Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Moral Ambiguity of Fallout 4


Note: This post will contain spoilers for the storyline of Fallout 4 and previous games.

    War...war never changes.

    These are the arc words of Fallout 4 and they have never been more appropriate to the setting. In simple terms, they are an acknowledgement that the conflicts between human beings will never end because we human nature remains immutable. People will kill for religion, resources, revenge, wealth, power, and glory until the end of time.

    The original Fallout ended with the realization the Master and all of his atrocities were motivated by a warped but sincere desire to do good. The sequel, Fallout 2, ended with the discovery the Enclave were the embodiment of Western privilege and racism with the Wastelanders being on the other side of it. Fallout 3 was seemingly the odd duck out since it was a conflict between the wholly-evil Enclave and the seemingly wholly-good Brotherhood of Steel but this is something I've changed in the past (see my essay here).

    The premise of Fallout 4 is the Sole Survivor is a Pre-War citizen of Massachusetts who manages to survive the Great War by being cryogenically frozen for 215 years. When he awakens to the brave new world of the Post-Apocalypse Wasteland, they are sent on a quixotic search for his missing son with only an old fortune-tellers' advice to guide him.

    Along the way, he or she discovers the Commonwealth is being fought over by two technologically advanced power-houses and two much lower-tech local organizations. Despite all four organizations having a point, the best you'll be able to accomplish is two surviving. Because the same belligerence and refusal to compromise of the Pre-War world is still intact in the Fallout universe.

A man and his dog have some difficult choices ahead.
     This conflict of factions is similar to Hoover Dam being fought over in Fallout: New Vegas. In fact, Fallout: New Vegas followed Fallout 3's example and made the conflict largely one of good versus evil. NCR, while corrupt and expansionist, was still a group out for the benefit while Caesar's Legion were a salad of everything a Western liberal non-misogynist technophile gamer would despise. The only neutral party in the story was Robert House and, if you chose the Independence ending, the Courier themselves.

    Fallout 4 one-ups New Vegas, however, by making it clear all four factions have a point. Unfortunately, none of the parties involved are WILLING to compromise and the unwillingness to make peace spells the downfall of those the Survivor chooses not to aid. It's interesting the game subverts traditional storytelling models by making it clear the "right" choice may not be the most beneficial one while foregoing the idea being more beneficial is necessarily "better." To explain, I'll give a brief rundown of all four factions.

The Institute

    The primary antagonists for the first half of the game are set up as the Institute, which murders the spouse of the Survivor as well as makes off with their child. They also callously murder the entirety of Vault 111's inhabitants, shutting off the life-support systems to everyone else in the Vault. We hear about the Institute's slavery of Synths from the Railroad, how they discarded sentient robot Nick Valentine like garbage, how they kidnap people to be replaced with dopplegangers, and learn they're experimenting with the Super Mutant-creating FEV. Perhaps the most damning act is the story about how they deliberately destroyed the Commonwealth Provisional Government (CPG) which would have created a new nation in the post-apocalypse world.

    Then we actually get to meet them.

Flawless, beautiful, soulless. Or is it?
    The Institute proves to a idealized vision of the future with grass, clean walls, science, and knowledge available to all. It's a Star Trek-esque utopia where humanity is at a level it should have been had not it destroyed itself 215 years ago. The people are friendly, likable, and idealistic. There is a dark side to the Institute in that it is built on the backs of Synthetic slavery but this is arguable on grounds of sentience. Many gamers have expressed agreement with the Institute they're just very well-programmed machines. The Institute argues they are not slavers because Synths are just, appropriately, video game characters designed to act like people.

    But are they?

    The question is debated back and forth throughout the game as we see quests involving Synths trying to prove their humanity, robots reprogrammed to act like humans (such as the hilarious Professor Goodfeels) but failing miserably, and individuals who blur the lines. There's even the fact the Institute might be potentially capable of changing as the Survivor is able to express he finds the organization monstrous in its actions but loves his family (his son turning out to be the director of the faction) too much to betray it.

