High Stakes Building: Finally, Fallout 4
I bought Fallout 4 as a holiday gift for my partner and me back when it released in 2015, but after playing for maybe 45 minutes, I put it aside. Since then, I’ve picked it up a few times, but never for more than one short play session—until late last month, that is, when end-of-semester stress drove me into the wasteland. Oh well. I suppose playing the game fashionably late is in keeping with this installment’s core story. I’m not sure why none of the previous play attempts grabbed me, because this time I’m all in. Fallout 4 has just about everything I want in a game: hoarding, collecting, city management with stakes. Oh, and I guess quests. But mostly I complete quests with a tired, cynical air; these Super Mutants are in the way and I really need those tin cans and broken typewriters so I can take them back to my base and build more things. Fallout 4’s settlement management system requires (for me at least) an intricately linked set of bases spread across the map who share resources, but largely I’m the one who’s out collecting those resources, and everything can be put to use. Dirty ashtrays? Ceramics. Old cartons of cigarettes? Asbestos, plastic, and cloth. That rusty oil can? Oh, we can scrape that out for a few precious drops. If the game was realistic, I’d rattle with every step, dropping screws and gears throughout the Commonwealth. At this point I have three days in real-time play hours, and I’d guess at least a third, if not more, has been spent bouncing between my settlements, checking stats, adjusting decorations, building parks and houses. Bethesda added mods for the console version, and all mine improve building and town management. I could make combat easier or harder, I suppose, but why? I hardly care. While some of the storylines are interesting, I’m more invested in those I’ve created for my sprawling web of settlements.
Down in Somerville Place there are children, so my defenses are high; the area is often attacked and I want to make sure the family at the core of the settlement is safe. Turrets buzz on the roofs of buildings circling the small farm, and electricity snaps from Tesla arc traps hidden in the brush. Still, I worry, checking that settlement every time I play.
Sanctuary Hills, where my character lived before the war, where her story began, remains my home base, though I “live” in a different house now, down the street from the home once filled with baby toys and comics. That house has been torn down, replaced with one of the prefabs from the Sim Settlements mod, a corrugated steel building with a colorful door. One of the early settlers to arrive in Sanctuary Hills had no name — like most, he was just “Settler”—but he was Strutting Leather Guy. As soon as I assigned him to town defense, he rustled up a leather outfit and walked around looking like the baddest of badasses, always staring me down when he walked past. The other night, he was killed by a scorpion twice his size and as I looked down at his twisted body, I felt bad for all the times I’d made fun of him.
Then I looted him, of course. The town must go on, and the wasteland is a harsh place.
I have a complicated relationship with city- and world-building games. I played a lot of certain Civilization games, but not others, and in the past few years, I seem to have lost interest in all of them except for the occasional resurgent desire to play Civilization Revolution (it’s quick, you know). For years, I was obsessed with the Caesar series. But more recently, I haven’t been as interested in building games unless there were stakes involved. Base-building, after all, is one of the reasons I’m so obsessed with State of Decay, but it’s not just about the base: it’s about the stakes. A good base and a good balance keeps your team happy and alive. That means something for me.
In Fallout 4, it would be easy to play as if there were no stakes. The nameless settlers, the ubiquity of settlements, the way they can be completely ignored, the hassle of collecting materials… why bother? Then again, that makes the game interesting. There are multiple ways to play. For me, the game didn’t get interesting until I discovered the settlement system, until I could begin writing my own story of the Commonwealth. Until there were stakes. When there are stakes, even if they are self-created, suddenly I care. The system doesn’t care about the children at Somerville Place. The system didn’t care about Strutting Leather Guy. But I did. I do. For me, they are the system.
I’ve never loved Ian Bogost’s notion of procedural rhetoric, or rather, it’s always fallen short for me. I can imagine that in the time it was first formulated as an idea, in that era of games, procedural rhetoric had much to offer, when more games were linear or at least focused in singular directions. Ten years later, our virtual worlds are more expansive, more open, with more opportunities for players to forge their own paths. Games then may have had strong singular messages with subthemes; many games now can blossom in a variety of directions. Player agency has grown. The player’s role in the wider ecology of games has grown.
I say this because the system of Fallout 4 does not seem particularly interested in my feelings about the settlements under my command. The system operates coldly; the settlers have no identities, and management is a game of numbers. I need as many beds as people, and everyone needs a job. Certain things raise happiness, and others lower it. Settlers need a certain level of defense, but it’s perfectly possible to game all the systems, piling beds in one building, or stacking turrets in one area to raise the defense score. I can (and do) choose to play more realistically, but it’s just that: a choice. The game has no feelings one way or another and encourages no one path over the next. The rhetorical message of Fallout 4 is much the same as any installment in the series: the apocalypse is dirty and terrible, but humanity persists despite our best efforts to continue to blow it up. It isn’t good, or bad; it just is. There are other themes that can be teased out of the game, but often they depend on the player’s particular position. There are messages, the situation is rhetorical (but then, what isn’t?) and the system bears arguments, but the permutations, the readings, the experiences are layered, optional. Built and then deconstructed by the player to be built again.
Having begun my scholarly pursuits in this era of wider player choice, for me the ecology of games is systems upon systems. Designers who choose how to populate the worlds, how to control the systems, determining what is possible and what isn’t. Narrative designers who seed stories. The systems themselves, with their opportunities and limitations. And then the players, that wild mass of possibility. My husband names all his characters Potato, male, female, or null, and powers through main questlines. His apocalypse, and his Survivor, is not like mine. My journey sprawls and meanders. It is a journey of discovery and colonization. It is a struggle for balance, and full of questions. What right have I to control these settlers? The system gives me the right, but how should I feel about that? This isn’t a question the systems of Fallout 4 can answer for me. It’s a question I must ponder myself, but that is the nature of the relationship between player and game. More than audience, I am receiver and sender; I am writer and reader. I am part of a loop, and as I trudge through the wasteland, collecting cans and ashtrays, the pieces of the system that resemble other people are always on my mind.