I confess to an ever-so-slightly heavy heart when I began writing a diary series about Fallout 4. I’d only just finished the review, which had involved over 50 hours of play, and on top of generally wanting a change felt that I’d exhausted the game’s possibilities. As I wrote in said review, my key gripe with the game is that almost every problem is now solved by banal violence, which closes the door on its potential as a source of anecdotes.
I was wrong to be wary about going back. My complaints about Fallout 4 stand, but I’m enjoying it much more playing second time around, entirely avoiding story, entirely avoiding safety and instead imposing my own set of rules.
So, thought experiment: Fallout 4 is not a roleplaying game. Fallout 4 is a survival game. That’s how I’m playing it, in my journey around the outermost edge of its world, making do only with what I stumble across, and treating every fight as potentially my last rather than something I can beat if I reload the game enough times. Every item I find is meaningful. Every enemy I encounter is my ultimate nemesis. There is no temptation to fast travel, because there is no goal other than to keep moving forwards without dying. There is no preoccupation with looking for quests or recruiting companions, because there is almost no-one out here and there is no option to go anywhere except onwards. There is just the road ahead of me.
It makes more sense. It makes Fallout 4’s theme mean more. As a game played in terms of its storylines and its oddly comfortable towns, the post-society setting barely holds together. Hell, go far enough into The Institute side of the storyline and it’s hard not suspect that there were people involved in this project who were tired of wastelands and wanted to make an entirely different type of science fiction. But out there on the road, Fallout is all about the end of the world again.
Finding old food in cans matters. A small box of bullets in a bath tub is exciting, because for all I know I might never meet a trader. Firing one of those bullets is harrowing, because I can’t know for sure that I can ever replace it.
And there’s almost no-one here, other than monsters and maniacs. When I do encounter someone who’ll talk to me, it’s startling, and I don’t even remotely trust them, let alone treat them as a chummy giver of gifts, because anyone out here must be absolutely stark raving mad.
There’s also the matter of difficulty. Since Morrowind onwards, Bethesda’s RPGs have suffered from the player becoming far too powerful at around the mid-game point, and partly that’s down to balancing, partly because players put so much damn time into these things that they can’t help but level up and find the best weapons, and partly it’s because saving and loading and fast travel and the easy ability to buy or make anything you need means anyone can overcome any obstacle. You can take away all challenge, and the game openly invites you to do so.
I took that temptation away. In combat, I’m often firing a single shot then running and hiding, and repeat. I’m avoiding enemies and even areas wholesale. What the diary might sometimes make look like miraculous victories in fact involved extremely long, tense battles, lots of time spent hiding somewhere while VATS recharges, methodically building up to critical shots and a whole lot of eating radioactive melons while crouched inside a bathroom.
I can’t undo an error; hell, I can’t even go shopping. I’m just making do with whatever comes along. A side effect of this is that, whereas in my first play-through I was carrying an ever-growing sack’s worth of grenades, mines and irradiated food around with me, now almost everything gets used. I do feel as though I’m playing the game in the way it’s supposed to be played, even though I don’t believe this was how it was intended to be played.
When Michael Radiatin’s journey ends, as one day it will, very suddenly, [It now has. -Ed] I very much doubt I’ll go back to Fallout 4. It’s a silly game, and there’s nothing to it but fighting. But I do feel I understand it much more now. And I do feel that its world makes more sense when you treat as nothing more than a place to survive within. Ditch your storylines, ditch your companions, ditch your settlements, ditch your overpowered weapons and armour, and play it that way. It’s worth it.
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