    The Institute is a source of immense knowledge and resources which could be turned to the benefit of humanity but doing so requires the destruction of its enemies. Enemies who stand against the Institute on moral grounds. If you side with these enemies, you destroy the Institute but you also condemn the Synths to extinction as they can no longer be produced. Likewise, you potentially kill or render homeless countless innocent people whose greatest crime was believing the lie Synths aren't people (or producing them in the first place if you believe the Brotherhood of Steel).

     The Institute's guilt for its crimes is debatable, though. While many atrocities are done under the previous Directors, it's clear the majority of citizens are not aware of them. Doctor Li, despite being a member of the Directorate, is unaware of the FEV experiments being conducted a few hallways down. The massacre of Vault 111's citizens occurred under a Director prior to Shaun just as University Point's massacre was done by Shaun himself. These acts will not be repeated by the new Director (the Sole Survivor) but only if they choose to cooperate with the Institute. In simple terms, the Institute's leadership is corrupt but the individual members are not.

    Hell, some of the crimes they're accused of are ones they're innocent of. The Commonwealth Provisional Government wasn't sabotaged by the Institute, for example. They actually set it up but were blamed for its destruction, causing them to give up on the surface. This doesn't detract from the crimes they are guilty of, though, like the destruction of the University Point settlement or massacre of Vault 111's inhabitants.

    As Director of the Institute, the Sole Survivor has the potential to direct the organization down a more benevolent and less violent path. Unfortunately, they are not presented with any options to liberate the Synths or do more than choose whether to develop weapons tech or better Synth production. We also have an example of how changing an organization's institutional inertia can fail, even with a very capable and wise leader.

    Elder Lyons sought to reform the Brotherhood of Steel and while he managed to change it, the organization mostly reverted to its previous ethics after his tenure. It doesn't help your position comes from Father's nepotism as well as proving your allegiance by eliminating the Institute's ideological enemies. After the mission, the Institute sends Synths to secure checkpoints and positions across the Wasteland, including Diamond City. Piper may believe you capable of leading the Institute to a new Golden Age but is she right?

    Only time will tell.

The Brotherhood of Steel

    Fan-favorites of the franchise, the Brotherhood of Steel has gone through numerous changes from its original concept. The depiction of the one in Fallout 4 is a combination of the various incarnations of the group over the years (Western, Midwestern, and Eastern chapters). The Fallout 3 chapter of the Brotherhood believed in protecting the innocent from monsters as well as aiding humanity in its recovery by sharing technology. This is directly contradictory to the original Brotherhood's stated ethos of keeping dangerous technology from the hands of "savages."

    The Commonwealth Brotherhood of Steel has combined these missions by adopting a policy of destroying or controlling dangerous technology with a less-xenophobic policy of recruiting Wastelanders as well as ruling over them directly. While all Brotherhood of Steel chapters have been prejudiced against nonhumans, their new leader Arthur Maxson believes all nonhumans should be destroyed. This is a defensible position when dealing with the near-universally hostile Super Mutants of the East Coast and Feral Ghouls but becomes less so with the intelligent ghouls and sympathetic Synths you meet during the game.

A peace at the expense of the annihilation of all those different is seemingly a bargain when those are 90% evil. But what about the remaining 10%?
    The Brotherhood of Steel rejects both freedom as well as espouses racist values which put in mind various fascist movements over the years as well as the darker excesses of feudalism. Despite this, the Brotherhood has a lot going for it. In the horrific chaos of the Commonwealth, the Brotherhood of Steel are strong and they are sincere in their desire to help--almost fanatically so. If you're a Wastelander rather than a ghoul or Synth, the Brotherhood's rule is an oasis of safety in a radioactive desert. The fact individuals can join the Brotherhood of Steel and rise on merit also removes the inherent nepotism of feudalism.

    The Brotherhood of Steel is also dominionist as well as expansionist. They revere the concept of humanity and loathe the misuse of technology so there is no hope for any reconciliation with the Institute or Synths. The Institute and its survivors are marked for death and there is no hope for the Synths or their sympathizers in the Railroad. To side with the Brotherhood is to ask yourself whether the deaths of a minority of ghouls and Synths is worth the salvation of thousands. Also, whether freedom is a worthwhile sacrifice for survival.

