A Life In Ruins: Rebuilding Fallout 4’s Settlements

Jonathan Morcom has spent almost two hundred hours with a single Fallout 4 [official site] character. Thanks to the settlement construction system, he hoped to find a home in the ruins of the old world, and as the game’s expansions draw closer, these reflections on the game’s building and management features capture a world on the verge of another dramatic shift.

I swear, if Minutemen stalwart Preston Garvey gives me one more unsolicited quest to go and rescue one of the dopey bastards from Abernathy Farm who’s managed to get themselves kidnapped again, I’m going to punch a hole clean through my monitor and send the repair bill to Bethesda. I’ve just fast travelled back to Sanctuary Hills, my home of choice in Fallout 4, and after storing my junk in the workshop I accidentally bump into Preston who’s pretending to do something useful to a tato plant.

Some impulse that would have been better left ignored makes me tap E, prompting my character, Halle, to tell him how she’s just cleared out her 235th batch of Raiders from the Federal Ration Stockpile. Before I can reverse out of the conversation, Preston’s blurting out details of yet another bunch of needy swines in need of a saviour.

And yet for all my cursing and hollow threats, I still trudge off to wherever it is he’s asked me to go, like some obedient, rifle-toting Stepford Wife, this reaction being all the more ridiculous for the fact that I’d already finished the main story and its side quests fifteen hours beforehand. No one could accuse me of having commitment issues.

Back in November I wrote on this site about the joy of homes and hubs in videogames, introducing the piece by saying how excited I was at the prospect of getting to grips with Fallout 4’s expansive settlement building system. I had only just started the game then but had suggested that any serious focus on the settlement building element was a case of Nero fiddling while Rome burns, given that you really should be making more of an effort to track down your only child who’s been kidnapped in front of your eyes. A few months on, having devoted over 180 hours to a single play-through of the game, I thought it might be the right time to reflect on the impact settlement building has on this latest incarnation of the Fallout universe.

Alex Wiltshire convincingly argued on these pages that Fallout 4’s Commonwealth hasn’t really moved on as much as you would expect it to have done in the intervening 210 years since the bombs dropped. But personally the suspension of my own disbelief is based on a blinkered investment in the supposition that although the Institute has obviously been doing its own thing below ground for most of that time, protracted manoeuvring for power between factions on the surface has largely prevented a concerted clean-up and regeneration of Boston and its surrounds. However simplistic it may appear, that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.

But would I want to make a home among these untidy ruins? In Fallout 3 your options for securing your own bolthole in the Capital Wasteland (and with it some sense of your character’s belonging – important in an RPG) hinged on your inclination to either defuse or detonate an atom bomb. In Fallout 4, Bethesda has taken a freshly rendered and expanded collection of assets, draped them over what appears to be the reconfigured inner workings of Skyrim’s Hearthfire expansion and given the player the option to deploy and endlessly tinker with them in various parts of the Commonwealth.

In doing so they have created near enough a standalone ‘game’ that while dividing opinion, at least confers on players the opportunity to build and feather their own nests in a place and style of their choosing. That’s quite a leap between games and although I’m conscious that many have misgivings about the clunkiness of the actual settlement/workshop mechanics, I think it’s been a positive inclusion. That said, I accept that some may feel (in an evocation of those images of a radiation-sick Vault Boy sprouting a third arm from his belly) that settlement building within Fallout 4 is an out and out ‘spare limb’, of questionable value to the overall experience.

From the point you leave Vault 111, the game places a firm hand in the small of your back and ushers you towards the motley band of Minutemen holed-up in Concord and thence back to Sanctuary to (re)establish your principal home. I like the way the Sanctuary Hills estate has been designed. From the rusting welcome sign and the gentle curve in the road that winds around to its cul-de-sac, to the mighty oak centrepiece and randomly placed stands of trees that are just intact enough to provide a modicum of aesthetic value to the landscape but not that pretty that you’d hesitate to hack them down for their valuable wood if need be.

Initially I found the scrap mechanic accessed in workshop mode a soothing and compulsive device. One hundred and eighty hours on, I still do. Pottering around Sanctuary Hills converting anything that glowed yellow into useful crafting materials was a joy, although I got a bit frustrated at the arbitrary nature of what could and more curiously couldn’t be salvaged, like the useful-looking shells of my old house and those of my neighbours which still stand as a reminder of happier, rad-free times. But for starters, I just put a few beds in the existing houses, hamstrung as I was by only having a limited amount and variety of scrap crafting materials.

