In this series, we deconstruct video games and try to improve them. For this installment, we focus on FALLOUT 4, its narrative, and the in-game faction known as “The Railroad.”

You may not have noticed, but I talk a lot about Bethesda. In my defense, they give me a lot to talk about. Their games are an ocean wide, but a puddle deep. The gameplay is open-ended but shallow. They excel at emergent storytelling, but their writing is atrocious. Their games receive critical praise but inevitably get trashed by both fans and pundits on the internet. Nowhere is this more evident than in FALLOUT 4.

FALLOUT 4’s issues have been discussed at length. So, rather than continue to bash the game for its problems, why not learn from it instead? What can this game’s shortcomings teach us about narrative, gameplay, and worldbuilding? How can we improve upon FALLOUT 4?

In this series, we’re gonna try and fix FALLOUT 4 piece by piece, with particular attention to story, worldbuilding, and role-play. We’ll be going through every aspect of the game-world, particularly the various factions the player can join. These won’t be minor changes, either. By the time this series is done, FALLOUT 4 will be a very different game. This probably goes without saying, but these articles will be filled with major spoilers.

Today we’re focusing on The Railroad: a rag-tag band of spies who rescue synthetic humans from The Institute, a group of scientists who enslave them.

So, where did Bethesda go wrong with these freedom-fighters? What can we do differently? Can we turn these cliched rebels into three-dimensional characters? Well, let’s take a look!

Alter the Story and Motivation of The Railroad

The most glaring flaw with The Railroad is its role in the story. The game has four endings based on which faction you join, but three of them wind up in the same place: nuking The Institute from underground.

There’s no regard for whether this makes sense for the faction in question. Bethesda wanted to end their game with a bang, regardless of logic or player choice.

Why would an organization dedicated to the well-being of synths nuke the only place on Earth that creates them? Why would they waste all the research, all the knowledge that they helped develop, rendering their sacrifices meaningless?

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Not only are they destroying the only place that will help them understand what they are and how they’re made, but they’re destroying the only place in the world that will allow them to continue as a species. That’s right: there’s no indication that synths can reproduce on their own. By nuking The Institute, synths are doomed to die as a species.

Is this what the synths want? Well, we have no way of knowing because The Railroad is run entirely by natural-born humans. The only synth running the organization died shortly before this quest takes place.

So what we end up with is a group of people who think they know what’s best for another group of people, dooming them to extinction in order to save them.

…What?

Fallout 4 Institute Railroad
“You’re welcome!” – The Railroad

Let’s Fix This

First off, we need to completely revamp The Railroad’s motivation and structure.

It doesn’t make sense for an organization of this size to focus so heavily on helping synths. Bethesda portrays The Commonwealth as a place on the brink of mass hysteria. The Institute is kidnapping people and replacing them with identical synths. Best friends are turning on each other, brothers are killing each other in the streets. Someone accuses his girlfriend of being a synth because she left the cap off the damn toothpaste.

The Commonwealth is a place of fear and post-apocalyptic ignorance. It strains credulity to think that an organization dedicated to helping synths would gain enough support to accomplish its goals.

The Railroad needs to change its image. Their outward focus should be about fighting The Institute. That’s a goal everyone in the Commonwealth can get behind. Their “true” purpose needs to be a bit more secretive, a second objective known only to more trusted members. This adds a sinister air to The Railroad, as they’re misleading their own people about their ultimate goal: to free synths and integrate them into society.

As the player rises through the ranks, they should ease into this realization, with numerous clues and comments along the way. The player should feel like they’re earning The Railroad’s trust, slowly entering into the inner circle of this clandestine operation.

But why do their leaders care so much about synths? In a world where people are starving, dying of disease, and under constant attack from violent mutants, why focus so much on the well-being of a tiny minority?

Because the leaders of The Railroad are all synths.

