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.