So, a lot has been said online about the faction system that appears in Fallout 4, and the lackluster ending that each faction ends up working its way towards. Having recently finished the main quest - which I'd previously been putting off for a number of reasons, including foreknowledge that the ending was going to be terrible - I've got a few thoughts about why the factions and their causes feel so unsatisfying compared to the ones in other games produced or developed by Bethesda Softworks. In a way, I guess you could say the problem is that there's not a clear goal that you're fighting for, at least, not in the same way that you were in those games.
In Fallout 3, the Brotherhood of Steel and the Enclave end up fighting for control of a device that will purify the irradiated water of the Potomac River and thus help everybody in the region. While the Brotherhood emerges victorious at the end of the game, you have the option to decide whether you want to secretly let them win by putting a toxin into the water that will kill off anyone contaminated with radiation.
In Fallout New Vegas, all three factions are fighting for complete control of the energy-producing Hoover Dam and the lucrative nearby city of New Vegas in order to either expand their borders and spread their way of life across the Mojave Wasteland, or, in Mr House's case, to implement a complicated plan to restore the world to a Pre-War state.
In Skyrim, the two factions are fighting over the status of the titular province, and whether it should remain a part of the Empire of Tamriel despite the humiliating conditions pressed upon it by the nefarious Thalmor, who previously waged a devastating war against the Empire, or whether it should be independent and challenging the Thalmor.
With all three of these games, the choices you make will change the lives of absolutely everybody living in the worlds. Is it worth poisoning the radiation-afflicted residents of the Capital Wasteland in order to rid the world of the hideous mutated creatures that roam it, or are they a rightful part of a new ecosystem? Is allowing Caesar's Legion to conquer the Mojave and end the threat of Raiders forever worth letting them enslave people and warp their sense of identity until it matches the status quo, or is it a better choice to let the NCR incorporate them into their democratic yet woefully inefficient and corrupt bureaucratic state? Is it better to stay in the Empire of Tamriel and plot revenge against the Thalmor as a united realm, or to break free and fight alongside the Empire as an ally? In the end, the choices all come down to personal opinion, with the player deciding just which faction fits best with their preferred creeds, or whose plans don't have a negative consequence that the player wouldn't be able to tolerate.
This brings us to Fallout 4, where we have four big factions who are all fighting each other, but effectively over nothing valuable in particular, aside from the ability to brag that they're the only remaining major faction in the Commonwealth. Officially, the struggle is tied to the status of the Institute, but unlike the situations in the other games, you've only got two options; save the Institute and destroy every other faction, or destroy the Institute - and probably every other faction as well. Now, destroying another faction doesn't then lead to your chosen faction occupying their bases and utilising their resources to consolidate control, it just leads to the area becoming another empty ruin, which makes the whole exercise somewhat pointless - and also clashes strongly with the core game mechanic of settling ruined buildings and scavenging materials in order to allow people to thrive. You're not really changing the lives of the people of the Commonwealth; you're just fighting a gang war.
To explain what I mean by this, we need to take a closer look at the four factions vying for the position of top dog in the Commonwealth Wasteland;
First, we have the Minutemen, who are the default "good" faction in the Wasteland, and who are pretty hard to alienate as a result. Their only goal is to ensure that the average people struggling to survive in the Wasteland can do so without having to worry about threats from Raiders or Mutants or other nasty creatures.
Next, we have the Institute, who are the default "bad" faction in the Wasteland, at least when you consider how they're portrayed in the story. They're a group of scientific minds who're attempting to rebuild society deep underground using their advanced technologies, but they insist upon continuously developing "Synths" - synthetic life forms who may or may not be sentient - and sending them to the surface to carry out their dirty work or infiltrate communities by replacing certain people.
Next on the list is the Railroad, who have one goal, and one goal alone; freeing the Synths from the Institute and then helping them find places where they can live out natural lives instead of ones spent in servitude.
Lastly, we have the Brotherhood of Steel themselves, who're a recurring faction from older games obsessed with collecting technology and keeping it out of the hands of everybody else so it can't be misused, but who in this game have developed into an extremist group determined to eradicate anything that can be considered "unnatural", be it Mutant, Ghoul or Synth, regardless of sentience.
Right, so those are our four factions, so now let's consider just what will happen to the Commonwealth if any of them win? The Railroad, although they have noble goals, are clearly the worst choice for the Commonwealth, as they're only interested in helping Synths...the second the Brotherhood and the Institute are gone, they have nothing else that they can do for the Wasteland. It is possible for the Minutemen to form an alliance with them and go ahead with their goal to offer protection to the people of the Wasteland, but this just begs the question of why the Railroad is even a major faction at all, when they could have been an optional minor group allied with your faction, like one of the many smaller factions in Fallout New Vegas.
The Minutemen themselves are also unfortunately flawed, in the sense that their desire to police the Wasteland hasn't got very much to it. There's no complicated issues to debate about whether your choice is an ethical one or not, or whether it will have a negative impact on part of the Wasteland, it all just boils down to whether you want the settlements of the Wasteland to be protected from danger or not - and the only reason one wouldn't want that would be if they were siding with the Raiders in the Nuka-World DLC. Again, it makes you wonder why this was even a major faction at all in this form, when they end up being little more than NPC guards roaming around settlements, or an expanded version of the Regulators in Fallout 3, and leading them to victory requires the complete destruction of all the advanced technology held by the Brotherhood of Steel and the Institute, but in a sense, it could be seen as the equivalent of the "Independence" option from Fallout New Vegas.
