In this series, we deconstruct video games and try to improve them. In the last article, we focused on FALLOUT 4, its narrative, and the in-game faction known as “The Railroad.” For this installment, we’ll deconstruct The Institute.
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 the last installment, we talked about The Railroad, transforming this ragtag band of wannabe spies into a clandestine operation full of lies and intrigue. Today, we’re tackling The Institute.
Out of all of FALLOUT 4’s factions, people make fun of The Institute the most. Their actions are both incompetent and corrupt. Their goals are inconsistent and nonsensical. Worst of all, the player never gets a chance to learn anything of substance about them, nor can they change them for the better.
So, how do we improve The Institute? How do we turn these bumbling scientists into a compelling organization? Well, let’s take a look!
Breaking Down The Story
Before we can fix The Institute, we need to understand why it doesn’t work. Normally, I try to keep these articles focused on solutions rather than problems. But The Institute is so poorly written, so confusing, and so full of plot holes, that we really need to drill down and deconstruct it.
The Institute’s motto is “mankind, redefined.” They live in a retro-futuristic utopia beneath the ruins of MIT, where they work on all sorts of wondrous technology to improve their lives.
Their greatest achievements are “synths:” super-advanced, artificial people. The most advanced synths are completely indistinguishable from humans, with blood and flesh reminiscent of the replicants in Blade Runner. In many cases, they’re stronger, smarter, and never need to sleep, eat, or succumb to disease.
The people of The Wasteland are terrified of this organization. They believe they’re kidnapping their friends and family, and replacing them with synthetic clones. To make things worse, their salvage teams shoot civilians on sight. No one is quite sure why they’re doing this, but it’s clear they’re trying to manipulate the wasteland toward some mysterious end.
When The Institute kidnaps the player’s infant son, it becomes their mission to rescue their child and to uncover the truth behind this shady organization.
Now, this is a pretty great setup for a story. Sure, it’s totally derivative of classic sci-fi tropes, but an idea doesn’t have to be original to be compelling. For the first third of the game, I have to say I was enthralled by this little mystery. I genuinely wanted to know why The Institute did what it did, and Bethesda was building this up as some grand conspiracy.
But the problem with The Institute is simple:
Nothing They Do Makes Any Damn Sense
Here’s an example: The Institute wants to test a new strain of crops that can survive in the wasteland. To do this, they enlist the help of an unwitting farming community.
Now, if this was a normal experiment, The Institute would simply give the family the seeds and educate them on proper farming techniques. If they want their involvement to remain secret, they can have a synth pose as a doctor or merchant.
Instead, they decide to kill the family’s father and replace him with a clone. When the experiment is over, they’ll kill the rest of the family.
This isn’t played for laughs. Bethesda expects you to take this seriously.
The Institute is full of situations like this. Their incompetence is the reason super mutants infest the wasteland. They unlock the secrets of immortality, but only ever use it on one person. Synths are constantly escaping, but no one ever thinks to put a tracking device on them. Every problem they have with the surface-world was caused by their own actions, and they continue to do things that make the situation worse.
Some of these actions come with vague, poorly explained motivations. Others aren’t addressed at all. The Institute is the definition of “stupid evil.”
It Gets Worse
But the problems go deeper than this, becoming a constant distraction from the story. At its core is a simple question: why is The Institute making synths?
Their motto is “mankind, redefined,” but they treat their re-definition like mindless robots. They praise their total superiority to humans while putting them down as inferior, sometimes within a single conversation. What is the Institute’s actual goal here? How are they re-defining mankind? They’re using synths to infiltrate the surface, but is that their only major purpose? And to what end? The Institute makes it clear they have no interest in aiding or conquering the surface-world, so what’s the point? All they’re doing is making the wasteland hate them.
Some synths are used as guinea pigs, but this is completely glossed over. If they’re not “real” people, then what’s the point of this research?
