rambling

Late to the Party, Still Dancing Hard; or, How I Learned to Love Fallout 4’s Survival Mode

(Author’s Note: As you read this entry, you may ask yourself “Why isn’t he writing poetry?” Rest assured, I still am. My plan to write one poem every day this year is still moving forward. When I started this year of poetry, I shifted the whole blog to poetry, without leaving any space for my rambling prose writings. I thought I wouldn’t want to write any of my rambling thoughts down. I was wrong. I’ve been meaning to create two separate pages on this blog: one for poems, another for prose. Until I get to that, however, I’ll just throw everything into the one space I have. So here’s a bit of rambling from me; thanks for sticking with me this year, and happy trails to you.)

I would say I’m a fan of Bethesda. Or I would say I’m a fan of Todd Howard. That’s unfair to the whole team – let’s use the first statement as the truth. For the most part, I enjoy what Bethesda creates. Almost fifteen years ago, a friend let me borrow his copy of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. If I recall correctly, I was fresh out of high school at the time, or maybe it was my senior year … either way, those details don’t matter. What matters is that I had time to immerse myself in a fantastic world both utterly removed from and intricately linked to my own reality. Time moved in a way that made sense – Elves and Orcs had schedules! There were Elves and Orcs, and lizard folks and cat folks, er, Argonians and Khajiit. Like I said, this world was similar and dissimilar to my own.

I gloss over my time with Oblivion only to say that it’s the game that turned me into a Bethesda fan. I jumped into Fallout 3 when it released later, and I became a huge Fallout fan. I started to differentiate between various dystopias, and nuanced kinds of fantasy; years later, I would finally try D&D for the first time, and I would fall in love with it. I’d always liked exploring alternate worlds through reading, and games just added an interactive layer to my fantastical explorations. Should I credit one company for my urge to see things beyond my own reality? Well, of course not. My love for alternate realities started before I knew about Bethesda. I just want to acknowledge that of all the worlds I’ve explored, Bethesda’s worlds have the strongest pulls to them.

I eagerly sank hundreds of hours into Skyrim. I played through Fallout 3 several times, also for hundreds of hours, and I still believe that New Vegas is a masterpiece in the role-playing world (I know it was actually made by Obsidian using Bethesda’s engine and assets, but I still tie it to Bethesda’s output). So when Fallout 4 came out, I was rightfully stoked to see where these imaginative world-builders would take the North American Post-Apocalyptia. There were no longer any skill points – just your S.P.E.C.I.A.L. abilities and a chart full of perks which depended on those abilities. Do you want to have enough Strength to use a perk point and increase your carrying capacity? You could pump your Strength then, but naturally, another ability would have to be diminished. From a character-building perspective, this was a wonderful way to streamline everything – while tabletop games like D&D, Cyberpunk 2020, and Pathfinder tie skills to abilities, there always seems to be a slight imbalance, i.e., Dexterity and Charisma influence more skills than Strength, and Constitution is hugely important to survival while doing nothing for your skills. I’m not trying to say that tabletop games are less balanced than video games – in fact, I believe they’re much more nuanced – but Fallout 4 removed skills and tied everything to abilities in a way that makes character-building sleek and efficient. While it may seem simplistic, it still offers plenty of choice and space for being whoever you’d like to be.

Then there’s the big question mark: fully-voiced player characters. From a role-playing perspective, this is a big downgrade. I don’t want a voice actor, no matter how talented, to inhabit a character I created. I still give the actors credit and mad respect for their work, because it is phenomenal, but it just doesn’t make sense to give the protagonist – who should be an empty vessel for the player’s imagination – a fully fleshed-out voice and backstory. I should create a backstory, even if it’s as simple as “I woke up in a vault and I’m gonna do the best I can to survive, ’cause I don’t work in a 21st-century grocery store anymore.” I should provide a voice, or, if I want, imagine that my character is mute and writes or quickly types out all their conversational choices. Anyway, this is my way of stating that on the role-playing front, Fallout 4’s gameplay is where it shines – the story is there if you want it, but it’s merely passable at best.

