Post Script

A lit­tle com­pan­ion­ship goes a long way in Fallout 4 (warn­ing: con­tains spoil­ers)

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Strong the su­per mu­tant is get­ting im­pa­tient. We’ve only re­turned to Sanc­tu­ary to patch up our power ar­mour, af­ter a Death­claw worked out how to use the can opener that na­ture (or at least na­ture in con­junc­tion with a hearty dose of roent­gens) blessed it with. We shouldn’t care; Strong, af­ter all, is a crea­ture who finds our very species ab­hor­rent, and is seek­ing the se­cret source of our power, the milk of hu­man kind­ness, in or­der to wipe the rem­nants of hu­man­ity from the face of this sav­age Earth. Still, his dis­ap­proval reg­is­ters and we stop scrolling the mods list. Maybe we should just leave the suit and get back to the thing Strong does best: lay­ing waste to what’s left of the waste­land.

It’s a silly mo­ment, just a snip­pet of di­a­logue, but one that also demon­strates the power of Fallout 4’ s charmable, and largely charm­ing, com­pan­ions. You see, for all his mur­der­ous ha­tred, it’s tough not to like Strong. He’s gullible, his think­ing on the level of a child – a far bet­ter ward than the in-game in­fant we’re sup­posed to care about but never got a chance to know. He use­ful, too: any­one whose bi­ceps are as large as a hu­man head is an as­set in a land of peo­ple and glow­ing abom­i­na­tions only too will­ing to kill you. And if we don’t get on his good side, we’ll never get to know more about his back­story or his in­trigu­ingly daft quest. But where the kind of be­hav­iour needed to im­press Strong would for­merly have been out of the ques­tion, since it would have wrecked our rep­u­ta­tion and dis­rupted our karma – we’d likely have saved him for a sec­ond, ‘bad’ playthrough where we ex­clu­sively mur­dered, stole and scammed our way through old choices – we’re only too happy to play Fallout 4 his way for a while.

We all live with a lit­tle voice over our shoul­der, but it’s rare to have it per­son­i­fied in a game, or be able to let it steer you with such aban­don. It’s cer­tainly a dif­fer­ent kind of es­capism to the skill test of lin­ing up shots and pulling trig­gers, but of all the things the break­down of so­ci­ety as we know it should of­fer, it’s free­dom from the stric­tures of the mun­dane. And that, in his hulk­ing way, is what Strong rep­re­sents. The sec­ond we dis­miss him, we can go back to be­ing a pri­vate eye’s part­ner, or a do-good­ing help­ing hand to im­press Min­ute­man Pre­ston Gar­vey, a seeker af­ter the truth with ballsy jour­nal­ist Piper, or myr­iad other roles be­sides. So why not let loose with our mod­ded hunt­ing ri­fle and clean up the darker end of our to-do list while we’re at it? It really ought to be jar­ring, all this stick­ing mag­nets next to your moral com­pass. But Fallout 4 is the type of game whose very de­sign is in­tended to make you feel like the most im­por­tant per­son in its uni­verse, given pretty much ev­ery­thing is held in sta­sis un­til you step in, so it con­tin­u­ing to re­volve around you is just nor­mal ser­vice. Plus, the Com­mon­wealth is mas­sive, so why would the time when you wound up a bar full of pa­trons with an un­char­ac­ter­is­tic streak of sar­casm and pick­pock­et­ing ever reach the ears of re­mote set­tlers in need of a saviour? While be­ing an am­bigu­ous moral slate to ev­ery fresh face does grow in­creas­ingly strange to­wards the endgame – you’d think rul­ing sev­eral towns and hav­ing put a hun­dred leg­endary crea­tures in the ground would earn a lit­tle recog­ni­tion – it’s cer­tainly less bizarre than the whole world si­mul­ta­ne­ously com­ing by the knowl­edge that you just nuked a town for a fancier apart­ment (ei­ther tac­itly or just by re­act­ing to your low stand­ing). Did the rest of the Cap­i­tal Waste­land have a spe­cial meet­ing, or some­thing?

The writ­ing in Fallout 4 de­serves credit for be­ing flex­i­ble enough to ac­com­mo­date sev­eral shades of an­gel and bas­tard, too. That the ma­jor­ity of com­pan­ions can be found in­cred­i­bly early in the game means that al­most ev­ery one of its ideas has to work in the con­text of be­ing bud­died up with a right­eous peo­ple lover and a cal­lous mass mur­derer. That’s a tough ask, and it’s also what gen­er­ates tough de­ci­sions for you as a player. Do you cave to peer pres­sure and solve your prob­lems by pump­ing the trig­ger, or will you ac­cept a step back in this re­la­tion­ship to do the ‘right’ thing?

The gam­i­fi­ca­tion of ethics th­ese com­pan­ions pro­vide is no less of a videogame ab­strac­tion than karma, then, but cru­cially it is one that serves and re­wards you as a player, rather than con­fines you. Com­pan­ions are a set of lenses to see the world through, colour­ing it with their in­ter­jec­tions, pref­er­ences and cap­ti­vat­ing back­sto­ries. And they’re truly ad­di­tive to the fic­tion at large too. We won­dered at first why Di­a­mond City tol­er­ated Nick Valen­tine, given the un­der­cur­rent of ha­tred for synths, but that only made us all the more fond of the place when he sat us down and de­liv­ered the tale of his grad­ual ac­cep­tance. Piper’s fear for her sis­ter, mean­while, made us look at the bo­gey­man men­aces of The In­sti­tute as some­thing other than a dif­fer­ent kind of hu­manoid to blow the limbs off of in VATS.

But the real pay­off with com­pan­ions ex­actly mir­rors the arc of the game as a whole: they’re at their best when you in­vest in them to the fullest ex­tent. Per­haps that looks like ro­mance, or dress­ing Dog­meat up with spiffy ar­mour and a red neck­er­chief. Per­haps it’s go­ing on a mis­sion that will grant your trav­el­ling buddy a lit­tle clo­sure or a whole new kind of life in this sick, twisted world. A lit­tle cre­ative in­ven­tory man­age­ment can make each one of th­ese char­ac­ters yours, but sub­tly, over time, the process works the other way too. Fallout 4 is a road trip, and many of its com­pan­ions are so good that if you spend enough time with them, it’s hard to imag­ine want­ing to share the road with any­one else.

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