(Warning: There will be some spoilers throughout this article.)
Fallout 4 was one of the most highly anticipated games of this generation, earning a mostly warm reception and many awards and nominations. Bethesda even jokingly created a doctor’s note for players to show to their bosses knowing that there would be millions of people playing the game when it launched rather than going to work.
However, as the dust settled, the criticism came rolling in as it always does with high-profile releases. And to longtime fans of the Fallout series like myself, the criticism was focused mainly on the ability to role-play in the game — or, rather, the lack thereof. One of the most common gripes you’ll hear about Fallout 4 is how it fails to compare to the highly regarded Fallout: New Vegas, developed by Obsidian Entertainment and published by Bethesda. New Vegas provides the player with a “blank slate.” They can be whoever they choose to be in the wasteland with only the knowledge of their former job title: a courier. Though this job title ended up having a very interesting and complex backstory with the inclusion of DLCs, you were still free to be a new person once you woke up from the bullet to the head that was supposed to kill you.
Strangely enough, Bethesda themselves have never really adopted the blank slate concept for their entries into the modern Fallout series. In Fallout 3 and 4 you start the game with a history that you have to play through in order to start the game, which is unusual considering that in their modern Elder Scrolls entries, you always start as a prisoner, a nobody. This blank slate is perfect for gamers like myself that love to role-play, and frankly suits the style of Bethesda’s RPGs.
Another important aspect for role-playing in games is to have a silent protagonist. Not only does this tend to mean more speech options, but it also gives you the ability to imagine your character’s voice and mannerisms as whatever you want them to be. Don’t get me wrong though, there is nothing wrong with a voiced protagonist. Mass Effect is my favorite series of all time and I could not imagine playing the game without hearing Jennifer Hale’s masterful voice acting for Commander Shepard. A voice can reinforce the idea that you are playing a character, a real person in the world you are playing in. But for the most part a silent protagonist can go further for role-playing. Todd Howard, the executive producer of Bethesda himself, even admitted that the voiced protagonist in Fallout 4 “didn’t work as well” as the other more successful aspects of the game in an E3 interview with Gamespot. It was a risk for the franchise and for many people it did not work out very well.
However, despite all these setbacks in terms of role-playing, I still found myself coming back to Fallout 4 on a regular basis. The gameplay is addictive, that shooting and looting experience is what kept me going as the role-playing aspect took a backseat. This was not for lack of trying, though; I’ve made a character for every faction, male and female, all with different builds. For the longest time I simply could not create a character that I believed in. Of course there are mods and I have tried them, but I want to conquer the vanilla version of the game and the story I am given.
So I made it my mission. Yes, I have too much free time. I’m a student and I don’t start again until September so I had to do something to keep myself occupied. And I can proudly say that I succeeded in being able to role-play in Fallout 4, which has made the game far more engaging for me than it was previously.
The first hurdle I faced was the backgrounds of the male and female characters. Playing as a woman means being happily married and having a history in law with a certificate proudly displayed in the home at the start. Playing as man means being happily married and having a military history, something that is mentioned a few times in the game. The key thing they both share is an infant son named Shaun — the driving force for the player in the Commonwealth.
I always tried to come up with something more to my character in their old world history. Maybe the marriage wasn’t that happy, maybe I was a sleeper agent or something but the rest of the game just makes it too difficult to pull off. So I accepted my character’s past for what it was: idyllic. I instead focused on some of the words Kellogg says later in the main story. He believed that, even if my character was able to thaw himself out of Vault 111, the “Commonwealth would chew (him) up like jerky.” Couple these with the Sole Survivor’s own words during the epilogue, “This wasn’t the world I wanted, but it was the world I found myself in,” and you have the foundation for your character. The world they find themselves in will change them and it is up to you if that is for better or worse. Shaun will remain the focus, but who they become leading up to and after his discovery are the most important parts.
My character, Max, came into this world with a rage and a hatred for Kellogg. He began to hate the world for what it had become seeing all the mutants and freaks in a once great nation that he loved. He would not forgive this new world. From here there are multiple ways to go in terms of factions to join and the companions Max can take with him. For example he could join the Minutemen and help protect and build up the Commonwealth, which he does do to a degree because he knows that humanity must be protected. He could also join his son Shaun in the Institute and make a pure race of superhuman/synth but he hates the Institute for what they have done to him and from this he grows to hate synths too (even Nick). To Max they are machines and should never have existed; it’s a sick joke to him that the basis of their DNA is from his blood and even sicker that his own son is the leader of it all. His opinion of synths clearly rules out the Railroad of course, which leaves only one faction for Max to fully stand behind.
The Brotherhood of Steel. An army that seeks to protect humanity from itself, an army that will bring order to the chaos and restore order to America, the America that Max once loved and fought for. The Brotherhood gives Max a reason to fight again and this time it will include the belief of human exceptionalism in a world full of technological nightmares. Morality is never something that I really take into account when I role-play a character. I just play the character and think about the decisions they would want to make. Unless I’m role-playing a psychopath, a character always tends to have good intentions behind their actions or believes that what they are doing is for a good reason.
In terms of companions, Max stuck with Cait. At first he sees a talented fighter, someone who can hold their own and help him out in sticky situations. However he slowly discovers a damaged soul, one he feels compelled to heal. The same compelling feeling he had to heal his wife many years ago. I was able to build more about the man and his marriage through his journey in the Commonwealth, supported by Max’s wife’s words during the “Hi Honey” holotape in which she describes Max as “patient, so patient.” Cait was able to give more depth to Max’s past life and marriage. Through their travels and Max’s care for Cait, the two eventually fall in love with each other. Despite all the terrible things that have happened to him and all the horrible things he witnesses and takes part in he does not want to be alone in this new world. He even says to Cait that the both of them are a little messed up and so they are perfect for each other. Romancing characters can offer more than just an maximum affinity perk, it can also add a lot to the character you are building and how their motivations evolve.
All these main role-playing points for the game coupled with what I have always believed has been Bethesda’s greatest strength, environmental storytelling, has made for a really engaging role-playing experience and has had me playing long after the game’s initial release.
On a side note, just to add a little more realism, I also use the facial reconstruction option to add scars and wear and tear to Max the longer his journey goes on. I pictured it in a similar way to how scars effect a Renegade character in Mass Effect or how much more pale and evil-looking a dark side character becomes in Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic.
I know role-playing in Fallout 4 probably hasn‘t been at the top of many gamers’ priority lists but it always felt unfinished to me, and I hate that feeling of giving up on a game. Especially a game that is part of a series I adore. So I just had to give it one more try. And I went from feeling limited by the game’s apparent role-playing restrictions to being able to enjoy it again near enough the same way I have enjoyed all the games in the Fallout series.
So hopefully this article can help someone else who has always struggled to develop a proper character for Fallout 4 that is beyond just a certain combat build and faction choice. There are many paths the Sole Survivor can wander down.
I would also like to include a link to a YouTube content creator called Bluepanda who has put together some really powerful videos about Fallout 4’s characters, setting and factions that inspired me to give Fallout 4 one more chance.