It is now I realize that I’ve created a beast with this Fallout 4 analysis, because my history with the game is a storied one. Back when I had an Xbox One, I pre-ordered the game and played it when it first released. My first “no holds barred, I just play the game like a gamer” experience was fun and all, but when I think back on it, it probably lacked substance. I just wanted to run around, explore the wasteland, and complete as many quests as I could. I wanted a wide experience, and I didn’t think too much about why I did the things I did, or what I really wanted to accomplish. This is fine, and Bethesda is clever enough to offer the big ol’ sandbox so grown-up kids like me can do whatever the heck they want. Eventually, though, one grows tired of the “gamer experience” and wants to do something a little deeper.

Perhaps I should take a moment to define what I mean when I write “gamer experience.” I am, perhaps in a shallow way, looking at the mass-market idea of what gamers like: hard, fast experiences, satisfying gameplay without too many limits, and quick stories they can share with friends. “When that deathclaw popped out of the sewer? Man, I almost shit my pants!” “Yeah, I ran to the top of the steeple and sniped it to death – it took a long time but it worked!” Et cetera, et cetera. If anyone’s read this far, I highly recommend a YouTuber (heh, potatoes) called ManyATrueNerd. He dives into the nuances of Fallout games in a way that is satisfying to me, and he points out that the first few hours of Fallout 4 push players into the action to get them hooked, which works for pulling players in but in the end, it becomes something of an illusion. You rush to power armor and take on one of the biggest, baddest threats in the wasteland, on one of your first main quests. Concord is literally a walk across a bridge and down a hill from your first available settlement. It doesn’t require a ton of exploration and deep-diving to find the place, and you’ve got NPCs blasting a ton of enemies for you along the way. When you make it to an interior space full of raiders, you blast through hallways and stairways to rescue your new friends. There are no terminals packed with background info, no side paths that lead to interesting goodies or treasure – all the fun exploration and environmental story-telling is downplayed significantly in the beginning, and the rest of the game takes on a different luster that might be hard to adjust to.

Oh my, I’ve rambled and not made a ton of sense. It suffices to say that, for me, Bethesda’s games, and Fallout 4 in particular, are at their best when there’s a big world to explore and I get to decide how that happens. Do I want to be a strong person capable of wearing big armor and taking on threats directly, or do I want to skulk in the shadows and pick targets off as silently as possible? Do I want to stack Charisma and just charm my way through encounters and GOD DAMN IT THAT’S NOT AN OPTION, okay, so the gameplay isn’t nearly as varied or deep as it could be, it all boils down to “Kill the folks who disagree with you,” but there are surprisingly nuanced choices as to HOW you can kill the folks who disagree with you. In short: I want to choose how I play, rather than be railroaded into a rescue mission that shoves what should be high-level shit at me in the very beginning of the game.

The quick and dirty satisfaction of fighting and looting is integral to Fallout 4, but that’s because it also lends itself to the slow-burning potential of Fallout 4’s core post-apocalyptic philosophy: do what you have to do to survive. I’ve gone on long enough about my random thoughts tied to the game, and it’s time to explore the thing that brought me back into Fallout 4’s tremulous arms.

That thing, my friends, is survival mode. Maybe I should capitalize it to give it some importance: Survival Mode. I didn’t play in Survival Mode when I first played the game, because I wanted that quick, fun, and relatively simple “gamer experience.” I didn’t want to worry about a bunch of other factors that would drastically alter the way I looked at the wasteland. But I must say, something happened within the last year to change my tune. I received a decent gaming PC setup from my brother and a friend, and I’ve been slowly gathering a lot of the old games I loved on consoles back in the day. A quick note: I do have a PS4 and a Nintendo Switch, but I hardly use them nowadays. I’ve been glued to my PC. Almost every game is available there, they go on sale frequently, and I have storage space for days! There was an Elder Scrolls bundle that included the most recent three games, and I bought that in a heartbeat. Will I have the time or the desire to try Morrowind anytime soon, or jump back into the frigid wilds of Skyrim? Probably not, but they’re there if I want them. Such is the beauty of PC gaming: convenience and availability! But I digress; I’m supposed to be talking about Fallout 4, here.

