Will Bethesda hurry up and announce Fallout 4?

The wait is worse than the radioactive cannibals

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GDC is here, and as is the case with any big trade show or splashy industry event, I’ll be on tenterhooks waiting to hear the one piece of news I care about — When is Fallout 4 going to happen? For years I’ve expected the announcement “any day now” while Bethesda remains stubbornly tight lipped with every passing E3 and VGA ceremony. Still, like the child of a deadbeat father, I hold out hope that this time they’ll surprise us and come through.

It’s important to me because Fallout 3 taught me how to love open-world games. I thought I already did. Games like Oblivion and the GTA series were considered favorites even then. But in retrospect, I had a fondness for those games. An appreciation for them born out of respect to the jaw-dropping technical execution and the brass balls of the teams that designed them. When I actually played them, I was often a stressed out save-scummer, constantly scheming on the best way to tackle the game and maintain a perfect record. It wasn’t until Fallout 3 took me, hand-in-irradiated-hand, on a guided tour of its desolate wasteland that I really learned to love.

Love takes time to grow. I got about six hours into Fallout 3 before abandoning my first run. Something wasn’t clicking. Trekking around the wasteland as a leather-jacketed hard case set on righting every wrong he came across was proving to be a snooze-fest. As was stopping to help every quailing citizen of post-apocalyptia who was having trouble with their computer, or needed a few more iguanas for their stew. I spent most of those first six hours bumbling around in Megaton, the first settlement you discover, running errands for “survivors” who seemed utterly incapable of keeping themselves alive and resenting them for it.

I felt like Dudley Do-Right cosplaying as Mad Max. What was worse was I was incompetent at it. I didn’t have a clue how to fix their flipping computers. I built my first character like an Olympic athlete who could field strip an M-16 in the dark and catch bullets out of the air with his freakishly tough and unnaturally quick hands. Computers were for nerds, not wasteland avengers. I didn’t make a character who could sneak around picking shitty desk locks looking for a password, or charm his way out of a confrontation. I made the kind of guy I thought the wasteland would need – an asskicker, a soldier, a rebel with a heart of gold. And it was so terribly, terribly boring.

I went back to the drawing board. I restarted the game with the kind of guy I thought the wasteland would need the least. Another lunatic set loose on the skeleton of the old world. A lanky freak who was about as tough as a ten-year-old with progeria. A man whose talents included small engine repair, skulking about in the shadows, and an unhealthy interest in explosives. Someone who was likely to rebuild something just to blow it up again.

I gave him a mohawk the color of corn-silk and a face too long for its own good. Big bulging eyes that jutted out a little too far from each other, just this side of gonk. His S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats could truly be considered “special.” Barely any strength or endurance, moderate charisma and intelligence, but preternatural powers of perception and a wild dash of luck. Maybe it reflected being born under a good sign? Or maybe it was just the natural canniness of the criminally ill.

Instead of playing a man driven by a sense of justice and righting wrongs, I gave my new character a spirit of raw curiosity. A person less interested in the right or wrong of something, but driven to explore and experiment, regardless of the outcome. I stopped choosing my words based on what I thought was right, instead just going with whatever dialog option I liked the best at the time, even if it made him occasionally contradictory or less than helpful. He had his mind shattered the moment he was cast out of the only life he ever knew and exiled into a poisoned and dead world. Or maybe there was always a spark of madness in him, fanned into a blaze by the VaultTec door swinging shut behind him.

He had a mild phobia of guns, preferring to dive into melee swinging a baseball bat or knife with his skinny arms, or better yet, to just toss grenades at his problems. I found the Vault 101 Utility suit with the red converse sneakers in the opening tutorial and kept him in them the whole game. Fuck leather jackets and metal knee braces, I was going to face the end of the world looking like a hipster janitor.

I had one guiding principal for this run: I would only do things that interested me. If a quest-line looked boring, I’d skip it. If something caught my eye, I’d abandon what I was doing and go check it out, I would always follow my curiosity. I would never bother to check my karma level, or spend time worrying about my character build (no amount of meta-gaming would ever repair his broken stats anyway). I got over my fear of sequence breaking or wandering into an area that was too tough or advanced for my character. I just assumed it would all work out eventually.

