Father’s Day — Picking Sides in Fallout 4

Random Prattle You Can Skip

As usual, I’m several years behind in my gaming, and — having pretty much completed Skyrim VR (all the major arcs, anyway) I decided to go back and try Fallout 4 (which had frustrated me around the first time I got my ass handed to me repeatedly by synths while doing nothing in particular).

father (head of the Institute)
Father — head of The Institute in Fallout 4 — and my excuse for writing this post today

I played Fallout and Fallout 2 back when they came out on the Mac in the 90s, and loved them. I played the hell out of Fallout 3, but got frustrated by New Vegas and never finished it. In general, I preferred the original games because you got to make significant moral choices (even if sometimes the content was juvenile).

Fallout 3 seemed to have turned into a more conventional action adventure, which I put down to the technical and cost limitations associated with AAA 3D games (building out huge alternate worlds to display widely varying outcomes is expensive, which is likely also why Mass Effect 3 was so lame.)

Anyway, Fallout 4 seems to me to be a return to the greatness of the originals. The moral issues are back and so, apparently are the choices. And, the game looks wonderful. (Both Skyrim VR and Fallout 4 have pretty terrible audio, frequently making me wonder if I have my headphones on backwards, which is impossible with the VR headset; there are a ton of physics, animation, and AI glitches — all of this just has to be accepted and ignored with Bethesda’s games.)

The Moral Question (SPOILERS!)

So, I’m pretty far along, and I’m confused.

In the Commonwealth there are several key factions, which I’ll summarize:

  • The Minutemen — these are the first folks you encounter, a rag-tag militia that’s almost been wiped out and simply tries to restore a cooperative community across the Commonwealth. Whether you like it or not you end up their “General” but (as someone put it eloquently on a forum) you still end up doing all their fetch and carry busywork.
  • The Brotherhood of Steel — this is the most obviously powerful faction. You encounter them, most likely, trying to find Diamond City (they’re very noisy!) Unlike the “lawful good” BoS from Fallout 3, these are more like the quasi-fascist BoS from Fallout 2. They make a good first impression (they’re defending themselves against feral ghouls), but if you steal a journal one of them has left lying around you quickly learn they have a dark side. In any event, when you join (as you pretty much have to) you quickly discover they are human supremacists and also pretty much anti-science.
  • The Railroad — a nod to the Underground Railroad in more ways than one, is a group of idealists trying to free synths from “slavery” and protect them from a surface population that hates and fears them. They’re run like a parody of John Le Carré.
  • The Institute — just as The Empire is introduced in Skyrim by trying to execute you for no particular reason, The Institute is introduced murdering your spouse (husband in my case) and kidnapping your son. Until you finally meet them face to face, all you know about them is that they killed your spouse, kidnapped your baby, they’re responsible for roving gangs of humanoid killer robots (that think out loud to somewhat comical effect), and that everyone blames them for everything, but disappearing people and replacing them in particular. Also, just as Skyrim’s Empire is the only place where you can bring up kids in relative safety and houses aren’t decorated with broken furniture and dead bodies, The Institute is the only place where you can sit down without wanting to sanitize yourself afterwards. (By way of role-play, I jumped on the chance to get a new toothbrush from a library vending machine…)

One of the interesting things I noticed in forum threads about the moral choice posed by needing to pick between these factions is (a) how sophisticated some of the arguments were (although there were plenty of “BoS are the only good guys” and “BoS are fascist losers” comments too), (b) how clever and effective Fallout 4’s writing is. In particular, in making their arguments, many players clearly take as fact that The Institute is guilty of all the things they’re accused of. Even though every missing persons case you investigate turns out to be entirely prosaic, everyone assumes that The Institute really is stealing people to use their organs, or something.

Here’s what you learn by actually visiting The Institute.

  • They create synths as servants.
  • They may have created the super mutants.
  • There doesn’t seem to be any overt cruelty in the way synths are treated, but then again they can mindwipe and reprogram synths at whim which is worse.
  • The gen-3 are almost certainly sentient, look completely human, and are clearly slaves, but The Institute’s citizens are in denial about this. (My favorite traveling companion is a synth detective, apparently a gen-3 prototype, who definitely seems to be sentient.)
  • You can see gen-3 synths being made from scratch out of goo via 3d printing. They’re not assembling stolen organs. (The sequence is very similar to Westworld’s credits, but this is in real-time game engine and came out before Westworld.)
  • It’s The Railroad that uploads people’s memories into synths to help them blend in (because otherwise the people on the surface would just kill them).
  • The Institute’s population includes scientists (“everyone here is a doctor, but I’m the only physician”) but also children (who seem totally normal and carefree).
  • The Institute have built a fabulous arcology underground.
  • Everyone in The Institute seems to be genuinely trying to make their own lives and life on the surface better. Yes, they’re ignorant and arrogant but so are the folks on the surface.

In a nutshell, the argument against The Institute is slavery / mindwipe. The argument for it is that it’s the only place you’d want to live or raise children.

Fallout 4 ultimately lets you choose between these four factions at the end. The Minutemen only really demand you kill The Institute whereas the other factions all want to wipe each other out (but don’t care about The Minutemen).

It seems to me that while The Institute is clearly wrong in its treatment of synths (i.e. slavery) it’s hardly worse than the Brotherhood’s position of exterminating all non-humans (i.e. genocide) especially when you consider that The Institute can actually make the world nice again and The Brotherhood can’t and won’t. It’s not at all clear to me that any of the factions are beyond redemption, but given that — uniquely in Fallout 4 — you’re someone who can remember the prewar world, it seems to me that there’s not much dividing the Brotherhood of Steel or the Minutemen from raiders and scavengers (indeed, there’s a diary in the room of the first synth you’re sent to recover detailing the collapse of a Minuteman splinter group into thugs and murderers), and the only way to return the world to a decent state is to keep The Institute around, and deal with its moral flaws.

Happy father’s day.