One of the rare pleasures of video games isn’t just escape from one’s own life, but the ability to reinvent it. You can golf or play yoga in Grand Theft Auto V, build a small business in Roller Coaster Tycoon, or manage a farm in Faming Simulator 15. Many thought EA’s The Sims was the peak of this genre: a life within one’s own life, the ability to create a working-day world as good as – or better than – the one you occupied.
But better still, surely, is the ability to do that in one’s own home.
When my friends and I read confirmation that Fallout 4 would be set in Boston, our next step was to map the game to the real world. What town would the starting Vault be in? It was obvious what Diamond City and The Institute signified, but what mysteries could be found on the North Shore or outside the beltway? Could we rule over the fictional city that at times rewarded us, at times stymied us?
I decided to recreate my life in Boston within Fallout 4, to see if I could enjoy or improve upon the success I found in the real world. Here are my results.
The Really Lonely Planet Guide to Boston and Environs
Fallout 4 starts you in the foreshadowing Sanctuary Hills, which lies somewhere to the near northwest of Concord. Given Bethesda’s need to compress eastern Massachusetts into a walkable distance, I’m going to stick a pin in the map in Acton, MA, a very nice suburb within the I-495 corridor. It seems to fit the tone: even the impartial Wikipedia describes Acton as “an affluent suburb”, and 3BR houses are available today in the low $600s.
A nice place to raise kids, but your author never spent any real time there. Once I shook off the cryosleep, my first stop was Allston, a borough of Boston proper. Allston straddles the gap between Boston College, a suburban Jesuit university that’s responsible for at least one Overthinker, and Boston University, which has a pretty good hockey team. It’s known for the types of housing and businesses that cater to college students and very recent graduates: pizza places, bars with Top 40 dance nights, and laundromats.
All the tenements are gone – and good riddance! – but the highly secure Vault 81 stands in nearby Newton, on or around BC’s old grounds. I’m guessing all the BC honors classes and BU international students moved in here. I went inside, bartered some fusion cores to get past the gate guards, and introduced myself. Vault 81 is clean, bright, functional, and willing to trade with the world outside – all rarities among the Vaults I’m accustomed to.
After a bit of exploration, I discovered that Newton – as I had long suspected – was a secret experiment by corporate researchers to breed disease resistance through mutant rats. I explored an abandoned segment of the Vault, saved a child’s life, and was rewarded with a 1BR apartment near Vault 81’s downtown shopping district. Doesn’t quite compete with my place in Acton, but a good starter home.
Of course, after I got my feet under me, I moved north of the river to Davis Square, a hep Somerville neighborhood. Longtime residents remember Davis Square and the surrounding neighborhoods as working class, but a lot of investment over the last 30 years has turned Davis into one of the coolest areas to hang out or raise a family.
Sadly, none of that survived the nuclear apocalypse. I found a few streets that looked oddly familiar, but nothing worth exploring except the Collegiate Administration Building. It must have been looted pretty heavily by Tufts and Lesley students in the years following the War, as I found only junk. And not even valuable junk!
(I heard rumors of a “Somerville” dozens of miles to the south, on the borders of the Glowing Sea. I will not go there)
So, my plans of restoring one of my old neighborhoods to glory were dashed. But I could still visit my former offices. Perhaps some descendents of my old coworkers had fortified and survived. My first stop: scenic Quincy!
Getting to Quincy was a death march in itself, requiring a trek through ghoulish South Boston and a few near-fatal stingwing encounters. I established a beachhead at the Quincy Quarries, picking off raiders one by one as they blindly rushed me atop a low hill. But Quincy Center, rough even today, was brutal. Piper and I waged a house-to-house guerilla campaign against the entrenched Gunners, dodging laser beams and missiles while returning potshots. I had to withdraw and return in a more fashionable outfit.
Civilization had abandoned Quincy, sadly. I figured I’d have better luck in the city. My next job after Quincy was with a marketing agency in the Prudential Center in Back Bay, now known as Trinity Tower. The ground-level lobby was largely as I remembered it, with a large entryway and an overhanging mezzanine. Security got cranky, though.