     There is also the fact, for all of Elder Maxson's talk about siding with the founding principles of the Brotherhood of Steel, he is also a hypocrite regarding them. The Brotherhood of Steel was founded by Arthur's ancestor, Roger Maxson, for the purpose of confiscating dangerous technology from Wastelanders to prevent something like the Great War from ever occurring again.

    Siding with the Brotherhood of Steel results in you confiscating an entire missile silo's worth of nuclear weapons, arming them to another dangerous piece of technology (Liberty Prime), and then using them to get close enough to a generator in order to sabotage it. This results in a gigantic crater where the Commonwealth Institute of Technology used to be and the death of every citizen of the Institute unless you choose to evacuate it on your own.

     In short, Arthur Maxson betrays the original purpose of the Brotherhood of Steel in order to achieve an absolute military victory.

The Railroad

    The Railroad is my favorite faction in Fallout 4, which is surprising since I assumed they would be my least. In simple terms, they're just not as "sexy" as the Brotherhood of Steel or Institute. They're a bunch of Wastelanders from various walks of life united by nothing other than their belief Synths are people and their desire to free as many of them from the Institute's control as possible. They're named after the Underground Railroad, an organization of individuals who recognized the humanity of people living under some of the worst oppression in United States history.

    But is the Railroad good?

    They certainly think they're the good guys. One of the things the Railroad has going for it is certainty. That's a rare commodity in the Wasteland but they have every bit the fortitude and confidence in their cause as the Brotherhood of Steel. Desdemona, leader of the Railroad, makes it clear that a Synth is a person and you should be willing to risk your life for them the same way you would a human being. The fact many Synths have tried to kill the Survivor by the time they meet as well as the fact they've killed many humans is lost on the woman.

The Railroad's HQ being underneath a church is symbolic--but of what?
    The Railroad's methods are somewhat questionable as well. Rather than simply helping Synths settle into new lives, they brainwash (less charitably, "reprogram") them into believing they're human beings and leave them in the Wasteland to fend for themselves. This leaves them vulnerable to recapture by individuals like Doctor Zimmer and sometimes horrific identity crises. Paladin Danse, a Brotherhood of Steel zealot, cannot reconcile the fact he's a Synth with the fact he believes they are abominations against humanity.

    The Railroad's zealotry also makes them blind to events beyond their cause. The Brotherhood of Steel represents a danger to all Synths and their sympathizers but the Railroad remains unaware of their intended xenocide until the Brotherhood strikes. They intend to destroy the Institute in order to eliminate the oppressors of Synths but this means no more Synths will be created. The Railroad has no higher purpose than helping Synths or plan for the Commonwealth, which is not a problem in itself but Deacon notes would go a long way to getting more Wastelanders to trust them. They are also positively vicious in their questline.

    The Railroad ignores the many humans who will be killed and rendered homeless in the destruction of the Institute as well as the loss of knowledge. They don't even bother to evacuate the humans of the Institute in the same manner the Brotherhood of Steel doesn't. As bad as this is, it's doubly so when you discover they don't attempt to evacuate the family of agent Patriot, who helped hundreds of Synths escape over the years.

    Destroying the Brotherhood of Steel may be necessary as an act of self-defense as well as one to protect innocent human beings but there are children on board The Prydwen and they get not a single word of acknowledgement. It is perhaps because of this that Synthetic Detective Nick Valentine doesn't express much sympathy for them.

    This doesn't even bring up the Railroad is divided as to what qualifies as human as well with 1st generation android Synths considered to be "merely" machines the same way Pre-War robots like Codsworth are. This despite the fact Codsworth expresses shock, grief, and a range of human emotions which seem to point to his being alive (if not human). 3rd generation Synths look and sound human so the Railroad believes they are--nothing more, nothing less.

    Righteousness blinds the Railroad and anger even as they are the only people fighting for those who have no voice.

The Minutemen

    The final faction is another "good" one like the Railroad which suffers for the fact it is also ineffective. The Minutemen are the remnants, reduced to one active member in fact, of a Commonwealth militia known for protecting settlements against various threats. In-fighting, the loss of their headquarters, and catastrophic losses during the Battle of Quincy have broken them but they maintain a positive reputation with most Commonwealth citizens.

