Bad Exposition…And Also Lousy Dialogue
This is not a series about games you haven’t heard of. This is a series about games EVERYONE has heard of. Games that everyone has an opinion on, regardless of whether they’ve played them or not. Games whose actual qualities have been buried in a narrative, whether good or bad. Games that everyone always makes the exact same comments about. Games that are in desperate need of…a Second Opinion.
This week’s episode of Second Opinion was guest-written by Nathaniel Terencio.
Now please keep in mind that I am a fan of Bethesda open world games and I do really like the Fallout franchise, but that being said there are a lot of things objectively bad in Fallout 4 that can’t be ignored. I’ve played the game a lot and I can say without a doubt no amount of modding, fine tuning, or expansions can fix what is an overall janky experience. In order to discuss why Fallout 4 isn’t good, we must dissect it like an 8th grade science project and look at the different parts of the game. Now, I believe that games are more than the sum of their parts and what is going to be most important when identifying Fallout 4’s problems is the game’s exposition. I’m going to use the word “exposition” as defined by Greg Kasavin in a GDC talk where he explained in his working definition: A game’s exposition refers to the deliberate arrangement of its content, including its structure, its systems, and its narrative, in support of the game’s experiential goals. I will be using the word quite a bit in this dissection so please keep this definition in mind. Last disclaimer: for the sake of time I will keep my focus as narrow and concise as I can, I will refer to other games in the franchise as well as Bethesda’s library, there will be spoilers, and finally, I love you all, don’t be too mad at me. Without taking up any more time: my first point.
Fallout 4, like many other games in Bethesda’s library, is a slow-burn open-world RPG with an emphasis on exploration and roleplaying. Bethesda games have in general always emphasized these aspects of freedom as one of their pillars of design, and to much success. Unfortunately, Fallout 4’s main quest suffers from what a lot of open world games struggle with: main quest urgency. The premise of the game is that an unknown assailant has killed your wife and kidnapped your son. After being frozen for hundreds of years, you wake up and go out into a post-nuclear wasteland with the hope of saving your son and surviving in the cruel new world. Now this premise isn’t bad, but what is bad is the pace of the main story quests, because it is inherently oxymoronic to how you should play Fallout 4.
The main story really plays up the importance of finding your son by any means necessary, but the game and it’s design encourages you to go out and do whatever you want, when you want. It’s very contradicting when your character says “I’ll do whatever it takes to find my son,” and then minutes later go wander off and kill a shit ton of bandits for some guy you didn’t know till that day. This is bad exposition, the main story encourages this sense of urgency and importance, but it doesn’t coincide with the game design revolving around exploration and growth, leading ultimately to an un-unified game experience.
Now to be fair many open world rpgs have this problem, but there are ways to fix this. One game in Bethesda’s repertoire in particular handled main quest urgency well, and this was The Elder Scrolls Morrowind. What Morrowind did to break up the pace of the story was locking up higher leveled story quests and encouraging the player to explore and do a plethora of side objectives. While this may limit what a player can do it was a good way to have the urgency of the main story coincide with explorative nature of the game’s design. From a lore perspective this makes perfect sense, while an important NPC is off researching and finding more information about your next objective, which may take days, why not go off doing some quests and such? This is good exposition. So it’s not like Bethesda hasn’t done this before, so why is there such a jarring urgency in the main story? This question can be answered in my next point.
Fallout 4’s new dialogue is bad, and this is one of the most universally accepted opinions among critics and consumers who have played the game. It is a streamlined, consolized, Mass Effect ripoff of a dialogue system that unfortunately does not work for Fallout. This is because Fallout is a franchise that focuses on the gray area and ambiguity of human morality- laced with black humour. The fact of the matter is that the new dialogue system is far too limiting for any type of intricate or interesting reactions to the people around you, for roleplaying purposes it is overall shallow. It isn’t like the Witcher 3, while there is choices and they are limited because Gerolt is still a character with a predefined personality and lore, his limited dialogue decision are because they are choices the character would make. In Fallout 4 your character can be anything you want them to be, so limiting dialogue decisions doesn’t help this idea of roleplaying immersion, bad exposition. This doesn’t help that one of the options is always sarcastic, which means you usually just get three meaningful choices. In a game that’s encourages player freedom and roleplaying, this is not a good way to handle dialogue. It seems that this might not have been a big problem if the writing was just handled with more nuance and self awareness.
