This article contains story spoilers for the first few hours of Fallout 4, so if you haven't gotten that far into the game, and don't want anything ruined, come back and read this once you're as far as Diamond City.
My friend Alma grew up on a hill in a town in the northwest of what is now known as Bosnia & Herzegovina. As a child in the early 1990s, her hero was Lepa Brena—"Beautiful Brena," the Yugoslavian Madonna. She knew all of Lepa's dance moves, lyrics, and hairstyles. Up until 1992, Alma's life was pretty standard—her parents worked a lot, her mother in a local factory, while her father was a painter. When not in school, Alma was often stuck with having to look after Jagoda ("Strawberry") the cow, or when she could escape she would swim in the lake or play tag through the fields and forests with friends. This all stopped in April of that year. It wasn't completely out of the blue, radio broadcasts became dominated by news stories, friends and families started moving away, school would be randomly shut, and, most importantly for a kid, treats became scarce.
The politics of the Bosnian War are still disputed, and everyone has their own take on what happened. But, essentially, there were three major forces fighting over a disputed region, throwing everything from ground forces to air strikes and shells at each other. Areas became off limits, and the destruction reduced much of the surrounding settlements to ghost towns.
At the same time Alma was negotiating these no go zones, bombs, mines, and the other effects of war, I was having difficulty getting a grasp on homework, Pogs, and coming to terms with not having a Game Boy. It's impossible for me to put some of Alma's experiences into words, but they're shocking, harrowing and chilling, while at the same time deeply thought provoking. While I was growing up, my normal spaces were never intruded upon, while Alma's environment saw immense destruction, a change in the place, people, and overall emotions. We'd never really discussed the topic in great detail, aside from her "playing the war child card" as a bit of a running joke, mainly as I wasn't sure it was a suitable subject, especially being an outsider. However, a late night talk show surprisingly resurrected the topic.
Conan. Not the Barbarian, but the red-headed genius behind Marge Vs The Monorail. O'Brien did a cold open Fallout 4/Gilmore Girls mash-up which saw him donning a skin-tight uniform and heading to a vault on the Gilmore Girls set before the apocalypse ensued, as well as doing a playthrough segment. Puzzled at the references, Alma asked me what the hell it was all about. Aside from some questions on the technology and being unconvinced it wasn't a rip off of Mad Max, she wanted to know how convincing the game was at showing and allowing you to experience a post-war wasteland. So, I suggested she play it with me, and give me an honest opinion on how well the game represented the aftermath of a catastrophe and if she could relate to any of it. Having not had too much experience with first-person shooter games (she prefers Mario, The Sims, and EarthBound), the mechanics were new to her, but she was keen to explore what was on offer.
We get started with Alma's character Brena (see main screenshot), and got through the introduction, crafting the face, hair, and body of her avatar in the mirror, trying to match it as closely to the Yugoslavian pop star as possible.
Now, it's the man at the door that gets Alma talking. Not the high-budget introductory movie about war never changing, the quirky mirror scene, or the cute couple conversation interplay, but the Vault-Tec salesman on the doorstep.
"Everything started with the knock on the door," Alma tells me. "It was a late evening in early April (1992). Our dinner guests had just left and my mom, then six months' pregnant with my brother, was doing the dishes. She opened the door, to see a friend who was usually the life and soul of the party, but that evening his face was deadly serious. He was here to see my dad. They talked in the living room and I could only catch a few words, but it was clear that something bad was coming. I still remember the feeling in my stomach of doubt and fear of the unknown. The next morning my dad left to fight, and everything changed. My life, my town, my whole outlook."
As the TV reports, air sirens and mass panic force your Fallout 4 character to rush to safety, Alma jumps in. "The first time we heard the sirens, everyone was going crazy. Nobody was prepared, the bunker wasn't fully ready, and my mom rushed, not knowing what to bring with her. The game captures this mood, though I wanted to grab some stuff before you had to dash up the hill, I'm pretty sure (the character's son) Shaun would have liked a teddy bear or two."
When we reach Vault 111, Alma asks me why the soldiers or vault guards don't jump onto the elevator to save themselves when the blast occurs? I don't know what to say, it's a good point.
Descending on the vault shaft elevator, she wants to talk about her bunker experience.
"Ours wasn't as fancy, as deep underground as this one, but I still remember our bunker vividly. It was built underneath my uncle's house. We had three rooms joined by a large central space. It held around 30 people, which was pretty much all of the residents who stayed behind in the town at the time. The first time we went there it was very strange. It was silent, everyone stuck to their own families, and it was all just women, children, and elderly people."
After the kidnapping and murder scenes, we escape Vault 111 and return to the player's original home of Sanctuary. The suburb is a skeletal shadow of its former, tranquil self.
"As I mentioned before, when my dad left, everything changed. You begin reinterpreting everything: the car which took you to your grandma's house becomes cover, a source of fuel, something to trade; your barn where you played hide and seek with friends becomes an actual hiding place; the lake you learned to swim is now where you wash your clothes. Things you grew up with become tarnished by their new connections and meaning."