For the next 20 or so hours in the game, I concentrated on building what the quests asked me to, hoarding all the leftover junk to use when time would allow after the main story was done, although I subsequently found out that was easier said than done.

As the quests roll out, the game directs you to various corners of the map to establish new settlements, occasionally asking that you build a recruitment beacon to attract settlers. Now even though these beacons have an omni-directional three-dish array, I’m only slightly embarrassed to admit that I would spend an inordinate amount of time optimally siting mine on the high ground in each settlement, trying to maximise their range and ensuring the on/off switch was handily orientated should I need to use it. I’m sure their actual location within the glowing green build areas makes not one bit of difference but, hey, you role-play your way and I’ll role-play mine.

On returning to the farther flung reaches of the map, checking on settlements the game had asked me to reinvigorate, I was frequently surprised at what I would find. Until such time as they’re assigned to look after crops, transport provisions or man defence posts, what Fallout 4’s settlers are really good at is milling – not milling in a useful way, like grinding grain to make flour but milling in the sense of standing around idly in groups with their thumbs up their arses. Part of the problem here is that before Patch 1.3, which now provides each settler with a status box in workshop view, there was only one rather impractical way of telling who among your people was gainfully employed and who was loafing.

What surprised me more generally though was my ready acceptance of the frequent change-downs from Explore and Exterminate to Expand and Exploit, especially once the supply line network criss-crosses your Commonwealth sufficiently to facilitate serious construction projects in all your settlements. I could be happily roaming, shooting and looting then happen upon an outpost to find one of the aforementioned gatherings of settlers huddled in the rain. In most cases, I would feel compelled to immediately build them some shelter and fill it with beds, even though you really only need to get eight of the many potential settlements in the Commonwealth on-side to see the endgame through with the Minutemen.

But this is where all the hoarding and resource-gathering paid off and the pleasurable deliberation over building began. Do I use prefabs or freeform structures? Metal or wood? Which beds should I provide – the crusty-looking ones with the questionable stains or the whiter, more pristine jobbies? And then came the serious matter of where to place any defence turrets, strutting around each site like General Patton, fooling myself that I had some sort of tactical insight in determining the most likely direction from which trouble might appear. In the end – materials permitting – I wouldn’t head off again until all the settlement resource indicators were showing some healthy green numbers.

Fallout 4’s economy is fairly robust and I’ve not really struggled for caps which is why, more often than not, I’ve had Dogmeat burdened with telephones, microscopes, and fuel cans rather than higher yield items like guns and missile launchers – the crafting by-products of mundane items, like oil and copper wire, are quite rare but ultimately essential in building defences and lighting. Although the need to scrounge large quantities of copper wire has been patched out now, I liked that these elements were hard to find – it encouraged thorough exploration and made the unearthing of a sweet stash feel like a hard-won reward.

Where Bethesda has got it slightly wrong is with the emergent scenarios that flash up, alerting you to help defend this settlement or other. I appreciate that I’ve become a Minuteman and that my ilk have earned a reputation for rapid response and these prompts really do tend to prick my conscience, but then the more pragmatic me thinks “You can fuck right off, people of The Slog, I’m too busy looting this factory.” As far as annoyances go, these alerts are on a par with GTA IV’s Niko Bellic being randomly called by irritant extraordinaire cousin Roman and having him ask if you want to go bowling.

The times I have bothered to go and assist, I’ve frequently spawned right into the middle of a skirmish and won a face full of white hot fusion cells for my trouble. But generally speaking, I’ve been able to live with myself following the ‘Happiness’ hit and any resultant collateral damage caused on occasions I declined to assist other outposts.

I enjoyed the topographical variations you would find between settlements and the challenges each site would present. The Minutemen’s former headquarters and spiritual home at The Castle seems almost too easily defended while the uneven ground and compactness of the Coastal Cottage encourages creative thinking and a more vertical approach to building. I’m particularly fond of Nordhagen Beach, with its sweeping views of Massachusetts Bay and the ringside seat it provides should any highly combustible dirigibles just happen to explode in the area; its relative flatness also provides generous space for buildings and crops.

