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Permadeath in Fallout 4's Survival mode broke me

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Out of my Comfort Zone #03

I've played a lot of Fallout 4. Too much if I'm being honest. Like a ratty old sweater, it's kind of comfortable in its familiarity, even if I know I should really just toss it out. But, for all the hours I've played, the multiple characters I've run, the gimmick builds and odd choices I've messed around with, there was one area of the game I've never interacted with before – Survival mode. 

Survival mode is Fallout's attempt at leaning more towards a post-apocalyptic simulator than a thrill ride. It dramatically increases the amount of damage you receive (and dish out), requires the player to keep well nourished, hydrated, and rested while wandering or suffer stat debuffs, and introduces the possibility of illness and infection. It also does away with some of the video game niceties of the genre, no more fast-travel between previously visited areas, and bullets and health kits now carry a weight value like every other item. 

After spending so many hours playing around with Fallout 4's bits and pieces, I was ready for a challenge. I wanted to dive into Survival mode, but with my own special condition permadeath. I'd wander up to the point where my survivor died and that would be the end of it. One single life in the wasteland. 

Of course, permadeath survival runs are nothing new (long-time readers might remember Awesome ExMachina’s excellent No/Clip series and his New Vegas experience) so I wanted to do something to spice it up, something to give my run a little more direction than wandering around and avoiding Super Mutants until I got bored. And I sure as hell wasn’t going to do the main quest again. So I decided I’d set a personal goal. I would rebuild society. 

Hey, if you’re gonna go, you might as well go big. 

I had an idea of being a post-apocalyptic Johnny Appleseed of civilization. I’d wander the land and leave nice little settlements behind me as I went. I’d chart a path from the North West corner of the map at Sanctuary and work my way the the South East corner at Warwick Homestead. On the way, I’d establish every settlement I could. Ten seemed like a nice target number, but in my arrogance, I mused that I would probably do more.

Of course, rebuilding society would mean I’d need a character full of vim and vigor. A charismatic leader who could rally the people and inspire hope. Rebuilding society from a pile of nuclear goo takes more than big muscles and a highly adaptive gastrointestinal track, it takes people skills. 

I built my permadeath survival character to be a talker. A friendly chatterbox in a world of brutes.

Meet Kit


Kit was a cheery red-headed ball of sunshine in a dark world. Survival skills, physical prowess? Pffffft. I gave her a Charisma score of 10, with a healthy helping of Intelligence on the side, a dusting of Luck and Agility. I was going for a Kimmy Schmidt vs. the Apocalypse kind of thing, a walking motivational poster. In a last-second character adjustment, I applied a tiny bit of blood splatter to her cheeks because I started to worry I made her a little too adorable.

Troublingly, the bit of splatter kinda just made her cuter to me. This doesn’t have any bearing on the journey, I just needed to get it off my chest. 

I suppose the one mercy to be found here is that Kit enjoyed a pleasant life if not a long one. She spent most of her short life in Sanctuary and the Red Rocket station, flitting about like some kind of sentient Home and Garden show, renovating all she surveyed. She resurrected the collapsed pile of debris and Radroach guts that was Sanctuary to a series of cozy living rooms with comfortable lighting.

I have to admit, there was some guile behind all the renovating work. Even with my optimistic outlook I wanted to put a few levels under Kit’s belt before heading into the shit and building things awards you a small amount of XP with each end table and ottoman. A little carpentry early in the game can be a big boost. So I avoided combat and mostly poked around abandoned cottages and worn-down fishing sheds for scrap that I could turn into beds and delightful trashcans shaped like rocket ships. Aside from the occasional Mole Rat, it was a pretty chill time. 

Until it wasn’t.

I was traveling up a river bank, careful to avoid the raiders and unsavory types lurking a little further inland when I heard some strange crackling. Mirelurk eggs and they were hatching. 

Let the record show that I took the appropriate action. I immediately stopped, drew my pistol, and began to backpedal. This was fine. This was under control. I’d put some distance between myself and the little monsters, pick them off, and run if they got too close. 

BOOM.

Mama Mirelurk came to protect her kids. Out of nowhere I get body checked Ty Domi-style from behind. Somehow, a literal GIANT ENEMY CRAB materialized in the exact same path I just walked mere seconds before to cudgel me into oblivion.

That’s it. I’m at full health, wearing a mix of raider and leather armor, and an adorable little mining helmet. Doesn’t mean shit. The sweetest girl in the post-apocalypse is suddenly lying face down in a shallow river bank, dead as a Goddamn post.

