In Fallout 4 Bethesda gives players the chance to experience life before the bombs fell for the first time in the series' history. There's domestic bliss, a vibrancy seldom seen in previous games, and a stark difference with what is to follow. The problem is that what follows arrives far too soon, and the game is in a big rush to get there.
It begins with a man and wife in front of a bathroom mirror, a young family enjoying idyllic suburban living for a brief moment before the sirens blare and they're forced to flee to the nearby vault that will harbour them during nuclear fallout. With seconds to spare, the family makes it below the surface, where they are unwillingly cryogenically frozen as part an experiment.
Two hundred years pass, but in game time it's just fifteen minutes before the protagonist emerges from the vault – their family and the life they knew long gone.
There's barely ten minutes between players putting the finishing touches on their character in the creation suite and the dramatic nuclear blast. Ten minutes that's mostly spent in conversation with a Vault-Tec sales rep and spinning your baby son's mobile twice. It is such a wasted opportunity.
When the player character emerges, he or she has lost their family (just how I won't spoil) and that sets in motion the story's main arc, but players are given very little reason to care. In those ten short, pre-bomb minutes there's no way to engage properly with either the baby or your character's partner. You can tickle the baby's tummy and exchange basic pleasantries with your partner, but that's it.
Why not let the player engage in a proper conversation with their spouse, or interact with their child in a more meaningful way to strengthen those relationships? Starbreeze Studios' The Darkness sprang to mind. In that 2007 shooter players could, if they wanted to, sit with lead character Jackie's girlfriend and watch the entirety of To Kill A Mockingbird on a virtual television set in a virtual apartment.
It's a moment of normality that games rarely get the opportunity to showcase, but it works fantastically well. The player can choose to not watch the film at all, but to watch even a few minutes strengthened the connection to that NPC character and made their eventual loss more effective narratively and resonant with the player. Fallout doesn't need to copy this outright, nor spend hours meeting the same ends, but a lot could have been learned from such a simple scene.
To actually improve the experience of playing Fallout, why weren't some of the tutorial elements found later on in the game brought in? Imagine if the family had puppy you could play with. That would help the player learn how to issue the basic commands used later when they encounter and adopt a stray dog as their companion. It would also, given the puppy would be left behind on the way to the vault, give the character a reason for picking up a stray. Something to act as a reminder of the family they have lost.
How about a garage the player could enter with some well-stocked workbenches that helped familiarise them with the crafting aspects of the game. Or, a way to learn about the settlement features of the game using the player's home before it gets bombed to hell. As it is the house you inhabit feels empty and useless. Interact with an object and the character merely tells you what it is or makes a quip.
It feels like a TV set with flimsy walls that would wobble if you ran past them. The player's husband or wife is there, but no more than another Bethesda NPC, there's a baby but it's wrapped up. Just a small vaguely-human face wrapped in a blanket. Even when the bombs fell any sense of urgency is lost by having to wait for NPCs to catch up with you thanks to slugging scripting.
So when the player emerges from the vault with no family and sees their home reduced to ash and rubble, when he or she starts to question what has happened – the fact they've lost absolutely everything dear to them simply doesn't strike home – and undermines any intention to tell an emotional story.