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