Fallout 4’s Boston Commonwealth doesn’t really seem like the ideal place to start a new hobby. Post-apocalyptic Beantown is kind of a scary place if you’re extremely susceptible to jump scares, like I am.
What I found over the equivalent of 20 full days exploring the map’s artfully destroyed buildings and ransacked landmarks was that my favorite part of the game wasn’t the guns, quest lines or the new NPC friends I made along the way. It was the little things.
I mean that quite literally: the pool balls, pepper mills, bowling pins, coffee tins stamped with cherubic boys and spools of cotton thread that filled my inventory were far more interesting to me than tearing up mobs of Super Mutants or even finding my long-lost son.
The Commonwealth transformed from a terrifying possible future filled with radioactive ghouls and bloodthirsty raiders to a place of calm once I made this realization, evoking and encouraging thoughtful order.
I’ve lived with an anxiety disorder and chronic depression for longer than I’ve known what to call them, and I’ve consistently struggled with finding healthy ways to deal with both. I began to find that my actions in Fallout 4 were serving as an almost meditative practice that promoted thoughtful interactions with my environment and helped to calm racing thoughts.
My actions in the game also gave me the opportunity to feel useful, like I was making visible progress on a project when my depression prevented me from leaving the house or pursuing my regular hobbies and goals. The more time I spent in the wasteland, the more it transformed from a space for play into a useful tool for reflecting on and mediating my own mental health.
Taking in the trash
It started out as a joke, as all good coping mechanisms do. I had set up camp at Sunshine Tidings Co-Op, a quaint robotics-friendly commune on the map’s western edge. As I worked within the game’s workshop mode to make it a livable settlement, I struggled with how to make use of the little green cabins that circled the site.
I thought it might make an amusing photo op if I filled each one with a different type of junk that you tend to naturally collect while adventuring through post-apocalyptic Boston: one cabin for balls and associated spheres, one cabin for the near-useless stacks of cash called Pre-War Money and one cabin in which to deposit all my human bones.
I collected more of each with subsequent trips out into the Commonwealth, and deposited them in their respective cabins. My strange dragon’s hoard grew at a slow but steady rate.
There were far more interesting assets to collect than I had cabins at Sunshine Co-Op, so I packed up my inventory and moved to the other side of the map, cutting the ribbon on the Spectacle Island Recycling Centre.
This was where I really perfected my system. I built a large wooden shack and filled it with about 20 old rusted bathtubs, perfect for holding my preciously mundane treasures. I dropped all of my junk onto a cement staging area.
Then, in workshop mode, I would painstakingly sort through the mass of trash, putting each item into its requisite bathtub. Unfortunately, the way the workshop controls function means that you can’t really deposit items into the tubs. Instead, you have to place them on the edge of a tub and then strategically bump them in with your character. That said, there was something satisfying about hip-checking these retro household goods into a bathtub and letting the game’s natural gravity take over.
There are, of course, innate technical issues to deal with. For one, I can no longer return to Nordhagen Beach, where I built an automated beltway to carry over 50,000 stacks of pre-war Benjamins into a giant glass tower. As a result, I can’t get within a mile of that map sector without the game crashing; that money belongs to Todd now. Additionally, my teddy bear fort has a nearly nude deceased raider in it who continues to respawn no matter what I do, and the resulting image is uncomfortable at best.
I had nearly wrapped up the main quest line by the point in the game where I really dug my heels into my “recycling” practices, but playing Fallout was a great way to keep my hands busy so that I could focus my attention on podcasts and other audio media.
I alternated between making runs to different locations for more junk, and engaging in intense sorting sessions as I listened to hours of content. This practice brought me the sort of calm that I imagine regular people get from following the organizational gospel of Marie Kondo.
Besides my many tubs, I also built a giant house to hold my magazines, tools and pantry items. Additionally, I constructed a wooden enclosure in the yard to hold anything I deemed “compostable,” as well as a pit for my growing excess of human bones. I had become the king of my own empire, one made up of digital garbage, with no obvious benefits that could transfer over to the real world. Or, at least, that’s how most people might see it.
There is a tendency in media to categorize games, especially open-world RPGs, as simply escapism. It is fitting to some degree: You’re taking a step out of the real world and into a fictional virtual space, where you’re spending a significant amount of time doing things that don’t affect your life in a tangible way.
But digital spaces like Fallout 4, The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim or The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild are not merely colorful Matrix-esque worlds that we can slip away into. We have the power to affect the meaning of these worlds based on how we use them. Our actions, and the intent behind them, are transformative.
Michael Nitsche posits that there are five planes in which we experience and interact with digital spaces. In his 2008 book Video Game Spaces: Image, Play and Structure in 3D Worlds, he defines them as rule-based, mediated, fictional, play and social. Each one has its own manifestation, whether physical, digital or conceptual. The place where all our planar experiences intersect is where this transformation takes place.
Polygon has already proven this with content like Monster Factory, which uses the character generator framework — a very small part of a wide variety of games — to create something that could be considered “just like art.” Additionally, the Awful Squad series occasionally transforms the worlds of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds by engaging with them in ways that certainly weren’t originally intended. This is done simply by eschewing the very basic premise of the game: to shoot and kill your enemies until you are the last person standing.
By focusing my in-game energy on what is ultimately just a sliver of the available gameplay in Fallout 4, I was able to transform the game from an RPG into something more like an anxiety management app. When we access virtual spaces on our consoles and computers, they become ours; our intentions and actions have the ability to alter the original purpose of the creators. Multiplayer formats allow us to collaborate, fostering community building and more. Games like World of Warcraft and Minecraft have enormous potential for transformation, which millions of players take advantage of every day.
What’s interesting is that the original vision of the creators, whether it be artistic, economic or otherwise, can intersect in many ways with our perceived ownership of the worlds we transform. When Bethesda released the “Contraptions” add-on, I was excited to see how I could incorporate the new building options into my existing framework.
I was disappointed: The DLC introduced a series of options for automation and the ability to produce, move and store objects in a much more functional manner. It was cool, and it was efficient, but it wasn’t as fun, satisfying or thoughtful. I could dump my collections into a hopper, which would pour them out onto a conveyor belt and carry them to be deposited in a metal box where I couldn’t see them.
It now takes a sliver of the amount of time to organize my objects, and it’s done in a way that isn’t as visually or mentally pleasing. It’s convenient for gameplay, but that’s not how I was primarily using Fallout 4. We’re used to technology moving in a linear fashion, but even that convention can be broken when we transform play spaces from their original intent.
Anything is possible when these basic expectations of the medium are shattered.
My time in Fallout 4 has opened up my mind in terms of how to transform this and other virtual spaces, and I look forward to exploring that further. Regardless of whether they’re physical or digital, the spaces we occupy are what we make of them, and the sky is no longer the limit.