I’ve awakened from two centuries of cryogenic sleep, and I’m pissed. I’ve watched my old life vanish in an instant, consumed in the sudden flash of an atomic blast. I’ve seen strangers murder my spouse and kidnap my infant son while I was helpless to stop them. And now I’ve met a man named Preston who says he can help me find the people responsible, if only I help him and the remnants of his citizens’ militia find a new home. But as he explains his plight in a dramatic monologue, a military aircraft comes crashing down from the sky, annihilating a nearby group of innocent bystanders in a rain of chaos. Preston is unfazed—he just wants to know if I can get the radio beacon working.
Scenes like this are hardly a part of the script in Fallout 4, yet they’re incredibly common. Wasteland survivors watch as I sow slaughter upon an army of raiders, then ask about the weather. Enemies see their friends vaporized by a blast from my laser rifle, and then, moments later, insist they “must be seeing things.” I infiltrate an underground bunker with surgical precision, only to have my canine companion wander carelessly through a laser-tripwire trap, obliterating both of us instantly.
Over a month since the game’s release, I’ve had plenty of time to explore every corner of the Wasteland and immerse myself in its beautifully rendered world. But it’s difficult to feel like I’m truly a part of Fallout 4’s Boston Commonwealth, because scenes like these are so common. For a AAA blockbuster title that’s already on course to be one of the season’s best-selling titles, it’s underscored by a plethora of bugs, glitches and “features” that make delving into the war-torn world an exercise in hilarious frustration.
It’s not really my fault, though. Fallout 4 invited me with open arms be an active participant in its living, breathing world, full of complex characters, each with their own motivations and backstories, and I’ve done everything I can to make my actions feel like they’re supported by real agency. I’m tasked with helping to rebuild a world ravaged by nuclear war by carving out my own slice of home and making it hospitable for other wasteland settlers. Seventy hours into my first play-through, I’ve spent more time cobbling together ramshackle huts and defenses from salvaged scrap than I have actually trying to find my missing son. It’s not that I don’t care what happened to him—it’s just that, in a world so full of unscripted, uncontrollable AI behaviour, the only reliable constants I’ve found are in the cages I build myself to keep that world contained.
Situations like these are now so typical of Bethesda Softworks’ suite of games that it’s simply part of their tradition. In a recent thinkpiece for Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s Alex Wiltshire recently tackled this ever-present struggle within Fallout 4’s narrative, questioning the countless incongruities of a world that expects us to accept that survivors of the apocalypse would establish an entirely new economy based in bottle-caps, but neglect to dispose of the skeletons that literally fill their closets and dining rooms. But my existential struggle with Fallout 4 goes even deeper, to the heart of the game’s design. Bethesda’s Gamebryo engine is infamous for its instability, breeding countless encounters with characters who don’t act like real humans, and objects that disregard all basic laws of physics. But in a game that not only allows, but encourages players to push the world to its limits, non-sequitur character interactions are now just part of the experience. It doesn’t matter whether that NPC is a bitter enemy or a close friend—if they’re unintentionally caught in the crossfire of a fight you didn’t even start, you might find yourself at the mercy of their unrelenting programming as they hunt you down wherever you travel, day after day, to the ends of the earth, until you are dead.
The fact that this is just an accepted part of Bethesda’s games may come from the fact that, for all intents and purposes, they have a virtual monopoly on their particular flavour of game. Others studios have flirted with the scope and scale of the Fallout and Elder Scrolls games (most notably in The Witcher and the most recent chapter in BioWare’s Dragon Age series) but developers have otherwise been content to give Bethesda free reign over the type of game where anything can happen, and any object or being can be interacted with, manipulated or destroyed. This was eye-opening in 2006, when The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion kicked open the doors that its predecessor Morrowind had just begun to crack. It was novel when Fallout 3 re-launched the classic series and invited players to explore the post-apocalyptic wastes of Washington, DC, like we’d never seen them before. By the time Skyrim debuted in 2011, the idiosyncrasies of the Bethesda style had become tropes, peppering the ambitious fantasy epic with absurd scenes of “emergent” AI behaviour—such as allowing characters to loot a shop empty by placing a bucket over the shopkeeper’s head. Now that Fallout 4 is effectively running on the same decade-old engine, we’re left playing it with quaint admiration while inane NPC behaviour strains our suspension of disbelief.
But Fallout 4 isn’t alone in its struggle to create a believable world propped up by limited hardware. The quest for virtual verisimilitude remains the greatest challenge for video games at large, and as the technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, so too do the worlds and characters with which players interact. But for the past decade or so, video games have found themselves trudging through the murk of the Uncanny Valley, and their artificially intelligent avatars are now almost-but-not-quite believable as real humans, ensuring that we notice less of what makes them human, and more of what keeps them inhuman.
Some current-gen games manage to emulate humans in a way that’s convincing enough—at least within the confines of their controlled, scripted cutscenes, but lose their lustre when control is returned to the player. Many games avoid this issue entirely by doubling down on their cartoonishness with a healthy dose of self-awareness, reminding us that the actors are nothing more than pixels and code. Fallout 4, however, exists in a state of limbo between these polar extremes, at once reminding us of the franchise’s inherent silliness while still attempting to tell an emotionally weighty story. And it would work, if only the game’s inner code weren’t held together with Wonderglue and Insta-Mash.
It’s not as though this is Bethesda’s fault, either. As Zak McClendon at Wired pointed out, the studio has intentionally remained comparatively small, sacrificing the polish expected from the blockbuster game-development cycle for fostering creativity and boosting morale within their ranks. And for what it’s worth, there’s a certain charm to playing such a massive game full of ridiculous bugs. There’s something to be said for the sense of levity that unnatural, inhuman AI behaviour can inject into a setting so macabre. It can foster a spirit of exploration by keeping the player on the far side of an emotionally bereft chasm filled with soulless actors who simply exist to advance your own story. While I often struggle with ethically complex decisions in the best-told narratives, Fallout 4 allows me to indulge my deepest curiosities with no such moral struggle—for instance, wondering, “What would happen if I fired a dozen nuclear warheads into this village of innocent civilians?”
The answer, it turns out, is a torrent of fire and gore, and an unharmed militiaman who just really wants to know how that radio beacon is coming.
By Bethesda Softworks