Lies and Deception

Think about it: what could be a better twist? Something to put a bit of an edge on this organization? If The Railroad is secretly led by escaped synths, then this adds a new dimension to the story. Are they just manipulating us? Are their goals selfish? If they’re capable of this level of deception, can you trust them at all? What are their true goals for The Institute, and the wasteland as a whole?

This allows the player to experience the same sense of confusion, paranoia, and betrayal as the people of The Commonwealth. Your friends, whom you’ve fought and killed for, have been lying to you. All this time, you thought you were gaining their trust, only to find yet another secret. To make things even more uncomfortable, it should be clear that these synths are inhumanly smart, strong, and resilient. Not only were they hiding this from you the whole time, but you’re left wondering what the world would be like if these people had free reign.

The goal here isn’t to put The Railroad on the same moral plane as The Institute, but to leave the player wondering if these people are worth trusting, despite their benevolent goals.

A New Resolution

To make things even more interesting, The Railroad shouldn’t destroy The Institute. They should take over. The Institute is full of all sorts of medicine, research, and technology that could drastically improve The Commonwealth, for both synths and natural humans. When The Institute is finally under Railroad control, the synths should be left wondering how they plan to govern themselves, and how much they should integrate with society. In the end, they should choose to share The Institute’s technology with the Commonwealth as a show of good faith.

The player should wonder if this is a genuine act of altruism or yet another selfish ploy to get the wasteland to trust them. The result is a “happy ending” with a mysterious undertone.

The Railroad is supposedly an organization of secrets, lies, and mystery. These themes should color everything they do.

Play Up the Spy Angle

The coolest thing about The Railroad is its initial presentation. When you begin the game, people speak of them only in hushed whispers. All you know is that they’re the only group willing and able to fight The Institute, implying they must be very powerful, very secretive, or both.

Eventually, an NPC will approach you. He’ll tell you that if you want to fight The Institute, you need to “follow The Freedom Trail.” This clue results in a puzzle, guiding the player to The Railroad’s secret base. This is one of the few moments of FALLOUT 4 with a real sense of atmosphere, mystery, and anticipation. Who are these people? What’s their angle? How the hell are they fighting against the most advanced and dangerous organization in the wasteland?

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The Freedom Trail leads to an old church, where you descend into the dank catacombs. The tension rises, the mystery reaches a climax. What is The Railroad?

Then you discover the password to their hideout is “Railroad” and it all sort of falls apart from there.

Turns out The Railroad is yet another example of the “misfit rebels” trope. Right before the player joins them, their entire operation was conveniently destroyed by The Institute, leaving only a few members to pick up the pieces.

Of course, it’s the player’s job to build them back up again. You do this almost exclusively by killing scores of people because that’s all FALLOUT 4 knows how to do.

Let’s Fix This

I want more moments like that initial quest. The Railroad’s quests should reward stealth, puzzle-solving, code-breaking and non-combat solutions. None of this should be forced upon the player, but it should be clear that there are additional rewards and story-benefits for keeping a low profile and working behind the scenes. The Railroad should feel like an invisible force of chaotic good in the wasteland.

The Railroad FALLOUT 4
This should be a symbol of hope for The Commonwealth

When the player attempts to take over The Institute, it should happen quietly, undercover, behind the scenes. This is already an aspect of the base game, but the “spy-work” you do feels very limited and unsatisfying. I want the sweet catharsis of eating away at this organization from within. I want to falsify documents, sabotage resources, lie through my teeth to superiors. If someone gets suspicious, I want to make them disappear, making it look like an “accident.”

The Railroad should be about intelligence, manipulation, and espionage. The player should constantly question the morality of their actions, and whether the ends justify the means.

More Characterization

I just finished The Railroad questline, and I’ll be damned if I can tell you a single thing about these people. Other than Deacon, the members of The Railroad are nameless NPCs at worst, and one-dimensional quest-givers at best.

This is a problem with FALLOUT 4 as a whole. You can never really interact with anyone unless it relates to a quest. In those rare instances where you can, the conversation never goes very deep.

