This weekend I went out to the movie theater and saw Spectre, the new James Bond film. While I don’t think it’s a perfect film, it’s an enjoyable addition to the already great series. In a lot of ways, video games are similar to traditional action films like Spectre. The main character fights alone, every scene disposing of vast amounts of enemies with the occasional special conflict with a “boss”. In Spectre, the death count isn’t awfully high, but in Fallout 4, it sure is.
That’s not unexpected, if you had told me a week ago that I would be doing a lot killing in Fallout 4, I would have answered “of course”. But it’s the way that mass murder is handled in Fallout 4, specifically relative to its prequels, that leaves something to be desired.
Fallout 4 contains quite a few enemies to contend with, but raiders are the most common villainous folk in the game. The raiders are introduced as one of the first enemies in the game. Almost immediately after leaving Vault 111, the player-character saves a group of survivors from a raider attack. There’s no nuance to the characterization of these first raiders. The little that they do say is inconsequential battle cries. The player doesn’t have any opportunity to interact with them. Instead, the player just joins the fight on the side of the good guys and clears the area of the raider scourge.
While there’s a little more personality given to some of the raiders later in the game, nothing really changes in terms of the player’s interaction with them. The raiders scattered across the commonwealth are not corporeally linked, but they wear the same clothes, wield the same weapons, and hurl the same insults at the player. Ultimately, they have as much personality as the feral ghouls (which are basically zombies) that roam game. Devoid of any soul, they wander around, and if they cross paths with the player, they will attack. They are just cannon fodder, an excuse to make the player feel strong and to add more combat to the game.
For an action video game, this is all expected, of course. Some games handle enemy NPCs with more nuance than others, but even great action-oriented video games like Half-Life 2, The Witcher 3, and Dark Souls have copious amounts of nearly identical bad guys that need to be dealt with. It is a trope of the action genre, regardless of the medium. What makes the raiders particularly vapid in Fallout 4 is that Fallout 4 isn’t really an action game. It’s marketed as a role playing game. RPGs generally include more sharply drawn characters and are considered more thoughtful than action games. More concerning, Fallout: New Vegas, its predecessor, completely eclipses Fallout 4 in the area of creating a deep world filled to the brim with interesting characters and factions, whether they be friend or foe.
In Fallout: New Vegas, there really weren’t any nameless, mindless bad guys. There were raiders and there were villains, but they had personality, whether that be conveyed in their dialogue or through their dress. For instance, in Fallout: New Vegas one of the first enemy groups that you meet is the Powder Gangers. These “raiders” have personalities, they have names, and the player can talk to them. While the Powder Gangers are about to try to take over the town of Goodsprings, the townspeople of which just helped out the player-character, the player still has the option to join them in their nefarious deeds or to defend the town from them. The player can learn that the Powder Gangers were once prisoners who broke free from prison to start their gang.
By just comparing the introductions of each game, New Vegas immediately seems like a deeper experience. Because the player-character can form relationships with them, gaining notoriety or fame in doing so, there are no faceless raiders in the game. These gangs are individuated from one another through dress expressing their gang affiliations, through accents, differing goals, and fleshed out back stories. They create a memorable experience and make the Mojave Desert a more lively place. Though to be fair, New Vegas was made by Obsidian Entertainment as an expansion of the Fallout universe, not by Bethesda, the creators of Fallout 3 and 4. However, because of Obsidian’s approach (at least in terms of creating a dynamic world, which is crucial for open world games like this), Fallout 4 feels like a step backwards for the series.
So far, I’ve really enjoyed my time in Fallout 4, and I’m excited to continue playing. However, in order for video games to take steps toward maturity, they need to step away from mindless characters. It is more interesting and memorable to experience well thought out villains with their own goals and their own stories, characters that the player can interact with. These raiders are just warm bodies for the player to shoot. They ultimately serve no narrative purpose other than an ominous threat to player, to the player’s companions, and to settlements. We like to talk about graphics or gameplay as areas that immerse us in a video game, but true immersion, which is essential to the kind of game that Fallout 4 tries to be, lies within narrative and character, the more these things improve, the more engaged the player will be with the game.