It seems the synth’s primary job is to provide manual labor. They spend their time digging tunnels, sweeping floors, and trimming hedges. Why do we need artificial people for this? Robots in FALLOUT 4 are more than intelligent enough for these simple tasks. Hell, two of the game’s companions are highly intelligent, self-aware robots, with their own desires and motivations. Why are synths needed at all?
Not even the scientists know what’s going on. When you enter the Institute’s robotic’s lab, you can overhear two scientists arguing about whether or not synths can dream.
Why the hell is this an argument? How could they not know their creations, which they designed to be as human as possible, could dream? How did this question make it beyond the initial blueprints? Dreaming isn’t some mystical force completely out of our understanding. If you design something with the proper hormones and brain functions, it’s probably going to dream.
The Story Is Driven by Faulty Philosophy
This leads to a broader problem. The Institute’s story rests on this moral question of whether or not synths are people. This “philosophical dilemma” falls apart under scrutiny. The Institute is building life-forms out of meat, organs, and brain matter. They’re built to be indistinguishable from humans. They should have an idea of what they’re capable of. Why are they so surprised that these beings they designed to think and feel… can think and feel?
This would be fine if The Institute was a religious organization, or a business, or any sort of “normal” society driven by propaganda, ideals, and cultural norms. But Bethesda portrays The Institute as a collection of cold, dispassionate scientists driven solely by science and data.
This isn’t BLADE RUNNER. We’re not asking questions about the soul, or dealing with corrupt legislators controlled by shadowy corporations. This isn’t a culture driven by morals, trying to justify its actions through lies and propaganda. There’s no reason to question the sentience or free-will of synths, and yet the entire story rests on this “compelling” debate.
Confusion and Dissonance
The most infuriating thing about The Institute is that the player can never ask “why?” If you explore a bit, you discover all sorts of unethical experiments, strange behavior, and a bizarre lack of cohesive goals within The Institute. At best, the scientists seem incompetent and confused. At worst, they seem like complete sociopaths. All the while, The Institute’s leader ensures you that they’re just misunderstood, that in time you’ll understand that their actions are for the greater good.
Either way, the player can never address any of this. You can never confront the scientists, ask them to justify their behavior, or even ask basic questions about their goals. At the end of the day, it feels less like Bethesda created a nuanced, mysterious, 3-dimensional faction, and more like they had several writers that never properly coordinated or established a common vision.
Revamp the Institute’s Motivations
Considering it’s the lynchpin of the entire story, the most jarring thing about The Institute is its utter lack of motivation. This is the most infamous flaw in FALLOUT 4’s story, and people have analyzed, lampooned, and criticized it at length.
In short, The Institute lacks a central vision, a cohesive theme or role within the story. There’s a difference between complexity and inconsistency, and Bethesda’s inability to understand this leads to many of the story’s problems.
Let’s Fix This
Let’s give The Institute a clear, cohesive agenda. One that can marry some of these conflicting ideas into a set of goals.
First off, we need to downplay the “are synths human?” concept. It’s derivative, confused, and doesn’t suit a dispassionate, scientific organization. Let’s shift the discussion toward another question: What do we do with the synths?
Take a step back and look at the situation: we have a super-advanced society of scientists, whose goal is “redefine mankind.” They’ve created a race of people who are immune to disease, never age, and never need to sleep or eat. They can also be programmed to be stronger, smarter, and more resilient than the average human.
Based on this description alone, what does it sound like The Institute is trying to do?
The Goal: Replace Humans With Synths
This immediately fixes most of The Institute’s problems and explains their actions. They’re sending synths to the surface to test their ability to survive and socialize, as well to prepare the surface for invasion. They’re so willing to kill people because they see humanity, including themselves, as an outdated relic of the past. Everything they do is working toward this goal of literally redefining humanity.
What does that mean for the rest of us? Do they plan to wipe us all out? Enslave us to our new synthetic overlords? Where do the scientists fit into their own plan? That’s for the player to find out.
