Note: This piece contains major story spoilers for Far Harbor.
Every couple of years a Bethesda RPG gets its hooks into me and I ended up building settlements until 2am. This is one of those times.
The release of Far Harbor has dragged me back into Fallout 4 in a big way; and while I've had plenty of other games to play, thoughts like "I wonder if I can build an armory for my castle?" and "Maybe I need to craft a new shotgun" have been constantly at the back of my mind.
Bethesda-style RPGs have that effect on me. In 2010, I was enthralled by Obsidian's noirish take on Las Vegas. In 2014, I built a computer, installed some mods, and promptly fell into assassinating fools for the Assassin's Guild while trying to woo my werewolf girlfriend. Then, last year, I reviewed Fallout 4 and got hooked all over again.
Actually reviewing a Bethesda RPG was an interesting experience, and not one I would necessarily like to repeat. Basically, it entailed me locking myself in my house for a solid week and playing as much as humanly possible. Looking back, my experience was a little more rushed than I would have liked. I still managed to take the time to build up a couple settlements, do a bunch of sidequests, and get to know my companions, but the exploration - one of the most satisfying elements of a Bethesda RPG - got lost.
H.. hi Ada. You're looking different these days pic.twitter.com/fOB2iVczl0— Kat Bailey (@The_Katbot) May 30, 2016
Thankfully, I've been able to make amends with Far Harbor. Since its release a couple weeks ago, I've been meandering through the Wasteland, building settlements and catching up on quests that I missed the first time around. I finally went out and recruited Cait, Fallout 4's adorable Irish junkie. I found Dogmeat in the middle of a Raider attack on Sanctuary. I even got around to finding all of the Eddie Winter holotapes so Nick Valentine would stop asking me about them every five minutes.
Oh, and I built a Death Robot.
Ultimately, it was Far Harbor's story that got me back into Fallout 4 in a big way. When I fired it up again for the first time in months, it was with the intention of checking out the DLC and moving on. Instead, I found myself obsessing over how to resolve the conflict between Far Harbor, Acadia, and the Children of Atom that serves as the crux for the DLC. Was it better to go with DiMa's plan against my better judgment? Was it better to nuke the Children of Atom? I spent days wondering how to approach the problem of Far Harbor, killing time by building settlements and completing the Automatron quest (which was great, by the way).
It felt good to ponder of such a dilemma. Those who have played Fallout 4 will recall that the main game ends with a similar problem, but with fewer options. What it ultimately boils down to is that you have to choose a faction a join, and the others have to die. It makes sense in context - each of Fallout 4's factions were opposed to one another to a degree that there was no common ground to be found - but it was disappointing that you couldn't, say, reform The Institute or convince the Brotherhood of Steel to pull out of the Commonwealth without any bloodshed.
Far Harbor is more nuanced in the way that it portrays its conflict. You can end the struggle without any further bloodshed, but doing so involves some pretty shady actions on your part. When I discovered DiMa's secret (after a pretty awful block puzzle, it must be said), I was taken aback, then resolved to do things my own way. I decided that replacing the leaders of each settlement would only lead to a false peace, and that the fundamental distrust between the factions had to be addressed honestly. I also decided that the Children of Atom was a dangerous and insane cult that would eventually be the death of the Commonwealth if allowed to survive and thrive.
So I did what I had to do: I convinced DiMa to stand trial in Far Harbor for his crimes. I convinced the townsfolk to spare Acadia and continue working with them. And I convinced the Children of Atom that The Division had arrived and it was time to activate the nuclear weapon they had under their control. I didn't feel particularly great about my ultimate decision - I kind of murdered a lot of cultists - but I didn't even find the "best ending" all that palatable. I guess what Far Harbor is trying to say is that life is harsh in the Wasteland, and sometimes harsh decisions have to be made.
In any case, Far Harbor was enough to get me to buy back into Fallout 4's world. I'm still there.
What Bethesda's RPGs have to offer
I'm often bemused by the dialogue surrounding Bethesda's RPGs. I find that the frequently harsh critiques of the storytelling, the combat, and the bugs miss the larger point of these games, which is to completely immerse you in a sci-fi or fantasy world.
At their best, Skyrim and Fallout are games that encourage you to develop your own story. In Skyrim, I didn't care so much about the marauding dragons as buying Proudspire Manor and settling down with my werewolf girlfriend and my gaggle of street rats. In Fallout 4, I've been obsessively designing settlements and dressing up my settlers like so many paper dolls. The Institute and the conflict over Synths is interesting; but in some ways, it's almost beside the point.
Building a fucking castle in Fallout 4 now. Help me. pic.twitter.com/JbeVBN3QBp— Kat Bailey (@The_Katbot) May 28, 2016
In Fallout 4, I can spend all day collecting materials for my Power Armor. I can go investigate the weird recon bunker that sits at the far northern part of the map. I can venture into a vault and discover a weird (and brilliant) spoof of an Agatha Christie mystery starring a handful of robobrains. If I'm playing Skyrim, I can try to make trick shots with a cabbage. There are a million stories to discover in a Bethesda RPG, and they make me want to explore every nook and cranny of Tamriel and the Wasteland.
I suppose that's what I look for most in a game: the ability to make interesting decisions about my character's fate combined with the sense that I can make my mark in the world. Fallout 4's conclusion may ultimately be a little disappointing; but having had the opportunity to carve out my own niche in the Commonwealth, I don't feel any less satisfied with my time in Fallout 4.
Conversely, I've found that I've had less and less time for games where I don't get to make those kinds of decisions. I was remarking to a friend of mine recently that Uncharted 4 is a remarkable technical achivement, but that it's also about as passive as a game is going to get. Don't misunderstand me - Uncharated 4 is a really damn good game, and I would probably recommend it to someone who wants a good entry point into gaming. It's just that those sorts of movie-like experiences don't do much for me these days.
I suppose Bethesda RPGs will always be one of those games where your mileage will end up varying. I find it endlessly entertaining to tool around the castle I've built at the Kingsport Lighthouse and try to manipulate the engine so that I can build an armory. Other people are aggravated by the bugs, the combat, and the occasionally clumsy way in which the world comes together. I'm not going to claim that these games are perfect; but when it all comes together, there's nothing quite like it.
Alas, I'm not going to be able to play Fallout 4 forever. The nature of my job requires that I move on to other games. I plan to wrap up my current run with the Eddie Winter sidequest, after which I'll put Fallout 4 aside until the next batch of DLC arrives, whenever that ends up being. I must say, though, it's been a real treating hanging out in the Commonwealth and taking things at my own pace. Right now, Fallout 4 is my comfort food.