Entropic Crusader

Home of sci-fi and fantasy author, Benjamin Matthews
[CHARISMA, 200] Let’s explore the Wasteland together as man and machine!

Ah, followers. Such a great idea, so badly implemented. In Fallout 3, followers are basically a joke. They’re either too strong (bullet sponges like Fawkes or Cross), or too weak (Bittercup, who dies if you so much as look at her funny). They mostly have no defining story behind them, giving them essentially no reason to exist beyond being some extra firepower and maybe a loot container for the player. And the AI—its pathing especially—is abysmal.

In New Vegas things are much better. The overall mechanical problems are still there, though the AI is improved to the point where you’re not constantly having to micro-manage them, and the companion wheel was a fantastic addition. But most importantly, they’re real characters, with motivations and interesting stories behind them for the player to discover and take part in.

Honestly, the biggest issue for followers in a Bethesda game is that they’re not actual characters. Bethesda tends more towards spectacle than anything else; Liberty Prime stomping around blowing up Vertibirds and Enclave troops; The Prydwen’s grand entrance; fighting an alien mothership over Earth (ugh…); being given power armour and a minigun in the first ten minutes of the game and fighting a Deathclaw; being led to your own execution only to be saved by a dragon attacking (though Starfield breaks this trend with possibly the most boring opening in any AAA game ever made).

Power fantasy and spectacle are pretty much Bethesda’s watchwords now. The smaller things, the details of a story, the characters don’t matter so much to them. But I’d argue that’s entirely backwards. A story is about its characters, they’re the most important part; without people to root for, to support and like and hate and despise and feel pity for, a story falls flat.

There are of course arguments to be made for alternate means of storytelling—environmental, for example, something Bethesda is actually somewhat good at for the most part, and where they excel at the little details, especially when it comes to posing skeletons, heh—but in a game as supposedly narratively-focused as Fallout 3? Characters and details matter.

After Fallout 3 and Skyrim, it seemed that they had taken some of the criticisms they received on-board. Fallout 4 has followers who are, in general, pretty interesting, so there’s that, but now we have Starfield and… yeah, the less said about that game’s ‘characters’, the better. So let’s instead take an example from New Vegas in order to contrast and compare, a character you never actually meet, and yet has one of the most compelling stories in all of Fallout history: The Survivalist.

For Randall Clark’s—The Survivalist’s—full story, check out the Wikia page. Suffice to say, I absolutely loved this story. When I finally found it, anyway. On my first run through Honest Hearts I mostly missed Randall’s story because, to be honest (ohoho), I wasn’t too keen on this particular DLC.

Tribals bore me silly, and Honest Hearts is more or less nothing but tribal nonsense I had zero interest in. This is probably part of the reason Fallout 2 didn’t hook me in quite the same way as Fallout 1 did, because it starts you out as a tribal in a tribal village doing tribal things. *yawn* As such, I rushed through the DLC as quickly as I could, missing a lot of content as a result.

Later, it came to my attention that there was this amazing story buried somewhere in Zion that I’d missed, so on a replay of the whole game, I went back and paid more attention. I still ignored most of the tribal stuff, but this time I properly explored the world and the caves, and… oh boy, am I glad I did.

Discovering those terminal entries, which not only describe Randall’s life itself, but also tie into the nefarious experiments in Vault 22—making me even less well-predisposed towards the scientists in Big MT—was like a breath of fresh air after living in a stale room for days.

It’s funny how stifling Zion felt to me the first time through, despite the greenery and lush appearance, which I will admit to loving a great deal after the deserts of California. But the one, singular moment that got me was the final discovery of Randall’s skeleton on the top of Red Gate. His final resting place after decades of struggle and torment, and the final note he left, and the final peace he found there.

This skeleton is a better character than anything in Bethesda’s games.

Despite my lack of interest in tribals, a lack of motivation in the DLC itself, this one character’s story from so long ago had a more profound emotional impact on me than any amount of Dad’s idiotic project, or his utterly pointless death in Fallout 3, or the Shaun / spouse idiocy in Fallout 4.

I felt nothing for the aforementioned, despite Emil Pagliarulo trying his very hardest to make me feel something other than outright comedy and laughter. I learned basically nothing about Dad, or Nora / Nate before they died, the game gave me zero reason to give a shit. The player avatar apparently felt something, but that was never conveyed to me as the player, so why should I care?

This is a common issue in modern media, and certainly not unique to Bethesda, though they do exemplify it. Deus Ex: Human Revolution had the same problem, with you spending not even five minutes with Megan before she’s removed from the game. Alan Wake does the same as well, with your wife disappearing in the first half an hour, before you know much about her or Alan. And Dishonored. Hell, even Hitman: Absolution falls into this trap, with the whole Diana thing.

In Fallout 4 it’s especially egregious, though. There’s never any motivation or reason to care about your in-game child. It’s just a MacGuffin to move the plot along, it has no emotional connection. How can it? You didn’t give birth to that child, you haven’t spent every day caring for it for the last year, it’s literally just a bunch of polygons and a few textures to the player. Even if you HAVE a child, sure you can imagine what it might be like… but it still ain’t your kid, what reason do you have to care?

I tried to make Nora interesting and evil once. The game didn’t know how to handle that. You’re only allowed to be evil when Bethesda says you are.

Bethesda subscribes heavily to the ‘player must care about this thing because FAMILY!‘ idea, without actually putting in any of the work necessary for the player to truly give a crap. Same deal with finding dear old dad in Fallout 3; there’s no connection there, it’s just Liam Neeson horribly miscast in a role I give precisely zero shits about. Though at the very least we do get more time with Dad than we did with Nate / Nora / Shaun, and I’ll credit Emil Pagliarulo with avoiding the ‘mentor figure dies in opening act’ trope… which he then undid by having your spouse die like that in the following game.