Fallout 4 plays with the same concept: the TV commercial-style home you start off with turns into a source of scrap resources; the supermarket becomes a ghoulish death trap; highways are now hotspots for an ambush; and bookstores, libraries, and churches are recast as home to horrors or saviors. Fallout 4 takes the comfortable, structured idyllic 1950s Americana, nukes it, turns it upside down, and remodels it as a dread-filled landscape of desolation and unknowns.
After you reacquaint yourself with your robot butler, you come across Dogmeat, a helpful wasteland companion in form of a German Shepherd.
"I like how they've used a dog. We had three dogs, and the first thing I would always do after leaving the bunker was to see if they were OK. Lesi, Miki, and Cuko were important to me. When I felt upset I would put my head to their chests and listen to their heartbeats to relax. I can't seem to get my character to do that, though."
As we venture towards a bigger city, the silence is broken by far-off gunfire, and shouting.
"Gunshots are the biggest scars that get left behind. I'm not talking about holes in buildings, but marks left in your memories. They were always there, night and day. Even in that hour per day where you forgot you were in a war, they would ring out to remind you. Today, I can't enjoy anything with sudden loud bangs, like fireworks. They make me feel like a scared pet animal; I want to go indoors and hide under the couch. This is probably why I'm not hugely drawn to shooting games like this, but thankfully the volume's not too loud."
When Brena returns to her home to help set up a new settlement for survivors in Sanctuary, Alma is glad she's given control of everything.
"Now the fun can begin! I can use my Harvest Moon skills to grow some crops! This settlement building makes this less like a traditional war game, and more of a survival game, which is war for most people. War is not fighting for a lot of people—it's surviving, and trying regain some normalcy. We survived by growing our own food, using a well and having livestock, particularly Jagoda. The only time we had to go to the black market was for things like medicines, salt, and oil, but we tried not to because it was extremely expensive. And even then, people would try and rip you off, like when a trader tried to give us half our salt order as sugar. In the game you don't really have to sleep, eat, or drink for sustenance, which is a bit strange. I don't know if having to do all that would be too distracting, though."
Aside from encountering people you don't whether to trust or not, there's not much to discuss until we reach Diamond City, ostensibly Fallout 4's capital, a complex of shacks built within the protective walls of Boston's old baseball ground, Fenway Park.
"When soldiers took over, we had to run and leave the whole area for a refugee camp, along with thousands of other people. We were there for six months, and during this time, it became a mini city. Everyone was offering their skills to help each other, and I can see a lot of that in Diamond City. Somebody had a TV where we could watch Tom & Jerry, another had a bicycle to power a generator, and there was also a feeling of paranoia as there was danger too, and you could often hear screams from the improvised army hospital. Outside of the game's baseball stadium, the remnants of a warzone feel real. It's messy, and there are fires, and smoke. I'm just happy there are no smells. They're the most sickening thing, and often the hardest to forget."
After this, the story then gets less about the atmosphere and setting, and more about the personal quest to find Shaun, and the parallels for Alma seem to have come to an end.
"Actually playing the game has changed my perspective somewhat, which has definitely come some way from the Conan piece I saw. There is far too much killing in this game. Where's the negotiating button? I felt like a killing machine, but that's the point of these games*. It seemed like the creators didn't know which direction to go in—you have this settlement building and you're trying to rebuild the world, but then you're murdering hundreds of people. It does capture the scariness of the unknown in a way I can relate to, but it feels too super powered. But I guess if it's too realistic, people might get bored of how depressing war actually is for those without the guns."
Alma left her home country in 1995, moving to Düsseldorf, Germany in the summer of 1995. Talking to her has made me realize an important thing about Fallout 4, and post-apocalyptic fiction in general. They draw much of their power from the contrast between ordered, everyday settings and those same places when chaos and horror engulfs the prior normality. It's just a shame that Fallout 4 doesn't pursue this divide in much detail. I found it interesting she mentioned the lack of eating, drinking, and sleeping and how this detracted from the realism. Even the punishing "Survival" mode lacks this—eating is only ever to restore HP, rather than just keeping you fueled. Other games, like DayZ and Rust, take a more survivalist approach to a comparable setting. Need the Fallout series take a few cues from these more realistic titles? Perhaps not, but you can bet that in a few months, modders will have added additional layers of realism to the vanilla Fallout 4 experience.
Whether uttered by Ron Perlman or new entrant Brian T. Delaney, "War never changes" is the Fallout series' motto. It indeed may never change across time, technological, and societal barriers, but perhaps its fictional depiction, in relation to real experiences, needs to.
(*Depending on what stats you choose to build for your character, you can get some way into Fallout 4 without being too violent, relying on charm, persuasion, and luck, as this PC Gamer article outlines. But it'll only get you so far.)
Follow Jason on Twitter.