Most of the dialogue follows a simple formula:

  1. NPC tells you something.
  2. Player responds with one of four variations of the same line.
  3. NPC speaks a single line of dialogue in response.
  4. Conversation continues without regard to what the player said.

This makes it impossible to have an emotional and realistic conversation. Playful banter becomes awkward and debate is impossible. There’s nothing dynamic about the conversations in FALLOUT 4. They’re just railroads leading you to another slaughter-fest.

The exception here, of course, are the companions, most of whom are very well-written and enjoyable to be around. But Bethesda stopped there, leaving an emotional black hole in the game’s narrative.

Let’s Fix This

If The Railroad has any chance of working on an emotional level, we’ll need a much deeper level of player expression and engagement. There needs to be a greater focus on character development, a deeper level of interaction between the player and the people.

But none of this matters if the characters suck. So how do we make them more interesting? Well, I’m not going to go through each of them, but let’s focus on the key players.

Desdemona

FALLOUT 4 The Railroad Desdemona

In the base game, Desdemona is a bit bland. She’s supposed to be the charismatic leader, but she comes off as both cold and sanctimonious. She should begin as a larger than life figure, prone to passionate speeches and intricate plans, but she should open up to you as the story goes on.

You should get the sense that while she’s a smart, charismatic woman, she worries if she’s truly capable of leading the organization. She should wrestle with her decision to lie to her followers, but she’s well aware that revealing her true nature would destroy everything she’s worked toward.

In general, she needs to become more of a person, someone who’s enjoyable to be around, but deeply flawed and damaged as an individual. In the end, it should be clear that she doesn’t have all the answers. She’s neither a paragon of virtue nor a master manipulator. She’s just a person who was “born” into a bad situation and did what she thought was right.

Glory

FALLOUT 4 Glory The Railroad Synth

Glory simply needs to interact with the player more. She’s supposed to be the emotional heart of the story, but this falls flat when you never truly get to know her. She needs to be part of more quests and she needs more dialogue in general. Glory should be portrayed as a headstrong, trigger-happy young synth with a strong moral center.

Her name should be a call-back to the bygone days of America, where she believes (rightly or wrongly) everyone was free. To that end, she wants to live in a society where synths are equals.

Unlike most synths, she refuses to hide what she is from anyone. Thankfully, she has the combat skills to survive in a world where everyone despises her. We need to see this woman in action. We should be thankful she’s on our side, instead of The Institute’s.

At the same time, her very existence can act as a foil to The Railroad’s beliefs. Sure, Glory uses her skills to help people, but in a world of free synths, what happens if they turn on us?

As the only “open” synth in the organization, she’s probably a deeply lonely individual. On the surface, she should look down on synths that go into hiding, calling them “cowards.” In truth, she’s looking for someone to relate to. She’s likely loyal but disgruntled with The Railroad, disillusioned by her people’s need to hide.

Her Death Should Mean Something

When Glory dies, the player should feel like they lost a friend. They should feel like someone’s life was truly cut short. This can only happen through adequate character development, and enough dialogue to get to know her as a person.

To pour salt in the wound, it should be clear that even Glory, a synth herself, had no idea that The Railroad was run by synths. In a way, she was being used by her own people. She’s essentially a “mascot” for the organization, living proof that a synth is just as human as anyone else.

But Desdemona doesn’t think she can keep a secret this huge, keeping her in the dark until her final days. Glory dies unfulfilled, with no idea she planted the seeds for the very society she was looking to find. Desdemona’s reaction to this moment should be the breaking point for her character. After you enact some much-needed revenge, she should reveal The Railroad’s true nature to the player.

P.A.M.

FALLOUT 4 PAM P.A.M. Railroad Robot

The Predictive Analytic Machine, or P.A.M., has so much potential. Not only is she built up in an intriguing way, but she adds so much flavor to The Railroad’s narrative.