I was also surprised that I could so easily lavish attention and precious resources on one settlement but be totally indifferent about others. The dinky little patch of earth at Oberland Station went largely untouched by me and I can’t really say why I felt no affinity for the two workers slogging their guts out there. On the other hand I felt strangely compelled to always help the struggle at Somerville Place when summoned to do so.

At one point, Preston bloody Garvey asks you to erect a settler recruitment beacon at a sodden cesspit called the Murkwater Construction Site which I duly did then flitted off to do something else. Some hours after I’d finished the main story, I stumbled into that part of the map again and was taken aback to find 46 settlers shuffling around nervously, some standing knee-deep in water like a herd of dozy cattle, all of them having heeded the call to join the Minutemen’s cause. I’m still not sure if this was the result of a glitch or a happy by-product of Halle having such a healthy Charisma stat but I found it quite unnerving, even though this strangely mute throng were theoretically on my side.

Perhaps like a lot of players who had initially loaded their points into Perception and Luck in order to augment their character’s shooting prowess, mid-game I found myself changing tack and diverting points to Charisma and Intelligence in order to unlock the Local Leader and Scrapper perks required to link and build bigger, more fangled settlements. Even then, I didn’t rush to construct a dream home, preferring to savour the thought of devoting an entire evening, maybe two, to creating something really special then filling it with magazine racks, pot plants, a bobblehead stand and other non-essential furnishings.

While I miss that the game’s character development system no longer provides specific skills to augment directly with points, I’m glad that magazines still bestow certain buffs and benefits on the Sole Survivor or their companions. Of specific relevance to settlement building is the accumulation of Picket Fences magazines, particularly the Modern Hearth! issue which opens up the lighting options in your settlement workshops.

I had hopes of creating some massive light box matrix that would allow me to fashion some genital-themed illuminations (anyone from Blackpool City Council reading this?…just a thought) but the reality is that these light boxes require one power each and with the biggest generators only providing ten power, it requires a whole bank of them and a spaghetti-like tangle of wires to illuminate even a few score of boxes. It’s a strangely mean-spirited restriction in an otherwise generous game. It also means that unless I use a mod, I’m unlikely to realise my dream of providing Sanctuary Hills with the multi-coloured neon penis it sadly lacks but so richly deserves.

Reprising for a moment the premise of my November piece about the joy of having a home to return to in a game, I have to say that I always like travelling back to Sanctuary Hills, whether crossing the broken bridge on foot or materialising there in front of the workshop bench. I’m always curious to see what the weather is doing and looking out from under the porch there, more often than not Trashcan Carla will be standing strangely sombre and erect like a graveside mourner outside my old house.

Nearby, Marcy Long might be bitching away to an ear of corn that should be grateful it can’t actually hear, while inside my newly-built abode, DJ Travis Miles’ smooth patter will be punctuating the cheesy hits on Diamond City Radio (although I genuinely preferred his stuttering and hesitant on-air delivery before he gained his confidence at the Beantown Brewery).

Disarmingly, Halle’s former companion Hancock – who I somehow managed to get killed during an intense fire-fight burning my bridges with the Brotherhood of Steel – has a nasty habit of appearing randomly in Sanctuary Hills as a loosely assembled collection of bloodied giblets. As far as glitches go, it’s a bizarre one and if he ever decides to assemble himself downwind of Dogmeat, he’s had it.

So do Fallout 4’s settlements bring something of value to the world? While I think the concept has been quite organically integrated into Fallout 4 on a micro level, I’ll need to experience a few more of the possible story endings before I can comment on the scaling, at least in terms of how it affects the various denouements. The ending I accidentally found myself embroiled in did not feature the small army of Minutemen I’d notionally raised in the preceding hours so I guess the uncharitable view would be that settlement building is mandatory busywork required to drive the main story only if you’re following the Minutemen story path. But personally I’ve found it considerably more diverting than that; like a slightly irradiated Sims expansion pack that injects added interest and dovetails more than acceptably into the wider story.

