(Warning: Significant spoilers below. If you'd like to read my general, spoiler-free impressions of "Fallout 4," click here.)
It was the first time I walked away from a conversation.
It wasn't just the first time I did so in "Fallout 4," Bethesda's latest and greatest life-devouring action role-playing game. It was the first time I did so in any game like "Fallout 4," any game where choosing your next words means laying the next rails in your story.
It was the first time I was so unsure what those words should be that I just pulled back on the left analog stick, as if to protest my options. Then I turned and walked away.
The other person in the conversation was Father, director of the Institute, a synthetic humanoid factory deep in the irradiated earth of "Fallout 4's" post-nuclear Boston.
He was also my son, Shaun. Yes, in "Fallout 4," your son goes by "Father." You call him that.
I spent the first half of the game's story — the first 50 hours of wandering a beautifully ravaged Commonwealth of Massachusetts and reducing all the mutated creeps therein to burgundy goo — looking for Shaun. He'd been abducted, ripped from the cradle of my murdered spouse's arms as they cryo-slept in our neighborhood shelter.
And I watched it happen. That's why, when I awoke 200 years after anxiously stepping into my pod amid the hysteria of the first mushroom clouds, I had purpose in the resulting husk of a world. Singular, vengeful purpose.
"Fallout 4" doesn't explain when, exactly, Shaun was taken in the course of those 200 years. So when you finally find him, finally discover that he's now older than you, it's the faintest of twists, post-"Signs" Shyamalan in its predictability.
That he's head of the Institute, however — head of the Commonwealth boogeyman hated by the three factions you befriend in your quest for a family reunion — that's the game-changer.
In Shaun, I was searching for balance. In Father, I found it — only to be rocked anew.
At first, I could reconcile my sudden loyalty to the Institute with my loyalty to its enemies. I told myself I was a double, triple, quadruple agent. But, as I moved through "Fallout 4," my footing got less and less sure.
The first time I had to choose whether to betray a faction, not through conversation but through the game itself coldly prompting me, I also hesitated. I busied myself with its many side quests, like the heartwarming "The Silver Shroud" and silly "Last Voyage of the USS Constitution." And I couldn't sightsee enough in Bethesda's Boston, an open-air museum of dead reds, whites and blues.
Eventually, though, I made my choice. I made my enemies. It wasn't too hard a choice, though: They were jerks anyways.
But then, hours later, came the tipping point: that conversation. This time, Father, personally, asked me to choose between wiping out the faction with whom I most sympathized or, by default, wiping out the Institute and him. My son.
That's when I walked away. Away from the person I'd been scraping through the Commonwealth to see again. Away from the Institute. And, for a time, away from the game.
For all of "Fallout 4's" shooting and hoarding, all its wandering and fast-traveling, the difficulty of this choice is what the game is truly about: Balance, and its nigh impossibility.
It's a fitting theme. This is a game about nuclear war, after all. This is a game about something you try to avoid by amassing as much of what causes it as your enemy does. But it only takes one to fall for all of them to follow.
Being able to walk away mid-conversation is actually a new feature in "Fallout 4." Two other major new systems find you physically rebalancing the ruined world. Through weapons crafting and settlement building, you turn toy cars and sumptuous vases into generators and gun barrels. You turn the useless into the useful.
Stability eludes the settlements, too. You can have as many as 20 in your care, and every one of them has food, power, defense and other needs to address by crafting crops, generators, turrets, etc. Lying in wait to halt your progress are raider parties or, in the long term, infiltration by the Institute's synths.
The systems have their stubborn edges, like walls that won't quite snap together and, of course, reaching your carry limit and having to shed items or crawl to the nearest repository for them. Still, when I did return to the game, I spent my time seeing to the settlements' needs and tinkering with my guns.
Then, if only to finish the story, I would give Father my answer. It's one of the last decisions in the game, so I soon rode its rippling violence to my new equilibrium in the Commonwealth.
I'd find out that, depending on which faction you side with, there are three possible endings to "Fallout 4." But you can only choose one, live in one.
I played through all three anyway.