Fallout 4’s Ludonarrative Dissonance

I’m around 60 hours into Fallout 4, and just now starting the main quest by finally deciding I kinda care about my son, and heading out to save Nick.

The game was clearly not meant to be played this way.

Fallout 4′s main story was designed for a brisk pace, it seems. You are “supposed” to follow the main questline very early game, along the way tackling side quests and faction-related stuff.

But I didn’t do that. I decided I wanted to play the game the way I wanted, and in a way that might be more realistic for my particular character. She wants to save her son, but she’s incredibly overwhelmed by this new world. Her personality has her more interested in teaching herself how to survive in the harsh wasteland SO THAT she can ultimately save her son, rather than just running around from place to place asking people to help her find her baby. Also, she wasn’t entirely convinced this detective in Diamond City could help her, and decided to initially strike out on her own to try and find her son herself by searching the Commonwealth on her own volition. This made her more rich as a character in my head, and ultimately the things she has seen and learned along the way has made her a wise, hardened survivor, having done it all on her own.

So it was off-putting to arrive at Nick’s office, especially having just blasted my way through Vault 114 as a level 23 badass, to hear my character getting uncharacteristically emotional about her son, when she hadn’t been for the nearly two in-game months up to that point.

This created a very interesting case of ludonarrative dissonance. It’s a hard one to avoid in open world, story-driven games like this. Your player wants to play the game a certain way, but you’ve written the Hero to have specific goals to be accomplished within a specific time that might not line up with the goals and timeline of the player. As a result, the player feels a disconnect with their character, as the Hero in the linear narrative may appear more “green” than the character the player has built up before taking on the linear narrative. For example, I was more interested in exploring the Commonwealth and watching my Sole Survivor grow and change and learn from her experiences surviving another day in the unforgiving wastes than I was interested in saving this little boy in which I had no emotional investment. So, by the time I decided to follow the main quest, my character was already quite experienced in the wasteland, and knew much about the different factions and people in the world, yet the story dictates she must ask Nick Valentine, “What’s the Institute?”

……. As Piper would say, “Come on Blue, this isn’t amateur hour!”

Another problem is that the Sole Survivor has been written into the role of “emotional parent”, and that’s what the player is stuck with. Sure, fresh out of the vault, it makes sense for your immediate concern to be finding your lost son that you just saw get kidnapped. However, nearly two months of wandering the wastes later… you’re a changed person. Your goals and personality will change based on the experiences you’ve had and people you’ve met. Not that finding your son becomes any less important, but maybe you realize you’re not going to find your son any faster by whining at people, because everyone has their own problems. Maybe you learn from people like Piper that helping others can be fulfilling, and go a long way to them helping you in return. Perhaps the main character goes through this growth and change in the linear narrative as well, and by the end of the story she’ll be as I envision her now, but to already be there in my mind, and then have the story retract that feels strange.

How can the writers fix this? Maybe not just the writers, but designers as well: Have flags for dialogues based on character level, other dialogues completed, and quests completed. And thus — more dialogue options. As it is, the player has the same canned responses to a situation whether they’re level 1 or 100, and no matter which quests they’ve completed or people they’ve talked to. By giving the protag a wider variety of responses that demonstrate different levels of achievement in the game, the player will be far less likely to feel that dissonance with their character. Telling a cohesive, linear story is all well and good, but in a go-anywhere-do-anything open world game, reducing the protagonist down to a single trope diminishes the bond the player has with their character, especially with such a robust character creation system. It seems disingenuous to offer an RPG up front, and give the player freedom to explore and carve their own path, but then limit the main character such that their experiences do not reflect their knowledge of the world and reactions to situations.

It’s tricky, from a development standpoint, to include things like more dialogue and extra flags in order for players to have a more cohesive experience in the game as a whole, rather than just in the linear narrative. However, as we continue into this new generation of games, players are looking for deeper, more customizable, more rich experiences, not just prettier graphics. If tech can advance in games, why can’t storytelling?

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~ by The Retro Gamer on January 22, 2016.

2 Responses to “Fallout 4’s Ludonarrative Dissonance”

  1. I play Fallout games this way. Always walking away from main quest as soon as I can. The downfall is the awkward conversations, revisiting the same places but still it is an enjoyable time. Hopefully game design will become even more advanced giving us the custom feel.

    • This is actually the first time I’ve really deviated from the main quest initially, and I think that’s why these games are usually designed for the main quest to be played early on: because most players default to the story first. But I agree, hopefully designers will take different play styles into consideration in the future and allow a more customized story.

      Also agree it’s still an enjoyable time! This has honestly been my favorite Fallout experience so far — and that’s without a lot of mods. However, I do like the story/ writing in New Vegas more, and I’m also really missing Hardcore mode from New Vegas… I love having to eat/ drink/ sleep etc. in these games.

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