So I have a PC now, and naturally, that meant that I would eventually return Fallout 4 to the fold. I knew this primarily because I missed out on the really good add-on content; right before I sold my Xbox One and a ton of my games, the Automatron DLC was released, but I didn’t finish it. Then Nuka World came, and Far Harbor (I may have mixed up the order there, my apologies if I did), and I read nothing but good things about Far Harbor. Supposedly it’s written in a much deeper and satisfying way than the rest of the game. It’s got echoes of the Lovecraftian Point Lookout DLC from the Fallout 3 days – that shit’s right up my alley. So yes, I knew I’d have to replay Fallout 4. But how? How would I return to this vast wasteland and embrace all of its glories and shortcomings again?

Despite the title of this piece, I did NOT jump into my new adventure with the intent of playing on Survival Mode at last. No, I just figured I’d rethink my usual character build. I don’t remember the specifics of my first character, but I recall she had pretty high Perception and Agility. Shootin’ ghouls and fools for days. I decided I’d make Perception my dump stat this time around, and for some ungodly reason I figured that I wouldn’t need a ton of Endurance – hit points be damned, I’d just shove stimpaks into my desiccated veins! So my new character, who I modeled to look more or less like me, with a slightly receding hairline and a scant mustache and goatee combo, and glasses on most of the time, and a little on the scrawny side, would be a fragile and unobservant gambling type. Luck is my highest stat. I took the perk that allows me to store a critical hit, with plans to expand as time and levels permit. I got out of the vault all right, and made my way to Sanctuary. I started breaking everything down for junk and then I started building with that junk. Old habits kicked in, and I made a bed, storage containers for all my stuff, a nice chair with a radio next to it – I’m no wasteland interior decorator, but I still want a cozy spot in which to rest. I decided to fall into my old immersion tactics: sleep at least eight hours a night, drink water, eat food. I didn’t do this with my first Fallout 4 run, but I did it with my third Skyrim character. I even had a set of pajamas on that character, for night time chillin’! The Boston wastelands afford no such luxuries, or I just haven’t embraced them yet. But anyway …

I quickly realized that I was already playing Survival Mode, without activating the actual Survival Mode. And while part of me wished to stay on Easy Street so I could get to the DLC faster, another part of me said: “Do it. Get the one-of-a-kind experience that only comes with Survival Mode.” So I did it. I went into the gameplay options menu and turned on Survival Mode. Now my character would get hungry and suffer stat losses; he’d get thirsty and want water; he’d get tired and crave sleep. He couldn’t carry nearly as much, and he took more realistic damage from, well, fucking EVERYTHING. Not actually fucking everything, but like, everything hurt him more. I’m not ashamed to say that my first character death occurred at the vile spit-glands of a bloatfly. Yes, a fly that grew to a much larger size due to intense radiation. One of the weakest enemies in the game spat at me from like two yards away and killed me in one hit. Oh, yeah … my Endurance score is really low. Not a lot of hit points. I made that choice, remember? And I could have gone back to change my character, but ya know what? It’s all about adapting and overcoming adversity. This character would use all of my old Bethesda tactics: sneaking around, sniping from afar, not being seen, and running like hell if a threat is too big. I learned that last one the hard way.

To make this already ridiculously long post a bit shorter than it could be, I’ll give a quick rundown of what I have going on in Survival Mode thus far. I’m currently level 43. I’ve pumped up my Luck with an awesome legendary item, and I’ve got clothes that give a little boost to Charisma and Endurance. I actually pumped a few points into Charisma and Endurance, and thank Todd the Perception bobblehead is in Concord, ’cause my Perception is not a lousy 1 anymore. For the most part, with my clothes and boosts, all my stats but Perception are 5 or above. To me, that’s not bad! I can survive adequately. My long-term plan is to eventually find the Endurance bobblehead and put points into Aquaboy so that swimming is no longer an endeavor that requires a fucking hazmat suit. Yep, my character just slaps on a hazmat suit to take any swims he has to take. It’s … not ideal, and I realize now that some of the gameplay options don’t make a lot of realistic sense.