This leaves us with the Brotherhood of Steel and the Institute, both of which are massive groups that are devoted to science and technology in some way, but with significantly different end goals, and ones that actually have interesting ethical conundrums connected to them. The Brotherhood genuinely seeks to bring peace and stability to the East Coast, and spends most of its time gathering useful technology and eradicating dangerous threats to the people of the Wasteland, but they also plan to eradicate anything that is less than a pure human, regardless of whether they're friendly or not - as a result, many have drawn comparisons between them and Nazis. The Institute has some of the most advanced technology seen in the Fallout series, including the ability to create living creatures and animals, suggesting that in time, they could actually restore flora and fauna lost as a result of the Nuclear Armageddon, but they're also playing God with the inhabitants of the Commonwealth; replacing certain humans with synths and also sending synth forces to the surface to carry out their dirty work.
Of these two, the former works fine in the game as a faction, but the latter finds itself significantly flawed. Over the course of Fallout 4, a player siding with the Institute will find themselves set to become the next leader of the Institute, who will guide through the coming years, and they can even put down an attempted rebellion against themselves, but in the game itself they have no actual control over what the Institute does in the game. Now, a lack of control makes sense for a member of the Brotherhood, where they're taking orders from the actual leader, Arthur Maxson, but when you are allegedly the leader of another faction, an inability to give any orders while your team makes strange choice after strange choice defies logic. The Institute claims that it has no interest in the affairs of the people of the Commonwealth and also views working with the surface as a waste of time, yet a victorious Institute assumes control over Diamond City and openly sends Synth forces there, while also continuing to send Synth forces to the surface to eradicate dangerous creatures and retrieve scrap items. Considering at this point the player may have control over a number of surface settlements and even have developed a trade network of some sort by the time they officially become Director of the Institute, it beggars belief that it's not possible to attempt to mend relations between the Institute and the people of the Commonwealth, or at least put an end to the more questionable things the Institute does.
In the end, we have two factions that have no plans to actually do anything for the people of the Commonwealth, and another two that do want to make things better, but by destroying the seat of operations of another faction without trying to retrieve any of their technology - which could be compared to Fallout 3 ending with Project Purity being destroyed rather than captured - or even recruit the people from that group - and even then, most of the factions call for the brutal murder of at least one other faction due to an inability for them to compromise on any issue, meaning you might end up being forced to kill someone not because you fundamentally disagree with them, but because you agree with their opponent slightly more. Mass murder on a scale that's so petty it puts real world dictators to shame. No matter which option you pick in Fallout 4, you and the rest of the Commonwealth are losing. To quote WarGames, "the only winning move is not to play."
So, having spent the last few paragraphs talking about how these factions and their endings don't work in Fallout 4, let me now tell you how I'd have set up the faction system for Fallout 4 had I been a part of the production team. As a start, there would be only two main faction choices; the Institute and the Brotherhood of Steel - plus an "Independent" route that I'll come back to - but then both of these factions would be expanded to create internal conflicts that you resolve over the course of the game in order to shape how the endgame goes - and also get an actual ending that varies depending on your choices, as opposed to a weak slideshow monologue that doesn't touch on what the fate of the Commonwealth will be, and which winds up being similar in tone to the infamous original Mass Effect III ending.
For instance, let's say you're playing as someone who's keen to join the Institute. As in Fallout 4, Father would summon a meeting of the lead scientists of the Institute to announce that he plans to make you his successor, but then after that, you'd be approached by different scientists who, since Father is dying, are keen to cozy up to you and try and push their agenda. One group might be keen to abandon the surface completely and retreat into their underground sanctuary to continue their studies, while manufacturing and sending Synths to the surface instead to source the materials they need, while another group might be convinced that they're focusing too much on Synth labour and/or that Synths are clearly showing sentience, and thus they should be treated as equals rather than servants - with the trade-off being that their studies do suffer as a result of them not having easy access to the resources that are retrieved from the surface. The latter scenario could result in you doing missions where you secretly meet with the mysterious "Railroad" in order to sneak Synths in and out and undermine the authority of the rival Institute group until you can stage a coup of sorts and force them out of power, before then deciding what to do about the Brotherhood of Steel. It's not hard to imagine a similar storyline taking place for the Brotherhood itself, with the inhabitants of the Prydwen being torn between those who favour Arthur Maxson's hardline rule, and those who feel he's gone too far and needs to be replaced. What of the Minutemen, you might ask? They'd still be in the game, but instead of a main faction, they'd be akin to the Companions in Skyrim; a mercenary group of sorts that has special missions and radiant quests to offer, and which is merely trying to keep the peace amidst the chaos that is raging.
...uh, so, thoughts on this, everyone?
Listening to: Shia LaBeouf
Reading: The Custard Stops At Hatfield
Watching: The Dom Reviews
Playing: Fallout 4
Eating: Butter Chicken
Drinking: Tropical Juice