J. Griffin Hughes
Vault 111 Saved Me from COVID
Fallout 4 got me through the COVID-19 shutdown, a dear friend’s death, and a personal crisis. First, the basics. Just like Skyrim, it’s an open-world game with a customizable player character who can alternate between first and third-person perspectives. All that works well for me, along with being a stealth shooter, which I’m discovering is my favorite mode of play. But beyond that, the look, feel, and story hooked me right from the opening credits, featuring a voiceover from Ron Perlman who tells us that “War, war never changes...”
The player begins the game as the veteran of a previous war with Communist China. They now live in a cozy, pastel neighborhood that resembles the images of future convenience from the 1950s. Atomic power makes for clean running cars. You have a friendly multi-armed robot housekeeper named Codsworth, who helps you and your spouse care for your child, a son named Shaun.
A knock at the door alerts you to a representative for Vault-Tec who wants to sign you and your family up for a complimentary spot in your local Vault-Tec atomic shelter to keep you safe in the event of nuclear destruction, a courtesy provided for your veteran status. Immediately after you sign up, the news announces that bombs are dropping. Sirens go off. You and your spouse grab Shaun and join the others headed to Vault-Tec Vault 111. On your way in, you see marines in massive power armor suits sorting out who can enter. Among those denied entry stands the poor Vault-Tec representative who just signed you and your family up for the safety of the vault, crying, “But I am Vault-Tec!”
You are lowered into the vault as you see a flash on the horizon and only barely miss the shockwaves. Then guards lead you to scientists who dress you in your sterile, protective blue and yellow vault suit. You are guided to what you are told is a decontamination pod. Your spouse and child enter the pod across from you, which you can see through a small window as your pod seals. Then your vision frosts over. You have been cryogenically flash-frozen and the screen goes black.
Over the sound of chattering teeth and shivering breath, your vision returns, and you hear voices. From your window, you see technicians in hazmat suits approaching your spouse’s pod where they are unconscious, frozen, with Shaun still in their arms. A shaven-headed man wearing a black leather jacket and pieces of Mad-Max-esque armor points the techs to your wife’s pod. They open it and take Shaun from her arms. She wakes to protest, and the bald man shoots her. You scream without being heard and see your fists pound fruitlessly against the pod door. A tech points to you and the bald man says, “No, leave the back-up.” Then your vision goes black once more.
When next you wake, you are alone. Your pod opens on its own, and you tumble from it. Not only is your spouse dead and Shaun missing, but every other pod in Vault 111 is holding a corpse. All their cryo-systems failed. The only other living things are mutated cockroaches the size of dogs, "radroaches" who attack you on sight. You scavenge what weapons you can and fight your way out of Vault 111, into the Commonwealth--once the state of Massachusetts--in the Wasteland of the former United States, 200 years after you left it.
Riveted? Hell, yeah, you are!
Somewhere out in this post-apocalyptic wasteland is your son and the man who murdered your spouse. To find them, you will have to develop your survival skills and explore the Commonwealth. You will face threats from mutated fauna--Radroaches, Bloodbugs, Radscorpions, Bloatflies, and Mongrels--as well as human Raiders seeking to prolong their lives by ending yours.
Then there are special monstrosities with fantasy gaming parallels. Feral Ghouls (“Ferals” for short.) appear to be undead but are actually withered humans, some over 200 years old, whose minds have rotted away. Super Mutants, once human, have been transformed into hulking brutes--orcs, basically--in a laboratory attempt to make them better able to survive harsh Wasteland conditions. And the Deathclaw, a cross between a Tyrannosaurus and a heavy metal album cover, are the dragons of the Wasteland.
But not everything in the Commonwealth just wants to eat you. In the search for Shaun, you find groups of humans who have created survivor societies. And in addition to unaffiliated Settlers, just trying to eke out some kind of living off of what is left of the land, there are also various factions. The Minutemen are a laser-musket-wielding volunteer militia with a code to help everyone who asks. The Brotherhood of Steel fight for what is left of humanity using power armor and heavy weaponry to exterminate all Feral Ghouls, Supermutants, and sinister Synths, human replicants used by the Institute to replace humans and infiltrate their settlements.
