When I played The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind in 2002, my conception of what games could be fundamentally changed. I loved the near-limitless freedom, the ability to move at my own pace, and the chance encounters that felt real, personal, and unique. I’ve since played every Bethesda open-world RPG that came after: Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Fallout 3, and Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
Some of my best gaming memories are with these titles, and after selling my Xbox 360 in 2009 to go to graduate school, I borrowed a friend’s PS3 just to play Skyrim. It was the only game I had played in three years, and it was incredible—filled with beauty, wonder, and excitement. So when I finally knuckled down and bought my first videogame system in seven years, there was no other game I could reasonably purchase except Fallout 4.
As a genre, Fallout 4 is an RPG, but it finds its identity in being a “sandbox” game. When applied to games “sandbox” games refer to large, open worlds where the protagonist (you) can go virtually anywhere and do virtually anything. The thing these games are selling is freedom—freedom to stray from the primary story, freedom to gun down anyone who stands in your way, and freedom to inhabit a world as if it’s your own. The primary draw is the opportunity to be the author of your own story, unhindered by responsibility to anything but your own desire.
This sentiment feels uniquely American. It reeks of the open road as an ordained right bestowed upon men to go where they please and do as they want. With such a powerful and pervasive ethos at work, it makes sense that I would be drawn to these games as a twenty-something male.
But my life is different now than it was during my gaming heyday. I have three kids (the oldest being three years old), farm animals to take care of, and a career to nurture. I mention this because my conclusions are most likely products of my situation. Maybe I’m just tired and ill-prepared to give the game what it needs to flourish. Maybe memories of gaming obsession can only ever be memories, relegated to a time in my life that is forever irretrievable.
But that’s a lot of preamble and context to arrive at the pith of this particular piece of writing—I didn’t really enjoy playing Fallout 4.
It’s not that the game isn’t original enough (although it isn’t), or that its conceits have gone stale (although they have). The same could be said of Skyrim and even Oblivion, two games that I enjoyed immensely. My problem is the extra-textual reality of Bethesda making a game that is totally, one-hundred percent proficient, and in many ways a startling accomplishment, and yet is totally lifeless. Fallout 4 gives us everything we could ever want, but after playing the game the vastness and richness of its world comes off as adroit cynicism—of making good on a formula that consumers latch onto, if not exactly enjoy.
The formula is as follows:
Run here. Search this room. Kill some raiders. Grab their items. Search rooms for more items. Run to more rooms for more items. Talk to some NPCs. Kill some super mutants. Collect their items. Combine those items with previously acquired items to make more powerful items. Be driven insane by the irrepressible number of items.
The irony is that the post-apocalyptic wasteland doesn’t cure the need to consume—it amplifies it. Items are everything in this world, to the point where even the most useless of objects (simply called “junk” in the game) have a purpose. And it is this (perceived) purpose that drives the player to search for these items relentlessly, leaving no room corner or bathroom stall unsearched. It’s madness.
Yes, there’s a story, but it’s an afterthought at best. I tried to play the main narrative arc, but after a mission where I follow a dog around and inspect “clues” that the dog explicitly leads me to, I was on my way out. This story mission is a microcosm of the entire gaming experience. There are the trappings of freedom, but they’re all contained within a constructed, artificial experience.
Every game is artificial, of course, but there’s ideological weight to a game that codifies feelings of freedom and entitlement in order to make a profit. This is what ultimately transforms an open world into a prison.
The American experience promises individual freedom and fulfillment, but the more we buy into this, the more enslaved we become. I used to enjoy all the mindless wandering and searching in games like Fallout 4, but now the false promise of something new and exciting around every corner feels fundamentally immature.
It’s hard for me to imagine someone who has experienced adult responsibilities and pressures finding enjoyment in this game. I’m all for intentional escapism as healthy catharsis, but Fallout 4 doesn’t obviate those pressures as much as exacerbate them. And it does this through a great deceit. It is my feeling that the least free have always been those who’re most convinced of their freedom.
We think we’ve escaped the vault, but we’ve really just traded it in for a larger, more dangerous cage.