This game may also have the weakest writing of any Fallout game. A lot of the interesting elements of the game are mostly because it carries the baggage and lore of a now considered legendary franchise. Other than that the amount of well written interesting NPCs is definitely better than Skyrim, but the amount of well written quests overall is on the lower end of the RPG spectrum. This is really emphasized in the different faction questlines. There are 4 big factions in the game that you can join and they got completely gutted when it came to writing. They all start off strong with interesting rhetorics, introduction quests, and followers- except the Institute, X6-88 is not interesting, sorry not sorry. Immediately after that they become very dry and boring, much of that has to do with the fact that most of the side quests are boring fetch quests with no clever writing or lore. It feels like a lot of depth that any of the factions had got lost in development, because there are cool philosophical and moral dilemmas that each faction deals with, but by the end their respective quests it’s back to business as usual. For example there is a dilemma the Railroad members struggle with, while many believe that gen 3 synths are cognative enough to be considered people, what about the more robotic previous generations? While many of them believe that only gen 3 synths are people, some want freedom for all synths. This draws questions, like what can be considered a person, where do you draw the line between man and machine, and at that point what machines deserves equal rights? All super interesting questions that get shafted and never fully explored.
The main problem is that Fallout 4’s writing and dialogue is shallow for the most part. Nothing feels that fleshed out or believable. This is why the main quest and those closely tied faction quests feel like a slog sometimes, for all the interesting scenarios the game plays out ,the factions just feel shallow, along with your characters motivations. The companions have the best dialogue and voice acting out of all the characters, but other than a couple of little progression moments they don’t have much interesting to say till then. While I do agree that the expansions have far better writing, the story does have interesting and well written moments in spades, and some of the side quests are memorable they are all hamstrung by something. That something is the is a big reason why a lot Fallout 4’s good aspects generally fall short.
Fallout 4’s engine is pretty much the Skyrim engine, a game that came out in 2011. Don’t get me wrong, the engine isn’t bad by any means, but the gold standard that Skyrim set for open world RPGs has risen since 2011. Fallout 4 came out at a time after The Witcher 3, Metal Gear Solid 5, Dragon’s Dogma, as well as a plethora of Ubisoft open world games, and in general games are starting to add a layer of depth to the massive scope of a world, something that Bethesda has seemingly started to lag behind now. This engine hasn’t aged well, this is very apparent with, how many glitches at launch there were, and to this day I still have technical issues with this game. The biggest problem with engine however, is that it hamstrings anything possibly redeeming about Fallout 4. I want to make a list of things that people thought were strongest aspects of the game and list them out. Accompanied by a reason why the engine holds back anything more it could be.
- Gunplay and AI- While the gunplay is significantly better than its predecessors and the AI is legitimately smart, the wonky collision detection, poor terrain design, and overall glitchy nature of the game’s LOD makes any actual use of finesse incredibly difficult to pull off. Like throwing a grenade only to have it blowing up in your face because it clipped though something it shouldn’t have.
- Sidequests- Sidequests are definitely one of the better written aspects of Fallout 4, unfortunately the quest structure inherent in its system leaves most of these quest being fetch and clear the map objectives. While this is also a design issue I truly believe that the engine limits any type of intricate scenarios or combat encounters the player can experience.
- Graphics- The game looks good but let’s not kid ourselves, Witcher 3 and Metal Gear Solid 5 came out the same year and had more detail in it’s gameplay mechanics and visuals. We are at a time in video games when developers can make a dynamic open world and not sacrifice on detail and intricate mechanics.
- Settlements- I liked the settlement feature probably more than the average player does but I can’t say that it wasn’t a struggle to like it. Without any mods the interface and overall function of building and laying out structures is janky as hell.
Bethesda took a long time to make Fallout 4 and it feels really weird that they played it this safe. The game had a lot of bad traits inherited from Skyrim and it sure as hell shows. The fact is that the engine and it’s age holds back even the best qualities of Fallout 4, leaving a weird technically inept monster in it’s place. The lack of polish in its system of play left me with a lukewarm feeling.
