Fallout 4: The Successor to Minecraft

To celebrate the one year anniversary of Fallout 4, we will be publishing a series of articles which examine various aspects of the most recent release from famed developer Bethesda Softworks. This is the first part of that series, a look at the new settlement building mode.

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Fallout 4 is a departure from previous entries, and settlement building is one of the biggest changes.

Over the past year, the narrative surrounding Fallout 4 is that it’s a great Bethesda game, but not a good Fallout game. Taking a look at the Steam pages for their past four titles, Fallout 4 is the only one to receive anything less than a review of “Very Positive,” and although Steam does list the cumulative reviews as “Mostly Positive,” recent reviews of the game are anything but. There are a variety of reasons for this but among the most prominent is settlement building – a polarizing feature that some cite as the point where Fallout 4 veered off the path of traditional Fallout games and into “Bethesda territory.” Whereas previous Fallout games were about conquering a violent and cruel post-apocalyptic world, Fallout 4 seems to be a radiation-filled take on The Sims. Needless to say, this feature, while embraced by many, is the foundation to the argument that Fallout 4 is not a Fallout game in spirit.

When Bethesda took the stage at E3 2015 to reveal Fallout 4, they spent a lengthy portion of their presentation showing off this new feature, which was not only a first for the Fallout franchise, but for Bethesda as a developer. In retrospect, this new feature shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise – there were signs in their previous title, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, that Bethesda was heading in this direction (the Hearthfire DLC focused solely on building a home with a decent amount of customization options). Even in Fallout 3, there were hints at larger aspirations (players could purchase homes and choose from a number of interior design), and they finally came to fruition.

So why did Bethesda take the risk of adding this mode to their latest game? Surely they knew it would generate some level of controversy – they was eager to mention how this mode was a first for the series, and being in the industry as long as they have, they had to know that adding something so different to such a beloved franchise is going to raise a few eyebrows. After planting what felt like a thousand tomato plants, and placing an equal number of turrets, for me the answer to that question started coming into focus. What Bethesda accomplished with settlement building is not only a logical progression for their style of games, but it’s also a potential answer to one of gaming’s biggest unanswered questions – what will Microsoft do with Minecraft 2?

First Thing’s First – Punch That Tree

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Tree punching – a common sight for players starting a new map in Minecraft.

In the early days of Theory of Gaming, we published an article on the fundamental differences between sandbox games and open world games. In short, sandbox games focus on the gathering of elements and crafting them into objects, with player creativity often being the sole reason to pursue these titles for any length of time; story is a very small priority. In open world games, story and gameplay are primary focuses, and player creativity is often relegated to RPG mechanics or customization of a weapon or vehicle. Sandboxes are seemingly infinite in nature, but outside of creativity offer little value to gamers, whereas open world games are finite, but provide motivation in the form of narrative and action.

As a fan of Minecraft, I’ve long lost count of how many sleepless nights I spent exploring caves, creating vertical farms and floating islands. Minecraft tapped into the part of my brain that enjoys creative expression, and along with millions of others I found immense joy in the simple task of gathering up cubes of wood and stone and turning them into blocky works of art. This is the function of sandbox games, and although there are plenty of other examples beyond Minecraft, all of which add their own unique twist to the genre, they all have one thing in common – the player’s creations are little more than digital dioramas, static models that serve no practical purpose.

In one of my many Minecraft maps, I trekked a ridiculous distance from the settlement I called my home base, in search of the perfect locale to house my next project. I eventually found it – an expanse of desert, relatively flat, lacking in water, dirt to grow food and animals to hunt. It felt isolated, as if I were standing at the edge of the world. The perfect place for a mega structure, an entire ecosystem and city located inside one building. On the outside, it would appear to be nothing more than a cube of wood, strangely floating off the ground just high enough so Creepers couldn’t climb inside and destroy hours of progress. But on the inside would be a maze of wonder – an ocean located on the top floor, deep enough for squids and fish to call home. Turn down a hall and suddenly you’re in a forest filled with evergreens, with a forest of birch trees a level below. Open a door and you could find something as crazy as a volcano or as plain as a bedroom. The cellar would be stocked with a seemingly endless amount of every item in the game, and all of it would be protected by impenetrable defenses. It was my own fortress of solitude.

After planting what felt like a thousand trees, I paused to admire my work. As I surveyed the land, planning the next part of this tremendous undertaking, questions hit me: What am I going to do with this? What function does any of this serve? Outside the mechanics and systems of the game, the function it served was an outlet for creativity, but inside the game, this gigantic world within a cube would be just as practical as the procedurally generated mountain range I had to cross to get to the desert. In other words, it wouldn’t be practical, it would serve no function. I could share it with fellow fans, and maybe some would  find the project impressive, but there’s little more to do with it beyond observation.

This is the issue with Minecraft and sandbox games in general – despite attempts to add traditional gameplay elements and story, the title is, at its heart, virtual Legos. That’s not a bad thing, but eventually I wanted more meaning from my creations, a practical purpose, functionality, a benefit that tapped into a different part of my brain, the part that likes to lose itself in an immersive world, where actions have consequences and building structures can provide more than a creative outlet.

