Fallout 4: Theme vs. Mechanics (Part 1)

Fallout 4 LogoMechanics and theme are two parts of  a game that need to work together, along with others, to give us a coherent experience.  In addition, we approach subsequent titles in a franchise with certain expectations based on prior titles.  In this two-parter, I’m going to dig into Fallout 4, which I previously reviewed as a decidedly inferior Fallout title, and discuss the mechanics of the game and how they contribute to the game’s thematic elements (or detract therefrom).

We know, before we start playing Fallout 4, that it’s going to look a lot like Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas. Fallout 3 broke the mold for Fallout games, but it was also the first title in the series from the new IP owner, Bethesda, so making a splash like that isn’t uncalled for. But this is Bethesda’s third go at the Fallout IP, and let’s face it, Bethesda is known for making one type of game. A lot of people like to call Bethesda’s handling of the Fallout universe “Oblivion/Skyrim with guns.” Yes, they’re busting Bethesda’s chops a bit when they say it, but it’s also said with a fair bit of affection. Oblivion and Skyrim are solid, well-loved games.

There are a few things that make Fallout 3, New Vegas, Oblivion, and Skyrim work. Theme, narrative tone, narrative content, visuals, and gameplay all have to get along together, play off of each other, and synergize well for one of these titles to succeed. Oblivion is, at

its core, a traditional fantasy RPG experience: Chosen Hero is discovered, Bad Guy is doing Bad things, Hero sallies forth and gathers the artifacts/powers/magic/scrolls/whatever needed to confront Bad Guy and then he does his job as the Hero. Fantasy epics need to have that epic feel to them. Oblivion’s End-Of-The-World stakes combine well with the overall narrative tone of the Elder Scrolls series, where the Nine Divines all but directly act in the world of mortals. The progression of villains in Oblivion is solid, and the content of the story is paced very nicely with each step of our hero’s ordeal logically connected to its neighbors.

An armored sword-and-shield character in Oblivion faces off against a red demon-like monster.
Giant horned demon thing: Check. Big sword: check. Flames and stuff: Check. Okay, I understand this scene… let’s dance, buster,

The gameplay of Oblivion (which I’ve indulged in hours upon hours of), is violent, harrowing at times, and delivers a solid sword-and-sorcery experience. Even the side content of Oblivion consistently delivers the meat and potatoes of fantasy RP gaming, with quest lines involving you in the Mages Guild, the Fighter’s Guild, the Thieves’ Guild, the Murderer’s Guild, matters of religion, and a whole mountainous pile of petty errands to run for everyone in between. The Mage’s Guild storyline could very easily be the main questline for another game.

That last bit is a hallmark of a Bethesda game: the profoundly expansive, rich world, full of things to do and see – even if you look at the main quest and say to yourself: “Hell no. What’s up in that village?”

Fallout 3 did much the same. The Main Quest was compelling, but actually less urgent (due to less immediately actionable information) than Oblivion’s. The Fallout universe, thematically speaking, is about smaller, more personal stakes. In Fallout 3, you’re just looking for your father at first. Immediately upon leaving Vault 101, however, you’re plunged into the Bethesda hallmark open world, just begging you to explore it and grow from the child you’ve played through the prologue, into the adult you’re going to be.

Fallout 3’s side quests were familiar fare to Oblivion players; it’s a great device for an open world, which is the main thematic component that Fallout and the Elder Scrolls have in common.

Fallout 3’s theme, however, had much less magical power and much more starvation, radiation, and scarcity. In Oblivion and Skyrim, your gear doesn’t wear out. Scarcity isn’t a thematic component of those games. But for a Fallout game? Your gear needs to degrade, needs to constantly need attention. You need to be running short on ammo constantly. The whole point of nuclear devastation is that anyone left alive is just barely holding on, it’s that desperation that’s driving so many to psychopathic levels of violence. Where Oblivion needed Enchanting and Alchemy, Fallout 3 needed item decay and MacGyver-esque crafting as mechanics to play with the thematic and narrative elements. By and large, Fallout 3 delivered. New Vegas added the notion of wilderness survival to Fallout, and that addition plus more crafting options to ‘live by your cunning and grit’ were very welcome for me.

Less forest and demon, more rust and lasers.

Fallout 4 is still a Fallout game. Scarcity, tenacity, survival in a hostile wilderness, adaptability, and cunning are still major themes. In the relatively intact metro-Boston area, however, there’s another theme: reclaiming civilization. New Vegas played this theme in the background, mostly as history, and as part of the central tension between the NCR and Caesar’s Legion. Fallout 3 played this theme as its end game content. Fallout 4 makes that theme a central and vital part of the gameplay. The narrative, sadly, fell down on the job supporting these themes in a lot of critical ways (though it delivered spectacularly when it was on its game), ways which I will revisit in future posts. The mechanics of gameplay were clearly intended to do a lot of heavy lifting here. Some did. Some didn’t. Most only got halfway there. When you decide to include a gameplay mechanic, you need to understand not just how it contributes to the theme in theory, but also how it does so in practice, and especially over time.

Bethesda seems to have tried to do everything at once. They simply don’t have the staff for that and haven’t needed to do that so much in the past. Fallout 3 was excellent; Fallout: New Vegas was too. There’s just no reason for Bethesda to have overreached like this, and it pains my heart. I hope they can see it.

In my next segment I’ll discuss some of my favorite and least favorite mechanics as well as discuss the ways in which they do or do not support the game’s themes.