    If the Survivor chooses to join the Minutemen, rising to their leadership almost immediately, we also discover they run a similar arrangement to 1988 video game Wasteland's Desert Rangers. The Minutemen receive food, water, and caps in exchange for providing settlements with protection. Given you physically begin several settlements and can give orders for what is constructed on the settlements which join you, this is less like an alliance and more like rulership. It is also, perhaps not coincidentally, a scaled-down version of what the Brotherhood of Steel promises its citizens.

    The Minutemen's representative in the game, Preston Garvey, is unambiguously good and represents the best of a Wasteland hero. Unfortunately, Preston's naive touting of the Minutemen's graces tends to ignore its many flaws. The organization is well-armed, as militias go, but has nowhere near the power or knowledge as either the Institute or Brotherhood of Steel.

To be good or great - the Minutemen achieve one but can't reach the other.
    The organization's ability to project force is also far weaker than the former as they were effectively destroyed by an attack by a single Mirelurk Queen (impressive but something the Brotherhood of Steel or Institute Synths would have mopped the floor with). Laser muskets, crank-operated alternatives to Pre-War technology, are inferior to the real thing. When faced with threats like the Institute, Super Mutants, Brotherhood of Steel, and even the Gunners, the Minutemen are mostly outmatched. Indeed, it was the Gunner mercenary army which destroyed the Minutemen in the first place.

    The addition of artillery and the return of the Castle means the Minutemen can gain the ability to project force better than they could in decades, perhaps enough to be able to defeat Super Mutants and enough to defeat the Brotherhood of Steel in a surprise assault on The Prydwen. They even get the Brotherhood's Vertibirds if they destroy them.

     The Minutemen have historical issues with solidarity as well as cults of personality. From what little we can gleam of the Minutemen's history, they're an organization which only operates effectively when there is a strong central leader. With the retaking of the Castle and securing of settlement alliances across the Wasteland, the Sole Survivor is probably good for as long as they're leading the group but even then he has his or her orders questioned as one Institute quest can prove. 

    There is also the issue of the Minutemen having supply issues. Without the support of settlements, the members are left with no currency or sources of food. As we see with Libertalia, Minutemen have been forced to become Raiders because Commonwealth citizens have cheated them out of proper pay for protection. Again, this can be amended if you turn the Castle into a thriving settlement but the Commonwealth seems to be composed of fair-weather friends.

    Still, it's abundantly clear the Minutemen promise only the beginnings of a better life for the average Wastelander. It took NCR the better part of a century in order to become the power house it is in the West and there's no sign the Minutemen are going to achieve that sort of power anytime soon. Still, security and supply lines mean the Minutemen promise a better life. With time and work from the Sole Survivor, they can become both well-armed and well-funded to the point of beginning your own little version of NCR. The problem is that siding with any other faction AND the Minutemen seems like it would do better.

In Conclusion

    Fallout 4 is excellent for providing real moral dilemmas to its protagonist's player. For me, I chose to side with the Railroad and the Minutemen. I did so, however, knowing I was condemning many innocent people to die and potentially costing the people of the Commonwealth a better future. I was willing to let Rome burn as long as Rome's slaves were freed and that's not a warm and fuzzy feeling.

    Others chose to side with the Institute in order to make sure the world was a better place through technology and science, knowing they were going to have to kill a bunch of innocents to do so or thinking the synthetic question irrelevant. Others sided with the Brotherhood of Steel, believing the needs of the many outweighed the needs of the few. There's a right answer to which faction you pick but it will change depending on what kind of person you are or what you believe.

    Just like in real-life.

18 comments:

  1. Fallout 4's BoS is basically Fallout 3's Enclave.

    Also, once the Minutemen have The Castle back and have it decked out with artillery, they basically have the BoS in a checkmate in reality. The Prydwen is well within range and only a few artillery shells would be needed to do catastrophic damage if not bring it down entirely.