Kit took ONE hit the entire time I played her, and it killed her.

I am in trouble.

So this is my predicament. I’ve gotten all geared up and ready to write a feature about a permadeath survival run in Fallout 4, and it’s all over before my character reaches level 5. Not exactly a scintillating read. Let's take this as a mulligan.

Meet Kat


Okay, my bad. I need to take this more seriously.

Kat is basically Kit’s twin sister (with a different hair color). Almost like I just wanted to go back to the Vault autosave and try again like nothing happened. I’ve adjusted her stats a little though, a more level-headed approach compared to Kit’s goofy build. Just the six Charisma points needed to get the Local Leader perk for the settlements, fewer points in Luck, and a boost to Strength and Endurance.

I spend decidedly less time making Sanctuary and the Red Rocket station cozy.

Kat is trucking along. It’s early levels yet, but I feel like I have a new, healthy respect for Survival mode. Unlike Kit, Kat is straight down to business. I plan to pick off targets of opportunity and knock out some easy quests to level up and earn some of the handier perks ASAP. Quests like the job from Abernathy farms to go clear the raiders out of the USAF Station Olivia. I know you can hijack a Sentry bot in a nearby dump to go clear out everyone outside. Easy-peasy. 

This was when I got my first taste of the weird shit that makes Survival mode interesting. 

I re-powered the decommissioned bot and it promptly hightailed it towards the station, leaving me to deal with a sudden eruption of Mole Rats. No dig deal, even in Survival mode Mole Rats aren’t much of a threat. What did concern me, however, was the amount of machine gun fire and screaming I could hear in the distance.

Breaking away from the Mole Rats, I arrived just in time to witness the final scene of a bizarre tableau: the Sentry bot venting exhaust heat like a preening prizefighter over the corpses of four mutilated Raiders. Fleeing the crime scene is a man in a blue jumpsuit with a large 81 on the back. He takes off like a bat outta hell, desperate to get away from whatever misfortune just occurred.

I try to catch up, but it’s no use. I burned up all my AP fighting Mole Rats and Kat is sucking wind. The mystery of the Vault 81 guy and whatever shit just went down will have to remain.

Normally, this would be a quick load moment. I won’t apologize for it. Fallout 4 is a wonky-ass game where weird shit happens constantly. Bugs are a normal fact of life and quests break nearly as often as they work. I’m always reloading to catch some dialog that got cut off, or roll back the clock on some random glitch. But, in Survival mode, that’s not an option. You have to live with the weirdness, the bugs, the threads left dangling. 

It feels strange to just watch a quest hook run off into the distance and never be able to follow up on it. Unsettling, but in a good way. Life is uncertain at the best of times. I don’t see it becoming any less muddled after an atomic war.

Kat died in that radar station. After methodically ambushing the first few raiders, the named boss of the area slid into the adjoining room like Kramer, but brandishing a minigun instead of complaining about the post office. This was fine. I knew it was coming. I specifically saved a frag grenade so I wouldn’t have to slug it out with the big gun. I tossed the nade into the room a good 15 feet away.

When it blew, it took both of Kat’s arms with it. The rest of her body was sent reeling backwards, a spray of blood gushing from the freshly mangled stumps.

Apparently grenades are really powerful in Survival mode.

Meet Mallory 


Well, that sucks. Looking at the map, Kat died about a 150 feet from the river bank Kit died at. Again, not exactly a thrilling article. Let’s try this again.

Mallory isn’t having any of this shit. She’s not going to die a stone's throw from the Vault door. She’s going to creep across the wasteland, steal whatever she needs, and murder people in their sleep. She’s a survivor. The goal is still ostensibly to rebuild society, but she’s gonna skip on the niceties; the flower vases and patterned bedspreads. The Charisma stat can go fuck itself. I dump everything I can into Agility and Luck.

This isn’t whimsy, this is a build designed to break the game. Mallory is going to be a crit machine. She’s going to reach inside the unholy workings of Fallout 4’s dark internal logic and turn it against itself. Luck is one of those stats where taking a few points doesn’t really mean much, but taking a bunch can break the game. All of the crit-based perks combined with the utter unfairness of Agility stealth-attack perks like Sandman and Ninja can make a character that will one-shot a Super Mutant Behemoth.

Let’s play dirty.

