Fallout 4 and the Horrors of the Open World

Featured image suicide pactBethesda Softworks’ Fallout 4, like its predecessors, surrounds the player with a retro-futurist, post-apocalyptic world abstracted from the good ol’, partially mythical USA of educational filmstrips, with sprinkles of that era’s sci-fi upping the ante. In due time, you’ll be battling through a harsh realm of mad science gone amok, repulsive and insane mutations, cruel survivors, and all-too-human machines – familiar elements harvested from movies like Mad Max, Blade Runner, and A Boy and his Dog. The smiling, deeply unethical puppetmasters you’ll discover in Fallout 4 have colleagues in films ranging from  The Stepford Wives to They Live to the Hollywood version of the Resident Evil series, and the scale of blood spatter and brutality here could easily have gone on the censors’ list in The Hills Have Eyes. But despite impressive sci-fi/horror breeding, Fallout 4 is not a horror game. It is, rather clinically speaking, an open world action role-playing game, which just means that at its heart, Fallout 4 is a big irradiated sandbox filled with terrible events, most of which are not even about you, player character, although you’ll have plenty of ways to get involved. You’ve got scores of characters to rescue, snuggle, or kill, ragtag settlements to build and protect, crisscrossing storylines, and so very much ordinance. Most of all, you’ve got freedom – freedom to play as a saint, mercenary, or sociopath. And that’s where things start to get really scary.

greater goodIt begins like this. After a few prefatory matters, the player character enters one of many Vaults, underground bomb shelters designed by the enigmatic Vault-Tec corporation on the brink of a nuclear war between the U.S. and China. Post-total atomic annihilation, you escape the Vault as the Sole Survivor, everything from your nascent skills to the width of your philtrum customized to your liking. But what remains of the world does not care about you. No one has been waiting for this messiah to crawl out from the tomb, and thanks to cryonic suspension, two full centuries have expired. The greater Massachusetts Commonwealth is now the Wasteland, its denizens transformed by the constant contamination of both radiation and exigency. Society is fragmented and factionalized, and after the bombs fell, no one really ever got around to cleaning up. It is now less educational filmstrip and more grindhouse.

When I started playing Fallout 4, all of its conventions were familiar to me; Fallout 3 is one of my Favorite Games of All Time, and not much had changed. (The tagline is “War never changes.”) And yet, once I started on my journey through the Wasteland, I kept noticing how vicious it was. And how 28 Days Later the zombies Feral Ghouls were as they unfolded from hiding places in my peripheral vision and fell into head-on lunges at me. And I kept thinking, man, this should be a horror game. Why isn’t this a horror game? This has all the elements of a horror game. And then I would go to work bulking up a settlement’s defenses for a while, and I would get comfortable. But the game kept finding ways to mess with me, and comfort never lasted for long.

ghouls ghouls ghouls

Survival horror as a videogame genre has an extra layer that distinguishes it from horror in other media. It’s not just about story or tone. It’s a functional description, like racing or a platformer. In the participatory environment of video games, survival horror describes gameplay. Your goal isn’t to find the princess, fit the L block, or make your virtual dolls virtually happy. Rather: you are being hunted. Live through it. You’re meant to struggle, to barely escape each challenge and limp a trail of arterial blood to the next. With the notable exception of the Resident Evil series, which probably should have turned in its horror card a couple iterations ago, your protagonists are everymen and women who have no idea how to run or gun, much less both, and their frailty is a feature, not a bug. As much as the difference between an action movie and a horror movie can be located in the perceived vulnerability of the main character, the same is true in games. It’s no accident then you’ll see some of the earliest and best representations of female player characters in survival horror titles.

It would seem then that Fallout 4, with its diffuse objectives and core play mechanic of building your character up instead of tearing them down, must mean it just wouldn’t work as a horror game. There is rarely what Poe would have described as a unity of effect in Fallout 4, horrific or otherwise. There’s a bright, rationalizing HUD display. You can pause. Your experience is never fully directed. And yet, here my character was, far more Ripley in Alien: Resurrection than Ripley in Alien, armored and armed to the teeth, accompanied by a functionally immortal mandroid with more than a few guns of his own, not even really having to be where I was when I was but for my own curiosity. And there I was, still jumping off the couch in the real world as I glimpsed the silhouette of a mannequin framed by firelight in the abandoned Salem Witchcraft museum.

