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How Fallout 4 took over my life — and gave me a new one

Fallout 4

Two days, nine hours, and 17 minutes — that’s how long I’ve spent playing Fallout 4, the post-apocalyptic role-playing video game, since its release on November 10. I know this because the game keeps track and tells me every time I start it up. That’s 57 hours and change — almost one and a half workweeks — since the game arrived on my doorstep, and an even larger percentage of my waking hours. By the time you read this, my tally will almost certainly be even higher.

I knew this would be the case when I bought the game, because I’ve played previous games from Bethesda Softworks, the studio behind the Fallout franchise: the fantasy RPGs in the Elder Scrolls series, Morrowind and Skyrim, which share many gameplay mechanisms and design elements with the Fallout series, as well as the game’s predecessors, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas (which was created by a different studio, Obsidian, under a license from Bethesda). I spent dozens, in some cases hundreds, of hours playing each of those games, too: All together, I estimate I’ve spent about 375 hours on them, not including what I’ve put into Fallout 4.

That’s an incredible amount of time — more than 15 complete days of my life since 2009, when I first started playing the games. That’s 15 days I’ve spent roaming virtual fantasy landscapes, having conversations with strange and colorful characters, fighting demons and robots, developing in-game abilities for my character, collecting weapons and trinkets, and improving the various pieces of armor my character wears through in-game crafting systems.

I could have used that time to do any number of other things in the real world: exercise more often, read a shelf full of classic novels, or write a good chunk of a book. Instead, I played video games. To a lot of people, it might look like the games have taken over my life.

My experience isn’t unusual. Fallout 4 broke single-day sales records last month, shipping 12 million units, totaling about $750 million, on its first day alone. (To put that in context, the biggest movie of the past few years, Jurassic World, made $652 million domestically during its entire run.) The game posted a record number of players on the PC game service Steam, too, reaching about 470,000 concurrent players. Judging from the online conversation, I’m not the only player who’s become lost in the game. Some appear to have far surpassed me, putting in 100 hours or more before the end of November. I guess I’ve got some catching up to do.

Those who’ve never played these sorts of games may not understand this sort of devotion to something so frivolous. Indeed, when I add up all the time I’ve spent playing these games, I sometimes wonder about it myself.

Why are they so absorbing? What accounts for the hold they seem to exert? What I’ve come to realize is that what makes Fallout 4 (and its predecessors) so compelling is its vastness — and the way that vastness seems to encapsulate, even replicate, the complexity of life itself.

Fallout 4

Fallout 4 is set in the post-apocalyptic ruins of Boston. It's fascinating to explore, and often beautiful, too.

Like all the Fallout games, Fallout 4 is set in a post-apocalyptic United States hundreds of years from now. This one is set in the Commonwealth, a district that surrounds the ruins of what we know today as Boston, Massachusetts.

And like its predecessors, the game offers players a tremendous amount of freedom to pursue either the game’s objectives or their own. There’s a massive map to roam, covering the virtual equivalent of 30 square miles. As a result, the game involves an awful lot of walking from place to place. This might sound tedious, but moving through the landscape, which runs the gamut from crowded urban streets to peaceful shorelines to radioactive wastelands, is one of the game’s chief pleasures.

That’s partly because there’s so much to see, and partly because the map evokes Boston and its surroundings so well. The designers haven’t quite re-created the city to scale, and certainly not with anything like street-to-street accuracy. But, much like the map of a post-nuclear-conflict Washington, DC, that they created for Fallout 3, they’ve worked up a virtual replica that captures the look, feel, and layout of the city and includes most of the major landmarks and neighborhoods as well as many smaller features, from the public library to Fenway Park to the slim land bridge that connects the mainland to the island town of Nahant, just north.

The game’s weather effects and night-and-day cycle add to the beauty of the virtual landscape. During one recent session, I found myself standing in the middle of the courtyard in the Castle, Fallout 4’s mock-up of Fort Independence, watching the sun rise over the fort’s walls on a foggy morning. For a moment, I held still and watched the rays pierce through the low-hanging virtual clouds.

There was something striking about the scene, even more so because I had, in some sense, discovered it myself. Because Fallout 4 offers so much freedom of movement and action, that particular moment was not scripted or predetermined. I had simply been in the right place at the right time, and had witnessed something beautiful and fleeting and unexpected. No other pop culture medium, and few other video games, offers that sort of opportunity for serendipity.

There are stories everywhere

Roaming the game’s virtual landscape is like roaming an apocalyptic theme park version of a real city. Everywhere you go, you discover something to do or see or encounter: There are raider outposts built on the skeleton of the dilapidated city infrastructure, ensuring that you rarely walk too far without a firefight. There are irradiated animals of various size and strength; some are peaceful, others are aggressive. There are gangs of angry Super Mutants — humans transformed into giant, surly, green-skinned creatures by the world’s lingering radiation.

And everywhere you go, there are people to meet and stories to discover. The towns and settlements you encounter are filled with strange characters: irradiated ghoul bartenders and sultry robot gun sellers, shy radio DJs and sleazy drug dealers, high-strung junk peddlers and robot detectives, super mutant scientists and quirky baseball fanatics who believe the game was played by killing the opposing team.

