The other day I went into my Steam library to find a few New Vegas screenshots for another article. As I scrolled, I ran into my dusty Fallout 4 file, which I haven’t even looked at since I became assistant editor at Paste Games. I haven’t had the time to play videogames recreationally; these days my time is taken up by new releases and paying attention to older ones evokes a sense of panic. But as I looked at the total hours I’ve clocked into Fallout 4, an entire new feeling came over me: a self loathing so deep and a shame so strong it’s radiated off me in waves like a mirage. Have I really put in almost 700 hours in Fallout 4? Without mods? Really?
Now, I say I don’t like Fallout 4 but obviously that’s not completely true; I didn’t rack up 60 hours on my review copy and 627 hours on the retail version just building settlements. There are some parts I like: trekking the Glowing Sea, Nick Valentine’s story arc, finding my old man son, Shaun. Had my more obsessive tendencies not zeroed in on the Minutemen settlements, a feature that contributed the most to my dissatisfaction with the game, I might have liked it more. But somewhere in the repeating side quests and random weapon modifiers, the unique solitude and quiet exploration that I’d enjoyed about Fallout 3 and New Vegas disappeared. And that was hard to accept, given the sense of identity I had tied up in the series. In a way it’s like living with a bad tattoo: it’s imperfect, but a permanent part of me, so I make concessions because I want to like it. I almost have to.
I’ve written before about the psychologically exploitative game design and my obsession with the Fallout series, and how my own neurological issues contribute to some of my unhealthy habits. While I feel Fallout 4 was not specifically designed to take advantage of those who have difficulty with impulse control, I also realize the role it has played. I’ve put all these hours into the Fallout universe because deep down, I want to fix it. Brush it off, clean it up, begin the process of rebuilding society. I’m a hardcore type-A personality with the draining ambition of Leslie Knope and the annoyed, matriarch cynicism of Liz Lemon. I don’t know what to do with myself if I’m not trying to fix something. And with the option available to fix the wasteland, I’m going bonkers. As the real world around me becomes increasingly frustrating and my helplessness grows, Fallout 4 offers me a hero fantasy and a sense of empowerment. One where not only do I save the world, I get to clean it up too. It brings order to the chaos.
Before Fallout 4, the entire concept of wasteland settlements would have probably been left to modders instead of incorporated into the official release. Not only does the feature strongly resemble the Real Time Settler mod for Fallout 3 (and later, New Vegas), the workshop itself fills a niche that otherwise would have been served by the mod community. Maybe if that had been the case, or if the settlements had been added as DLC instead of included as part of the base game, I wouldn’t feel like I’ve wasted all this time. Or maybe the compulsion would have been lessened if I’d felt the experience wasn’t supposed to be an integral part of the Fallout identity.
Whatever the case, some good things came out of my obsession with settlements: for example, in an effort to get better at building structures, I got to learn about architectural and environmental design. And while I still feel that the feature isn’t a good fit for the Fallout games and that it deviates from what made the series good in the first place, this isn’t the first time Fallout has experienced a major shake-up to its gameplay. It probably won’t be the last. And if I could mod the settlements out or deactivate them, I still would. But it wouldn’t turn Fallout 4 into what I want it to be. And I’ve come to terms with that.
So yes, it’s embarrassing that I’ve put almost 700 hours into a game that disappointed me. Even more so that most of that time was spent on a settlement building feature that I feel leads the series astray. But Fallout 4 allows me to indulge my inner good guy and respond to the post-apocalypse exactly how the real world Holly Green would: by rolling up her sleeves, picking up a hammer and getting to work. And for that, maybe I like it after all.
Holly Green is a reporter, editor, and semiprofessional photographer living in Seattle, WA. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.