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  2. The Minutemen are pretty great, but they're also very disconnected.
    In one quest for the Institute, you're supposed to get a scientist out of a house. The guy called on the Minutemen for help and the house is surrounded by them. Then I show up, the General, the damn leader of the Minutemen and tell them there's been a misunderstanding and to stand down, they're acting like I'm some kind of recruit.
    There is no real structure to the MM, they're just a bunch of settlements that banded together under the leadership of Preston with the PC as some kind of henchman who takes care of things.

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    1. Yeah, they definitely have their flaws. I recommend visiting Quincy at the bottom of the map where you'll find one of the Gunners' main bases. There you'll find the renegade Minuteman Clint (in power armor) who destroyed the Minutemen with the Gunners so he could take over the region. He thought they weren't united or forceful enough to bring order to the Commonwealth.

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    2. I can actually see the Minuteman turn into a sort of Lombard League. United against common foes but each settlement is pretty much independent and willing to war against each other.

      I kinda wished they factionalized Fallout 3 with Rivet City as a sort of Venice. Them and the BoS being the good 'factions' with a Raider faction and Enclave being the evil ones.

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  3. This is a great breakdown, but I think you've got it all wrong on the Minutemen. Rather than grading what the institution is in its current form, it's more productive to look at what they have the potential to turn into. At the moment, it's a loose militia looking to unite various communities in trade and protection. Every community pitches in. Every community sees benefits.

    Sure, at the moment it's just a ramshackle militia that has trouble beating back mirelurks and super mutants. But even within the game, it goes from a sole survivor and his newest recruit to an effective organization with a fortified headquarters, a system of communication and supply routes between communities. And it's not just a matter of safety. Through the course of the game, uncharted areas are settled, tamed, defended and turned into prosperous economic generators.

    What am I saying here? The Minutemen shouldn't be compared to a militia at all, but rather another postwar organization in the Fallout universe. One that started with a small community that decided to incorporate those around it, expand out to new lands and tame the wastes. An organization that formed itself into an effective military force, a functioning government and an economic powerhouse that stabilized the regions under its rule and and expanded out over a vast territory.

    With the Minutemen in Fallout 4, you are witnessing the East Coast's version of the New California Republic in its infancy. And I sided with them because THAT is what they have the potential to become. The Railroad would be willing to work with a group capable of that as long as it suited their goals, but there's no way that the Institute or BoS would, and we know that given their histories. For the lawful good character who wants to build the wasteland back up again, the Minutemen are the right choice, especially since as its leader, the faction moves how the player wants it to.

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    1. The Minutemen becoming the New California Republic are the best possible iteration for what they can and should become. However, it's a bit more complicated than that and by no means a guaranteed win. If they go for the "win" then they've made a powerful enemy in the Brotherhood of Steel, victorious or not. Likewise, there's Super Mutants and Gunners and other groups which they'll have to be contesting with for a very long time either way.

      The biggest problem isn't that, though, but the fact the organization has a tumultuous history in-game of being a Cult of Personality. The Generals of the Minutemen manage to keep together the group only so long as one strong personality is there to keep them going. Under the Sole Survivor, they'll be secure for the immediate future but as we see, as soon as a major figure passes then the whole thing falls apart. It gets to the point Clint in Quincy felt the Gunners would be a stronger force for protecting/controlling the Minutemen than the actual Minutemen were.

      This isn't to say they can't become the basis for an East Coast NCR but they've a long way to go and it took Shady Sands almost a century to become what it later became. Even then, it had the help of the Vault Dweller AND the Chosen One.

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  4. Updated the Morality Essay with new information on each of the factions.

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  5. This is a pretty good breakdown of the factions. I personally wound up disliking all the factions and the lack options to influence the direction they may take for any epilogue does not help.

    Both the Minutemen and the Railroad have way too many flaws to be effective for the Commonwealth in the long run. Perhaps a coalition of the two factions could, at least, curb their worst flaws with checks and balances by each side.
    I personally do not think the Institute can be a force of good though, taking the FEV experiments they have done resulting in the Super Mutants of the Commonwealth and their immediate disdain for the people of the Wasteland which will probably be too difficult to drill out of them. I do agree with your sentiments with the Brotherhood though, this was the type of behaviour that resulted in their near-extermination during the Brotherhood-NCR war at the West Coast.