What I’m describing might not seem like much to some people. I’m sure this is how a lot of people already experience big open games like Fallout and Skyrim. But for me, it was a revolution. A complete rewiring of my mental pathways, a total inversion of how I usually approached those sorts of games.

It cured me from the paralysis of choice. The self-defeating spiral where there is just so much to do and explore that you spend more time fretting about what you “should” be doing, or what you could be missing, than actually enjoying the experience. Making a character who couldn’t or wouldn’t use most of the best loot in the game freed me from worrying about completing quests the “best” way. I was free from making choices based on what would get me the best laser gun at the end of a story arc to making choices that would bring me satisfaction.

I dove back into the wasteland with my funny-red-sneaker-wearing weirdo, and I didn’t come back out until 120 hours later.

Forget about chasing down Dad or following up on the main quest; I picked a random direction from the door of Vault 101 and started walking. It wasn’t long before I came across an abandoned shack and a big ol’ combat knife called the Stabhappy. It was like providence was telling me I was on the right track.

I explored what was left of The Mall, stumbling over historic sites while trying to dodge super mutant patrols as a puny level 5 wanderer with distressingly few combat skills (landmines and re-purposed booby traps became my best friend). I got the vague sensation that I was probably supposed to end up in this area as part of some epic quest-line later in the game, but so what? I was curious, plus it was more fun having to sneak by all the mutants than it would have been to just hurl plasma at them.

Much later on, I was tasked with escorting a teenager named Sticky from the child-only settlement of Little Lamplight to Big Town, where they exile all the chumps who are getting a little too old for their own good. So I did what any responsible adult would do when saddled with an annoying 16-year-old who has the mental competency of a 13-year-old: I gave him a suit of cybernetic war armor and a gigantic mini-gun.

When I got him to Big Town, it seemed weird to let him wander about in his powersuit while the rest of the town’s residents wore rags and were trying to defend themselves with rusty bolt-action rifles and lead pipes. So militarizing Big Town became my pet project.

One of the many quirks of the Gamebryo engine Bethesda uses is the ability to reverse-pickpocket items into an NPC’s possession. If you have a high enough sneak rating, you can (somehow) covertly place a flamethrower in a random NPC’s pocket, and they’ll equip it next time you load up the area. Same with clothes and armor. The items are persistent, so they’ll stick with the characters and over time, Big Town became my own living museum of all the cool gear I couldn’t or wouldn’t use. Custom power armor from The Pitt DLC, named weapons like the Blackhawk magnum and Lincoln’s Repeater. Big Town went from a squalid little town of sad-sack victims to the most lethally armed collection of mentally compromised teens in the wastes.

That’s just a sample of the kind of dumb shit I got up to. I made the Capital Wasteland my sandbox, and Bethesda provided me with all the right tools and set dressings to play in it. It is a rare and precious thing to lose yourself completely in a game, and Fallout 3 provided me with some of the most memorable and potent moments I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing.

I want to feel that excitement again. Skyrim was great, but for as much fun as I had with its dragons and necromancers, a part of me was always wistful for the nuclear ashes of America circa 2277. Obsidian’s New Vegas was a good dose for keeping the shakes at bay, with some welcome mechanics that made soft-skills more important and some colorful characters (all hail “kai-sar”). But its endless brown deserts and frustratingly lethal wildlife left me cold. It felt like the game was always trying to punish me for going off the beaten trail and trying to explore it like the Capital Wasteland.

I want to see what the A-team can do. I want to see what Bethesda has learned from Skyrim, what ideas it can poach from New Vegas, and what it’ll leave on the cutting-room floor. I want to return to the wasteland, see what kind of stories it has left to tell, what kind of characters are still rattling around in the grave of the old world. I’m hungry for it, ready to chomp down on any scrap of news, hell, I’d be happy even for the meager crumbs of a teaser trailer, anything.

It’s been almost seven years since Fallout 3 came out and Bethesda has been stubbornly, frustratingly silent about the future of the series. Will the studio finally have something to say about it this GDC? Doubtful. But at this point, I have no choice but to hope.


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