I think I knew Fallout 4 had wormed its way into my brain when I started talking to my imaginary dog. About 20 hours into the staggeringly ambitious, post-apocalyptic video game, which Bethesda Games releases on Tuesday, my character’s loyal German Shepherd ran ahead of me to sniff at something. I’d met the dog early on and adopted him as a loyal companion, one who helped alert me to nearby threats and dug around for buried treasure. As he sniffed, I said aloud, to an empty room, “You got something, boy?”
Playing video games is often an embarrassingly involving experience. In the past, I’ve struggled to explain an emotional moment in a game to others, before realizing that it might be difficult for them to relate when they haven’t played. Fallout 4 throws this disconnect into even sharper relief—even for players of the exact same game. That’s because it operates on an even grander, more open-ended scale than 2008’s legendary Fallout 3. Set some 200 years after a nuclear apocalypse devastates the world, players assume the role of a wanderer who’s just emerged back on the surface. The rest is up to them. For some, that might mean unraveling vast conspiracies. For others, it might just be tending a garden with a dog at your side. The result is an experience that’s deeply intimate and immersive, despite the dizzying array of possibilities.
Video games used to fit into neat categories—role-playing games, strategy games, shooter games. But as consoles have become more powerful, and gaming has become less of a niche activity, everything has begun to merge together into blockbuster powerhouses like Fallout 4. Do you want to run around shooting monsters while wearing a mechanized suit of armor? Do you want to stealthily slip behind locked doors, or charm and connive your way through a complex story? Or do you want to eschew the story entirely and simply walk the blasted landscape of Boston (rendered in impressive detail, as Fallout 3 did for Washington, D.C.) and see what kind of trouble you get into? This is the intoxicating power of the open-world game. Having played Fallout 4 for days, pouring hours and hours into exploring its nooks and crannies, it was still clear it’d be months before I’d experienced anything close to its entire scope.
But back to the dog. If there’s a criticism to be made of Fallout 4 (beyond its buggy programming, which will likely be smoothed out over the next few weeks), it’s that on a surface level, it doesn’t feel that different from the seven-year-old Fallout 3, which also had players emerge from a fallout shelter and explore a giant post-apocalyptic wasteland. To be fair, that game was one of the most successful and acclaimed of all time, and often the rule of video-game sequels is to provide more of the same, but better.
And yet Fallout 3 could sometimes be a merciless slog, marching the player across dull, rubble-strewn landscapes or through D.C.’s labyrinthine Metro tunnels for hours before you reached your goal. Fallout 4 is more interested in giving those journeys some personality, and starting with the dog, you can travel with companions. Playing video games can be a lonely experience, and it’s amazing what a difference even a pretend dog makes.
Beyond that, another new addition to Fallout 4 is communities that you can build from the ground up. The world is littered with debris, both of the traditional and human variety: spoons and tin cans waiting to be recycled for a better purpose, lost souls traveling the world looking for meaning. You can gather people into small towns and start building houses, shops, and farms for them. The result is a sort of small-scale SimCity (or larger-scale Minecraft) that seems to have no particular bearing on the game’s main story (where you hunt your baby’s kidnapper).
When I first realized the scale of this new feature, I was nonplussed: Why insert what feels like a whole other game into a game that’s already so dauntingly massive? But after several hours scavenging around on various missions, I returned to my home base and built a few beds for my meager citizenry. It was when they started thanking me that I realized the game had simply snuck in another emotional hook.
As such, Fallout 4 may not feel like the future of gaming because it resembles so much of its past, cobbled together into a mighty behemoth that requires 10 hours to even begin to understand the scope. But that’s just part of the technological arms race that’s emerged as games get bigger and consoles get more powerful—the successful franchise is one that finds a way to do it all without scaring the customer off at minute one.
For a game so mammoth, Fallout 4 is deceptively simple in its opening: You emerge from your shelter, pistol in hand, a singular mission in mind. Then it does everything it can to derail you from your original goal by offering you distraction upon distraction. The joy is discovering that each distraction offers its own thrills and achievements; the pain is realizing the amount of time it would take to accomplish everything of interest in a world this large. But that’s something about video games that has never changed since their invention: In the best of them, joy and pain always go hand in hand.