    Too bad the game's final portions (for the main quest) wound up being a complete mess.

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  6. Well we have to wait for future dlc to fix that or modders who get their hands on geck to modify the game.

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  7. The moral greyness of F4 is a double-edged sword for me. It forces your character to be sort of neutral, rather than having a choice between good, neutral, or evil. Part of the problem is that quests in this game usually don't have moral choices in them. Having said that, a benefit of the moral greyness is that you don't have to be a villain in order to join a faction. For example, if someone liked the Legion's aesthetic, but wanted to play a good guy-they're a bit out of luck. Playing a good Institute character is much easier by comparison.


    The problem I have with the Minutemen is that they're "the Yes-Man", when they probably shouldn't be. For a Yes-Man faction, you would need an organization that has little-to-no values. Perhaps they should have made the gunners a playable faction.

    Also, as you point out, I don't think they gave the "good guys" (Minutemen and Railroad) enough cool toys. The Railroad is themeless. The Minutmen have a cool theme going on, but I think they could have done more with it. Maybe have given them cool steampunk technology-like a good version of Columbia. By contrast, the BoS are...the BoS and the Institute has an awesome sterile aesthetic to it.

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    1. I think there's some choices lacking, though I understand the desire to make it so a "Golden" ending is impossible as the moment it's possible, the moment everyone chooses it. I would have appreciated the option to extend truces from one faction to another even if they don't get taken up and other options to broaden your RP options.

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  8. To be honest, if you blow the Institute for the Railroad you have to order evacuation the same way you did with the Minutemen. Not doing it breaks your standing with the Railroad.
    But their motivation for doing it is different.
    Preston wants you to evacuate everyone because they are civilians, but Desdemona wants you to evacuate everyone because there are synths amongst them.
    The Minutemen are sort of proto-NCR in making, but it will take a lot of time if they can ever get there.
    Also, the Sole Survivor isn't immortal and it can everything fall apart as soon as they're gone and there's no charisamatic leader to replace SS.

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  9. I happened to go the same way you did and I remember after detonating the bomb to destroy the Institute feeling so empty inside. Despite the game's flaws and lack of role-play options previous installments may have had, the personal investment one feels is still mostly the same.

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  10. The Railroad don't automatically wipe the memories of synths. It's voluntary. Each rescued synth can choose to do it or not. Otherwise, interesting read.

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  11. Having played all factions, my number one faction would be the Institute. They're the only one with the technology to shape the future. Think of the glowing sea getting turned into fertile land by thousands of synths. Think of eradicating the rad-storms.

    And how to recruit Doctor Virgil to basically reverse what happened to the super-mutants. Synths are machines, remember this. As such they can be programmed to either start with a blank slate like DIMA, or to capture the mind of a human (Nick Valentine). After all, what they experience as free will is an illusion, as they are just iterations of synths produced after DIMA escaped.

    My number two faction is the Minutemen. Basically the NCR on the East coast. That they are weak and disorganized now because of previous failures from their leaders shouldn't be counted against them. All organizations and people changes, they learn. After what happened at Quincy, they sort of started with a blank page, a fresh start with you as the leader. And as you have intimate knowledge of democracy, law and order, you have the potential to kick start this new nation - the Commonwealth Republic.

    The Brotherhood of Steel comes as number 3, due to the fact thweir use of the power-armor and vertibirds. They'll quickly cleanse the Commonwealth from any ghouls, super-mutants and other hostile forces. Sounds like a revamped Enclave to me, and the fact that the captain of Prydwen reminds me of a Nazi-colonel in black-face with his spiffy uniform doesn't help either. The BoS best option wouldn't be to destroy the Institute, but to occupy it, and take control and leadership, with you as the Director.

    The greatest tragedy is the radioactive crater after the destruction of the Institute, that is the last thing the Commonwealth needs! The destruction of Prydwen is unfortunate, but then you're dealing with fanatics.

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  12. I generally side with the Institute as well because displacing thousands of innocents for the actions of their leadership seems to be evil.

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