God help me, I started playing Fallout 4 again.
I wrote about Fallout 4 for Arcadian Rhythms some three and a half years ago. I was, broadly, positive. After writing that rambling screed I soured on the game in the same way that I did with Bethesda’s Skyrim. I also wrote about the latter falling out of love experience, and much of what I say about Skyrim is applicable to Fallout 4, for all that my 2016 piece dissembles over my volte-face.
And yet here I was, a scant few years later, playing again. Why, Shaun? Why?
The initial impetus is easy to explain: I bought an Xbox One X, I own a 4K TV, I wanted to check out some pretty games, Fallout 4 has dynamic 4K support and some other rendering bells and whistles, and was free on Xbox Game Pass. So I downloaded it and pootled about a bit in the opening area, expecting I’d soon uninstall.
So there I found myself again: forty or more hours into a playthrough, with that teeth-grindingly tedious Bethesda core loop (go place, kill shit, collect junk, go home, dump junk, repeat) having sunk its blunted teeth into my skin. It couldn’t draw blood, but somehow it left an impression. Damn it, Shaun. Why?
There’s a lot about Fallout 4 I actively dislike. Fallout‘s RPG DNA is non-existent at this point in the series. The dramatic gore of ‘cinematic’ VATS doesn’t look good, mainly thanks to the camera’s idiot behaviour. Somehow, melee combat is even less interesting than the game’s limp gunplay. Repeating the same quests I dimly remember from three years ago is immediately dull.
Let’s not even talk about the writing. Most characters feel as dead as the world around them. The main story is completely at odds with everything else in the game. Rarely is an interesting choice offered via dialogue. Said dialogue is at best passable, and typically tedious. Most quests have a bare minimum of narrative context wrapped around them, meaning even the quests which aren’t procedurally generated often feel as if they are.
So what do I like? Well, I tried Fallout 76 for a laugh, and Fallout 4‘s a masterpiece in comparison to that dead-on-arrival nightmare.
Wait, no, that’s not a thing I like.
I enjoyed spending time with systems I’d largely ignored previously. I built up my settlements by constructing ramshackle buildings, lighting systems and defensive chokepoints. This was actually rather fun, although there’s little purpose to it and the interface spends more time being irritating than enabling creativity.
Sometimes an area evidences care invested in the story of that place and its long-dead residents. Typically assembled by reading logs on computer systems, this can occasionally be an engaging part of exploration.
I like the music. The Fallout series’ juxtaposition of classic pop with the post-apocalyptic has always worked well, even if it’s moved from dramatic irony to pure kitsch as the series has gotten stupider.
I think that might be about it.
I was even stupid enough to buy the DLC, wondering if what it promised might actually feel more “fresh”. Not particularly! It’s the same familiar gameplay loops and absences. In terms of the broad strokes, I’d seen it all before. There’s no longer even a trace of novelty to justify my time spent. And yet there I was, spending money to try and justify playing Fallout 4 again.
Maybe I was doing this because I’m often tired. My job takes up a lot of mental energy most days and I don’t take many breaks, so when I get home in the evening my brain just wants to slump. Fallout 4 could not be more of a junk food game. No matter the session length, that bitty core loop and the secondary gameplay loops mounted to it like fascinators provide a sense of progression: stuff acquired, new place explored, experience points gained, settlement improved, etcetera. I could play it for fifteen minutes or one hundred and fifty. I might not even notice the difference.
Is that it? Is that really it? I played Fallout 4 again because it’s mindlessly comforting for me, because my brain is dulled and craves the comfort of the familiar and unchallenging? If true, is that how I want to spend my time? I’m approaching forty, for fuck’s sake: is this truly who I want to be?
Even while I was playing Fallout 4 I was eagerly anticipating when I stopped and moved on to something better. Now I have. So if you see me mindlessly indulging again, like a lapsing addict, please call me on it. I can’t see any other reason why I might go back again beyond feeling so weak that the empty pleasure of that mindless core loop is all I feel capable of seeking.
Hello Shaun! God, I’ve had this tab open FOREVER but better late reading it than never eh? I even went and read your Skyrim piece on Arcadian Rhythms too!
I only started with Bethesda’s games in 2011, starting with Morrowind, as is (allegedly) right. I wrote an article about modding it (http://tap-repeatedly.com/dev/2011/02/to-mod-or-not-to-mod/) and looking back, shit, that was a waste of (so much) time. So I loved the world design, atmosphere and music, but the lore books and talking to people bored me stiff, the story didn’t really tug me along either and the few fights I got into seemed to consist of me flailing at things without ever hitting them. I was so proud of my precise mod collection but no amount of modding was going to fix those things, really. So I moved on. I’d given it a good shot.
Next up was Fallout 3. I modded that but I think I kept it mostly vanilla. (Existence 2.0 is still one of my favourite mods ever, it’s just so perfect when exploring the Capital Wasteland – https://youtu.be/-oUIPlTunNs.) Unfortunately I encountered all kinds of weird scripting bugs at Rivet City so scrapped that playthrough, later starting again and getting much further. While I didn’t find the characters, dialogue or story that interesting, the setting, combat and overall tone made it a much more enjoyable experience. Eventually, I got so overwhelmed/bogged down with doing side quests I hit a point where I was like ‘What the fuck am I supposed to be doing again?’ and the answer was ‘Looking for Liam Neeson’. That’s when I just stopped. Also, shit, ‘go place, kill shit, collect junk, go home, dump junk, repeat’… I had a mod to reduce carry capacity to stop myself doing that. IT DID NOT STOP ME. It just made me do more trips. Deary me. That loop.
Then it was… (Obsidian’s) New Vegas, modded, which was so much better than Fallout 3. I didn’t learn with the survival-style mods, so I was still trying to kickback at my natural compulsion to become the Labyrinth Junk Lady. But then a game-breaking bug hit me and I didn’t know how to fix it so… that was that.
Lastly I played Skyrim, with mods, and… just didn’t last long. 25 hours I think. It all felt so familiar, the trope-y fantasy setting (in stark contrast to Morrowind’s weird world), that Bethesda loop and jank. Not going to lie: I missed VATS too, hah. I liked the exploring and looking at stuff but felt that whenever I interacted with something, spoke to someone, attacked an enemy or simply looked too close, it broke the illusion. ‘Oh yeah, it’s Bethesda.’
I’m glad you were able to break free from Fallout 4, at last, and I hope that you’ve been exploring more worthwhile games since you wrote this Shaun! :-)
Hello, Gregg! Gosh. You *have* had this tab open for a while, haven’t you? ;)
I played a little Morrowwind back before Oblivion, but came to it a little too late & with too much experience of older PC CRPGs for it to feel as special to me as it did to some. Oblivion I liked a little more, for a time, and did dabble in mods a little, but as your piece says modding can be quite a rabbithole.
I wrote about New Vegas a number of times for Arcadian Rhythms, from what I recall. I still think fondly of it. I don’t know if I could revisit it now, as so much of that core gameplay remains present, but the characters, the worldbuilding, the storytelling and other elements elevated it far above the very bland efforts Bethesda typically manage.
I know some people are a little excited by Starfield, but I expect more of the same – dull gameplay, bad storytelling, over-familiar loops – and have absolutely no interest at this point.
Happily, I have not touched a Bethesda-developed game since penning this piece several years ago. I’m freeee! Maybe I can stop writing about them too.
Thanks for dropping by to comment, and to follow the blog! All the best. :)