You are told the Institute is the bogeyman of the Commonwealth, a hyper-scientific society seeking to control from the shadows. Along your travels, you encounter identical pairs of settlers where each claims the other is a Synth sent to murder and replace him. But you also encounter those accused of being Synths being summarily executed under that suspicion, and their bodies offer no clue as to whether or not they had been synthetic. While G1 Synths appear as robotic skeletons with pipes of intestines, and G2 Synths possess gray rubber skin and glowing yellow eyes, the Institute’s G3 Synths have all the organs and tissues of a human, just grown in a lab.
Reminded of Picard yet? Westworld? Bladerunner?
Well, add into the mix one last faction, the Railroad. Exactly like the Underground Railroad of history, this faction helps Synths to escape the Institute, who does not respect the fact that the Synths have become so human-like that they possess their own consciousness and the rights due to all sentient beings.
In the tradition of such games, you can take on little tasks to build resources and develop skills, and you have the option to ally with different factions. But the clues you discover about Shaun’s disappearance eventually point you toward the Institute. You discover that they are the ones that hired the mercenary who killed your wife and kidnapped your son. Only the Institute can tell you why and where Shaun is now.
You have the option to work with any of the other three factions to develop a plan to enter the Institute, which you come to discover hides in a secret lair underground that has no physical entrance. The only means in or out is by a transporter beam. Your faction of choice will grant you the resources to hijack their transit frequency and teleport yourself into the Institute.
Spoilers follow, but I have to share because it was the story that blew me away.
When you get into the Institute, you are greeted by the voice of their leader, known only as Father, appropriate for his paternal attitude toward humanity. Of course, he tells you that the things you’ve heard about the Institute are lies and misunderstandings. The Institute has everyone’s best interests at heart. And as a show of good faith, you are welcomed to where you find Shaun, no longer a baby, but a 10-year-old boy. Time apparently passed between when you saw him taken and later escaped your pod.
But the big reveal comes when you meet Father, an older, bearded gentleman, and find out the young boy who looks like Shaun and responds to that name is not your son but a Synth made in his image. Your actual son, the real Shaun, is none other than the leader of the Institute, Father himself. Not 10 years but decades have passed since his kidnapping.
Shaun explains to you that the Institute needed a strand of pre-nuclear DNA for the development of their G3 Synths, and by searching through the old Vault-Tec records, they found Shaun to have a perfect sample. But after harvesting his genetic material, they did not toss him aside but raised him. And in time, he rose among their ranks as their leader.
Then he tells you that the reason you are there now is that he had you released from cryogenic containment, hoping you would seek him and find him. He is dying, and he believes you to be just the person to follow in his footsteps. So, Father, your son, who is old enough to be your Father, asks you to join him and work for the Institute.
What do you do? What did I do?
Even in my first play-through, I had a feeling something like this was going to happen. The twist was building, although I didn’t know which way it would go. It could have very easily been that the player discovers they are a Synth, that their memories of Shaun are false. Maybe they are a G4 sent by the Institute to test their new technology out in the Wasteland.
And I was okay with that, just like I was okay with Shaun turning out to be Father. That didn’t matter so much to me because, already, I had emotionally invested in a different aspect of the game, in rebuilding the Commonwealth. Reclaiming my character’s past did not mean so much to me anymore as building a new future out of what was left of the present.
At various places, often where you are sent by the Minutemen, you find spots suitable for new settlements where you can build shelters, plant crops, dig wells, establish defenses, and attract Settlers. I loved doing this. Piece by piece, I began to feel like I was reclaiming the Wasteland, creating homes and lives for little virtual people who would repeat stock phrases in their Bostonian accents like, “You know what I call a good day? One that ends without an empty stomach,” and “Easy living, this ain’t,” and “Out here, you gotta take things one day at a time.” When I jumped in to help repel a group of Raiders or Feral Ghouls or Super Mutants and they said, “You sure showed up right in the nick of time.” It felt hopeful.
