Fallout 4 is, naturally, one of my favorite games to come out in a very long time. If you expect violence in a game about surviving a radiation-filled post-apocalyptic world, then you wouldn’t be disappointed. After all, when grenades are handed out like candy and shoulder-mounted nuclear catapults are stashed just minutes away at your local National Guard depot, there’s gonna be explosions and flying body parts in your immediate future (possibly even your own!). But that’s not the reason I play Fallout 4, or why I enjoy games made by Bethesda Softworks in general. While gameplay and the explosions are simply fantastic for a modern role-playing game, I love to analyze works of gaming by their writing and the stories represented in them.
Fallout 4 (as well as it’s previous titles) revolve around family. You, the player, take the role of a young mom and dad living in the suburbs of Boston in the year 2077, you’re currently living a quiet life. Taking walks in the park, watching your brand-new black-and-white television, and taking care of your six-month old son Shaun… You know, life as usual. The social unrest in other parts of the United States seem distant, and the ongoing war with China is half a world away.
That is, until the nuclear bombs fall. No one knows whether the Chinese or the US launched the first missiles, but it hardly matters — mutually-assured destruction is the name of the game. You, your spouse, and your young son rush off to the safety of Vault 111, where you’ll be able to wait out the horrors of total nuclear annihilation. Though terrible circumstances, you become the only survivor, the Sole Survivor, of Vault 111.
That’s the story you experience as the player of Fallout 4. But there’s another story that really reached my heart further along.
In downtown Boston is a small administration building surrounded by the larger skyscrapers of the city. This building used to be the corporate headquarters of Wilson Automatoys, a pre-war company in the business of creating modern nuclear-powered toys for children. Their biggest seller is the Giddy-up Buttercup, a mechanical horse that’s perfect for any little girl — after all, there’s not a girl in the world who didn’t ask their parents at one time or another for their own pony! And it’s priced at an affordable $16,000!
The creator of these toys is a man named Arlen Glass. As a successful toymaker, he spent many years of his working life at Wilson Automatoys. The inspiration for the Giddy-up Buttercup had come from his daughter, Marlene. And although it’s not stated, I like to imagine Arlen had made the very first prototype of the horse just for her.
Arlen worked hard. Too hard, in fact. Wrapped up in improving and designing his creations, he hardly set aside time to see his wife Cheryl and their young daughter. One too many nights at the office, he didn’t call, he forgot groceries. He even forgot Marlene’s seventh birthday party. Despite this, Marlene love her father, and created a holotape especially for him sharing her love and asking him to come home.
Cheryl: Go ahead.
Marlene: Hi daddy! When are you coming home? You work too much. I want you to read to me again. Mommy says you’re helping all the horsies find good homes. Take care of them, ok? I love you. Hmm? Oh, Buttercup says she loves you too. We miss you. Come home soon!
But no matter how hard you work, you know politics isn’t far behind you in a large company like Wilson Automatoys. Arlen’s perfectionism in his designs began to erode the patience of the brand-new president of the company, Marc Wilson. You see, he inherited Wilson Automatoys from his father, and apparently wasn’t too keen on running a simple toy factory. Not only were the sales of Giddy-up Buttercup dropping due to the poor financial state of the US, the pressure of the government on companies to aid in the war effort in China had afforded Marc a golden opportunity: Project SCYTHE. Instead of making toys, the company would instead manufacture landmines at their factory just outside Boston. From children’s toys to weapons of war… Anything to make money, right?
Marc was one of the few people who knew about the project. At first. Somehow, word reached Arlen’s ears, and he was understandably furious. At the next company board meeting, Arlen called Marc out in front of everyone for steering the company so far from its original intent. Some stood with Arlen. Most didn’t. In response, Marc fired Arlen outright. Security escorted Arlen out of the building immediately, and advised him to never come back.
