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Fallout 4: The Real Railroad

December 9, 2015

Dear Reader,

I really like Fallout 4.  I think it’s the best of the FPS entries in the series, and probably the second best of the titles over all (I still like Fallout 2 the most).  I wrote a few days ago on why I liked the most recent game, but today I feel compelled to write about something I really didn’t like about the game: railroading.

Now, there’s an coincidental connection with Fallout 4 and “The Railroad,” but the term I’m using is unconnected with the similarly-titled faction.  “Railroading” is a pen-and-paper RPG term used to describe a dungeon master who forces his players into situations against their will, as if they’re passengers on a train out of their control rather than co-pilots to a group activity.  It is generally considered to be a negative term used in an accusatory fashion from player to DM.

Every video game railroads its players by necessity.  It’s impossible to program a video game to allow for every possible action a player may want to take, let alone be able to take from within the game system.  That’s one area where tabletop RPGs shine; a good DM with good players can collaborate to create a story that’s far superior to anything any one person would imagine.  Railroading, as a result, is the antithesis to that sort of creative engineering, which is why it’s so often reviled.

So why complain about a game for doing what it was designed to do: railroad the players?  Simple: I felt the railroading was unnecessary and story-restrictive.  Let me warn you, there are some spoilers below, so don’t read on if you haven’t pursued the main story line.

I had predicted that my kid was going to be old when I met him.  I looked at every major character I met as a possible son prior to actually going into the institute.  When I met my cyber “son,” I doubted instantly it was the real one, and when I met his creator, the father, I figured I’d found my mark.  Nonetheless, I did exactly what I had planned to do: I shot the leader of the institute right in the face.  Kid or not, here was the head of the monster which needed to be severed.

Of course, even though it was a silenced pistol, the entire Institute went hostile and I failed a quest.  I figured fine, I’ll play along for a while, and reloaded to pursue the actual story, but I was annoyed.  I didn’t want to get to know the Institute, I didn’t want to find out what they were all about, and I DAMN sure didn’t want to work with them – not only as a player, mind you, but as my character, who’d seen and heard the type of physical and psychological damage the Institute was wreaking on the Commonwealth.  I was the leader of the Minutemen, damnit, and I wasn’t going to be swayed by some fancy technology and honestly irrelevant family bonds; hell, I only new the kid for what – a few weeks?  Months?  Not that long.

And yet, as a player, particularly one who wants to actually see the main story play out from start to finish, I was again and again being forced to work with the very enemy I was sworn to destroy, and on top of that, in conversation after conversation, I was being portrayed as this stupid, sentimental mother who can’t seem to understand the fact that her son is a bad guy in charge of a bad institution that harms the world.  I had slayed the Mirelurk Queen!  I was head of the Minutemen!  I kill mutants left and right! Why was I being so dumb?!

Look, I get it; there’s nuances here.  Maybe I get to be the leader of the Institute and change things, but I don’t know.  I stalled in playing when I got to the next serious railroading moment, when choosing to pursue the Institute’s goals or telling on them to the Brotherhood would immediately and permanently make you the enemy of the other.

Why?  How would they even know?  I understand that perhaps during the mission an action I take in front of them might cause that, but just by accepting one side or another?  Madness!

And I don’t even really like either faction!  I’m a Minuteman.  I’m okay with the Railroad; I think they’re good people who are just a little careless.  But I don’t see the drawback with the Minutemen.  I don’t see their flaw, like the Brotherhood’s hawkishness or the Institute’s moral bankruptcy.  But I fundamentally do believe I can affect a change to improve the world better from inside than outside of a system.

I would just prefer to option to continue to play both against each other.  I would prefer to be able to go to the Brotherhood and tell them that I intend to get the reactor back online and then blow up the Institute.  In between, I can smuggle out some or all of the willing synths, which would piss off the Brotherhood but, hey, they don’t need to know.  As complexly integrated as these missions and stories are, I don’t see why that wasn’t an option.  Everyone can feel like they won (except the Institute, but I don’t care about them), and who really won was the Commonwealth, which, of course, is the goal of the Minutemen.

