Note: some spoilers for the appearance and behaviour of a relatively early companion NPC follow, as do references to one of the world’s central and ongoing conflicts. None of the ‘main’ plot events are spoiled, however.
There are many familiar archetypes when it comes to roleplaying companions. The snarky jokester one. The sexy-but-secretly-sad one. The cute or comic appearance but incongruously murderous one. The noble truth-seeking one. The rogueish but with a heart of gold one. The chosen one. The totally outlandish one. The guilty one. The grumpy one. The happy one. The sneezy one. We know ’em all, we’ve liked many and hated some, loved a few, rolled our eyes at the obviousness of more still.
Nick, one of Fallout 4 [official site]’s optional companions, could easily fit into one or more of those categories, but I feel he has a more defining trait, and one which I don’t believe any other RPG party member has managed to the same extent: kindness.
I don’t mean simply ‘good-hearted’ or ‘keen to help the needy’ or ‘is happy to do whatever you ask’ or ‘brings you gifts occasionally.’ I mean actual kindness. Grandfatherly kindness. An innate, obvious tenderness and warmth that isn’t undermined by shooting raiders and mutants. His actions, yes, are often as violent as anyone else’s in the wasteland, but as I wrote in my review, I think that almost everything defaulting to shooting is a fundamental weakness in Fallout 4, so I don’t believe that it undermines Nick’s beneficent disposition.
I should also state very clearly for the record at this point that I believe Nick’s admirable personality is in spite of Fallout 4’s still-rudimentary party management and dialogue, not because of it. Yes, he comes across just as ridiculous as anyone else when he’s looping the same combat barks or spends the entire duration of a quest stuck on a window frame. There’s that essential, marionette-like Bethesda Gameiness to him, but as with the glitches either you shrug that stuff off as an unwanted gherkin in your otherwise delicious burger, or decide that it’s so unacceptable in a big-studio release that you just can’t enjoy the game. Personally, I’m doing the former.
LAST WARNING: SPOILERS ABOUT AN NPC’S IDENTITY BEGIN BELOW.
Voice and face in harmony. That’s what it’s about. Which is particularly good going given that he has this face:
Nick Valentine is gumshoe in the noir tradition, and also a Synth, which is what the Commonwealth calls a more advanced type of Android than the Fallout norm. Synths are generally hated and feared by the human populace, from a combination of outright bigotry and genuine fear that a sinister group is doing the Terminator thing and seeding killer robots about the place (based upon a much-reported recent event in which an apparently human townsperson suddenly started shooting up Diamond City). Nick is broadly accepted, and while to some extent that’s because his obviously rubber skin and exposed mechanisms at least mean he’s not pretending to be something he isn’t, more significantly it’s because he’s just too damned kind for anyone to believe he’s secretly a murderbot.
Of course, any number of films and TV shows and comics and books and relationships see the apparently kindest character turn out to be the villain (the ‘Puppy-Eyed Prince From Frozen’ model). It usually makes sense in hindsight, and the tells are usually there throughout, but Nick’s different. Nick’s kindness is simply because, as a de facto outcast, he wants to be liked. Not to simply fit in, but to be accepted as he is.
I don’t think it’s a facade. There’s real tenderness in his voice when he talks me to me. When he asks me how I am. Usually it’s the other way around, right? I go seek out my companions, find out what’s on their mind, hoping it’ll lead to a reward or romance. But Nick recognises that I am out of time in a world I never made, my child missing, perhaps even dead. He’s helping me with that. He hasn’t asked about money, even though he’s a private detective by trade. (In fairness, I did just rescue him from some angry gangsters, but even so – kindness seems to trump business sense). He asked me how I am.
And I’m not the only one. In Diamond City, Nick sidles up to Takahishi, the retro-robot who runs the diner, and who has been locked into Japanese language-mode since time immemorial, and checks the residents haven’t been giving him a hard time because they can’t communicate with him. Us robots gotta stick together he says, but the honeyed grit of his infinitely patient tone suggests that this isn’t really about him – what he really means is that he’ll look out for Takahishi.
Of course, all philanthrophy is really about the philanthropist. It what makes them feel good. It’s what makes them valued and protected. Nick is doing that; his kindness makes him a trusted, even loved presence. But he deserves it.
Nick is a private detective by trade. There is all the reassuringly familiar detail to this – the cigarette, the trilby, the trenchcoat, the confidence when speaking to enemies and allies alike, the voice that sounds like a speakeasy incarnate. He became a gumshoe because he found a lost girl in the wilderness and brought her back to safety; yes, partly because he was a wandering, homeless nobody in need of a community and knew it might curry favour, but partly because he found someone in need and wanted to help.
Nick is a synth, and here the reassuring Bogart familiarity drops away. He’s a prototype, made somewhere between the overtly mechanical ones which occasionally appear and the almost perfectly human-like ones rumoured to be living amongst the Commonwealth’s population. This is, of course, part of my fondness for him. He’s fascinating to look at. The white, rubbery, cracked skin that can still stretch and clump into a convincing smile, of the sort an uncle might direct at his favourite niece. His glowing yellow pupils gleam like mad demons in the darkness, but show gentle curiosity in the light. And that gaping hole where the side of his face and neck once was, showing pistons and wires and, most hauntingly, emptiness underneath – it’s horrific. And that he hasn’t done anything about it speaks volumes. He’s not trying to be other than what he is. And what he is is a robot gumshoe with a heart of gold.
I must confess, I may not have seen all of Nick Valetine’s story yet. The Bethesdaness of Fallout 4 means I’ve often found having a companion more of a hindrance than a help, so I’ve left him and everyone else at home in order that they don’t block doorways or prevent me from retreating from a fight. It is possible that dark secrets may yet emerge – some seeds were certainly sown, but did not sprout over my 52 hours in the game. I suspect he doesn’t quite trust me enough just yet, as kind as he might be towards me – he doesn’t like that I steal. He has opened up to me once or twice, though it seemed to be little more than shooting the shit. He’s good at chatting, that gravelly voice that other famous gumshoes have turned to cynicism instead defaulting to interest and sympathy. I wish he’d talk to me a little more.
It is also possible that Nick might yet make more comment on the various controversies regarding Synths. I have taken him with me as I have discovered more about this secret robot underclass, and as I have encountered characters who fight for them and characters who fight against them, and he has remained maddeningly silent (bar, once in a while, a ‘Nick liked/disliked that’ on-screen alert for some critical decisions I made). This is about you, Nick. This is about your place in the world, what you mean, what might become of you – don’t you feel something? Maybe he is too kind to make the world about himself. Or maybe he is – speaking from both sides of the fourth wall – simply not programmed to respond to what would most seem to affect him. A shame.
Other roleplaying companions have far higher purpose than Nick. Others in Fallout 4 simply do more – for instance, comedy robo-butler Codsworth and his flamethrowers and his name-speaking, intrepid journalist Piper and her wavy hands and her openness to romance – but Nick feels like the truest companion. He is there to be a companion, not a toy, not a source of amusement. He is there to be companionable.
He asked me how I was feeling.