Fallout 4 is a game about violence. We’re introduced to it early, with the Great War that devastates the world, and then to the murder and abduction that precipitates our quest. When we emerge into the wasteland, we immediately find it a hostile place. The creatures here attack us, of course, but so too do most humans. We’ve done nothing to harm these people, but they are our enemies, as though born and bred solely for that purpose. And we fight them, over and over again, splattering the landscape with their blood. Violence begins Fallout 4 and violence brings it to its conclusion.
It is, perhaps, the state of constant brutality that most defines Fallout 4. It’s predecessors had fighting, and violence, and body-parts strewn about, but never before have I felt that this is what the games were actually about. This is not a game where violence is merely a means to an end; it is a game that suggests that violence is inevitable and that war is the true nature of humanity. Like many other great works before it, it suggests, or perhaps reminds, that civilizations eternally teeters on the edge of madness.
It’s easy to say that is simply the nature of the game. Certainly, it borrows heavily from first-person shooters, in which the enemies exist solely because the mechanics demand something to shoot at. But the extent of the violence of Fallout 4 feels more deliberate, like a conscious choice rather than the simple necessary result of game mechanics. Indeed, many of the humans we meet seem to revel in it. We can read about the Forged’s brutal executions in the Foundry, save a serial killer’s life, accompany a murderous cage fighter, and help a mercenary kill his old compatriots. The game begins with a murder and abduction, and one of its first quests puts a mini-gun in your hands and raiders to fight off. Even in the quest in which we can take on the role of the (presumably good) masked vigilante, we kill our targets rather than arrest them. Batman we are not.
And this is not just some evils on the periphery. The whole world of Fallout 4 seems to embrace the carnage. Much of the game takes place within the ruins of Boston, yet only a handful of tiny settlements remain, the largest of which can fit comfortably within Fenway Park. And even within these settlements, violence is common. We’re introduced to Goodneighbour with a fatal stabbing, and in Diamond City, lovers’ quarrels turn violent, as does fear over synthetic humans. In almost every place outside, the sounds of gunfire ring out, heads are placed on spikes, and the dead are scattered upon the streets like old tires. It’s no accident that the baseball memorabilia salesman and collector in Diamond City believes the game was played by beating each other to death with baseball bats. Perhaps the concept of a non-violent game is unimaginable to him. This is, after all, a world where violence is the rule and civilization is the exception.
“…it is a game that suggests that violence is inevitable and that war is the true nature of humanity.
The darkness of human nature is central theme of the game, and one that Bethesda clearly chose to emphasize. A commentary, perhaps, on the baser natures of mankind and the impossibility of peace. War, after all, never changes. But it also marks a departure from the earlier games in the series. In Fallout 1 and 2, most of the game took place in civilized, relatively peaceful regions. Violence was always a possibility, but it was, for the most part, also avoidable. In both of those games, it was only necessary to kill sentient beings right at the end, and those sentient beings were the game’s primary antagonists. In Fallout 3, a handful of people had to die, but in New Vegas, no one did. Fallout 4, however, necessitates murder. Indeed, (and I’ll try to avoid spoilers) the ending missions on any path categorically deny the possibility of diplomacy and of peace. Killing, on a large scale, is the only solution.
Fallout 4 is also the game most cynical about human behavior and human progress. With the exception of the Minutemen, the factions of Fallout 4 all exist in a morally gray zone, and each is willing to kill indiscriminately to achieve its ends. The Minutemen are on the verge of extinction when the player shows up to help them, suggesting that the wasteland is no country for good men (or women). There remains no consensus among residents to rebuild civilization as late as 200-years after the bombs, and Boston seems an area relatively untouched by the blasts. The few civilized folk hide behind giant walls, ever ready to defend themselves against the perils that await all around. Compare this with the Fallout games made by Black Isle and Obsidian, in which much of the west coast rapidly coalesces under the New California Republic and commits itself to democratic ideals.
These are two very different views of humanity. In the games set in on west coast, the default human is a citizen of the NCR, or a farmer, or a merchant, or a soldier. In the east, however, the default human is a raider. In Fallout 4, raiders are the backdrop of the wasteland, no different than radscorpions or mirelurks. We rarely discover what made them raiders, or why they’re there. They’re around every corner, in every shantytown, and walking every broken freeway. Like the bandits in Skyrim, raiders undoubtedly form the majority of the human population (if only they could band together!) And while we see bits of their personality when we fight the Forged or the residents of the floating Libertalia, by and large, they are as devoid of humanity as the zombie-like feral ghouls. By the end of my first play through, I had killed exactly 500 humans, and the game chose to call only eight such killings murders (all of the murders, I should point out, were committed during the final quests). Most humans, the game seems to say, are no different from beasts.
I won’t spoil specifics, but the ending of the game, as I’ve pointed out, descends into a deeper darkness. This, of course, was what Bethesda intended. Unlike the fairly black and white nature of Fallout 3, it seems clear that the developers wanted shades of gray. But there are few shades to genocide, slavery, and forced human experimentation. And these are committed by the only two factions that actually have a vision for the future of the wasteland. No matter which faction we choose, we’re forced down a path of mass murder. There was a point I reached, just before cementing my loyalty to one of them, where I realized the best ending was to stop playing. That is, the détente between the factions was perhaps the best state for the wasteland to be in. There was no direction I could go that felt like I was making things better.
That’s not to say that Fallout hasn’t always revelled, at least in part, in violence and cruelty. The Bloody Mess perk is hardly new, and in earlier Fallouts the perk had no combat benefits other than simply making gory death animations more common. Combat has always been a major part of the games, even if we chose to avoid it. But those games had more purpose to their violence; our enemies were, for the most part, enemies for a reason. While Vault-tec has always been a sinister organization conducting social experiments on unwitting subjects, Fallout 4 cranks the cynicism about science and progress to eleven. Almost everyone even associated with technological advancement is covetous, unethical and murderous. Even Elder Lyons’ socially-conscious Brotherhood of Steel from Fallout 3 is gone, replaced by Elder Maxson’s genocidal military.
The game begins before the war, giving us a brief chance to see the world as it once was. This sets up our history with our son and with our wife, making the murder and abduction all the more painful. But it also, for the first time, let’s us see the last minutes of civilization. This is no accident. The previous games have never really centred the pre-war world, and so our understanding of that world was nothing more than academic. But here, we see that people in the world before were normal humans, concerned by normal things, just like us. By showing us this world, we see ourselves in it. We see that our civilization was the one that was blown up. It tells us that even if we feel safe in our homes, we’re never far away from the bombs and the violence. We’re never far away from madness.
Fallout 4 showcases a darker world, made all the darker by seeing the world before the bombs. It’s a change from the previous games, for better or worse. We’ve become used to the RPG and FPS norm that, if it’s not obviously a friend, it’s most definitely trying to kill you. But one of the Fallout series’ greatest strengths was the subversion of that norm. The denizens of the wasteland aren’t orcs and kobolds; they’re humans and former humans. And Fallout let us deal with them like humans. But Fallout 4 takes an even darker turn than Fallout 3. It merges the indiscriminate violence of killing people with a society that fundamentally refuses to rebuild. Even the few who do want a better world undermine that goal with horrific ethics, brutality and corruption. In this world, mass murder is the only way forward.
Fallout 4 doesn’t merely have shades of gray; it forces the player down a dark path that suggests, at our core, we’re no different than the monsters of other RPG worlds. Our civilization is always a hair’s breadth away from a descent into madness. Peace, it says, is a dream and violence is inevitable. And war never changes.