I talked before about how game mechanics need to support the themes of the game, the same as story, visuals, and all the other pieces do. When I heard you could build settlements in Fallout 4, I was very excited. Fallout games of yore featured settlements that had cropped up, towns made of junk that became important oases for travelers and merchant caravans in an otherwise desolate waste full of violence and danger. Being able to take a hand in building one? That’s a genuinely new gameplay experience, and an entirely new role never before seen in a Fallout game. The potential to explore the same themes from a fresh perspective is incredible.
When I first started working with Sturges to improve Sanctuary? I was, again, super stoked. I spent about an hour running around on my own initiative, clearing debris. Then all my work was swiftly undone by a crash. That’s right: I was so excited by the possibilities that I’d forgotten to nervously quicksave every few minutes, even though I was playing a Bethesda game in launch-condition. The potential for town building was that amazing, that engaging.
Then, quite suddenly, Sturges had everything he needed from me. It was apparent from the get-go that Sturges’ questline was intended as a tutorial, and as a tutorial it’s very well done. Learning how to build a settlement was organic and part of the quests I was already working on. Kudos to Bethesda for that. But a quest chain you can finish in ten minutes is basically the entire experience of town building in Fallout 4. You are given the power to build an entirely custom city to rival Diamond City itself… and everyone’s happy with a bed or two, some portion of food, and a turret chugging away somewhere in town, and nothing more.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of room for self expression in Fallout 4, but unless you’re capturing it on Fraps or something of the like, no one but your close friends, roommates, or partner(s) will see it, and it has absolutely zero impact on the game unless you do it wrong. If you do it wrong, you’ll occasionally get asked to show up and shoot three or four people. That is it. That is the entire extent of town building. It’s Minecraft, but in Fallout.
We already have Minecraft, however. Having it within a Fallout game means doing more than plastering a Fallout flavored skin over the top of it. What’s more, you’ll be asked to do it. A LOT. So much so, in fact, that players benefit from (and guides are available for) optimizing the fastest way to establish these minimum needs so that you can go off and do whatever you want to do sooner. Because of its poor design, there’s value in doing whatever you can to minimize your contact with town building, even if it’s a thing you (like me) would otherwise relish.
This isn’t ‘rebuilding the Commonwealth.’ This is grinding. And it’s grinding without any payout at the other end of it. And that’s okay…ish. The problem isn’t what town building is in Fallout 4. The problem is what it isn’t.
If they’d left it out, no one would’ve noticed the absence. But they put it in, so it needs to contribute to the player experience of the game’s themes. It needs to advance the story of our character in some meaningful way. Maybe not the main questline, but some kind of story needs to be served by all this, beyond “I made a sweet house this one time.”
One Way It Could Have Been
Bethesda has demonstrated – both in their other games and within Fallout 4 itself – the tools to have done this differently. First off, they could’ve given us fewer settlements to play with. I’m going to guess that most people just tinker with Sanctuary, maybe one or two other sites. Most people, I expect, have a favorite site. We certainly don’t need a bajillion of them. Having the variety in our chosen canvases has value, however, so Bethesda could’ve given us the ability to assign each new settlement an NPC governor – or have small side quests to recruit one – who will take over responsibilities for building in our stead (we saw this in New Vegas). They should have material needs from time to time. This would be procedural content that makes sense rather than constant re-clearing the same dungeons just because. We should have the ability to choose whether we do the things, or leave these towns to their own devices – with consequences for each choice.
Then we need the things we build to give us opportunities to interact with the world around them. Spawn some encounters around our town, maybe a raider/hostile advance scouting party or two, maybe some animals drawn by the smell of food, maybe a merchant or conman who thinks our settlement is a way to score some caps, all kinds of possibilities. Bethesda has already demonstrated that they know how to build random encounters, they’re rife through every game after Oblivion. We should still need to build a lot of defenses, only now those defenses should get attacked now and again – even if they’re sufficient. The more invested we become in the place, the more those defenses matter. The more of our own personal stuff we keep there, the more people want to break into it.
NPCs already use power armor and can receive equipment from us. I dreamt – when I saw the potential – of Sanctuary facing a massive raider assault and sounding the alarm. My chosen militia would rush to the Power Armor Garage and suit up, and the spotlights along the river would reveal skirmishers vying for position, which my stationed guards would make short work of. Eventually, the raiders would storm the bridge. No doubt they’d overwhelm my turrets, but they’d take heavy losses doing so. Those turrets would buy the Power Armor team enough time to get into position, and we’d stiff-arm the raiders at on our side of the bridge. A shattered raider force would flee, and I’d pursue, alone, over the bridge… mostly to make sure they left my personal home – the Red Rocket station – alone. Satisfied, I’d go survey the damage, tear down wrecked husks of turrets and walls, conduct repairs, and then go back to questing until the next attack came.
THAT is town building advancing story. And it could’ve been like that. That’s basically how the Fallout 3 quest, Big Trouble in Big Town, played for me. It was one of my favorite quests in that game.
But instead Fallout 4’s towns are just canvasses we can paint on. I can play Minecraft if I want that sort of gameplay. I don’t need and don’t care too much about that in Fallout unless it attaches to the rest of what a Fallout game is about. Bethesda missed an opportunity to blow us away on this one, and sadly that’s rather a pattern in Fallout 4. DLC could fix this, I suppose, but Bethesda needs to stop making DLCs as apologies for their mistakes. A DLC that introduced town building with the obvious ways to extend end-game content? Solid. A DLC that makes an otherwise shoddy mechanic meaningful after-the-fact? Feels like a money grab, and hopefully the titanic financial success of Fallout 4 will remind Bethesda that it’s okay for them to take their time and make a good game.