The goal here is to solidify The Institute’s role as the “villains,” while providing some room for moral ambiguity. Think of them as FALLOUT 4’s version of NEW VEGAS’s Legion: a decidedly “evil” organization that’s still worth exploring, understanding, and possibly joining.
A New Outlook On Synths
We should also tweak the way The Institute treats the synths. FALLOUT 4’s story revolves around themes of parenthood and familial relationships. In the base game, synths are made from the DNA of The Institute’s leader. He is, quite literally, their father. Once you begin to compare The Institute’s actions to that of a concerned parent, as opposed to an ignorant slave-holder, their behavior makes a bit more sense.
In short, The Institute shouldn’t see synths as slaves. They should see them as children.
Just like parents see the potential in their children, so too should The Institute. Just like parents control their children’s lives, so too should The Institute. While they believe the synths will inherit the world, they don’t believe they’re ready yet.
The Institute’s current goal is to improve their synths as much as possible, to properly socialize them, and to prepare them for life on the surface. This is a long-term plan that’s been in the works for centuries. There’s no room in the plan for free-will or human rights. The synths will be tested, modified, and monitored as much as possible. The “parents” know what’s best.
The Institute keeps their goal a secret, even from their creations. If they know The Institute is grooming them for global dominance, it may interfere with the experiments. Of course, the downside is that the synths believe they’re slaves and guinea-pigs, causing them to rebel and escape.
This also adds a new dimension to The Railroad. They, like most people, believe that synths are mere slaves. If they knew how dangerous synths could be to humanity, how would they respond?
Explain How Synths Escape The Institute
In the base game, Bethesda attempts to explain how synths can escape a completely sealed, underground laboratory with no physical exit. To their credit, they almost succeed, and it’s one of the only pieces of the story that they thoroughly explain.
In short, someone within The Institute is cooking the books, forging documents, and manipulating events to allow certain synths to go on “surface missions.” They then send out a signal to The Railroad, who help the synths escape The Commonwealth.
There’s only one major problem with this process: it’s all devised by some random kid.
In the base game, this entire conspiracy stems from a young biologist who lives in The Institute. He somehow managed to bypass all of The Institute’s security on his own, for years, without getting caught.
Let’s Fix This
There needs to be more people behind this conspiracy. Maybe a group of scientists has grown too attached to the synths, and think they deserve to live their lives freely regardless of the risks. Maybe they’ve grown disillusioned with the plan, and want humans to live alongside synths instead. Whatever the case, there needs to be an entire cabal of rebels within The Institute, secretly sending their “children” to the surface.
Most importantly, we need a simple explanation for why escaped synths are so hard to find. The fact that no one ever thinks to put a tracking device in their brains is a massive plot hole that makes the entire story collapse.
Just a single line about removing a synth’s tracking device can easily solve this problem. Perhaps removing the tracker can cause them to malfunction, or lose elements of their memory. This could explain why, despite so many synths escaping, none of them are able to give The Railroad any useful information about The Institute.
Show Us Why Synths Are Dangerous
The Institute insists that synths are a danger to themselves and others, and use this to justify their treatment of them. According to them, synths can easily wreak havoc on the wasteland without proper guidance and control.
This is something that the base game hints at. In a quest for The Institute, we discover an escaped synth who has become the leader of a violent raider-clan. But, as usual, FALLOUT 4 introduces this idea but never explores it.
Let’s Fix This
If Bethesda wants us to sympathize with The Institute at all, then we need more evidence of how dangerous a synth can be.
In the original BLADE RUNNER, for example, we immediately understand why replicants are denied free-will, even if we find it morally wrong. Most are only a few years old and lack emotional intelligence. They never developed the basic interpersonal skills that come with decades of social interaction. As a result, they’re effectively sociopaths. Combine this with super strength and enhanced intelligence, and you can start to understand why these beings are kept under strict control.