That settlement building has captured the imagination of an inestimable percentage of Fallout 4’s player base is undeniable; the invention and ingenuity on display in some of the examples to be found online is extraordinary. But being honest, I think I was always going to embrace the concept and perhaps as a result, I’m maybe a bit too forgiving of its flaws…speaking of which, Patch 1.3 has now addressed my major bugbear, the not insignificant matter of a certain someone directing you to an extremely limited range of locations that must be cleared during radiant quests. Scroll through Bethesda’s patch notes and you’ll see it: ‘Fixed an issue where Preston Garvey would behave like a repetitive and monumentally boring tit.’

I’ll settle for that.


  1. Premium User Badge

    gritz says:

    I wish FO4 had gone with a different approach. The building-blocks style of settlement making is creative, but ultimately tedious.

    I would so much rather have a system where I throw scavenged resources and freed settlers into a hopper and pre-fabbed settlements came out… preferably with cool RPG things like stories and quests?

    • davethejuggler says:

      Yeah i really wanted to get into the base building side of it. I still may go back when mods come out, but the actual act of placing objects where you actually wanted was painful as hell. Using the prebuilt ones felt like cheating, so I ended up just giving up after a while. Kinda like i did with the rest of the game come to think of it so maybe those two are linked.

    • alh_p says:

      I like the freedom but i did also end up with a sort of standard settlement template I rolled out most places. Which got a bit grindy.

      The mod I think is really needed is some sort of settlement governance thing. I don’t mean more busywork managing settlers but, for example: a settlement mayor – who you task to do stuff and who might give you quests. This could free the player from the busy work and make the whole thing more credible than the status quo, where almost NOTHING happens without the instigation of the player character.

  2. dontnormally says:

    Personally, I hate this shift in direction to make me / my character the centerpoint of fuckall everything. I’d rather be a lone wanderer visiting exotic locales than be constantly reminded that “nothing is here but there would be a settlement if you did your damn homework you lazy shlub.”

    • Premium User Badge

      gritz says:

      Just a reminder that Fallout 2 literally called the protagonist “Chosen One”.

      This isn’t really a sudden shift for the series.

      • metalmouth says:

        Even with that being the case, however, that “title” doesn’t really extend past Arroyo. You’re just another loser, dumped into a world that really doesn’t care who you are for the most part.

  3. TerminatorJones says:

    I loved the base-building aspect of the game (I guess I didn’t play Minecraft to utter death). There were two things though that really bugged me:

    1. I am from the Northeastern part of the U.S. You know what we have here? Winters. You know who would survive in the structures I built? Nobody.

    It bugged the shit out of me that the walls and roofs were riddled with holes, and windows were simply larger holes in the wall. That shit would not fly. You can use some floors as roofs, and they appear to be slightly less porous, but the idea of such shoddy housing was always gnawing in the back of my head.

    2. This complain is utterly unfair, I acknowledge. It really got on my nerves when I would built a sweet bunkhouse complete with lighting, ringed by powerful security, and upon visiting that location someone would come up to me and go “People are starting to complain about the bed situation.” Build your own beds, motherfuckers. It’s not like you’re doing anything anyway. Half of you farm and the other half wander aimlessly.

    It would actually probably be frustrating if the inhabitants automatically improved their own living situations, changing things without your say so; it would also probably be too difficult to program. But on some settlements, I wish you could turn on “autopilot” where new settlers would automatically build new beds, plant new crops and tend to them, or take on other tasks.

  4. Rizlar says:

    No offense intended, just genuine criticism, but the settlement building in F4 seems interesting in how it is integrated into the game thematically and mechanically (and how these inform one another), what it means for this genre of games in the future and for the risky/crazy simulationist angle that Bethesda games have been accused of turning away from. And yet the article barely touches on any of this. : /

  5. Siannah says:

    I HATE settlements for sooo many reasons… I punched Preston Garvey more often in his face, than Raiders and Supermutants combined. Since lately, I’ll greet him with a life grenade in his pocket.

