One Perfect Moment in Gaming explores what makes games so special through examination of one moment that defines or shapes a game. These are moments in the story, gameplay, or experience that stick with you, and which could only be achieved in the medium of video games.
A perfect moment in gaming isn’t always written in the script or animated as gameplay. Sometimes it is in the way you personally experience the game, and is unique to you. Few games can generate these moments like Bethesda Studios’ role-playing series. My perfect moment in Fallout 4 was not a hidden discovery, or a conversation with a character, or an epic battle—it was the moment I turned off my Xbox and walked away from Fallout 4 for good. Wait, what? That was a good moment? Let me explain….
Fallout, along with The Elder Scrolls, is one of Bethesda Studios’ flagship RPG series where you create your own character and explore a vast and detailed game world with endless possibilities. In Fallout, the world is a parallel version of our own, where a 50’s-futuresque sci-fi society consumed itself in nuclear war. You play a survivor that emerges from a cryogenic freezing pod in an underground doomsday bunker into a radiation-bathed, monster-infested, no-man’s-land Boston.
What happens next is largely up to the player. You’re free to wander off on your own to see what post-apocalyptic Boston has to offer, but there is also a main storyline as well as side stories having to do with various factions with a presence in the area. This includes old favorites like the Brotherhood of Steel along with the two newest factions: The Institute, a near-mythical hidden organization with advanced robotics and teleportation technology supposedly hidden under the ruins of MIT, and The Railroad, and underground (is anything above-ground in this game?) rag-tag group of freedom fighters that directly opposes the Institute and its robotic creations.
All these groups and their interests intersect and clash during the main storyline, which largely centers around a morally and philosophically ambiguous sci-fi exploration into the Institute’s “synths,” which may or may not be considered to have the same rights and dignity as humans. This shit is my jam, so I largely plunged into the main story. Let me briefly take you through my experience of the story, my frustrations with it, why I walked away from the game, and how in the end, somehow it all worked.
So it’s an unknown amount of time after nuclear apocalypse, and my cryogenic chamber thaws just long enough for me to witness some prick with an eye scar and a robot arm break into the vault, steal my baby son, and shoot my wife before putting me back on ice. A short time later I somehow thaw out completely and start on the warpath. I’m going to find the guy who did this and the organization he works for and rain justice upon them.
No sooner do I enter the first big settlement I see—a groovy little city inside Fenway Park—than I start hearing ghost stories about the Institute, which is suspected of kidnapping townspeople and replacing them with undetectable synthetic duplicates. Before long I witness a fight between a man and his synth double—proof that the townspeople aren’t paranoid. Soon I’m hot on the trail of my son’s killer (all you have to do is follow one quest marker after another, after all), who unsurprisingly works for the Institute, which has used him for over a hundred years to do their wetwork (he’s old, because of technology). After I put him in the ground, I work with allies I’ve made, including the Railroad, to find and infiltrate the Institute.
This is when it all starts going to hell for me. Fallout, like Elder Scrolls, is largely a game about choice—every conversation and every situation give you a range of responses that help you shape your story in the world and the kind of character you are. That’s why people love these games—everyone who plays them has their own story, and you can play them multiple times and choose a different experience each time. But when I entered the Institute, Fallout 4 began to take all sensible options away from me, and left me feeling more constricted than I ever have in a Bethesda game.
Anyway, I teleport into the Institute locked, loaded, and ready for sweet, sweet vengeance. But instead of an army of killer robots, I am met by an old man in a lab coat. Turns out he is not only the head of the institute, but also—OMG TWIST—my son, who began to age while I was frozen for another several decades. He calls himself “Father.” Irony. Get it?
So I’m ready to give him a fair hearing. I’m ready to let him explain why they used a thuggish assassin to kill my wife and who knows how many others in the service of the Institute. Please, tell me how you’re actually doing good by creating robot duplicates to replace their doppelgangers. Explain how your work will “save the human race,” as you keep saying over and over again. I need answers. But despite the fact that these would be the most pressing questions on any sane person’s mind, Fallout 4 does not give me the option to ask them. I stand there, dumb and powerless, as Father gives me his weak-ass introduction to their totally-not-evil underground organization of mad scientists. Not only does the institute not want to fight me, they give me a job and an apartment. Father wants me to be the next head of the Institute, for god’s sake.
I am dumbfounded. Since the game bizarrely will not let me take the Institute to task face-to-face, I begin working with every other faction to take them down from the inside, since the Institute trusts me for absolutely no reason. I now know the story. I know that what these scientists are doing is misguided, and has to be stopped. I know that the Institute is full of life-changing technology that could help everyone in Boston survive the wasteland and build a better society. I decide to try and reclaim that precious technology for the people.
So I follow the questlines of the Brotherhood and the Railroad, who both want to take down the Institute for their own reasons. But apparently the Brotherhood doesn’t play well with others. Pretty far into their questline, the commander suddenly orders me to exterminate my allies at the Railroad. I’m…not going to do that. But I can’t say no. There is no conversation option for “Please don’t” or “fuck off, bro.” The conversation simply ends, and a message flashes on my screen: The Railroad are now your enemies and will attack you on sight. What?? No! I did not sign up for this! I had to reload my last save file to undo that fatal conversation. I never went back to the Brotherhood, and their questline just hung there, abandoned.
Eventually, with the aid of the Railroad, I am able to orchestrate a mass exodus of synth slaves and an infiltration of the Institute. While I want to reclaim the Institute for the good of the people, though, the leadership of the Railroad has another idea: blow it up. They rig the reactor to go nuclear and destroy the facility. A facility full of radiation-free crops, endangered species, medicine, and advanced manufacturing technology that essentially doesn’t exist anymore. But the evil robot people lived there, so I guess it has to go. Don’t let me stop you—I literally can’t. I have no conversation options to convince you that there is a better way. In fact, at this point I might as well not have a voice at all for how much the game and the people in it care about what I have to say.
So there I am: I have evacuated the Institute with the Railroad and all the scientists and synths inside. For some reason the Railroad gives me the button that will blow it all away. Fine. Fuck it. I’m done trying to argue with you people. I’m done trying to save people that clearly don’t want to be saved. You idiots deserve each other.
I press the button. A furious mushroom cloud engulfs the ruins of MIT. The Railroad goons squeal with delight, like cavemen who have never seen fire. I shake my head, turn off my Xbox and walk away. I’ll always remember that moment, and I’ve grown to appreciate the finality of it—all my slowly building frustrations with the people of Boston, and my mirrored frustrations with the game itself, released in a cathartic ball of fire. This moment is the epitome of a lost world where even winning feels like losing. Fallout 4 opens with the ultimate injustice of nuclear bombs dropped on my home, but by the end its unforgiving world twisted me, despite my best intentions, into the one who drops the bomb.
I like to think somewhere my Fallout 4 hero is still out there, doomed to wander the wasteland among people who don’t understand what the world was like before, and how it could be good again. He is perpetually walking into the sunset, like the western hero that the helpless townspeople need, but do not understand. All he can do is watch the world burn.