I chart a path across the Wasteland. Raiders are sniped from the shadows; Preston and his crew are rescued. I haggle over the price of microscopes and cameras with wandering merchants, junk I’ll break down into the crystal and wire I need to set up radio beacons for the settlements I’m leaving in my trail. Sanctuary, Red Rocket, Abernathy Farms, and Starlight Drive-in slowly transform into livable spaces. Crops are planted, water pumps dug deep into the ground, and crude watch posts are placed at the borders. Slowly, weary farmers start flocking to my banner in search of a better life. It is working.

And then it all went to shit.

I wind my way towards Greygarden. It’s off my projected route, but supplying every area with crops has been harder than expected and the robot gardeners have loads of mutfruit. If I bring them into the fold, I can feed the everyone north of the Charles river. But, I’m wandering by dead reckoning. I don’t remember where Greygarden is exactly and it seems against the spirit of the project to just check on a map. Somehow I end up near Beantown Brewery, and that’s when I hear it.

Beep.

Too slow, too stupid. Mallory dies in a fireball. A random landmine in the middle of a piss-nowhere road and it’s all over.

Fuuuuuuuuu- 

Meet Mallory 2


If Kit got a second chance, I guess it’s only fair to give Mallory one too. I’ve already veered far enough away from the original concept of this thing. I load up the Vault auto-save and don’t even bother to think up a cute name this time. Mallory 2 enters the wasteland.

I’m impatient and rushing now. I’ve seen all this content too many times to bother with it again. I’m not going to rescue Preston and his band of idiots, I’m just going to explore the world and see if I can’t find some good loot early on to help me out.

It doesn’t take long. Death by accidental combustion out front of the Bedford train station, level 5. I didn’t even see the oil slick until the flames spread beneath my feet.

Now I’m just angry.

Meet THE DEBBIE MACHINE 


Fuck everything. Fuck this dead world and all those who are cursed to walk upon it. I will not save these wretches, I will not give them anymore of my spirit. To them I grant only a new hell, a pale rider that will signal their oblivion THE DEBBIE MACHINE

Strength: 10. Endurance: 10. Empathy: 0. 

The Debbie Machine is a walking pile of muscle and hatred. I’ve eschewed all delusions of hope for this world. I’ve rejected finesse or skill as a response to the insanity of atomic war. Only the strong survive, and the Debbie Machine is the strongest of all.

My new plan is simple. I am going to cheat. I’m going to crack open every wiki and glitch I can to get a leg up. I’m going to abuse the mechanics of the game as mercilessly as they have abused me. I’m going to rush directly to overpowered weapons and armor. I’m going to duplicate high-value scrap and sell it for drugs. I’m going to huff Jet like Hunter S. Thompson in the darkest depths of his legendary ether binges. I’m going to shunt an IV bag of Psycho into my arm and punch a hole into reality.

I don’t care what it takes. I need out. I need to get someone to Warwick Homestead. I need to get on with my life.

The Debbie Machine will not enter the world a babe, she will come upon it as a storm. I know a loophole in the rules of the universe. As soon as I get to Sanctuary, I duplicate thousands of units of wood and steel with a simple glitch and begin my work. The Debbie Machine will make chairs until she is ready to conquer the world.

Years from now they’ll come across this place and name it the cheater’s throne. None will dare to sit.

As I level up in the still air of a dead community, I select the perks that will define the Debbie Machine. Toughness, Rooted, Adamantium Skeleton, and of course, Cannibalism. Why waste inventory space on cans of Cram and bottles of water when I can feast on flesh and drink blood? 

I’m level 15 before I even deign to leave Sanctuary. I immediately pick up a suit of power armor that I upgrade within an inch of its life and a stockpile of fusion cores. I cut a swath across the countryside, hitting up one loot cache after another, steamrolling Raiders by body checking them to the ground and clobbering them with a baseball bat. There is no delicacy or thought to my strategy, it is a triumph of statistical advantages, min/maxing the available mechanics to the point where the routine dangers of the wasteland are trivialized.

At some point between mob-style baseball bat murders, the dog abandons me. This shouldn’t be a surprise. The animals are always the first to know when a storm is coming. 

Eventually I rescue Preston, not out of kindness, but because I want Codsworth to lug supplies for me. I load the robot up with mini-nukes and duplicated stacks of gold. I start clearing out merchant inventories in earnest, amassing a stockpile of stimpacks and bottlecaps. We blunder our way through Raider camps, Synth ambushes, and the Brotherhood of Steel fighting off a horde of Ghouls. I tell Danse to get bent when he offers to “let” me help them. I’m not here to make friends anymore, those days are over. 