So I feel a bit railroaded.  I don’t really want to help the Brotherhood or the Institute.  I don’t want to make a permanent enemy of either of the Institute yet, either, which would likely prevent me from helping synths escape via the Railroad.  So I’m forced to continue working with them, actually helping them, and make a permanent and lethal enemy of the Brotherhood, who I’ve been helping so far.

For such a nuanced game, this feel very brutish.  I wanted better.


Stubborn (Bing-Bong.  Please stand clear of the closing doors.)

8 Comments leave one →
  1. December 9, 2015 10:21 am

    I feel very similarly. I also shot the jerk in the head, but I decided to live with my choice and finish the game with him dead. I guess I short-circuited a bunch of potential gameplay but I was ok with that. The ending I got was not exactly what I was aiming for, but it sounds like it was at least less frustrating than what you experienced.

    • December 9, 2015 11:47 am

      Yeah, part of me is “in-game” morally outraged at not just blasting him. I think really that’s the exact problem I’m facing; I feel a cognitive dissonance between myself as the character and myself as a player, and I don’t know if good game design should do that. Maybe it should – maybe that’s how games push our boundaries, but I’m not sure this is a case of that.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. December 9, 2015 3:07 pm

    I’m not sure why you feel the outrage here, especially when you already had your answer. Father is an NPC you can kill straight away, at any time, for any reason, in a game overflowing with immortal characters. How were you railroaded in this instance? Your willingness to entreat the Institute precisely explains your character’s in-game sentimental behavior. I mean, I too was initially thrown off by each division head asking me, in turn, whether I was joining the Institute. But then I realized the truth: why was my character talking to any of them if my character wasn’t considering it? Sentimentality is the only rational explanation for my talking to them at all. “Seeking the full story” is Metagaming, as mortal a sin as Railroading in any tabletop RPG.

    On reflection, there is very little railroading in Fallout 4, or at least, far less than any equivalent RPG. Witcher 3 is praised for its story branches, but I don’t ever remember the option to not care about Ciri. Or to kill her to keep her out of Wild Hunt hands.

    • December 9, 2015 9:47 pm

      I agree that it is metagaming, and I think that’s what leads to the irritation (I think outrage may be too strong a word) in the first place. I’m feeling a cognitive dissonance between what I the player think I SHOULD do and what I the character WOULD do. And to be honest, I’m not even sure that’s a generally bad thing; I would assume that feeling in particular is what other games use to try to give the player a chance to grow, like in Papers, Please or This War of Mine.

      So I don’t really disagree with your overall point; I just don’t really like feeling the dissonance. The specific reason I don’t want to just blast the institute is that thanks to The Railroad I know there’s a lot of synths wanting and willing to leave, and if I blast the dude, that won’t happen. They just turn hostile and have to be killed, even though they should be “in game” aware that someone is working to get them into a position to escape. That I’m not allowed to help them escape through more direct means – shooting the Father and the guards to avoid having to help them- is part of the problem.

      On top of that, the earlier quests allowed me to sabotage them and still work with the Institute. I’m not sure how the Institute would INSTANTLY know I’d back-stabbed them this time when they didn’t in previous situations. Hell, I was shooting coursers left and right at the battle of bunker hill and no one seemed to notice. Going and talking to the Brotherhood – agreeing to help them – someone is noticed “out-of-game” instantly? That’s part of what bothers me.

      So the “railroading” in this case is partly that and partly the game playing my expectations and hopes as a gamer (to see content) against my expectations and desires as a character. (for justice). It’s not a strong-arm style of forcing like overt railroading, it’s more like an emotional blackmail that I fully admit I myself am complicit in – but my own guilt only makes me feel more irritated about the situation, not less.

      Thanks for the comment!

    • December 22, 2015 5:46 pm

      Agreed with ya there Azuriel. The only issues I had being my character who was ultimately siding against the Institution but at the request of the Railroad keeping a cover of helping the Insutitute. I would take on a few Institute quests but *SPOILERS* when they tell me who the synths they’ve replaced people with such as the mayor of Diamond City and the guy at Warwick I wish I could expose them instead of either following the quest or ignoring the quest.


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