I fought my way to the top of the tower, hopping from elevator to elevator. My old offices were trashed, but someone had thoughtfully stored my old Bobblehead in my desk before plummeting to their death. At the top, I got in a fierce client meeting with Fist, head of a small firm of Super Mutants from the West Coast. “This doesn’t reflect our brand,” he screamed, returning my proposal with two hundred bullet points of notes. Unfortunately, our agency didn’t have the headcount to meet his needs anymore, since the nuclear holocaust and all, so I fired him.
P.S. the window washer platform still works! I remember that thing being terrifying if you didn’t know it was coming, when you looked up from your desk and saw this dark machine hovering outside your window twenty stories above Dartmouth St. If I had a bolt-action hunting rifle and a sack full of gory human meat, I might have taken a few potshots myself. I feel you, Super Mutants!
Afterward, I checked in on Harvard Square, to see how my current employer’s neighborhood had fared in the two-hundred year picnic. Renamed College Square in Fallout 4, it’s a remarkably accurate depiction of the hub of Cambridge – dense, full of traps, and crowded on weekends.
I couldn’t find my employer, so I took up with a West Coast-based firm that was making big strides in Cambridge’s startup community. I started as a temp, helping them buy out the old Arcjet Industries facility, but parlayed my performance into a contracting gig. They promised me generous perks and the chance to get in on the ground level of a growing concern, but filled my days with makework. Plus, I had my suspicions about my boss’s politics.
RP the Change you Want to See in the World
Like a lot of aspects of the game, Fallout’s version of Harvard Square feels just slightly off. You have to admire the amount of local color that they put into it… but speaking as a local, it doesn’t quite feel like home. But then it hit me. So I couldn’t quite find the Boston I knew inside Fallout 4. Maybe I could recreate it, though! Or, even better, improve upon it. I harvested all the raw materials I could and returned to Acton. Where nostalgia had failed, a bold vision of the future might serve. A bed and a TV for every citizen! An ore smelter in every backyard!
Unfortunately, this didn’t work as well as I’d hoped.
Maybe I gave them too much to do. Everyone in Sanctuary was either guarding the borders, working in the fields, manning a store, or lugging supplies to another key settlement. With no leisure time, the vast recreation facilities lay bare like failed urban planning from the mid-20th Century.
Disillusioned, I took up with some activists in the North End who talked a big game about liberating the synth population. But they just wound up bickering over means, like every activist group that gets past a certain size. (I reverted to cliche as well, moving on when I got burned out rather than reforming from within.)
Fallout 4’s Commonwealth looks a lot like Boston. But it doesn’t bring the city I know to life. And for all its vaunted sandbox elements, I didn’t feel like I could use it to engineer the Boston of my dreams. I could neither find Boston nor reinvent it. So what’s left? How else could I make use of this uncanny valley version of my daily grind?
Aspirational Living through Looting
Let’s be clear: all of these beautiful environments that we’ve been gazing at? You mainly interact with them by shooting them up. Fallout is a shooter/RPG: core gameplay consists of sustained bouts of murder punctuated with brief periods of stealing everything that’s not nailed to the floor. It can feel weird to do this on a street that I actually walked on earlier that same day.
It can also feel kind of therapeutic. Boston has become a tougher city to inhabit in the 21st century. Deteriorating mass transit, diminishing real estate, and inclement weather all contributed to a city that rewards ruthless hustle. Families move farther into the quiet suburbs, or settle for less within the city. It’s not all doom and gloom, of course: a bright-eyed technocrat connected to the Cambridge/Boston start-up corridor could live in Boston a lot cheaper than New York or San Francisco. But one could live cheaper still in Chicago, Pittsburgh, or Charleston. So if I ever felt guilty about rummaging through the remains of homes I’d never be able to afford, turning picture frames and baby rattles into the raw material of a jukebox I’d never listen to, it didn’t last. Even before the bombs fell, Boston had demanded more and more hustle out of its residents. I was just taking back a little of the surplus energy and creativity I’d given to Boston.
And finally, there was room! Room enough to claim land, scrap down to the pavement, lay a new foundation, and rebuild. I put together a cozy little pied-a-terre in Hangman’s Alley, finally able to own that apartment in the city I’d always wanted. The American Dream of home ownership was finally in my grasp, and all it took was the death of ninety percent of the human race.