The desert fortress of solitude project was left unfinished sometime in 2014. That I was still consistently playing a game I originally purchased in late 2011 is a testament to the power of sandbox games, and the number of active players, even today, is a testament to the need for creative outlets and how video games are uniquely suited to provide those avenues. But I found I could no longer play Minecraft without wistfully dreaming about some sort of story, or better yet a set of mechanics that would add purpose to my creations. This question stuck with me even after I left Minecraft, and when Microsoft purchased the property in September of 2014, I wondered if they had any answers. After all, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Microsoft would like to one day see Minecraft 2, and it would need to be more than a giant sandbox if players are to be convinced that it’s worth their money. But they’ve been beaten to the punch – before there’s even been discussion of Minecraft 2, Bethesda created the perfect sequel, claiming their place among the top of the sandbox ladder, and in the most unlikely of places.

Workshop Mode

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Settlements offer more than creative expression – they serve a practical purpose.

After E3 2015 and before the game’s release, many players were intrigued by the promise of settlement building, and Bethesda happily showed off this new feature. It was internally consistent with the world of Fallout – after some length of time, it’s only natural that humanity would begin to rebuild itself, and what better way to demonstrate that than to let the player be at the epicenter of the effort. While Bethesda maintained that settlement building would be entirely optional (just as following the main story in their games is optional), the focus paid to settlement building suggests that, for Bethesda, this is no mere mini-game or side-quest, but a big portion of the game. Out of the six pieces of DLC released for Fallout 4, three of them focus solely on settlement building, adding in new items and increased functionality, and the other three pieces of content also feature plenty of enhancements to this mode.

With settlement building, Bethesda did more than simply enable players to purchase a home to store all of their loot and ammo – settlement building serves a practical purpose with a direct impact on gameplay. Throughout the world of the Commonwealth, players find pieces of land on which they can develop settlements, and as long as the player has the resources, these settlements can feature all sorts of buildings, machines and strange creations. A large aspect of settlement building is the collection of resources, which means Fallout 4 has turned into something akin to a hoarding simulator. Nearly every piece of junk or scrap found in the wastes can be picked up, brought back to a settlement, broken down into component parts, and remade into something useful. Beds, kitchens, crafting tools, weapon or armor mods, stores to sell goods, or even health care instruments that remove all radiation damage from the player or give them a temporary boost to their eyesight are possible to create in settlements; while some objects offer little customization, players are free to craft buildings and entire towns as they see fit. In short, the settlement building mode that made its debut in Fallout 4 is a sandbox game set inside an open world game. But it’s also something a bit more.

Bethesda should be given credit for how seamlessly settlement building fits into the world of Fallout 4. It’s an activity on par with exploration or completing quests – players can engage in it on a whim, and immerse themselves in it for as long as they like before dropping it and diving into exploration or the main story. Most importantly, this mode solves the one glaring problem of traditional sandbox games – creations are no longer static images to merely gaze upon, but practical tools that help players rule over the city of Boston. If players need resources, such as caps to buy goods, water or food to heal, or a place to store their loot, they can create items at settlements that provide these. They can build a farm, but farms need to be tended to, which means they need to set up a recruitment beacon that guides settlers looking for a home to the new village. This means they need water, a roof over their heads and jobs to keep them busy. This is where stores come in, and not only do players get a cut of their profits, but they can buy items from them that might otherwise be difficult to come by. Settlements also allow players to do more with loot than hoard it – they can build manufacturing machines which can produce all sorts of items, from food and clothes to weapons and ammo.

Eventually, players will generate enough resources that raiders and other hostile foes will try to take these essential items by force. Now the form of settlements matter, because they not only have to serve the function of being a home to NPCs, but they must also be constructed in a way that properly defends them with turrets and traps. Settlers should have more than a wimpy pipe pistol to fend off enemies, and a thin jacket to protect them from danger, meaning manufacturing items does more than benefit players – it benefits their settlers, who in turn work the land and sell items that in turn prepares players when they venture out into the wastes. Settlement building isn’t a distraction – it’s an essential component of the Fallout 4 experience. It’s more than just a sandbox game – it’s the next evolutionary step in the genre; a way to give the player’s creativity a practical purpose and function, one that impacts an immersive setting, characters and story.

A Gamble That Hit Jackpot

That such a massive and complex mode fits organically within an already vast and complicated world is a success in and of itself, but with settlement building, Bethesda conquered two genres at the same time. The long-time issue I had with Minecraft, that my creations meant nothing and served no purpose, has been rectified. Not only do I have a creative outlet to engage in when I choose to, but I can also use my creations to enhance the more traditional aspects of the game. This is why the mode is such a defining feature of Fallout 4, and since it’s a radical departure from previous entries, it’s bound to stir up some hot takes and hyperbolic proclamations. The inclusion of this mode may have puzzled many longtime fans, but the reason Bethesda focused so much time and energy into it is because it’s the next logical step for their brand of games, and they were right to do so – it innovates both the open world and sandbox genres in a way few games have before.