We snake our way South without incident. In Diamond City, I splatter the walls of an upscale bar when I get involved in a love triangle gone sour. First the philandering bartender, than the lovesick husband after he turned on me. Apparently, even after murdering someone together we still weren’t close enough for him to look the other way when I started to rob the bar. Again, this would have been a quickload moment in the regular game, but in Survival you just have to play it where it lays.

Codsworth mysteriously disappears after I ambush a drug deal and steal enough Jet to OD an elephant. I’m not sure if this is open-world jank or if he just can’t stand to watch anymore.

I spend some time in the downtown ruins. For the first time they seem like an ominous and frightening derelict of a bygone age instead of a poorly laid out pile of debris. Despite being a wrecking ball of destruction, I’m still playing things careful, going around large camps, trying to avoid the worst of the trouble.

Eventually I found that trouble anyway. Not too far from Diamond City, I came across a beefy Raider stronghold they had elevated positions, choke points, automatic weapons, the whole nine yards. Not something I was just going to charge into. So I picked around the perimeter, happy to let the enemy stumble into me one at a time. But, they were crafty and scattered mines around the area.

Those landmines were still my Goddamned kryptonite.

The first one blew the legs off my power armor. Suddenly I’m moving at a snail's pace trying to fend off a pack of Raiders rushing me. I dump gear mid-fight, switch to a fast swinging sword just to keep up with the number of goons in my face. A Raider with a little flick knife keeps blocking my strikes while his friends wail on me and even though I'm pumping stimpacks into my system, I’m suddenly in real danger. I wish Codsworth were here to take some hits. 

That’s when I notice the truck next to me is about to blow. It’s taken too many stray shots and the hood is belching flames, the telltale warning flag appears and I know I only have seconds. I sprint towards safety.

Beep. 

The landmine crumples me, the explosion from the truck spikes me into the air. I’m a 500-pound metal volleyball. 

Even the cheatiest, broken, and blatantly overpowered character I could make was still no match for random chance.

What did I learn?

Well, slowing down the pace of Fallout 4 makes it a more interesting game in some ways. I noticed more detail in the environment, more nuances to the level design than I’ve given the game credit for in the past. It’s most evident in the downtown core, where the rat-like mazes of elevated street cars and rubble make for some tense hide-and-seek if you aren’t just shooting your way out of every fight.

Of course, this also made the rough patches stand out more as well. Every time I got snagged on a piece of debris it wasn’t just a matter of hitting the quickload button, but an agonizing loss of half an hour’s progress. I couldn’t track down my missing companions with a little quick travel back to Red Rocket they were just gone for good, taking whatever supplies they were carrying with them.

The nuts and bolts of Survival mode still haven't evolved much past what was in New Vegas. Keeping your character fed and hydrated is trivial ten minutes out of the Vault, and even easier if you put any effort into your settlements. The added weight to ammo and healing items just forces you to specialize in one type of weapon more than you might otherwise. It’s all more of an annoyance than anything compelling.

But what was the real takeaway from all this? What did I learn beyond the wonky mechanics and petty annoyances? What did the failure of my initial plan, the many subsequent deaths, the back-peddling, the diminished expectations, the frustration, agony, and self-doubt all add up to?

Permadeath in Fallout 4 taught me something I already knew that the world is not fair. That it doesn’t matter how tough you are, how noble your intentions may be, or how much Mad Max swagger you can muster, your life is still subject to the whimsy of fate. That no matter what you plan or how diligently you work, everything can be undone by one random stroke of misfortune.

This is something I think we’re all painfully aware of, but work hard to mentally compartmentalize. We all know that the college degree you spent so long earning and paying off student debt will mean nothing if you get hit by a truck tomorrow. Somewhere inside, we all live with the grim knowledge that our lives hang by threads we have no control over. It’s just the super-compacted and exaggerated world of Fallout 4 brings those ideas to the surface and forces you to face them.

You can decorate a lovely living room, dedicate yourself to practical long-term survival, or amass a fortune of supplies and advantages. At the end of the day, random chance and factors beyond your control will ultimately have the final say.

Life? Life never changes. It’s chaotic and beautiful and often unfair. Best to make the most of it while you have it.

Previously on Out of my Comfort Zone:

#01: Thirsty, hungry, and crappy in ARK: Survival Evolved

#02: How the hell did I become a MOBA player?

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Nic Rowen
Nic RowenAssociate Editor   gamer profile

(formerly known as Wrenchfarm) has been an active member of the Dtoid community since After toiling away in the Cblog mines and Recap Team workhouse for more + disclosures


 


 


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