Fallout 4's DLC gives the game a sorely-needed sense of purpose
Some spoilers for Fallout 4's plot ahead, obviously!
After months--years, even--of excitement, I stopped playing Fallout 4 before actually finishing it. This wasn’t because I was too busy to keep playing. I intentionally stopped. I put the controller down, turned my PlayStation 4 off, and grumbled to myself for several minutes. The game had presented what it considered an important moment, and that had instead soured everything else for me.
That is, until the game started getting downloadable content.
And it’s not like the game’s even presenting me with a whole lot of interesting stuff in Automatron or Wasteland Workshop. There’s some robot armor, and oh good, garden plots for settlements. Nothing to sneeze at, maybe, but nothing earth-shattering either. The Mechanist plot resolves itself fairly neatly without adding a significant chunk of land to the game and the second DLC is… well, related to the workshop.
See, the crux of the Fallout 4 base game is the search for the protagonist’s kidnapped son. There’s factions to contend with, Super Mutants to slay, and settlements to found, but the common thread is that missing child. From the moment the game starts with the pre-war nuclear family, it’s made clear that your progeny is the focus here.
Even when the player inevitably gets entangled in larger storylines at play in the Commonwealth, it is only a means to an end. Nearly every conversation that moves the game forward includes at least one dialogue option about how this is all in the service to that greater goal: finding Shaun.
But first! The Brotherhood of Steel would really like you to cleanse some nasty critters from a couple places. And the Railroad would like some enslaved synths liberated, if you could. The Minutemen could also use a hand with, uh, existing. And if it’s not too much to ask, the Institute requests that you actually instead bring back those wayward synths. Per usual, all of these ideologies conflict and cannot be solved peacefully.
And suddenly, there’s no reason to look for Shaun. See, Shaun was actually stolen decades ago! And now he’s an old man! And he is Father, the dude running the Institute! Shocking, I know. This might have been an exciting reveal, but it actually comes across as more like pulling the rug out from under the player.
It is essentially the “it was all a dream” problem. Suddenly, it feels like all of that effort, all of that time spent searching for your son, was a big waste of time. Your son--as the player’s protagonist understands them to exist--is gone, replaced by a simulacrum that is an echo at best. The old man that stands before the player is Shaun, sure, but not the Shaun your character knew.
With the wind taken out of my proverbial sails, all I was left with was a land full of squabbling factions that couldn’t see past their own agendas to work together. All of them claimed to be leading the people of this scorched earth into a brighter tomorrow, and all of them had different methods of getting there. The game was asking me to care about this, to transfer my quest for familial bonds to one of community, but the gap was too wide.
In short: I did not care in the slightest. And I put the game away for months because of it. I found my son, right? Sure, there’s more game there, maybe, but I’d set out what I wanted to accomplish, and everything else felt superficial. I did my time. (There’s something to be said here about how in Witcher 3, someone manages to avoid this road bump despite having functionally the same main through line.) I was done helping out the folks that nothing to do with why I was playing the game.
Until Automatron’s Mechanist started terrorizing my makeshift neighborhood. Whereas all previous threats felt somehow internal to the politics of the region, the Mechanist represents an outside threat that is purely foreign. Someone from the outside is threatening to tumble everything the player’s built--and it isn’t someone that the player can work with to take on everyone else, unlike the others.
Disregarding for a moment how credible of a threat the Mechanist truly is, and it’s not much of one when it comes down to it, it asks the same thing the main quest proper attempts: protect everyone. The machines running amok aren’t concerned with agendas so much as mayhem. Why blast folks for being different when you can just blast everyone? And so Automatron reinforces the message of Fallout 4 in that way.
And honestly, that’s probably the most useful purpose of a relatively small chunk of extra content. It’s hard to say whether it was intentional, and perhaps my own experience isn’t replicated across that of others, but it gets the job done by ever-so-carefully nudging the player back toward what the game seems to actually want in terms of both construction and content. The critical path isn’t quite critical if you can’t get players invested, after all.
It’d be doing experiences like, say, BioShock 2’s Minerva’s Den or Mass Effect 2’s Lair of the Shadow Broker a disservice to directly compare Automatron to them, but many of the same elements are there. Automatron, like these other DLCs, takes a part of what works best in the Fallout series as we know it--namely, horrible misdeeds done in the name of naive righteousness--and repackages it in a more palatable size. The Mechanist isn’t evil, just misguided, and the DLC takes a far shorter amount of time to get to the point. It’s like a miniature vacation that reminds the player of what they’re actually doing.
That isn’t to say the reign of the Mechanist is without its grey areas. But they are smaller, and more easily navigated, than the fog of the base game. In its own way, Automatron is a reminder that Fallout 4 actually can be fun, and interesting, and about protecting your own small slice of an immensely screwed up world. If you want it to be.