And yet, Survival Mode has me immersed in Fallout 4 in a way that I never thought I would be. I seek out every piece of junk I can find so I have materials for building. I built Sanctuary into a decently-defended place with a respectable amount of resources, and when I finally made it to the center of the Commonwealth, I took my old standby: Hangman’s Alley. I realize it’s not the best for large-scale operations, but my character is not always a large-scale survivor. He just wants to live, and live in a way that keeps him comfortable and safe. If he has to ally himself to settlements to make his life easier, he’ll do it, but he tends to travel alone. This means that the Lone Wanderer perk is amazing. He’s also fairly charismatic so he can recruit folks to his cause; this helps expand the Minutemen, as well as enable supply routes to be established. While my dude travels alone, he understands the importance of having safe havens all across the Commonwealth; his work takes him all over the place, and having necessities readily available is key to his survival.

He also understands the importance of defense and firepower. He learned to craft better guns and armor as soon as he could, and his skills have turned his sniper rifle into a weighty death sentence for anyone who wanders into his crosshairs. He had a shotgun for the times big foes got close, but in his wanderings he stumbled upon a group of raiders that like technology. One of them created a rifle that shoots blasts of electricity; these blasts arc from foe to foe, and crowd control is important, so my dude took the rifle. He killed the raider leader, after all; he deserves the spoils.

My character may be a bit of a hardass, but he’s worked to earn that right. It’s taken a long time to amass enough resources to even build all the weapons, armor, and defenses he requires to feel safe. Even then, safety isn’t a guarantee; one day he returned to his base to find two radscorpions just chillin’ in the middle of his home. How they got in there, he doesn’t know; perhaps they dug through the dirt? They can do that, you know. Anyway, glitch or no, the encounter was a good reminder that in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, nowhere is safe. My dude should understand this: after all, he’s ejected brains from skulls as his enemies were taking a smoke break. It’s a harsh world, and death stops for no one.

It’s the slow build of all this ability and knowledge that makes Survival Mode feel like such an immersive experience. I’ve logged almost a hundred hours (that’s right: 100) on this run, and I’m only level 43. I’m pretty sure I’d be somewhere else if I was on Normal Mode, and I didn’t have to walk everywhere and skulk in the shadows just to survive. Some enemy bases take in-game hours to traverse because it’s a lot of hiding in a corner, taking one person out, then whittling down the rest while they try to find me. The assassin life is an interesting one, but it’s working pretty well for my dude.

Sometimes I come across quests and missions that stop me in my tracks. I got almost all the way through an underground factory full of robots before a big bad boss bot rolled up to me and smacked my character to death in one hit. That was my bad: I didn’t use a critical hit when I should have, and I foolishly kept shooting at the bot as it approached me. I should have run back and shot from afar; I am not made to survive close encounters. I ended up retrying that whole factory run, like, five or six times after that, but I couldn’t replicate my first-try luck. So I put that mission away. I turned to other work. ’cause in the wasteland, there’s always something to do.

There’s a lot of routine in Survival Mode, but I believe this is because it does its best to emulate life. Ideally, we eat enough food in a day, and drink enough water, and sleep at least eight hours a night. If you end up moving things around, or you can afford new stuff, you have to find space to store or display it. You amass shit. Your house ends up being a box for all your shit. I forgot how George Carlin put it, but Fallout 4 emulates the great shit-box philosophy of life: you get a box, you fill it with shit, and eventually you probably need a bigger box.

While a decent chunk of time is spent organizing and traveling, this is because you can’t fast-travel, and you can’t carry a lot. Realistic, no? I’ve rambled so long about the game that my computer doesn’t want to cooperate. The text is appearing slower and slower on the screen; sorry, WordPress! It suffices to say that Survival Mode has altered Fallout 4 in a way that is incredibly rewarding, if one is up to figure out how to, well, survive its trials and tribulations. As my massive walls of text can attest, I’m having a blast. A blast after a nuclear blast? I suppose the Fallout series posits that it’s possible to continue living, even after such a terrible event. Thanks for reading – it’s time for me to grab my virtual guns and rid the wasteland of bad folks.

