Can Character Motives Be Too Strong?

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I’ve been playing a lot of Fallout 4 recently, and I’m starting to hate the protagonist’s motivation.

Just me and my dog, playing catch at the end of the world.
Just me and my dog, playing catch at the end of the world.

In case you aren’t familiar with it, Fallout 4 is set in a post-apocalyptic America with a 1950s vibe. It’s an amazing looking game that lets you interact with a fascinating world, just roaming around, exploring, talking with the people who inhabit it.

That’s where the problem with the motive comes in. As the protagonist, you’re meant to be rescuing your son who has been kidnapped. That’s powerful stuff. It makes sense that, as a parent, you’d be completely focused on that task, to the exclusion of all else. It provides the core for a tense, compelling narrative.

But this is a big sandbox game. I want to wander around, get into conversations and side-quests, rebuild settlements, flirt with the scrappy journalist, upgrade my guns, maybe cook some radstag stew. I’m avoiding the quest for my son because I know that, if I follow it, that will drag me at speed towards the end of the game. I don’t want that end. I want to take my pet dog out hunting molerats.

The result is that, if I step back and think about my character, I realise he’s a terrible person. His wife has just been killed.* His son has been carried off by terrible people. And his response is to wander around, eyeing up the scenery, collecting random junk and chatting with strangers. He should be putting all his energy into saving his family, and most of the time he doesn’t even think about them. I’m trying to play as a good guy, a character rebuilding civilisation, but in the context of the plot my priorities are monstrous.

It’s like those moments in films where the lead characters stop to kiss at the height of the action, and you’re sat there thinking “stop wasting vital seconds – there are lives at stake!” It makes dramatic sense, but not human sense. Their motives to press on have been made too powerful for them to do what the writers want.

In terms of writing, I’ve taken a big lesson from this – strong motives are good, but make sure they aren’t so strong that they’ll outweigh everything else you want to include. In Fallout 4 though, I’m going to stick with being an inconsistent monster. I’m enjoying my wanderings too much not to.

2 thoughts on “Can Character Motives Be Too Strong?”

  1. There are two types of player character. The one with the specific identity and story. So Faith from Mirror’s Edge. She has a look, and dialogue. There are choices, but you are playing as Faith. And there’s the blank slate, who is either you or your concept. So Cmmr Shepherd from Mass Effect, who can be customized and whose words the player chooses. Historically, the Fallout protag has been the latter. It sounds like in this iteration, they’ve gone for the former when maybe it isn’t appropriate for the franchise.

    1. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there. It feels like they’ve developed elements of the game based on 3 and New Vegas, but the elements they’ve developed are mis-matched. The ‘find your family’ quest of 3 has been strengthened, which drives it in a more story direction, but the free wandering has also been strengthened, which suits a more sandbox game. I thought the New Vegas protagonist was a great way of getting around this – when you’ve lost your memory, you’ve got a great excuse to take an interest in whatever you like.

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