I feel like I should start this by saying that Fallout 4 is a game I enjoy thoroughly. I have spent a lot of time within its representation of post-apocalyptic Boston, and am just one ending short (Brotherhood of Steel) from getting the platinum trophy. I eagerly await the first proper expansion, Far Harbor, to be released later this month. In April, Fallout 4 won the BAFTA for best game of 2015. Despite my fondness for the game, I cant help but think this is a mistake – whilst it certainly is an enjoyable experience, it’s also an incredibly disappointing one.
See Fallout 4 is a game in which the narrative it tries to tell is at odds with the games mechanics and the expectations of the Fallout series as a whole. In other words there is a constant tension between what the storyline tells you to be doing, and the ability to do whatever you want in this sandbox environment. The game opens, just like Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas before it, with you creating your character. The series has become known for its deep character creation, and Fallout 4 is no exception. Honestly this entire process is excellent, your character can look exactly how you want them to look regardless of gender, skin colour, hair colour etc.; you can literally change every facet of your characters face on a feature by feature basis until it’s just how you want it. So my first hour of the game was spent making as close a representation of me as possible (just with a stronger jaw line). Following a brief pre-war sequence, the story opens proper with a mysterious man killing your wife and kidnapping your infant son. What makes the Fallout series so excellent is that your characters are traditionally blank canvasses to do with what you will. So at this point I was completely on board with this game, I had my character and now I had a valid motivation for him to venture into a dangerous, inhospitable wasteland.
But the player character in Fallout 4 is not a blank slate. For the first time ever, the protagonist has a voice actor. The dialogue options are no longer a tree of text, where you can see exactly what you will say, but rather a choice of four options that vaguely hint at the content of the next line of dialogue. Through much of the early game I found that, regardless what option I chose, all of the dialogue would seem to turn back to the missing son. Bethesda repeatedly hammer home in the opening ten hours or so of the game that you have to find your son; I think almost every single main storyline quest has a line of dialogue where you tell someone “I’m looking for Shaun, he was taken”. You could perhaps forgive the game for its heavy-handedness if it resolved the son issue quickly, finally allowing your character a chance to exist in the world. But it doesn’t. I personally had over forty hours in the game before I found out what had happened to Shaun. It becomes very hard to reconcile the actions and side quests of the game before this point because Bethesda had so fully committed to the “find your son” storyline. For example, early in the game you are forced to protect and develop a settlement for one of the factions before you can progress further. From a game design element this is meant to introduce you to the new settlement crafting mechanics, but from a narrative element it gets a little murky. You are told your character only cares about getting their infant son back, so why now do they suddenly care about protecting a village they just met? My personal favourite quest is found very early on in the game, pre-finding Shaun. It involves a moored sail-boat operated by inept pirate robots who want your help in getting it back in the ocean. It is a wonderful quest, full of stand out characters and funny set pieces, but it too doesn’t make sense within the greater narrative of the game at this point. Why is my character now helping these robots when a minute a go the game forced me to say I want my son back? This game allows absolutely no room for creativity in your character as it categorically forces the only motivation to be “find your son”, but this never reconciles itself with the sprawling game world it exists within and therefore your character is never really consistent from quest to quest.
This brings us onto The Witcher 3. I purchased this game very close to release, but only got as far as finishing the White Orchard storyline, which for all intents and purpose is just an extended tutorial. I recently however found the time to start over again, and at a point found myself unable to put it down. This point was “The Bloody Baron”, a sprawling quest told across two characters and featuring multiple possible resolutions to its narrative. It was here I realised that not only is The Witcher 3 everything that Fallout 4 is not, but that this single questline was more ambitious than anything offered in the whole of Bethesda’s game.
At a base level the two games start almost identically; with parent figures looking for a missing child who is in danger. But the key difference is, with The Witcher 3 there’s no illusion of your character being a blank slate. You play as Geralt of Rivia (the rugged white-haired bloke pictured above) a trained monster hunter, who makes a living slaying foul beasts in return for gold. Geralt has his own motivations and expectations, and importantly has very clearly existed within this world long before the player picks up a controller. This may seem like such a small distinction, but it is a hugely important one. In Fallout 4, the player and their character enter the narrative at the exact same moment, and therefore neither really had a reason to belong in post-apocalyptic Boston. But in The Witcher 3 the player takes on the story of an already fully formed character; the player is under no illusion that they can create Geralt as they wish, they rather steer the narrative based upon his existing moral code and relationships.
The other key distinction is the child the narrative pushes you towards finding. In Fallout 4 it is literally a babe ripped from the arms of its mother. You spend much of the game thinking Shaun to be no more than 5 years old. There’s an urgency to finding him because of the assumption that someone so young has no chance surviving in a landscape so brutally inhospitable. In The Witcher 3 Geralt is searching for his adopted daughter Cirella, pictured above, who you might have noticed is an adult woman wielding a sword. Not only that, but Ciri is technically the most powerful human being alive: she is the rightful heir to the title of emperor, a Witcher in all but name, and possesses the Elder Blood which allows her to control both time and space. The urgency to find Ciri just isn’t there. If anything, the game repeatedly lets the player know that she can look after herself, Geralt just wants to help her against “The Hunt”. This means that the player is allowed to enjoy the game world more in The Witcher 3. Because there’s so much less urgency within the narrative, it makes sense that Geralt would be taking his time, taking on smaller contracts or playing games of cards every now and again. Here the narrative actually fits within the mechanics of an open-world game.