Standard
Poetry

Spooktown, 31 (305.)

So as I lay there, I brushed my fingers
over my pelvic bone, that piece of it
on my right side,
the one that juts out
where my abdomen meets my thigh,
and I thought to myself
“This feels really nice,”
and I started composing a poem right there,
some fanciful lines like
I want someone to caress my bones
and take them in like the grave,
and that’s where the poetic thoughts stopped,
I just knew I wanted to let those lines linger
like a ghost that doesn’t know
how to finish its business,
’cause the lines are true
just like the ghost,
sitting and waiting and haunting
me,
until I’ve had enough of just dirt and stones
and I grow a new something
from my scattered bones.

Standard
Poetry

Spooktown, 30 (304.)

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,
did you know He comes in buckets and you cannot stop His pour?
I am sorry for the dirty, awful nature of this song,
but God just wants to come!

Horny, horny, hallelujah!
Horny, horny, hallelujah!
Horny, horny, hallelujah;
yes, God just wants to come.

I have seen Him in the watchfires of a bathroom lightbulb’s glow,
He has built Himself an altar for His evening touch-and-go,
I can see His righteous pleasure as His face outlines an “Oh!,”
oh, God just wants to come.

Horny, horny, hallelujah!
Horny, horny, hallelujah!
Horny, horny, hallelujah;
yes, God just wants to come.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea;
don’t you think it took some coming to create the son of G?
Well, He died to make men holy, but we love to squirt our seed,
and God invented porn!

Horny, horny, hallelujah!
Horny, horny, hallelujah!
Horny, horny, hallelujah,
yes, God invented porn.

Horny, horny, hallelujah!
Horny, horny, hallelujah!
Horny, horny, hallelujah,
’cause God just wants to come, like men, amen.

Standard
Poetry

Spooktown, 29 (303.)

Would that she would treat me
like a lever-action rifle,
and pump me,
just pump me
until I’m ready to blow.
I wish a woman would caress me
like a second amendment enthusiast
caresses a pistol,
but I digress.
It’s sad that I can only liken my lust to violence.
The slow ache of longing
leaves me focused on only romance,
so with my eye staring through the scope,
I lose all sense
of the rest of the world.
I ignore all the beauty
outside
of the gun.

Standard
Poetry

Spooktown, 28 (302.)

How many sandwiches has it been?
Can one measure their life in sandwiches?
This week, it’s been at least five,
and it’s only Wednesday.
Can’t think of breakfast?
Sandwich.
No time for cooking?
Sandwich.
Not that I dislike sandwiches, it’s just
there have been so many lately.
Gotta expand my culinary horizons.
Like, cook some fresh salmon –
forget any filets o’ fish.
Sorry to the great American clown,
the one we truly love,
the giver of fries and hot coffees,
lawsuits and a yellow jumpsuit,
wait a fuckin’ minute,
didn’t this all start with sandwiches?
Well, yeah, but I mentioned the filet o’ fish
and it got me reminiscing on old McDonald.
Better than our current political clown,
and better than that other Ronald
from our dark history.
And old McDonald kills motherfuckers
with salt and a smile.
Yeah … still better, I think,
than some of our presidents.
Maybe I’m just delusional.
Fuck fast food, let’s do away with it
if we can.
It’s about damn time
we set up some sweet community gardens.
Thanks for coming to my TED talk.

Standard
Poetry

Spooktown, 27 (301.)

It’s the ol’ double whammy,
work and tabletop role-playing,
and this means
I don’t have a lot of free time.
So I do the ol’ blog double whammy,
two posts within an hour of each other,
something like two quick gasps of air
in the shallow part of a frigid lake,
probably while a shadowed something
wanders the opposite bank.
One would swear its eyes glowed red
beyond the pines,
and it’s very possible
it looked
right
this
way.