    – Settlers are dumber than a brick. They don’t manage to find the crops I planted for them, not even a freakin’ free bed next to the occupied one they’re standing in front of, even with 3 free beds around them. No, I have to manually set them.
    It’s ok when I have to setup guys for guard duty, as I likely should outfit them better anyway, but give the 15 guys answering my radio call a brain, so that they don’t stand outside of the (prebuild) fence doing nothing.
    – Minutemen are useless. Apparently there’s a system where settlements can call for the Minutemens help. Fire a flare gun and they come… but the game doesn’t use it. No, I have to get to the settlement and do it for the settlers, as they’re incapable of doing so. If I don’t, no Minutemen response to the alert, ever – despite that I have been send there by Preston Garvey himself. It all falls on the player. That’s NOT an active gameworld.
    – …speaking of active gameworld. No, it doesn’t matter how many settlements you run (which should increase the Minutemens strength) before heading towards the Castle. You’ll end up with the same amount of scripted Minutemen as help…
    – Preston fuckin’ Garvey sending me to the most craptastic places as potential settlements. Like Tenpines Bluff, a settlement with 2 guys and the potential for about 5 more guys.
    Or Coastal Cottage. No beds, no food, right next to the shore (which you can’t use for water), no place to build on, two broken unusable buildings, which leads me to the next point…
    – Why can’t I fix broken buildings? Seems to be that much easier fixing a broken roof on an otherwise intact home, than building a completely new house. Or at least, let me scrap them to get building place.
    – Prefab homes. Great for those who don’t want to go Minecraft-all-over. But tell me…. what is the nr.1 reason to build a house? To protect you from the weather.
    Only… they don’t. They leak harder than any Swiss cheese has holes and a Rad-storm passes through it, with seemingly no options on the players side to fix it.
    – Settlements not reaching a point of being able to defend themselves. My friend Preston Garvey coming to me and telling me the Slog having problems with Raiders.
    “WHAT? … No… can’t be! ..I… no, just no.”
    Not only did I leave all of my spare (and indestructible) companions there, but that settlement has a defense of over 130+. The last Supermutant raiding party (including a suicider and a legendary) didn’t even made it onto the freakin’ lawn. But now they’re having problems with raiders…
    – The radiant system sending me to places, that make no sense. Like Nordhagen Beach having Ghoul problems from… Four Leaf Fishpacking? Those Ghouls have 2 options: swimming across the sea (passing right through the Brotherhoods stronghold) or on land through half of Boston…
    or Warwick having problems with Raiders near …Bunker Hill? That’s half across the map. Really?

    – Let me tell Preston fuckin’ Garvey “No”. No, I haven’t put up a beacon ’cause that place sucks. Drop that place off your list and never mention it again. You made me your boss right? RIGHT? Then go back to work and bring me realistic options.
    – give settlers a brain, even a very basic one. Currently they have one that (barely) qualifies them for finding the next bottle of booze…
    – give me a point to reach, where settlements no longer suffer from random raids / attacks. Something like (amount of food + water available + settlers) x2 – defense = X% chance. If below 0, no more raids.

    Even as a Bethesda fanboy I have to say, that the whole settlement thing is the first part where I have to agree with the assertion: “Modders will have to fix it”.

    • jonfitt says:

      Oh, the defense rating doesn’t prevent raids? Not sure why I’m doing it then. I couldn’t care less about any happiness penalty since it doesn’t seem to affect anything. They should be happy to not be out in the wasteland. Ungrateful sods.

  6. jonfitt says:

    I just liberated Nordhagen Beach last night, and it’s a lovely location. I do find myself wondering why on earth I’m building these settlements though. I had hoped for some measure of my influence in the wasteland to increase as my population increases. I have a virtual kingdom of settlements, but no in game recognition that this matters in any way.

    Still, I set up a beacon, water, food, and cram as many beds in as I can.

    It’s the beds that annoy me. The existing hole filled structures are never big enough to contain many beds, and there never seems to be much good flat land to stick down a building (the prefabs are also terrible for floor space). So I end up either cramming beds everywhere (including outside, hello rad storm), or having odd half-floating ugly buildings around.

    I’d love to be able to repair existing buildings, and I’d rejoice if someone modded in a bunk bed….
    Oh my goodness there is a bunkbed mod: link to nexusmods.com?

    • jonfitt says:

      Also, I’d love it if the settlers tending the crops actually picked them. If there are 14 settlers and 22 food, I would want a random 8 food items to appear in the storage every in-game day. Excess water is stored, why not food?

      • Innocent Dave says:

        If you have a scavenger’s bench around somewhere, excess food should be ending up in your workshop along with the water. Bear in mind that if you have trade routes set up, some of it may be shipped out to other settlements that aren’t producing enough food.