As I’ve made my way through this world, I’ve also encountered numerous hub areas, filled with vendors of all kinds. Here my character can rest and resupply, trade and talk, find new missions to embark upon, get a haircut or even a face lift. Everything costs money — the game’s currency is bottle caps from Nuka-Cola, a prewar soda — which means collecting scrap and selling it, and making lots of decisions about what to buy and what to save. Even in a game as vast as this one, resources are always limited.

In some cases, you encounter different groups vying for control of the Commonwealth, as well as for your own support. There’s the Brotherhood of Steel, a martial force with powerful weaponry that seeks to impose order, but which is often brutal toward nonhumans. There are the Minutemen, a civil militia composed of ordinary folks trying to cobble their lives back together. There's the Institute, a shadowy group of scientists widely feared for their lifelike robot creations, known as synths. And there's the Railroad, an underground group that rescues those synths from Institute control and sets them on the path to freedom.

The competing factions offer players choices: You can join these groups and support their cause, or you can oppose them — or join them, and then turn on them after pretending to be friendly.

Each one has a different vision of the world, with a clear and understandable rationale, and each of them is also flawed in some way. That balance makes for intriguing, story-based gameplay with lots of options — but it also suggests a way of thinking about power, social organization, and influence that is built around imperfect competing visions of social order. Fallout 4 insists that there are always trade-offs. It is fundamentally anti-utopian, a vision of an imperfect world cobbled together by imperfect beings.

And yet it isn't totally bleak. The game recognizes both the merits and the downsides of multiple worldviews, and bolsters that idea through its endlessly varied gameplay, which requires players to make difficult choices, large and small, each of which comes with trade-offs of its own. The game is just as agnostic about the best way to play as it is about the best vision for its world.

Fallout 4

The role that junk plays in the world tells stories of its own — and will help you find your inner tinkerer

Everywhere you go in the game, there is junk, in seemingly endless amounts — far, far more than in any other video game that revolves around collecting items — scattered about for you to pick up, use, store, improve, breakdown, and reuse.

The junk itself often suggests stories, too: I killed mutant rodents and found silverware on their bodies. I found oaths scrawled in blood on the corpses of raider gang members. I found skeletons sprawled out of windows in terror, hidden in closets with weapons and booze, or curled up with what look like lovers — fossilized visions of their last moments that suggest, in some haunted way, the fictional lives they led.

Some of the items you find are of obvious video game value: weapons, armor, food, and first aid supplies. Some of it is less obviously useful: Many of the settlements are littered with tin cans and coffee mugs and hot plates and burnt magazines. None of the junk you discover is truly useless; all of it can be recycled or sold somehow. But much of it will be useless to you, depending on how you want to play. As in real life, everyone collects the particular things they want and like, the resources that combine to support their preferred style of play, their own way of living. At one point I ran into a room full of bathroom plungers, and I found myself wondering if I could somehow put them to use.

The more you play the game, the more you start to find yourself drawn into these strange sorts of calculations and considerations, whether they're meandering thoughts about the lives of the dead or practical considerations about the multitude of objects you discover. Fallout 4 invites you to think, imagine, plan, scheme, and wonder, often all at the same time.

It's easy to think of your Fallout 4 existence as simply another version of your real-life self

Play a game like this for long enough, and it starts to feel like there’s another you, the one who exists in the irradiated, post-apocalyptic Boston wasteland, who travels with a friendly super mutant and has a preference for shotguns, the one who has become a general in the new Minutemen but has helped out both the Institute and the Railroad, too. The game becomes a second life, a parallel, a part-time identity and occupation.

And that second life starts to bleed over into your normal life in strange ways. I’ve lost sleep over the game, staying up far too late to finish missions or hike to some far-off spot on the map. I’ve had dreams about playing it, and even stranger dreams where I was simply inside the game world, interacting with its characters. On the days when I play the most, I sometimes twitch, just a little, when I see a roll of duct tape — one of the game’s more valuable crafting items — and have to remind myself that it’s not such a scarce resource here in the real world. Fallout 4 creates its own world, one that is fully realized enough that it begins to merge with the real one.

Fallout 4

Fallout 4 is so vast that its world actually approaches endlessness

To give you an idea of just how huge the game is, consider that the game’s lead designer — the person you might expect to have the fullest, most comprehensive knowledge of the game — said, prior to launch, that he had played 400 hours and was still discovering new things. The game features 110,000 lines of recorded dialogue (for comparison's sake, Apocalypse Now’s script had just 7,500). The game’s director, meanwhile, has described wandering through the map, finding something new, and wondering who built it.

The game boasts a vastness that approaches something like endlessness; it may be that no single human can ever fully experience all it has to offer.

Ultimately, that very endlessness, and the sense of unbound possibility that it provides, is what accounts for Fallout 4’s power. The vastness is intensely, pleasurably overwhelming — an opportunity to slip away into some other world and some other identity. Where most video games feel like distractions from real life, Fallout 4 makes real life feel like a distraction from the game. So, sure, you could say that Fallout 4 took over my life — but what I love about it most is that it gave me a new one.