Coming to this game after an intense personal loss, that hope felt really good. I wanted to get to be someone’s hero. I wanted to build something new out of something broken--which the game allows in a literal sense because in order to construct a settlement or upgrade a gun, the player has to scavenge the Commonwealth for scrap. A ball-peen hammer gives a certain quantity of wood and steel, a deflated kickball can supply rubber, an old lighter will give you a bit of oil, and so on.
But along with all of that junk, the world before leaves remnants of its personality. The rusted cars littering the fractured highways have domed hoods and tail fins. Above them loom broken billboards with fractured Madmen-esque advertisements touting the virtues of home and family and Americana, men in suits and fedoras, women in Donna Reed dresses. Nuka-Cola machines stand in front of shambles of buildings, sometimes with intact bottles inside. Some of the young men you encounter have their hair in greaser pompadours. Some of the young women wear poodle skirts. You can tune into an in-game radio station, Diamond City Radio, which plays the likes of Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat King Cole, so as you run for your life from a mutated Yao-Guai bear, you can hear the peppy singing of “Ac-cent-chu-ate the positive… E-lim-inate the negative…”
And all of this broken world is rendered with gorgeous lighting effects, weather that includes overcast days, occasional rain, and sometimes acid rain. At dawn, the sunrise cuts through the barren trees, illuminating the morning mist. For a time we were all told we could not go outside, here was an indoors-outside to explore freely, all of its deadly dangers things you could see with the naked eye and point a rifle at. I built myself one particular shelter that I did not house any settlers, a steel shed on the roof of a Red Rocket gas station where I set a campfire in front of a park bench. I’d sit my character there and fast-forward the time to dusk, then look out over toward the town of Concord, its church steeple stark against the darkening blue of sky, the sounds of Raider gangs fighting robots in the distance--a beautiful moment to experience while trapped in my house.
So, when my son, Shaun, Father, asked me to work with the Institute, just to see if I liked it, just to see if I might consider taking his place and leading it into the future, I said yes. Absolutely. Because I was going to burn that shit to the motherfucking ground.
See, once I got inside the Institute, I got to see how they lived in all their EPCOT/Star Trek smoothe white walls. As I passed, NPCs would say things like, “And outsider? Well, you certainly do smell like one…” In the cafeteria, I overheard a scientist berating the Synth server. “What do you MEAN you don’t have nutritional supplement number 43? That was my FAVORITE! This is intolerable!” Then a small child would announce something terribly arrogant her daddy told her about how stupid the rest of humanity is, and I knew then I would soon be responsible for destroying the only home she has ever known.
Dark, I know! But, here’s the thing…
It being a video game, there are limited outcomes available, right? The player does not get to create their own way out of a situation. When you step into a room, there are some objects with which you can interact and some you cannot. Doors may be able to be opened, but the walls are solid. It doesn’t not matter how much damage you inflict upon the wall with what weapon, it will remain standing.
When it comes to NPC interactions, you can only choose from certain set statements. These tend to fall into 4 categories in Fallout 4: questioning, humorous, kind, or aggressive. Whatever they say to you, your response is only one of these four options--which, still, for a video game, gives you a lot of flexibility. With these responses and your actions, you get to choose who to support and who to oppose. Sometimes you can attempt to negotiate third options where both parties walk away with a positive compromise. Other times, compromise is not an option.
You reach a point in the game where you have to choose sides. The Institute will want to send you on missions that directly oppose the Minutemen. The Railroad will send you into direct conflict against the Brotherhood of Steel. If you want to further the plot of the game, choosing a side comes to mean choosing who to kill.
From the start, the Minutemen were my guys. I always play good, so those fit perfectly. The Railroad also seemed sympathetic, although they focus exclusively on the rescuing of Synths and not so much on the wellbeing of the Commonwealth and its Settlers in general. The Brotherhood I had no time for. It was clear they enjoyed killing who they perceived to be monsters more than protecting those needing defense. One Brotherhood soldier comments on how much he enjoys the way a Feral’s head squishes you stomp them. That was not for me.