This organization liberates people who are essentially biological robots. How do “traditional” robots fit into this? When does virtual intelligence become artificial intelligence? What do the different members of The Railroad think of her? They touch on all of this but don’t really explore any of it.

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In the base game, P.A.M’s primary purpose is to provide repetitive fetch quests for the player. Instead, let’s make P.A.M. a more dynamic presence within the story. She should voice opinions in meetings, disregard orders, and generally seem bewildered by emotional human behavior.

It should never be clear how much of a personality she truly has. She should never break her dispassionate tone, nor her robotic delivery, but she should constantly act like a robot slowly transforming into a person.

Deacon

Deacon Fallout 4 Railroad

Deacon is the only character in The Railroad with actual depth. His personality, behavior, and story-arc matches perfectly with our plans for The Railroad. He’s a playful, mischievous, compulsive liar with a heart of gold. He’s constantly making up stories about his exploits, about his past, about just about anything. Imagine the payoff if this character managed to deceive the player in a way they didn’t expect. What if this obvious liar had a less obvious secret?

Deacon should be one of the synths leading The Railroad. He should be the emotional center of this “big reveal.” Just when you thought he truly opened up, you discover he was lying to you the whole time. How the player responds to this revelation is up to them. Imagine the fanbase split over whether or not to forgive him, the debates on social media. If only Bethesda had the narrative chops to incite such an emotional reaction.

Tinker Tom

Tinker Tom Railroad FALLOUT 4

Tinker Tom is a classic case of a good idea poorly executed. The “paranoid genius” angle is overplayed but can be effective in the right hands. Unfortunately, they go a bit too far with the “stereotypical 50s black man” schtick, making a lot of his dialogue downright cringe-worthy. While he’s clearly the smartest member of The Railroad, he still comes off as a bit incompetent, especially during the climax when he can barely pilot the vertibird he helped steal.

Tinker Tom should remain a comic relief character, but he should always know what he’s doing. His plans should be “just crazy enough to work,” and the player should feel stunned and surprised when he pulls off impossible tasks with his insane solutions. Even his most bizarre choices (like injecting you with a serum to keep The Institute “out of your blood”) should have some unexpected utility down the line.

The best part of the paranoid genius trope is when the genius is proven right. If we’re sticking with the “Railroad run by synths” angle, then we have a lot to work with here.

Tinker Tom constantly suspects he’s being watched, used, or manipulated. What if his suspicions are correct, but he’s blaming the wrong people? How will he react when he learns he can’t even trust his friends?

Alternatively, what if Tinker Tom is a synth himself? Imagine the irony of a man ruled by paranoid delusions being part of his own conspiracy. What if his paranoia is a result of living in The Institute, constantly watched and controlled by his “masters”? What if his behavior is the result of “faulty programming”?  Tom could be a flawed prototype, a hyper-intelligent synth suffering from paranoid delusions.

Missed Opportunity

Each of these characters is full of potential. There’s endless opportunity for dialogue, quests, and player choices. Bethesda just needs to work with what they have and recognize the value of a well-developed character.

The Point

You may be wondering why I decided to go write this. The game’s been out for a while, and it’s not like Bethesda’s going to take this advice to heart. So what’s the point?

Well, on one hand, I wanted to shine a light on the potential Bethesda is wasting. I wanted to showcase the brilliance of their worlds, too often left on the cutting room floor. There’s value in-depth, choice, and a well-told story. If Bethesda wants to keep improving, then hopefully they’ll realize this.

On the other hand, I think deconstructing a bad game helps us understand games in general. It’s easy to trash a game you don’t like, but unless you take the time to analyze it, what good does that do? Understanding games are the key to appreciating them. It’s also the key to making games themselves.

At this point, we can only hope modders pick up where Bethesda left off. Nothing I’ve suggested here is unprecedented. Given the strength of the game’s modding community, I have no doubt someone could accomplish everything I’ve listed above. Hopefully, with the right tools, they can give this game the attention it deserves.

But these are just my ideas. What are yours? How would you fix The Railroad?

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