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.|
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 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?|
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 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 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 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 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 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.
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.