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The TavernJan 25, 2016 4:00 pm CT

Fallout 4 and the seduction of the open world

How urgent is your main quest when you spend all your time meandering along the way?

Okay, so I’ve been playing tons of Fallout 4 lately, and it has the same problem that Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas, and Skyrim had, which is to say it has several problems. Some truly astonishing bugs made it live. I encountered a bug that prevented my character from getting out of a pod at level 1, for instance, and the only way around it was to restart my console. There’s a glitch that makes corpses twitch and dance around, which is astonishingly disturbing. There are more, of course. It’s almost part of the charm of a Bethesda game, really. Hey, a deathclaw corpse is following me around? That’s awesome!

But one problem comes from the fact that Fallout 4 tries to have a directed narrative. It’s not a bad directed narrative, mind you. It manages to surprise you at certain points, it provides real consequences to your decisions. That’s not the issue. The issue is this: the game is set up as an open world, and that means that the initial narrative thrust of the game (go find your kidnapped son) is quickly swallowed up in side quests and exploration, leaving you with one of two options.

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Option 1 is to pursue the narrative — go find your son — and in the process miss out on so, so much of what makes Fallout 4 compelling. You can still do a lot of this after you’ve finished the game’s main story, but that story has consequences and changes the world to some degree, and so, it’s probably best not to do that if you want to experience all of Fallout 4‘s Commonwealth for yourself. As a native New Englander, playing this game is astonishingly rich with moments of recognition and I don’t want to miss out on any of it.

Option 2, to put off the pursuit and explore, seems wrong. It’s almost impossible to justify standing around messing about with the settlements and crafting when a freaking baby was kidnapped. What kind of monster would you have to be to waste time freeing ghoul kids from refrigerators when your own baby is missing? Yeah, I’m sorry that the super mutants kidnapped that actor but first off, it’s after the apocalypse, maybe I have other things on my mind and secondly my baby damn it.

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We tend to describe stories where the narrative pushes you strongly in one direction as being ‘on rails’ or ‘railroad’ games. Fallout 4 is very much not this, it’s more like a subway map, depicting all these different railroads you could get on if you wanted. There are good and bad aspects to this approach to storytelling. While an on rails world feels like it — you definitely feel like your ability to explore and inhabit the world is inhibited — you don’t get the weird feeling like you’re ignoring something important. Oh, yeah, I could figure out what this whole dragonborn thing is about, but first, I’m going to marry a werewolf. And then there’s some assassins who want me to join up. There’s a sacrifice for that open world feeling, and it’s one that even masters of the genre like Bethesda have to make some gestures towards appeasing.

That isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy Fallout 4. I do, very much. In many ways I think it’s the best game Bethesda has ever made. It’s even better than Skyrim, a game I absolutely loved at the time I was playing it, but I do notice that strange disconnect between what I’m supposed to be doing (finding my kidnapped son) and what I’m actually doing (every other thing under the sun). When I compare it to Dragon Age 2 (my gold standard for plots on rails, where you absolutely will eventually end up at the station no matter what you do) I generally have enjoyed my time in the Commonwealth a great deal more, but I never felt conflicted about the story in DA2 — I absolutely never felt like I was a truant putting off my responsibilities the way I can here.

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There’s a narrative cost to using a more open world approach, ultimately. The best games realize that and work with it. Fallout 4 makes the fact that you have to look for your child part of the process. You don’t know where to go when you first get out of Vault 111, and while there are quests pointing you in a certain direction (go back to Sanctuary, go to Concord) you don’t have to do them. I ended up going south, completely bypassing Sanctuary and Concord, and wandering around until I hit Cambridge and ended up embroiled in events there, utterly unaware of certain factions and characters I was supposed to meet first. I had a set of T-60 power armor before I met Dogmeat. That’s the beauty of an open world when done well — everything feels like it builds off of your choices, even when underneath it all, there are plot railroads and you will end up riding them.

Eventually.

Right now I’m building up a truck stop to serve as a home base, though. I’ll get around to it.

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