On the narrative nihilism of Fallout 4’s ending

SPOILERS for the ending of the main questlines in Fallout 4 and mild spoilers for Fallout New Vegas follow. But its the main quest, so its probably fine.

I put around 175 hours into Fallout 4 before finally putting it down a couple of weeks ago. Bruce G. McKibbits was the type of adventurer who left no stone unturned, built Sanctuary Hills and Hangman’s Alley into thriving metropolises, and earned the friendship and respect (and perks) of all willing to travel with him. Bruce G. McKibbits cares about his son, cares about the people of the Commonwealth, and cares about the future of humanity as a whole. Unfortunately, that’s not one of the four speech options, so Bruce G. McKibbits killed his son and destroyed humanity’s best hope at a future in a desperate attempt to save his soul.

Let’s back up.

Fallout 4, in the vein of New Vegas, puts your character in between four factions:  the facist Brotherhood of Steel, the insidious Institute, the tunnel-visioned Railroad, and the milquetoast Minutemen. While its possible to just ignore the Minutemen completely, in order to finish the game with any of the other three factions, the remaining two must be annihilated. None of the three factions are perfect; there’s a good rationale to the leaders of each being seen as the villain. But considering how high you can ascend the leadership of each organization before plot-demanded betrayal, some form of diplomatic solution seems within reach. But neutralization is not an option; its annihilation or bust.

The obvious decision for me was to kill the Brotherhood of Steel. Sure, there were some good people there, but they were uninvited interventionists with no regard for the people of the Commonwealth. I teamed up with the Railroad and invaded the first place I met them, the Cambridge Police Station. I expected to face an army of faceless goons here, and that any named characters would give some form of recognition, some form of a “please don’t do this.” Instead, Scribe Haylen, whom I saved an ally with against the orders of the Brotherhood but days ago, was just another body on the pile. No speech. No recognition. No catharsis. Just guilt.


In a sense, that guilt is deserved. You betrayed a flawed institution, but one with angels among its members. But this guilt was better emphasized in the proceeding section. On my attack of the Prydwen, the Brotherhood’s floating fortress in the sky, I opted for the loud and noisy route. After the majority of the leadership had been felled, I was walking among the carnage when a child Brotherhood scout approached me and mistook my power armor for that of a friend. He asked whether I had heard about what happened at the police station. He was a glitch, a remnant of a subtler route I had opted out of for this portion. But he embodied the collateral damage that must be accepted in the endgame; no matter what, innocents are lost en masse. When I sunk the Prydwen, I was complicit in a triumphant massacre. And big bad Maxson didn’t attempt to use words; he just fell.

Which left me with the choice between the Institute and the Railroad. The Railroad’s pursuit of synth freedom at all costs was admirable, and up until this point their state of relative disconcern in the fate of the Commonwealth as a whole was a nonissue, in the same line of reasoning that renders #AllLivesMatter infuriating. The Institute, on the other hand, was too secretive and cold, but had recently appointed me director. The Institute was truly a heaven, and the technology they had could help the lives of the many. With Bruce G. McKibbits as director, surely they would move away from the enslavement of the synths and toward a more open relationship with the outside, right? So I’d bide some time and work on uniting the Institute and the Railroad, as they didn’t have conflicting ethos in the same way both had with the xenophobic and technophobic Brotherhood.

That was not to be however. Either the Railroad had to be eliminated and synths doomed, or the Institute had to become a smoking ruin and humanity left in stasis. I did both in separate save files, and neither was satisfying. Perhaps that emptiness is part of the point, that war never changes and etc etc. But even narratively speaking, the lack of an option to attempt (and maybe fail!) a diplomatic solution is frustrating. Having my own hand force my own hand when waiting seemed an option wasn’t agency; it was forcing action in the name of getting gameplay rather than satisfaction. Maybe David Thier at Forbes was correct, and the only way to win is to not play. Siding with the Railroad once again meant a massacre, with innocents among the ruins in addition to abandonment of hope. Siding with the Institute meant living with the implication of continuing a history of murder, elitism, and slavery. And the most hope you’d get is a hint of optimism.

There’s an argument that Fallout is non-cinematic, and having it play out in a more dialogue-heavy fashion goes against the style of the games. But compare the fantastic ending of Fallout: New Vegas, which is similarly untidy and forces you to compromise at least one of your ideals, but never forces outright sociopathic behaviour. Once again, there are three main factions which are mutually incompatible; the secretive and effective dictator Mr. House, the well-meaning but incompetent NCR, and the captial-E Evil Caesar’s Legion. It’s an easy choice to throw the Legion under the bus if you’re remotely moralistic, but it is possible to support Mr. House without decimating the NCR (although that certainly is an option). You just tell them to leave, and show them your army of killer robots. Similarly, you can side with the NCR and neutralize Mr. House without destroying New Vegas. Finally, you can tell them both off and run stuff yourself (although with the implication that you’d suck at the job). There is nothing perfect, but a loyal paragon ending is possible, where your soul is intact even if your goals aren’t met in their entirety. That isn’t enough for Fallout 4; it wants your soul and accepts nothing less.

While we’re talking about Fallout….

Stray Observations:

  • Overall, I really liked Fallout 4, and will jump right back in when the DLC comes out. Faults with the ending left a worse taste in my mouth than New Vegas, which I love, but it left a much stronger impression than Fallout 3, which had something to do with water I think. I would have liked to see more main-quest ancilliary side quests that didn’t just repeat themselves, as well as sidequests with every companion, but the content on hand was bountiful. Let’s say B+.
  • It just really seems like murdering the Railroad is terribly inelegant. The attack on the Prydwen or the Institute makes sense from a gameplay perspective, since its a Big Action Ending. But killing the Railroad is morose and cowardly.
  • That bug where the beds disappear when you build a TV is just the worst thing.
  • That sidequest on the USS Constitution is just the best thing.
  • What Fallout games really need to take from their Elder Scrolls sister series is the guild sidequests, which don’t tie directly into the main quest and function as five substantial games within the main one. The sidequests were great, but often a bit isolated (I really wanted the Cabot house questline to open up into this, but it ended as quickly as it began).
  • Having only played the 3D Fallout games, the different representations of the Brotherhood in each are fascinating. Compare the Nazi-esque Fallout 4 Brotherhood with the militaristic but benevolent group in Fallout 3 and the paranoid and impotent Brotherhood of New Vegas. Each version has the same creed, and shows just how much status and leadership matter over simple intention.
  • While the companions were a huge step up from Fallout 3, they were a letdown after New Vegas, especially considering that the Mass Effect influences they took would add with NV to the perfect companion system. They never seemed involved in missions, did not converse much about progress in the story, and only rarely offered interesting questlines outside of picking them up. However, Nick Valentine, Curie, and Codsworth were great, and there was a legitimate sense of teamwork.


On the narrative nihilism of Fallout 4’s ending

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