Synthetic Memories: Fallout 4’s Nick Valentine

“Well, that’s some real solid detective work”

                                           – Nick Valentine, ‘Getting a Clue’

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In a recent review of Black Mass published in The Independent, the writer argued that ‘Hollywood was always going to make a film about the life and crimes of James “Whitey” Bulger’. Hardly an entirely new ‘story’, it’s already been the inspiration for Showtime’s Brotherhood (2006-2008). Now the story of the ‘notorious US mob boss’ who ran South Boston with the Winter Hill Gang has also made its way (allegorically) into the Boston depicted in Fallout 4, as have the codes and conventions of the detective/mobster genre, through the storyline of Detective Nick Valentine and his pre-war mobster nemesis, Eddie Winter.

Companions have lives of their own in Fallout 4. They all have their own goals, moralities and priorities, and Nick Valentine is no exception. A synthetic human ‘detective’ created by The Institute, and implanted with the pre-Great War memories of the real Nick Valentine, a long-dead Boston cop, the ‘new’ Nick Valentine operates the Valentine Detective Agency in Diamond City. Valentine has an acute awareness of his own ‘history’ through the synthetic memories implanted into his robot/human frame, and they bother him. His missions use both the detective genre and historical ‘detective work’ to find the traces of Nick’s past that will allow him to move on from the trauma he feels as keenly as if it were really his own.

“I love the irony of the reverse damsel-in-distress scenario. Question is, why did our heroine risk life and limb for an old private eye?”*   

The player’s first encounter with Nick Valentine is freeing him from where he’s being held prisoner by mob boss Skinny Malone and his gang of ‘Triggermen’, in the remains of Vault 114 under Park Street Station. From the outset, the quest and the characters play to the tropes and iconographies of the detective/mobster genre of film and fiction (the ‘historical character’ of the ‘Hollywood mobster’, submachine guns, trilbies, trench coats and suits, and the ‘two-timing dame’). Nick Valentine is the honourable detective, trying to track down a woman who has reportedly been kidnapped, who has really just run away from from home to become ‘Skinny Malone’s new flame’.

By either keeping Valentine as a companion or not, freeing him allows you to operate out of the Valentine Detective Agency, taking cases for yourself and investigating the goings-on of Diamond City and the Commonwealth.


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“I never stopped being Nick the Synth, but it was Nick the Detective folks came to see” 

If you do ask him to tag along, through the various conversations the player might have with Valentine along the way, he gives you a brief history of the Commonwealth from the perspective of an outsider; the relationship between humans and synths (and its deterioration after a series of violent incidents), and the story of his arrival in Diamond City. Despite the inherent mistrust the settlers have for him as an unknown other in their society, the people of Diamond City came to know and ‘warm to’ Valentine because he helped save the Mayor’s daughter from a kidnapping, and soon came to be accepted primarily because of his role as ‘private eye’, the man (or synth) that could help them with their problems.

“Clothes make the man, and all that.”

Just as the people of Diamond City trust Valentine because of who he appears to be, through the way he dresses and speaks the player will likely already be ‘familiar’ with this kind of character, and know what to expect from both interactions with him and the quests he is involved with. “After I started the agency it just seemed like the sort of thing a Detective would wear”, is the justification he gives for wearing his particular outfit. His ‘memories’ inform him that this is how detectives used to dress before Fallout’s Great War, and so ‘Putting on the hat and trench coat I figured it let folks know I was serious about the whole thing’. Of course, a ‘serious’ Detective needs a seriously ‘authentic’ get up, something that allows people to immediately recognise the sort of person he is, and what he’s all about, as well as to make him feel like the man he ‘wanted to be’.

‘Somehow “nice and simple” never makes it onto the menu in my world’

Valentine immediately becomes useful in pursuing the often-forgotten but nevertheless overarching ‘point’ of Fallout 4‘s narrative: tracking down your son’s kidnapper, something that his detective skills are seemingly perfect for. In fact, Valentine already has a hunch who the guy might be, purely from your description, after asking for ‘the facts’ of your case in his office.

And so the ‘detective work’ begins, in the quest ‘Getting a Clue. Using your canine companion’s keen nose to pick up the trail, eventually the player will follow it far enough to lead them further into the story. Though Valentine’s usefulness in driving the main narrative has come to an end, his own story is far from complete.

“A body in tatters and a head full of memories belonging to man who’d been dead for 200 years. Suffice to say, it was a confusing couple of weeks”

“Long Time Coming” is the side-quest Valentine will unlock after the player has travelled with him as a companion for long enough; if he’s happy enough with the kind of choices you make, the way you conduct yourself and make moral judgements, and the people you help throughout the Commonwealth. He tells you more about his own history, about his creation by the Institute, and how they implanted into him the memories of real-life Boston cop, Nick Valentine, to create him as an unknown kind of prototype, before casting him out into the trash one day with no memory of how he got there, or why he was now a robot.

His problem is existential. He has trouble knowing who he really is, because the memories he has acquired are so vivid and personal to him, that Valentine also feels the lack of closure that the real Nick felt before The War— when Eddie Winter, the crime boss and informant he was tasked with tracking, murdered his fiancé, and disappeared underground.

The parallels between the real-life “Whitey” Bulger and the case of Eddie Winter have already been tentatively suggested on the Fallout Wiki. The player’s job is to track down a series of 10 holotapes left behind by Winter before his disappearance, which contain a secret code that can be used to gain entry to the bunker he’s been hiding in for the past 200 years, after turning himself into a ghoul so he could live forever. By following traces the past—data logs left on terminals in pre-war police stations throughout Boston—, Valentine can finally confront the man who eluded him and ruined his life, closing the case once and for all. But The Player will also find out not only more about the last days of Eddie Winter, who turned on his former co-consipirators and implicated them (and himself) by informing for the government, but also the kinds of ‘detective work’ that the Boston police undertook before the war.

‘Playing’ Detective

This is yet another example of Fallout’s use of ‘the past’, memory, and both cultural and traditional  history as a basis for its narratives. Incorporating a twentieth-century style detective/gangster fiction subplot with a reimagining of ‘real’ events, into a post-apocalyptic, alternate historical reality is done so successfully and prominently because these kinds of images and stories will presumably be easily interpreted by players of all ages, aware of the codes and conventions of this genre, and the kinds of story to expect. These are also the kinds of stories that are ultimately still popular and still relevant today, as films like Legend (2015) and Black Mass, and video game franchises like Mafia seem to indicate.

On the other hand, offering players a chance to ‘play’ at this detective work, and pursue these kinds of mob figures, is another level of engagement and reward that also subtly teaches the player about the ‘detective work’ inherent in historical research, while also allowing them to explore ‘historical’ spaces and unearth ‘historical’ documents that help them uncover and resolve present day conflicts, brought on by specific ‘traumatic’ memories, real or synthetic.


* Nick Valentine’s first reaction to the Sole Survivor during the ‘Unlikely Valentine’ quest, if the player has chosen to play as the female character. If male, Valentine will refer to the player as his ‘Knight in shining armour’. All other quotations taken from different interactions with Nick Valentine throughout Fallout 4.


1 Comment

Filed under Film, Games, history

One response to “Synthetic Memories: Fallout 4’s Nick Valentine

  1. Pingback: Fallout 4’s Nuka World, and Video Games Doing Cinema (Part 2?) | Esther Wright

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