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Fallout 4 and Ludonarrative Dissonance

by | Apr 11, 2021 | Gaming, World Building | 0 comments

Home sweet home.
Home sweet home.

Picking up from last time, we now have a functional settlement the player can build as they like by using the new settlement building features, plus a cast of characters to get to know and care about, rather than generic ‘settlers’.

We also have a spouse who is alive and inhabiting the same world, with whom the player will be able to interact, getting to know him/her as well as the player’s character knows them, so that when everything goes wrong later you care and have a reason to go looking for them. All good. So let’s continue.

A beneficial side effect of changing the opening like this is the reduction of ludonarrative dissonance. That’s the industry-created (or possibly Youtube gaming critic-created) term for when the motivations of the player and their character don’t really align. Having a critical mission the player character is desperate to accomplish (finding Shaun) doesn’t really jibe well with the player’s desire to dick about in the wastes for 100+ hours. New Vegas handled this exceptionally well. Fallout 4 did not.

Even Fallout 3 handled this better than 4 did, and Fallout 3’s central conceit was terrible. I find it truly remarkable how far Fallout 4 fell, even compared to this low benchmark. The worst part, though? Skyrim actually handled this pretty well.

Sure, you’re the Dragonborn and technically supposed to be saving the world, but let’s be honest here, it’s not much of a stretch to have the character think to themselves ‘nope, too dangerous, I’ll just cock about diving into dungeons instead’, rather than take on goddamn DRAGONS. A task the player and their character can both be happy ignoring the main quest to achieve if they so desire.

Hell, the game even supports this decision to some degree, by splitting out the civil war questline and having that be an almost entirely distinct part of the game that has minimal impact on the dragon storyline. Skyrim has many issues, but ludonarrative dissonance is surprisingly low on that list.

Bloody dragons…
Bloody dragons…

Anyway, back to Fallout 4. By making the character an ambassador of sorts, whose entire role it is to wander the wastes, scout out areas, and meet new people and civilisations (boldly going…), we align the goals of both them and the player in a way that feels natural. And if the player wants to roleplay a character who ditches this entirely? That works, too, because the game’s new opening now supports such roleplay… as much as possible, anyway, given you’re also pigeonholed into the role of a loving parent/spouse.

During the next however many hours of play, you’d make friends and allies (or enemies) around the wastes, find new areas to settle, and generally enjoy the simple act of exploration. Meanwhile, you’d be able to visit home base, talk to your spouse and see how things are going in Sanctuary, and get to know them for more than the ten minutes you get in the vanilla game.

Of course, the Vault people are doing something nefarious in the background, and pretty soon you would start hearing rumours about them, and of this place called the Institute. One idea I (and others) had for this is that the Institute is in fact Vault-Tec. Or more precisely, the remnants of them. Having this organisation we’ve heard so much about through the various games actually be the antagonist faction of Fallout 4 could’ve been amazing.

Rather than the nonsensical Institute we get in the vanilla game, who have no real motivations and are constantly contradicting themselves at literally every turn, we’d have this faction we’ve heard so much about and which has been responsible for so much human suffering. Of course, you’d also need a competent writer to handle this properly. We’ll get to Emil Pagliarulo soon, don’t worry.

Vault-Tec: We make psychopaths look like kittens.
Vault-Tec: We make psychopaths look like kittens.

The Vaults in the region would then be part of Vault-Tec’s plans, allowing us to see them in some different lights compared to how they’ve so far been portrayed. Some of them might tell us about saving humanity by going to the stars (Mr. House style), or another splinter faction within Vault-Tec itself might be looking to change direction entirely, for good or ill (synths).

Imagine the player’s surprise when, at the end of Act 1 and into Act 2, they discover they’ve been working for the ostensible bad guys, and all those friends and allies they met in the world are now potentially their enemies. The conflicts a switcharoo like this could create are effectively endless. And, more importantly, they would provide a way for you to actually be evil/ultra-pragmatic/whatever, similar to how you could side with the Legion in New Vegas.

As things stand, it’s simply not possible to be an asshole to any real degree in Fallout 4. But with a compelling faction who have solid and comprehensible motivations, and are rather more grey than Bethesda’s usual black and white view of everything, we could have our family guy/gal decide that their goals and views align with the Vault faction without compromising in the way you have to in the vanilla game.

In the next post, I’ll talk a bit more about your spouse and Shaun, and how they could be improved.

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