Marc: Damn it Nate, where are you? After today’s meeting, it’s going to take a miracle to salvage the SCYTHE contract. And you decide to take the evening off? Look, I wanted to keep the old man (Arlen) out of it. But what could I do? He called me out in front of the board! I had to fire him! Where do you stand, Nate? Are you with me, or with him? I want you in my office Monday at nine sharp. We can discuss the contract, or we can discuss your resignation. It’s up to you.
Instead of abandoning his life’s work, Arlen went back the next day to try to speak to Marc, maybe change his mind about the project.
But that day was the end of the world.
When a nuclear bomb fell just miles away from downtown, the city immediately became an ocean of fire and chaos. Arlen tried to make his way back home, but by the time he’d arrived, his home was nothing more than a crater.
He never saw Cheryl or Marlene again. In the deepest despair, he curled up in the ruins of his home and waited for the radiation to end his life.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy. Instead of dying, the radiation turned him into a ghoul. You see, in the Fallout world, if some poor soul is exposed to the right dose of radiation, it melts the skin and cartilage (meaning you lose your nose and ears, among other things), but grants an immunity from radiation and an unusually long lifespan. Perhaps immortality, in fact.
For over 200 years, Arlen lived as a broken shell of a man, wandering across the dangerous wasteland. One day, he discovered a new community outside Boston made of ghouls and humans called the Slog, and decided to take up residence, making toys for children that visited the settlement. After all that time, his work continued to be the only way he could get away from his past.
And that’s when the Sole Survivor (you, the player) comes into the picture. After exploring the ruins of Wilson Automatoys, you come across the holotape Marlene left for her father all those centuries ago. Then by absolute chance, the Survivor meets Arlen Glass, recognizes his name as the once-famous toymaker, and gives him the holotape. Arlen plays it, and gasps in tearful awe, hearing the voice of his daughter and wife for the first time in 210 years.
Arlen: It’s… been so long. I never thought I’d hear their voices again. You can’t imagine what this means to me.
She was right, you know. I did work too much. And now… I’ll never hear her voice again. I’ll never get to hold her. Kiss her goodnight. All I have left are the memories. And… this tape.
From one parent to another… Thank you.
As a parting gift, Arlen presented the Survivor with the present he could never give his daughter for her birthday: a small Giddyup Buttercup toy.
Normally this is where the sad story and the quest line ends. Later I learned that Arlen is supposed to make a solitary journey back to where his home once stood to say a final goodbye to Cheryl and Marlene.
But he didn’t get the chance in my game.
After giving Arlen the holotape, I went about exploring the wasteland, killing raiders, helping caravans and settlements, you know… the usual hero Minuteman stuff. One day, I returned to the Slog to see if I could help assist in building up the community. But the moment I approach, I hear gunfire. The Slog was under attack by raiders.
I grabbed my plasma pistol. My companion and I rush into battle, vaporizing the bad guys left and right. After just a minute of intensity, the battle was over. The Slog was saved.
But there was a single casualty laying on the ground in front of the workshop.
I paused the game and thought for a moment. I could reload the game, and he’d be alive again. I could use cheats to bring him back to life, and I could go on with the game as if nothing had changed. He was only an NPC in a game, after all.
I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
I thought about how much Arlen had suffered though his life. Losing himself in his work. Missing his daughter’s birthday. Surviving through atomic fire when the ones he loved didn’t. Wanting to die, but living for centuries with nothing but memories and his work to sustain him. Then, through this chain of random happenstance, after a complete stranger discovered an undamaged holotape in a super-mutant-filled toy factory and chanced upon the Slog, giving him a chance to hear the voice of his long-dead wife and daughter one last time…
A stray bullet took his life.
But maybe, just maybe, he finally reunited with Marlene and Cheryl in a better place.
That’s my headcanon for Arlen. That’s why I play Fallout and Bethesda games. While some of their stories are hit and miss, it’s the connections of those stories to incidents of gameplay that make moments special. The Fallout world may be uncaring and dark, but human connections of love endure through the radiation.