We now have an opening section that is fairly open-ended with regards to player freedom and expression, and an initial quest + faction for them to interact with. Additionally, our spouse and child are both alive and resident in Sanctuary. Good.
With that in mind, I’ll first say this: if you’d rather have them live somewhere else, there’d be nothing stopping you. Simply move them to another settlement and manage it how you please. There would be a quest a bit later on involving the Vault-Tec faction and your family, but that can effectively take place regardless of where they live at the time.
Beyond that, I see two basic ways to take this from here. First, we go with the same idea as vanilla: Shaun’s been kidnapped early on. This devolves pretty quickly into assumed empathy again, and is therefore not the route I’d take, but let’s explore it quickly before moving on.
So our kid has been kidnapped for whatever reason, doesn’t matter much for this particular thought exercise, it’s enough that he’s gone. Instead of killing off the spouse as well, we have them be alive. What this does is allow us to offload all the ‘SHAAAAAAUN!’ stuff onto the spouse.
The player character then takes the role as defined in the previous posts, exploring and being an ambassador, while simultaneously putting in some of the detective work on finding Shaun, if they like. The major legwork can then be handled in the background by the spouse, who will pore over documents and reports from Valentine’s agency, and do his/her own research and so on. The player will then have the option of following up new leads or leaving them to the spouse.
By doing this we separate the emotional stuff out and have the spouse character as the one getting all distraught while we, the player character, can roleplay as indifferent, not interested, equally worried, relieved, or whatever. Over the course of the game you’d be able to spend time with your spouse and learn about them, developing the necessary emotional attachment so that later, when we kill them or otherwise do something horrible, the player has reason to care.
Now let’s talk about how I’d actually handle this, again staying within the confines of the existing game. First of all, Shaun wouldn’t have been kidnapped, as previously mentioned, and would instead be a part of the family. You spend time with them whenever you return home, pick up some quests, and get to know them. This opens up avenues of dialogue that haven’t really been explored all that much in Fallout: how civilisation recovers on a micro level, a personal level.
We could explore raising a child in the wasteland, all the additional things a parent needs to be aware of beyond the basic necessities we take for granted in our own world. New diseases, radiation’s effects on a developing child, moral decisions on how the child should be raised (pragmatic, paragon of justice, scourge of the wastes, etc.), and more.
Over the course of the game, the spouse would start developing a sickness. What sickness would that be? Why, cryo sickness, of course! Instead of the easy option—cancer, which shouldn’t even be much of a problem in a world where things like Radaway exist, and is the obvious choice, meaning it’s also the boring choice—we develop a new sickness specific to our characters’ story.
Given the whole idea behind the Vaults was social experiments—and one or two others such as Vault 12’s radiation experiment—with the possible intention of colonising other worlds (whether or not this was Black Isle’s original intention, or whether it was a retconned to be that way in Fallout 2 doesn’t matter, the idea itself is sound and can be used as a basis here), the problem of sickness arising from long-term cryo sleep would be an important one to address.
By this point, maybe halfway or more into the game’s main story, the player should’ve grown attached enough to the spouse character to care that something bad is now happening to them. So let’s take it up another notch and have the spouse and Shaun forcibly taken to Vault-Tec headquarters, which we currently know as the Institute.
As I said at the start, it doesn’t matter much where your spouse is at this point, because it would be easy enough to have it happen while the player is off dicking around in the wastes. A radio message comes in, maybe a runner, too (like one of those bloody couriers in Skyrim…), and failing that you could simply find out about the abduction when you return to base to offload all your crystal liquor decanters and packs of duct tape.
This gives the player a new quest in which they’re properly introduced to the main antagonists, with a stake in the world in the form of the spouse they’ve grown to know and (hopefully) like over the course of 20+ hours of play. Additionally, for those players who don’t give a crap about the spouse, we’d have a secondary questline to allow them entry into the Institute’s base, including the possibility of simply murdering your way through.
The Institute’s goals and motivations are beyond the scope of this mini-series, so we’ll just say they’re up to something nefarious, but there are also factions with other goals, and the player would be able to choose who and how to help, or not at all.
Both spouse and Shaun would be safe and being treated… but we could also throw in ethical dilemmas for the player to explore, such as experimental treatments administered with or without the subject’s permission, perhaps on other members of Sanctuary Hills, since you wouldn’t want your spouse treated before you knew it was safe… right? Ah, the good ol’ days when Fallout actually had moral quandaries.
Beyond that, you’d have the option to leave your family to their fate (if playing an unpleasant character), rescue them and bring them home to whichever settlement you consider your main base, help the Institute treat them (for a high science/medicine and potentially low conscience type), potentially let the spouse die a dignified death at home instead of attempting weird solutions that could have seriously bad outcomes, and other options besides.
I think that’s probably enough for now, but you get the idea. It really isn’t that difficult to come up with interesting ways to have your game engage the player, but Bethesda either doesn’t care any more, or they’re simply not capable… perhaps both. And that’s sad, because Fallout really deserves better.
I’ll put up one last post in this mini-series, covering why I don’t think we’ll ever see a truly great Fallout game again, then we’ll be done. At which point I might well decide to start dissecting some of Fallout 3, because lord knows there’s enough bad world building in that game to last a dozen posts or more.
Lily Lancaster writes mostly lesbian fiction in sci-fi and fantasy flavours, but she also spends far too much time talking about anime, games, life, and anything else she fancies. Sometimes she manages to actually write a book or two.