Double tap that trigger, son,
’cause death flies fastest
in the claws of the inhuman.

Standard
Poetry

Spooktown, 26 (300.)

It’s all too likely I’m
afraid of compliments
and true commitments,
for I handle praise badly
and I defer all accolades to my clearly better peers.
I haven’t been able to stick to the 9 to 5
for long, and I know that shouldn’t bother me,
but there’s something to be said
for the guy who constantly says
“I’m sorry, I stayed up too late last night.”
Maybe I’m trying to be the square
peg who fits into the round hole,
but hey, I want to do right
by my colleagues.
I use the word “colleagues” pretty liberally now.
I hate to think I might be transforming
into a neoliberal, how
utterly backward and pedestrian of me.
I’ve been meaning to give time
to ruminating on the
non-profit industrial complex,
because it’s easy to think that any organization
which declines astronomical profits
is on the side of the angels, but,
well, that’s why I need to rethink my own paradigm.
I’d give a pair of dimes for an ice cold Coke,
but inflation fucked that plan to death
and besides, I’m a diabetic.
It’s all Diet for me.
I don’t drink as much soda as I used to,
and I’m gonna go to bed a few hours early,
and I’m gonna think on all the systems that keep folks in check,
and I promise I’ll come back to address all this shit.

Standard
Poetry

Spooktown, 25 (299.)

Every day I drink water,
and sometimes I talk about water,
and at least once every two days I
run water all over my body
for a good cleanse.
Many times a day I run water
all over my soapy hands
to keep myself safe in these troubled times.
Depending on where I am
(either at the office or at home),
I’ll run water through ground coffee beans
at least a few times a week,
maybe a handful;
the coffee maker at the office makes
single cups at a time,
while I make a whole damn pot
at home, and I reheat the leftover coffee.
I know it’s not the best way to make good coffee,
but it’s caffeinated and it tastes all right to me.
Anyway, back to water.
I use water to clean my teeth,
at least once a day,
usually twice a day, but I admit
that I forget sometimes.
My schedule may have become looser,
a little (okay, a lot)
more nebulous, but there’s one thing
that hasn’t changed:
I use water all the damn time.
It really is the stuff of life.
I’m mostly proud of drinking water consistently;
my water bottle goes with me everywhere,
and I make a point
of draining its contents into my body
twice a day, every day.
Slowly, surely, I hope I learn
to use water efficiently.
This desert life has me
loving liquids like I should.

Standard
Poetry

Spooktown, 24 (298.)

Ahhhhh!
The fear of an empty fridge
stands stark in the kitchen,
and it forces a focus
I haven’t had in a long time.
The fridge isn’t bare, you see,
nor is it a bear,
so why am I so scared?
That’s hunger for ya.
Still, I look a little closer,
and the little crisper drawer
waves an imaginary arm:
“Hey,” it says, “I have the stuff you need.”
It really does.
A box of something leafy and green,
and a solitary tomato lying in wait.
The drawer designated “Lunch Supplies” up above
has a sleeve of leftover bacon;
oh yeah, it’s BLT time.
I pop bread in the toaster,
put the bacon in the microwave (culinary gods,
forgive me),
and ready the veggies.
Mayo, mustard, and the secret ingredient
otherwise known as Cholula
are slathered on piping hot toast.
A bed of spinach (it’s a BST since there’s no lettuce)
and tomato pillows
sit and wait for their new greasy occupants.
I lay the bacon down upon this fine arrangement,
slap a toast blanket on top,
and call it done.
It’s time to treat my stomach.

Standard
Poetry

Spooktown, 23 (297.)

They are usually the trees
who give me pause,
tall, handsome sentinels
with growing on their minds.
And in their frames.
Would that I could
be more like a tree,
getting stronger
and better
every day,
while doing good things
for, well, everyone.
Gotta put out roots first
and grow from somewhere,
I suppose.
So here goes, it’s me –
channeling a tree.

Standard