Just because the player is controlling an existing character doesn’t mean that they aren’t presented with choices that have consequences. This leads me onto the “The Bloody Baron”, a quest found within the games second act that offers the first real moral dilemmas of the game. Geralt’s search for Ciri leads him to the ruler of a war-torn land – Philip Strenger, aka The Bloody Baron. The Baron not only knows Geralt, but he’s been expecting him, because he knows Ciri and housed her for a while. But there’s a catch – the Baron doesn’t offer this information for free, his own wife and daughter are missing, if Geralt finds them he’ll be told Ciri’s story. The Baron seems to be quite an affable man at the start of the quest, he talks about his family with the utmost affection and he was very kind to an injured Ciri. Yet it quickly transpires that his wife and child didn’t disappear, they ran away from an abusive drunk, who would regularly beat them and maybe caused his wife to suffer a miscarriage. This is an astonishing direction for a game primarily based around killing monsters to take. Monster hunting has an easy moral code – kill things because they’re dangerous, thereby protecting others – but a collapsing, abusive relationship is a much more grey area for the game to explore. Is there any morality in Geralt helping an abusive drunk bring his victims back into his life?
What follows is an incredible rich and intricate story arc which plays out over several hours featuring: murder; betrayal; regret; religious fanaticism; unwanted babies who turn into monsters; werewolves; a (potentially nefarious) spirit enslaved in a tree; and a coven of immortal witches who eat children. Even more tantalising, every time the player returns to the Baron with more information, they are given a flashback mission where they play as Ciri. The player is allowed to get to know Ciri, know what she’s capable of and importantly grow to like her. Unlike Fallout 4 which forces the player to find the missing child, The Witcher 3 encourages you to want to find her. Also throughout the quest, the narrative drip feeds more and more information about the Baron and his family. It’s a slow burn that only divulges the information once the player earns it. See it turns out the Baron didn’t cause his wife, Anna, to miscarry. Instead Anna fled to the aforementioned cannibal witches, who promised her a miscarriage in return for a year of her service. But there’s nothing magical about how they kill her unborn child – the three crones just torture her, until her body is too weak to sustain life. Understandably broken by the process, Geralt finds Anna as “Gran”, a mentally unstable woman bound by magical shackles, tasked with fattening up the local children as food for her new masters. Near the end of the quest, The Baron also acknowledges that Geralt (and by association the player) probably thinks he’s a monster, so he explains his side of the story. When he returned from the war, he found that Anna had taken another man and meant to stay with him forever. In his rage the Baron killed this paramour where he stood, and for that Anna never forgave him; thus the pair found themselves in a doomed relationship, with one side being emotionally abusive and the other physically violent. CD Projekt Red walks a very fine line here, because the reveal that Anna isn’t as innocent as she seems does absolutely nothing to excuse Strenger’s actions. He knows that, Geralt knows that, and therefore by association the player knows this. This is just one final footnote, a complication to an already grey morality, before the player is tasked with the final decision.
This decision: should the Baron be forgiven? There are multiple ways the final part of the storyline can play out. In my play through, the children were dead but the local villagers and, most importantly, Anna were alive. The Baron then enlists Geralt’s help in rescuing her from the crones. The resolution is then left in the players hands – should the clearly unwell Anna be left in the care of her daughter or her husband? In real life, I would describe the actions of The Baron as inexcusable. Such an abuser does not deserve an easy path to forgiveness, let alone from a victim who experienced decades of abuse. Yet at the end of this quest I chose to forgive him. Throughout the narrative the Baron not only acknowledged that he’s (for lack of a better word) a complete cunt, but seemed to honestly be trying to get better. He was kind to Ciri, and risked everything for his wife’s safety in the end. Besides as bad as The Baron is, the witches Anna pledged herself too turned out to be much, much worse. It’s been at least a week since I finished the quest, yet I can’t stop thinking about its ending and why I went the way I did. This quest shows that The Witcher 3 deploys its grey morality so expertly that it prompts introspection within the player; it doesn’t use complicated storylines just for narrative pleasure, but to also force the player to question their own morality and why the chose the paths they did.
I’ve been working on this blog post for just over a week now. Since I started writing I’ve not only played a hell of a lot more of The Witcher 3 but I’ve invested significant time into the new Fallout 4 DLC. To my surprise I’ve been enjoying it a significant amount. It fixes a lot of the issues with the base game that I discuss here. Yet nothing I’ve seen comes close to the brilliance of “The Bloody Baron”. A good game tells a story that you’re invested in, a masterpiece sticks with you for some time. I cannot stop thinking about this quest. It’s brilliantly engrossing as a narrative, but I for one can’t stop dwelling on the choices I made that seem to go so strongly against my moral code. To the surprise of CD Projekt Red, most players chose to forgive The Baron; yet here I am a week later, not entirely sure why I did. Is it the case that despite my cynicism that ultimately I believe that redemption is possible no matter the crime? Do I perhaps need to be more forgiving in the real world? Or, was it just a case of choosing the lesser of two evils?
As I say, I really enjoyed Fallout 4 and I am continuing to enjoy it via DLC but a deserving BAFTA winner it isn’t. In my mind, not only was The Witcher 3 the best game of the last year, but it is one of the finest video games ever released. After all, it takes something truly special for a piece of media to prompt such an emotional response as The Witcher 3 did in me.