        I managed to build three large farms, got them to produce excess food, and never wanted for adhesive again.

        • jonfitt says:

          Oh I didn’t know that. Thanks!
          It’s worth stating that FO4’s settlement mechanics are poorly explained and many features are things you could only find in a wiki!

  7. thedosbox says:

    Heh, I enjoyed reading this more than I did maintaining settlements.

    It was fun building a display case for my collection of power armor though.

  8. geldonyetich says:

    I was quite excited about settlements due to their potential to introduce dynamic narratives. Yet, in practice…

    Well, they are certainly a major step up from Hearthsfire in that they do a passible job of imitating a settlement. People move in, they have needs, they produce some things, and they mill about like the synths they are.

    What is critically lacking is a big picture reason why settlements are needed. You can pretend you’re repopulating the wasteland, but the game doesn’t care so neither does the player. Most if the things produced by settlements are only consumed by settlements. Ultimately, your reward with settlements (besides getting to play in the sandbox) is a trickle oc income and you can eventually get a top tier store to convert junk into caps and (highly unlikely) find something to buy that’s better than what you scrounge or craft.

    I’d say the problem is ultimately that NPCs are stupid. Give them more agency and have feeding them reward you with a truly useful batch of peeps, it might just be worth the drudgery.

  9. malkav11 says:

    The interface is crazy clunky, the things you can build aren’t interesting or any real improvement over what’s natively in the game world (for the most part), it has no real purpose outside of the Minuteman quests, and it’s annoying and cries for your attention. Plus it motivates you to collect giant piles of crap you might need but actually probably won’t. It’s a net negative for the game, IMHO. It’s my hope that with the release of the mod tools modders will fix most or all of that. So far it seems like they’ve just stuffed more things to build into it in a way that doesn’t do the already cumbersome catalog of options any favors.

  10. Freedom's Flame says:

    “Even then, I didn’t rush to construct a dream home, preferring to savour the thought of devoting an entire evening, maybe two, to creating something really special then filling it with magazine racks, pot plants, a bobblehead stand and other non-essential furnishings.”

    Umm…. You mean potted plants, right? Not judging or anything, just thought I’d point this out.

    • FroshKiller says:

      I think “pot plants” is the British idiom for “potted plants.”

  11. popej says:

    The game desperately needs some kind of consequence for not building up/defending your settlements.

    Raiders should be able to slaughter everyone and set up shop.

    I don’t doubt that modders will succeed in this once the CK is released.

    Without this I can’t imagine I’ll ever get rid of that nagging doubt “why I am I bothering with this?”.

    • TacticalNuclearPenguin says:

      Well i don’t know, it’s not always safe to ignore attacks as it happened to me a couple times that i’d find everything destroyed including crops.

  12. onodera says:

    The settlements are one mechanic that I just can’t get into. I have my workbenches, I have my storage boxes, I don’t want to spend my time building dollhouses and nannying the settlers. Graygarden has done well enough before I’ve found it, I don’t want to help them solve every single problem. And no, I’d rather add some adhesive with a console command than farm for it.

  13. Akula says:

    So much text just to say building sucks ?

    PS : For lightbox light them togheter than light one to the generator , it’s better cable management

  14. Legobrick100 says:

    Right from the beginning, I instead decided to just focus my efforts. My goals for the settlement system was salvage and assimilate.

    Every settlement I find, I salvage every single object, and send the settlers to Sanctuary. There, Sanctuary becomes a pooled resource.

  15. jcm says:

    If I wanted to play Sim City I would have bought it.
    Fallout 2 was superb – you fought your way through areas and solved some problems.
    Fallout 3 brought in crafting – I ignored it and played the game. Now Fallout 4 has crafting, mods and settlement construction none of with I have mastered..
    Forget Fallout 5 if it gets worse. The Far cry games are terrible and are sitting on my shelf.
    Please get back to the Fallout 2 scheme.

  16. Major Seventy Six says:

    Have you tried to trade in a piece of clothing to Hancock and have him equip it? I’d be curious to see the result

    • Jon Morcom says:

      Hey Major,

      Alas, any attempt to interact with Hancock falls on deaf or non-existent ears although he sometimes ‘wields’ a floaty knife. Hunting for him within Sanctuary Hills has become like a mini-game of sorts.