I’ve played a lot of games in my life, which isn’t a brag so much as it is a preamble. A lot of us have played a lot of games in our lifetimes, so I’m sure this will resonate with many of you. We know that there are games that a pretty much throw-away — hey, mobile! — and games which are great for diversions. There are games which have massive budgets and huge marketing campaigns that make us question if we’re missing out on something if we don’t play them. There are games which come from absolutely nowhere and just reset our understanding of what’s possible. Sprinkled in between those tent-poles are all the rest of the games. Some stand above others, while others blend in. It’s not an indictment about the state of imagination in the games industry; it’s just what happens when you look out across the landscape and see a vast array of product that vies for your attention.
How do we choose? Steam Sales, for one. That embarrassing backlog that grows significantly at least twice a year may yield a few games we try, but more than likely it just…grows. There’s hype, of course, which is literally a “guilty pleasure” that I think most people would like to be immune to, but secretly allow it wash over them like the visceral pull of a holiday season. The problem is that we never know if we’re getting a great experience or a digital lemon until we’ve put the money on the counter. The glut of “Let’s Play” videos act as a new way to kick the tires before we buy because sadly, the days of the demo have more or less passed us by. In short, it’s a crap shoot. You can allow some random blogger on a big-name video game site to sway you for or against a game, or you can just dive in a hope to gawd that you didn’t just flush your Ramen budget down the toilet.
Most of the time I’d say — for me, anyway — the result is “OK”. There’s a lot of games that I like, such as The Secret World, Wildstar, Guild Wars 2, Elite: Dangerous, and Halo Whatever, but there’s only a handful of games that really affect me in ways that never go away. In some cases that’s a factor of me being me (and you being you) such that when what I’m looking for and what a game provides intersect in just such a way, it creates an experience. It’s difficult if not impossible to purposefully engineer this confluence, especially when you’ve got a handful of strangers with different likes and dislikes developing for a multitude of strangers with different likes and dislikes. It’s such a statistical shot in the dark it’s amazing that it works as well as it does, that sometimes there’s a game that just seems to fire on all cylinders for so many people simultaneously. I am thinking, of course, of Fallout 4.
I’ve gone from wanting to keep this game at arms length to wanting to evangelize the crap out of it. Part of my original assessment stands, though: it’s still got that cloud of horrible dread overlaying pretty much everything you do, because everything you do involves the remains of a dead civilization that was once your civilization (quite literally). But the one thing that this installment in the franchise offers that I don’t think the others have is hope, and that hope is you.
Last night I continued my journey in the wasteland, but it wasn’t a journey so much as it was a laundry list of things. Errands in the burnt world. I had to make those beds. I had to dig some wells. I had to find a food source. It wasn’t lost on me that these are the same kinds of things we high-and-mighty Gamers-With-A-Capital-G bray about when it takes the form of Facebook games, but put it in high-def 3D with a dog companion, and it becomes a task that’s worth doing. Along the way I learned a lot about how to tidy up the rubble by salvaging anything and everything that was highlighted when I ran the cursor over it. I flattened buildings and emptied rooms while saving up materials at the workbench. At first it was a “how much of this can I do before I get bored”, but then it dawned on me that I wasn’t just engaging in busy work, I was making space for a tribe of people who wanted to make a go of it in this dead world. All that crap was just in the way, and once it was cleared, we could start rebuilding.
Honestly, I don’t even want to go out and shoot things in this game. That’s kind of the least interesting part at this point. I want to salvage anything I can so I can bring it back and build. I want to rebuild these homes so people can live like civilization allowed us to before we caught the Ultimate Stupid and wrecked it all. I want to plan and construct and execute the plans. I want to create a small town and be it’s Most Important Citizen, the only one who has the blueprints for a Better Tomorrow. The NPCs may not respond the way appreciative people would in the real world, but I can imagine that they do. That kind of takes the sting away from the horrible stuff that lies beyond the borders of our little township.
What makes it even better is that there a legions of people playing Fallout 4 who apparently feel the same way. Some people could do without the homesteading, but I’m seeing a lot of people who are eschewing the adventuring life in favor of building their settlements, at least until they need more resources or want to direct good people to their burgeoning enclaves. It would be great if we could credit Bethesda for having 100% certainty that this mechanic of building would be a home run, but I really think it’s one of those additions that was included to follow a trend (the survival sandbox genre), but which ultimately helps Fallout 4 to be much greater than the sum of it’s parts.
Reading people’s stories about how they’re building their towns — which isn’t really the main point of the game — is becoming a shared experience. It’s not something that can be engineered. These are the kinds of stories that people hold on to and relate years down the road in conversation or as touchstones for some of their favorite gaming memories. I think when we’re inundated with a boundless sea of opportunities, finding that at least one of our choices not just pans out but pans out beautifully enhances that sense that we’ve got our hands on something awesome.