Ever since I completed Fallout 4 a few weeks ago, I’ve been trying to figure out what it is about this game that I find so interesting.
At its surface, Fallout 4 functions really well as a video game. It’s great fun to wander around, shoot things, and level up. But there’s something deeper at work within my appreciation of this game. I think it has more to do with the post-apocalyptic playground in which the game takes place. The setting appeals to the part of me that seeks escape from the seemingly oppressive control structures of modern life: my job, the bills, endless social obligations, the incessant drive to remain busy. I can’t help but to be curious about life without a schedule would be like.
Bethesda’s particular brand of open-world adventuring tends to evoke those particular freedoms pretty effectively to begin with, but the Fallout series is all the more relatable with its familiar settings and almost-plausible version of the future.
Fallout 4 does an extraordinary job of anchoring you to the Commonwealth by making you personally responsible for the well-being of its inhabitants. This offers you an abundance of choice as to how you play the game. You are more than welcome to turn the post-Bostonian countryside into your personal playground of mayhem, simply because it’s fun to watch things burn. I wouldn’t disparage anyone for playing the game that way, but that’s not how I tend to approach choice in video games
Whenever a video game offers me a moral conundrum, I find myself trying to make the most caring decision possible. I’ve forgotten that the people I serve are nothing more than a thin, digital facsimile of humanity. I simply am compelled to exercise my morality in play. Video games often serve as a sort of ethics-sandbox where I can see if my morality holds up as well as I would hope. I know. It’s weird. Let’s move on.
This bizarre compulsion works nicely in Fallout 4, not only on a personal level but also where it concerns the Commonwealth as a whole. The initial driving force behind the narrative is the protagonist’s search for a his/her missing son. However, the impetus is quickly placed on the hero to shape the Commonwealth by dealing with the numerous factions that are vying for control of its future: the Minutemen, the Underground Railroad, the Brotherhood of Steel, and a few dozen other factions. Each one has some redeeming quality, and the more I worked with them, the more I wanted to find way to make the factions work together. Since I had spent the entire game becoming the most important person in Commonwealth, I felt like I should have negotiate a reasonable compromise that benefited humanity. It was a bit frustrating, but that’s not the sort of story that Bethesda wanted to let me tell with my choices.
As much as labored over the sociopolitical decisions in the game, I spent a great deal more time building settlements across the greater Boston area. I found myself meticulously cleaning up each new settlement, planting crops, building shelters, and placing defenses. This part really appealed to my compulsive desire to turn the cluttered rubble of the wasteland into functional spaces for the settlers.
In the end, my experience with the game serves as an unintentional metaphor for how unrealistic my worldview can be. The far-flung hopes of seeing politicians compromise in order to best serve the people are little more than a fantasy. Perhaps the best way bring about restoration is to treat people with dignity and help them to build a life for themselves.
But if you’re not looking for some deep meaning in your video games, Fallout 4 is still great fun.