The story makes you choose a side for the Second Battle of Bunker Hill. Oh, yeah, did I mention nostalgia of American history? In order to join the Railroad, you have to follow The Freedom Trail, with clues placed around historical sites like Paul Revere’s home. They hide their headquarters in the catacombs of a church that apparently had relevance to the first Underground Railroad. One of the Minutemen quests is reclaiming Fort Independence from giant humanoid mutant crabs called Mirelurks. You can even visit Thoreau’s cabin on Walden pond. Raiders have made camp in the basement of the gift shop. A Deathclaw has taken up residence at the museum of witchcraft in Salem.
Bunker Hill has become an outpost for traders and a way-station for the Railroad to smuggle Synths out of the Commonwealth. The Institute discovers this and wants to reclaim their property. The Brotherhood of Steel gets wind of this and wants to destroy both the Institute and their Synth creations. And the Railroad wants to evacuate as many as it can.
I chose my side. I took my stand. I killed the soldiers of opposing factions. And then came the critical missions from the Railroad to destroy the bases of the Brotherhood and the Institute. There are no negotiation options, no middle ground, just the existential threat of “this town ain’t big enough for the both of us.”
The Brotherhood of Steel made its headquarters in a zeppelin-style airship, the Prydwen, named after King Arthur’s boat, and with a group of Railroad agents, I commandeered a Brotherhood Verti-Bird helicopter and went to infiltrate the Prydwen. Wearing a stolen Brotherhood uniform, I tried to subtly make my way to the points where I would place explosives but lasted barely a minute before I was made and the shooting started. When it stopped, I made my way into the ship over a pile of bodies, and once inside, a small voice called me “Sir,” a young boy, not older than twelve squire of the Brotherhood, greeted me.
And I was like, “Is this game fucking kidding me? I’m going to send this child to his death in a ball of burning metal crashing to the ground?”
Guess what? I did.
I remembered the opening credits. “War never changes…” I had been placed in a situation that was not dark for darkness' sake but dark to reflect the incredibly uncomfortable reality of choices that actual soldiers to make and have made. Everyone who knew the Enola Gay was carrying a nuclear payload to Hiroshima in 1945--which is referenced in the opening credits--also knew that there would be unarmed civilians, the elderly and children, destroyed by its blast. And still, they made that choice. This town wasn’t big enough for the both of them.
At that moment, I wanted the freedom and flexibility of tabletop roleplaying in order to create a new option to take that little boy with me. Prisoners of war is also a reality, after all. But Fallout 4 did not provide me that option. It was either follow the path or stop playing the game. I set the bombs. I left the boy to his death. And then I joined the Railroad assault on the Institute that included detonating its atomic generator and turning it into a crater. It felt terrible. It also felt like it had to be done.
But before I left the Institute, I spoke to Shaun on his deathbed. He pleaded with me to show mercy where I could. I said that I would. And as our assault team fled the Institute before its destruction, I was told we found a small boy who said he was my long-lost son. It was the Synth I found previously, the 10-year-old version of Shaun, the son I never got to raise. When our team gathered once more in the Railroad headquarters, he was there, asking to join me, and the game gave me the option to make him a part of one of my Settlements. I did.
Now, all of this grim moral complexity may seem to contradict the hope I was enjoying developing at the start of my first playthrough, rebuilding some new life out of the destruction of the old. But this twist actually deepened my appreciation for that. By engaging in such a horrible war, I walked the steps taken by those who caused the destruction I spent the start of the game rebuilding from. I got to feel as responsible for terrible things as I was for mending them.
And after this climax of the plot, the gameplay does not have to end. There are DLC plots and areas of the vast open-world I had not previously explored. Still, my Settlers went on about their little virtual lives. Still, their settlements would be attacked from outside. And after I jumped in to help repel the invading forces, they would still say to me, “You sure showed up in the nick of time. “ After having been responsible for the deaths of little virtual children, those words felt different to hear--a little ironic but not painful, just a reminder that the world is incredibly complex and behaving morally within it can be difficult to see clearly, but we keep trying.
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