If there’s anything that video games accomplish that other forms of media cannot, it’s providing methods of active participation to the player, allowing a predetermined degree of agency in how they choose to play. Most games only enable the player to operate within strictly defined areas, but most fondly-remembered titles usually mask those restrictions through a cohesive, engaging simulation, a strong narrative and solid gameplay mechanics that impart a sense of freedom to players. All of the things that make a game memorable — sound, music, atmosphere, visuals, mechanics, etc. — are vital components in creating that sense of “wholeness,” or what some would refer to as “the complete package.” While many games made their mark in 2015, one game stood above all else in achieving that magical balance, and that game is Fallout 4.
Back in 2013, people praised The Last of Us as being the new high-water mark for narrative delivery in video games, and for providing a one-of-a-kind experience that truly showed how the industry had matured. While I thought it was a damn fine game with genuine emotional weight and some amazingly indelible moments, the game would drag whenever the cinematic cutscenes weren’t playing, because the gameplay mechanics rode a little too heavily on Uncharted‘s established, formulaic coattails. Instead, my personal Game of the Year for 2013 was Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, but for the complete opposite reasons; it was a game with a short and laughably bad plot, but the gameplay was brilliantly executed and kept me feeling powerful, which had me playing (and re-playing) it far beyond the story mode’s initial run time. Anything looking to earn a “Game of the Year” title should ideally accomplish both of these things, but to me, gameplay carries a heavier burden because a game must primarily be fun to play.
Fast-forward two short years to 2015, and Fallout 4 has achieved these two seemingly disparate concepts — strong narrative and a powerful sense of player agency — with a degree of synchronicity that defies any simple explanation other than “it just works.” Beyond all that, it’s insanely fun. The kind of fun you consider calling out of work for. You don’t, of course, but you still consider it.
Usually, game designers settle or compromise on what side of the coin will serve their game best: the exposition of plot, or the experience of the simulation itself. Fallout 4 flipped that coin and willed it to land on its impossibly-thin ridge, balancing these two concepts in a fashion that makes years of arduous labor seem effortless when experiencing the end result. Yes, there are problems with the game, and we as players, pundits or purveyors of interactive digital media shouldn’t be afraid to say that. Some things are not communicated well to the player, some concepts are incredibly vague or simply too overcomplicated for their sake, but these things seem insignificant in the face of what there is to see and do. I wrote the review on Fallout 4 about a month and change ago, and in it, I explained to readers that I had played for hours and hours on end without ever completing the main storyline quest. I felt no need to, as the world was providing me enough to see and do that the main quest was irrelevant, the world itself was the real story being told.
I am proud to say that I have logged almost one hundred and twenty hours into Fallout 4, and still, I have neglected to complete the main story. I have companions with which I am trying to forge relationships, I have factions I’m attempting to feel out in order to get a sense of their motives, and I have spent many long nights scavenging materials in an effort to create my own sustainable, renewable economy — a feat that I am proud to say has paid off in the most literal way possible. While Bethesda has written many thousands of pages and paragraphs in this tale, no other game has given me such freedom and ability to write and compile the book as I saw fit. This is something exceedingly rare, and I can see myself coming back here over and over again, even years from now. While other games — this year and otherwise — have provided me with intense periods of momentary distraction, Fallout 4 has provided me with a real and yearning sense of wanderlust, and I can’t help feeling like my controller-based free time would be best served exploring the Commonwealth instead of playing anything else.
Fallout 4 proves that the journey is more important than the destination, from gameplay possibility to narrative density and everything in between. In my humble opinion, playing anything else released this year instead of it is quite literally a waste of your time, by comparison. Avoid this game at your peril, because there’s actual magic at work here. If you haven’t already experienced it for yourself, I hope you rectify that sooner than later.