This is by far my personal biggest complaint with Fallout 4 and one of the reasons I think it lacks a lot of depth in its world. Fallout 4’s world is a huge open playground for the player to be whoever they want to be and leave their mark on the world, except they don’t. Does anyone remember the civil war questline in Skyrim? Remember how you literally invade a city and kill one of the leaders to either restore Skyrim to the empire, or make it an independent state? I do, except after that grand epic history worthy event no one else seems to. Everyone treated me the same, giving me the impression that my historical choices left no weight. This is a problem Fallout 4 suffers whole heartedly. There is no weight to any of my actions other than a couple of lines of dialogue, and trust me it doesn’t get any deeper than that. Your companions seem to have an opinion about your actions, but they all seems more than willing to slaughter in your name regardless. I think the reason there is a lot of lack of consequence in the game, is then removal of the Karma system.
Now let me just say that I agree that morality as a gameplay mechanic is a hard thing to execute. There is a lot of baggage and moral dilemmas that can’t just be broken down into a simple system of good and bad which is what a lot of games default to. I will say that while morality is an intricate and complex subject to tackle I did like how it was portrayed in Fallout New Vegas. There was tangible consequences to your actions and it made the game feel more like a world, where my actions contributed in however way interpreted to the people inhabiting it. Many people complain that this binary system wasn’t good at representing the intricacies of your decisions and morality, but it was a good try. If you murder a settlement of people of course everyone in the region will hear of that and hate you, why wouldn’t they? If you didn’t want everyone to hate you, don’t commit to actions that will have people hate you, or like in real life, do what you’re going to do and face the consequences of your choices.
Fallout 4 has moments like that but they don’t feel like as substantial as New Vegas, they feel shallow. While there are changes in some of the characters’ dialogue, regardless of which faction you choose the consequences aren’t that deep. For example if you choose the Institute to finish the story you will have to kill off two of the four big factions in the game. While this does mean you will kill off npcs forever it’s long term effects are not that great. Your companions will hate what you did but they will still hang around you, neutral npcs will still act the same, and mechanically nothing will change your long term gameplay experience. After murdering a bunch of people and acquiring total dominance of one of the most powerful organizations in the Commonwealth, you kinda just go back to the usual business of crafting, shooting, and settlement building. It’s something that feels like it should have a more of a tangible effect on the world and it doesn’t, all for the sake of Bethesda open world orthodoxy.
Fallout 4 has a lot of problems but all of these things mentioned above can be summarized by bad exposition and shallowness. The fact is that all of Fallout 4’s mechanics work decently on their own, but as a whole have conflicting goals and that makes up the game’s bas exposition. The main story wants to rush you past its scenic land, the game is designed to roleplay but the dialogue limits that, settlement are integral to parts of the story but can be ignored, and the combat is limited by an engine that wasn’t built for finesse combat. All of this added to game with a rich and complicated world that doesn’t feel affected by my actions. This is a huge contrast to another game in Bethesda’s line up, Morrowind. In Morrowind, at the end of the main story quest everybody talks to you differently, an enemy type and weather condition completely disappears, and you actually mechanically become a god-like warrior. My actions caused huge repercussions to the world and its inhabitants. Both games have the tendency to build up your characters as the do-it-all Jesus figure, it’s just insane at how radically different the ending to both of these games are, but not all. Because the truth is, Fallout is a mainstream AAA title series now. Bethesda made a game that was intentionally palatable to as many people as possible and it worked. Fallout 4 sold millions of units its first day, and the game looks to have a long life thanks to updates and mods. Though I get why Fallout 4 is successful and well received, I have strong feeling that when looking back on the historical legacy of the franchise, this might indeed be the lowpoint of the series. You can say what you want about Fallout 3 and New Vegas by I feel those games were more respectful to the previous games in its lineup that Fallout 4 ever intended to be. All in all I don’t think Fallout 4 is that great, but I do believe a good game is there in spades. I know that’s an oxymoronic statement considering the subject of this feature is that “Fallout 4 Is A Bad Game,” and I just spent a stupid long time shitting on the game, but hear me out.
Fallout 4 is good game in doses, but it is a bad Fallout game that doesn’t give it credence to other games in its long franchise.