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A Life In Ruins: Rebuilding Fallout 4's Settlements

Rebuilding Ruins

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.

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