Let’s apply this to FALLOUT 4’s world. What happens when someone who has no understanding of morality or empathy suddenly has to survive in the hostile wasteland? What happens when you make this person superior to a normal human? It’s a recipe for disaster.
Sure, The Railroad can implant new memories into a synth, making them more emotionally stable, but what happens when these “normal” people run out of water, only to realize they don’t actually need it? How traumatic must it be to realize your entire life is a lie?
The game touches on some of this, but we should explore this further. We should come across random people who just realized they’re synths, scared and traumatized. Every now and then, the player should come across a raider or a gangster who ends up being a synth. A mini-boss being synthetic could explain their extra health. In short, we need to see the dark side of letting synths run free.
The goal here isn’t to put The Institute on the same moral plane as The Railroad, but to leave the player with a sense of moral nuance.
Tweak Shaun’s Role
One of the biggest flaws of the story is how the player’s child, revealed to be the leader of The Institute (don’t ask), is absolutely insufferable.
He seems to have complete, almost despotic control over The Institute. When he selects the player as his replacement, no one has the right to outvote his decision. At the same time, he does nothing to stop or justify the numerous corrupt experiments going on under his nose.
Shaun talks about how dangerous synths are to the surface world, and yet he murders innocent people to replace them with synths. He concludes the surface world is doomed to anarchy, even though much of this is The Institute’s fault. He insists The Institute has humanity’s best interest in mind but never does a thing to help anyone but himself.
Worst of all, instead of sending you straight to The Institute when he discovered you were alive, he sends you on a nonsensical, wild goose chase as an “experiment.” Every time the player tries to confront his strange logic, he merely explains that it will all become clear “in time.” It never does.
Look, I get that “Father” is supposed to be a bit frustrating to deal with. The whole point is that your son was raised and brainwashed by a group of “evil” scientists. There should be a lot of tension between the two of you. As it stands, however, he’s just irredeemable.
Let’s Fix This
First off, Shaun shouldn’t lead The Institute. Instead, he should be the newest member of the executive committee. This gives him a ton of power but allows him to be naive to The Institute’s darker secrets. This also explains why he can’t just teleport you to The Institute the moment you wake up. Maybe he wasn’t allowed to directly aid you, and instead left clues behind to help you find him.
Most importantly, we need to interact with him more. It’s basically a meme at this point, but from the moment you finally reunite with your son, all he does is send you on one chore after another. You could say this is intentional, but it’s in no way interesting or compelling. Shaun should work together with the player, as they try to uncover the mysteries of The Institute.
Allow the player to actually debate with Shaun, to argue with their son about The Institute’s actions. Let us push back against his arrogant proclamations and lack of compassion. If we’re persuasive enough, let us actually change his mind about certain things. Maybe we can even work to change The Institute for the better?
We should get the chance to solve problems together, to bicker with one another, even to bond with one another in some small way. Bethesda wants us to feel alienated from our son, but if we’re not attached to him at all, why should we care?
The Institute may be a bit unoriginal, but there’s a ton of potential here. Too often, it feels like Bethesda has the beginning of a great idea, but never bothers to follow through. Nowhere is this more blatant than with The Institute. It takes a bit more work than the other factions, but with a clear goal in mind, we can turn these bumbling egg-heads into a nuanced, consistent organization.
So what can we can learn from Bethesda’s mistakes? Well, what I learned is that ideas alone can’t make a compelling story. It all rests on a clear vision.
One Last Step
But there’s one last thing that could save The Institute. We’ve created a much darker, less confused version of this shadowy society. But why would any player want to join a faction whose goal is to “replace” humanity?
It’s simple, we just need to make the character a synth. We’ll talk about this more in a future installment of the series, where go over the main questline.
But these are just a few of my ideas. There are countless ways to improve upon The Institute and FALLOUT 4 as a whole. What do you think? Do you think The Institute needs fixing? How would you fix it?