wind up siding with the Railroad on a subsequent playthrough, and the Brotherhood of Steel on yet another, but those endings didn’t feel as exciting. I know now this is mainly because the revelations that were so surprising the first time around didn’t hold as much weight when I expected them, but at the time I was left wondering if the endings or the groups were just not that good. There had to be something wrong with the story. There should have been more options, more ways to interact.

The truth, something I learned more after becoming an author myself, is that the story was told and I couldn’t put the surprise back in the box. It was only after coming back to the game for my playthrough on Twitch, looking at it from a different perspective, that I realized the story doesn’t need to be “fixed”. There doesn’t need to be more options, or deeper plots in each faction.

And maybe that’s the secret to really enjoying these story-based games. People fall in love with them the first time through, becoming engrossed in the story. After a couple of playthroughs, they start picking it apart, deciding how it “should” have gone. This is true of stories we love in general as well.

I never got to enjoy reading Harry Potter as a kid. My mom was convinced there were real spells in the books and that I would become a witch in league with the devil if I read them. As an adult I watched the movies for the first time and loved them right away. I was able to experience the books through Audible later on and my wife bought me the complete box set of books for Christmas in 2022. Since then, I’ve read through the entire series twice and am working on my third read of them now.

I share this because as I’ve read the series more and more, I’ve started to see cracks in the story, things I think should have been done differently. This doesn’t mean the story is bad, it means I’m starting to get so familiar with it I’m inserting my own thoughts and ideas in it. I’m “fixing” it.

I think this is a natural progression for us as humans when it comes to storytelling. No matter how great a story is, with enough time and familiarity we start to pick it apart and find the perceived flaws. Maybe a writer approached something in a way we don’t agree with, maybe they missed something or didn’t add the detail we would have liked to see. 

Stories aren’t meant to be told over and over with no break in between, they are meant to be told as the teller sees them. It doesn’t matter if it’s a book, a movie or a game, if you only focus on that one story for an extended period of time, you’re going to start finding ways you think it could be improved or changed. When you start to feel that way about a story, maybe it’s time to move on to something new for a while. Often works that meant one thing to us when we were younger take on a new meaning and change for us when we are older and have different experiences to draw from.

Stories in general are a great way to pass along knowledge and experiences. They allow us to share a sense of cultural normalcy and communicate ideas that might otherwise be overlooked. Whether you love the story of Fallout 4 as it is or wish it was changed in some way, I hope you can at least appreciate the story as it was told by the writers who brought it to life.

I want to thank you all for reading. Let me know in the comments below what you thought of the story of Fallout 4 and what topics you’d like me to cover in the future. You can get involved with the community by subscribing to my channel on YouTube, checking me out over on Twitch where I stream Tuesday through Saturday starting at 6 PM Eastern, and joining my Patreon where you’ll get early access to videos and exclusive content related to my upcoming works and other projects. Have a great rest of your day and I’ll see you in the next one.

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