Fallout 4’s character creation process is extremely powerful, allowing you to sculpt every aspect of the face of the character who you’ll inhabit for hundreds of hours of postapocalyptic exploration. And I fiddled with some of the options for awhile, but ultimately the only substantial changes I made to the default generic white guy I was presented with was to turn him into a generic white guy with slightly browner hair. The choices were overwhelming and I was in a hurry to get into the game – plus, I didn’t feel like the dimensions of my character’s cheekbones would have a huge impact on gameplay.
After about 30 hours in the game world, though, I’ve started to resent the blandness of my character every time I see his face in a dialog cutscene or dramatic slow motion critical hit montage. Here’s this expansive virtual sandbox, where I can do as I please with no real world consequences, and right out of the gate I made pretty much the safest, blandest choice possible. I could’ve experienced the apocalypse as The Dude, or Omar from The Wire, or as a five-foot tall Asian woman, but instead it’s just a halfassed facsimile of me, wearing metal armor and sunglasses because they inexplicably make me better at shooting people.
After stumbling out of the bomb shelter where my character had been cryogenically frozen for a couple centuries following a nuclear war, one of the first things I found was his old neighborhood, now destroyed. It’s some lovely real estate even in spite of the global thermonuclear holocaust: A dozen or so tidy homes around a cul-de-sac on a small island in the middle of a river, connected to the rest of the wasteland by a single rickety bridge.
I went across the bridge and spent a few hours exploring the island’s immediate surroundings, during which time I watched my unremarkable avatar get brutally murdered by mutant rats, mutant dogs, mutant mosquitoes, river-dwelling crab monsters, sadistic tweaker bandits, and packs of psychotic, radiation crazed zombies. With virtual night beginning to fall, I returned to my island in hopes of not getting killed by anything for awhile.
One of Fallout 4’s new features is a Minecraft-style construction system, where you find junk in the world and break it down into its component parts, which can then be reassembled as various structures. Having had a taste of what the outside world was like, I spent the night breaking down every rusting car, fallen tree, and destroyed home on the island. As the virtual sun rose, I used the harvested supplies to build a wall around my island that would make Donald Trump blush.
With my island completely sealed off behind walls and automatic sentry guns that my character somehow built out of tin cans and old circuit boards, I set to sprucing up the place. I built new houses and ran power lines to generators so they could all have lights. I started planting crops on the dead lawns, dug wells for water pumps… Before long, I’d turned my island fortress into such a little paradise that people were coming out of the wasteland to live there, harvest my fields, and man my guard towers.
God damn it, I though to myself as I stood on my roof and surveyed my domain. I’m going to make the apocalypse come to me.
Eventually, so many people were showing up to live in my settlement that I had to start building new houses on vacant lots for them to live in. While my residents spent their days working in the fields, I spent my days building and placing furniture, artwork, and appliances in their houses like some kind of dystopian Martha Stewart. To my knowledge, these details didn’t affect gameplay, but if I was rebuilding the world I was determined to do it the right way, without any of the old world’s unfair class structures and inequality.
There was a whole game waiting for me beyond my barbed wire fences – miles upon miles of map to explore, hundreds of characters to meet, quests to finish, loot to find, enemies to vanquish. Those were the reasons I’d waited in line outside of a Best Buy to get the game. But over 30 hours in, the call of adventure was taking a backseat to the Jonestown-style socialist agrarian collective I’d built, where peasant farmers lived in mansions filled with free goodies.
I more or less lived in Fallout 4 for a straight week, spending every spare waking minute scrapping, scavenging, and building to create my little utopia. As the week went on, my room began to look more and more apocalyptic – the floor strewn with empty water bottles, clean and dirty laundry spread across every flat surface, unopened mail stacked on my desk.
It occurred to me that I had become a milquetoast version of my character in Fallout 4: A generic white guy with brown hair, badly in need of a shower, slowly but surely blocking out the world by surrounding himself with garbage.
Does life imitate art, or does art imitate life? All I knew was that my character in the game was doing a lot better than I was. Sure, everyone he'd ever known was dead and he was living in the shattered remains of a once-great civilization – but at least he was outside, getting exercise and making friends.