With this in mind, allow me to propose a couple of changes to how followers work in general. First up, mechanical stuff. As far as AI goes, I can’t claim to be a genius there, but at the very least we’d need to see some serious improvements to pathing, and maybe some basic line-of-sight code that stops them walking in front of you when you’ve just lined up a nice shot on an enemy, potentially killing you both in some cases. Yay, explosives.

But the main issue for me, and probably others, is how easy followers are to acquire. It essentially amounts to walking up to them and asking them to join you. New Vegas fixed this to some degree by requiring a simple quest first, or by having skill checks you need to pass. That’s great, but it can be taken so much further if you want some real roleplaying options.

Remember I spoke about Bittercup in the Big Town part? And how her recruitment would involve getting her over her agoraphobia? Yeah, now imagine that, but for everyone. New Vegas again handled this pretty well, you need to have a sufficient level of standing with a faction (or karma) before they’ll even consider joining you. Be an enemy of the NCR and Cass will tell you to piss off, for example (to be fair, this is also the case in Fallout 3, with Star Paladin Cross refusing to join an evil karma player, same deal with Fawkes).

Or how about Harkness becoming a companion after completing his quest in Rivet City, assuming you don’t turn him in to Zimmer? He wants a fresh start, and travelling with you seems like a good place to begin, allowing him to come to terms with the revelation or who and what he is. You could even add a unique location to the Wasteland where you can pick up some lore on synths or whatever, and tie that to his personal companion quest, and from there to Fallout 4.

Star Paladin Cross could have some old business with an acquaintance that needs dealing with, perhaps even related to Ashur in The Pitt. As the high-karma paragon of justice you need to be in order to have her as a companion, you convince her that putting it off just makes it worse, and travel somewhere to get it done. She then joins you as a proper companion. Similar deal to Boone facing his past at Bitter Springs.

Each of these quests would then tie into the character’s background (which would also need expanding, of course) in the way it does in New Vegas, giving you time with them in order to build up some character and give you a reason to care about them.

No, not another settlement! Anything but that!

And on that subject, how about a new character for Fallout 3? Let’s see… okay, think about Dead Money for a moment. Remember Dean, the well-spoken ghoul who wanted to pull the Sierra Madre heist? Why not a character along those lines as a new companion for Fallout 3? An actual pre-war Chinese infiltrator / operative who can give you some insights into the other side of the Great War, a new perspective that we haven’t seen before.

He could have a posh British accent and say he was educated over there as part of his secret training to become a spy or whatever, giving him this fun little quirk in addition to just being an interesting character with an unusual viewpoint on the world.

Imagine how much fun a competent writer could have with a Chinese ghoul who sounds British, is sarcastic as hell, and who is also a member of the faction that was in no small part responsible for the destruction of the world. And he remembers when the bombs fell, too. Basically what Nate should have been in Fallout 4.

The new perspectives such a character could provide on the Chinese side of things, how their society worked, what they thought of America, maybe a different view of things we’ve already heard from Americans, perhaps even hinting that some things we thought we knew might have had alternate interpretations or causes. It could’ve been awesome.

The funny thing? I actually had the idea for a British-sounding Chinese ghoul around the same time that New Vegas was still a brand new release back in 2010. Dead Money, and by extension, Dean Domino, hadn’t been released yet. Coincidences are strange things, heh.

Anyway, we already have the Chinese Remnant in Mama Dolce’s, so this would be a perfectly reasonable location to pick up our Chinese ghoul. For example, a brief skit in first person that would happen on arrival:

     I carefully push the door inwards, peering around, pistol at the ready. Unfortunately, it seems someone is here.

     “Welcome, do come in!” a voice says, dripping with sarcasm.

     I stand and instinctively raise my hands, letting the pistol hang loose from my thumb.

     “Excellent, you understand your situation. I like not having to explain myself, especially to the monkeys inhabiting this dump you call America. Now, turn around to face me, slowly, if you please.”

     Please? I’m mildly confused by the pleasant tone and language, but do as asked. As I turn to face the mysterious voice, my eyes slowly becoming more accustomed to the dim atmosphere in this old factory, I see my would-be captor. “Okay… not what I was expecting.”

     “Oh? And what were you expecting?”

     “Certainly not a Chinese ghoul with a heavy British accent.”

     “Ah, yes,” the drawling voice continues, “I’m often mistaken for British. Briefly. Or rather, I was, back when such things mattered. Now, care to tell me why you’re here, old boy?”

Immediately you have a mystery: there’s someone here and they have this ‘good old boy’ posh English accent. Elsewhere you can see feral ghouls in Chinese outfits. The player’s interest is piqued. Of course, given the way Bethesda’s dialogue system works, this would be more a case of ‘game grabs the player’s camera and zooms in on ghoul’, thereby removing the mystery aspect, but still.

Also, remember how Nick had a load of extra dialogue that actually ended up being really important and interesting if you took him along with you to Far Harbour? We could even do something similar here, where our Chinese ghoul has dialogue and reactions to the Chinese spy mission in Point Lookout, if you choose to take him along.

*sigh* So many wasted opportunities.

Oh… and it would probably make a lot more sense for the Chinese Remnant to still be kicking around if this game was only set 20 years after the war, not 200. Just like basically everything else in Fallout 3.

Anyway, next up… a new Raider faction to spice the world up a bit and give the player a nasty group to side with if they’re playing an evil / nihilistic type.

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