When I first loaded up Fallout 4 I was bludgeoning molerats and thinking ‘this is a masterpiece. This game is a certified masterpiece; look at how they burrow underground and burst out behind you, it’s genius. They’re descended from moles, so they would do that, probably. That’s genius.’
I was clearing away the debris in Sanctuary Hills, flicking through all the preset structures and building materials thinking, ‘look at all this potential. I’m gonna build a fortress, with sliding doors and secret passageways, and an underground dungeon housing a collection of stuffed deathclaws.’ I was scouting the ruins of Boston warily, crouching at every sign of life, VATSing frantically in every direction like a paranoid addict firing blanks at his own shadow. The wasteland was fraught with unknown dangers, and here I was, a young suburban mom in a bright blue jumpsuit with a baseball bat, taking it on, my imagination reaching out ahead of me.
A while later and I’m on a quest in a derelict building. I’m crouched, but not in any way cautious. Raiders, mutants, robots or ghouls? Mutants. I clear it out, find a cache in the hardest-to-reach room storing a handful of weapons and a paltry sum of caps, then fast travel back to Sanctuary to offload. My fortress is a wooden platform with a nameless man guarding against nothing, a few turrets splutter uselessly here and there, some powerless lights line the street. Forgotten companions potter about, sit on stools, go to bed, potter about, sit on chairs, go to bed, potter about, and stand on the roof of a house. I store my junk, talk to Preston, receive word of a potential settlement, fast travel to the nearest available point to my destination, and find myself in a derelict building. I’m crouched, but not cautious. Raiders, mutants, robots or ghouls? Raiders. I clear it out, find a cache in the hardest-to-reach room storing a handful of weapons and a paltry sum of caps, then fast travel back to Sanctuary to offload, where Preston waits with another quest.
This was my experience of Fallout 4. I loved it when I knew and had nothing, when I was just a scavenger picking through society’s bones, wondering what I could make of a desk fan; but as soon as it became a game of completing quests rather than of surviving and exploring, I lost all interest. I’ve become completely disillusioned with the concept of ‘side quests’. When translated properly, ‘side quests’ just means ‘repetitive and trivial tasks for you to carry out so that the game might go on forever’. The proliferation of ‘side quests’ in games today might be a sign that things are becoming focused on quantity rather than quality. By no means am I saying that games should be more linear – one of the things I love most about the pastime is being able to discover secrets off the beaten track – I’m suggesting that there shouldn’t be a distinction between main quests and side quests, so that one is accepted merely as an added bonus. There should just be quests, all of which are unique and intriguing, otherwise they needn’t be involved. We’re at a point today where the number of hours you can spend on a game is a selling point, as though mere time consumption is the aim.
You don’t necessarily improve something by adding more and more to it; this approach often betrays a lack of real depth. I’ve raised this point before and don’t want to give the impression that I consider all open world games to be diffuse, unmanageable messes, so I’ll finish by describing a moment in open world gaming which illustrates how brilliant the form can be.
There’s a relay tower in the northeast part of the map in Fallout 3 that allows you to pick up radio signal Oscar Zulu. If you find the signal highlighted on your pip-boy and tune into it, you get a looped SOS message from a man called Bob Anderstein asking if anyone can provide medical assistance. He says that his boy is very sick, and that his family are taking refuge in a disused drainage chamber near to the tower. No marker appears on your map to point out where this is, no quest name rolls onto the screen, you simply get the radio message, and, should you choose to try and help the family, you have to find the shelter using the few clues given in the message. Once you eventually find the entrance to the drainage chamber and go inside, you find nothing but the recording of Bob Anderstein’s message left on repeat on a table, and two skeletons lying side by side in the opposite room.
It sounds a bit grim and uninspiring, but discovering the bodies of Bob Anderstein’s family after working so hard to find them captured the mood of a post-apocalyptic world perfectly, and it’s a part of the game most people probably don’t even know about. For me, the endless number of quests, the empty character interactions, the sheer number of ‘things to do’, are not what makes these games enjoyable. Fallout grips me most when it immerses you in its bleak and hostile world for hours at a time, with no clear goal or direction, then stuns you with these fragments of environmental storytelling. Perhaps there are a number of Oscar Zulu moments waiting to be discovered in Fallout 4, but after 40 hours of grinding through quests and setting up settlements, I’m just too tired to find them.