Witchcraft museumFallout 4 does play at straight horror now and again. Some quests serve as horror vignettes. Bethesda has a bit of a tradition in both Fallout and its fantastical identical cousin, the Elder Scrolls series, of making sly nods to Lovecraft in particular. One of my favorite moments in Elder Scrolls VI: Oblivion was the quest “A Shadow Over Hackdirt” where you stumble onto a village of rustic xenophobes you soon suspect are doing bad things underground. In Fallout 4, there’s actually a couple of quests that are Lovecraft references – “The Dunwich Borers,” in which there is a mining company digging where no one ever should, and “Pickman’s Gift,” involving an art gallery Rod Serling might have curated in another life. Many original quests revolve on sickening secrets, human experiments, murder plots, and in this respect, the time spent Uncovering Terrible Things and Secret Sins, Fallout 4’s gameplay is identical to most proper survival horror titles, but for the fact you can walk away and do something else.

jaws easter egg

You’ll come across lots of provocative or creepy scenes throughout the Wasteland, too. Some are simple references – Jaws, “The Cask of Amontillado,” Alien. Others are tragic tales told with forensic evidence. I always smile at the obvious care that goes into planting these little Easter eggs; it seems like that would be almost as much fun as playing the game. While it’s also full of tongue-in-cheek gallows humor, not unlike you’ll find in the similar game worlds of Portal or Borderlands, Fallout 4 kicks it up a notch. Meatbags of body parts and dismembered corpses are set dressing here, and there are more substantive momento moris, if you’re paying attention.

Some horror isn’t planned though. Some horror just happens, and I think that’s where Fallout 4 really shines. Probably the most common complaint about Capcom’s early Resident Evil games was that the cinematic (i.e. not player-controlled) camera angles – which director Shinji Mikami insisted on so he could best stage manage scares – meant that players were forced into blind corners and odd angles, usually with something nasty just off-camera. Fallout 4 lets you play with an over the shoulder POV or you can swap to a first-person POV ala most first-person shooters. It does, however, swipe the camera control occasionally during attacks, to give you a zoomed out view of your character being all badass. For balance, it also does this when your character is gutted, incinerated, or otherwise perished. What I find remarkable about this, especially thinking about the old Resident Evil camera controversy, is how often those moments capture terrifying things. Sure, the game is showing my character staring down her shotgun barrel at a Super Mutant’s coup de grace, but in the same shot, I get to see a swarm of ghouls I had no idea were even there massing in her six, like an impromptu tribute to the vampires seething in Barlow’s basement lair in Salem’s Lot. And it’s entirely extemporaneous.

500 Neighborhood watch insane asylum

The power of the unexpected in Fallout 4 works in another way. I should relate here something about the pants-wetting experiences that are the first two Fatal Frame games. Think of any successful Japanese horror film from the last ten years; that’s a good shorthand for the Fatal Frame series, in which the heroines find themselves stalked by angry ghosts, only able to defend themselves by taking photos of the ghosts with a special camera. It’s a marvelously effective device, forcing you to look well when that’s the last thing you want to do, and the sound design in these games will send you scurrying right up the walls. I found it almost unbearably effective myself, until I managed to displace the intimidation of the ghosts with the task of getting the most effective, high-scoring shot – once I locked on the game aspect of it. Fallout 4 is full of skill and game elements that could similarly distract me; even the act of exploration is a constant Easter egg hunt for components that will raise my stats and help me build better armor, guns, and settlements. And yet, because the world around you is often so unpredictable, the odd surprise Deathclaw achieves an effect that isn’t inferior to the carefully ratcheted tension of the Fatal Frame games. There’s even a special targeting system called VATS, which slows down the action while you select a specific subtarget on the enemy. (I enjoy targeting legs before throwing a grenade, especially on the super speedy Feral Ghouls.) VATS should insulate me from feeling threatened, just like trying to get a great shot of the wailing miko’s ghost with a broken back did. Somehow though, as VATS only slows down the action, with truly intimidating foes, watching surprise certain death close with me is worse.

glowing deathclaw

I’ve been playing this game for months as of this typing, and I’ve watched my husband do the same. It’s a testament to the breadth of the material that neither of us has run out of things to do or even seen our gameplay experience replicated in the other’s playthrough, and given Bethesda’s track record, we probably still won’t for months. It’s a big world. But more, it’s an unpredictable world, and I think that’s the difference with the horror implicit in Fallout 4 that keeps it fresh and potent without being the cloistered, intense experience of a traditional survival horror game. You do not know what’s going to happen. Even if you die and reload a save, you don’t necessarily know. Once you finish off the giant mutated bear that lately killed you, a Deathclaw might be right behind you. And if you spend all your time in a settlement building walls, eventually the game will send Super Mutants at those walls. You will never be ready enough.


Horror’s essential power comes from a subliterate place, even in its most sophisticated and deliberate manifestations, just like comedy and erotica. What makes it work for anybody will always be a little subjective. You might well play Fallout 4 and decide I’m a big wimp for being scared by a Mirelurk King howling at me from the bow of a ship, and that’s fine. Something else will get you. Fallout 4 is too big and diverse to be defined by any one objective or experience. Survival horror games offer one intense type of frisson, but the horror of the open world game is the horror of the big, bad, indifferent world around us. It’s a horror that is persistent enough to withstand substantial diversions without ever ceding its potency or its right to be there at any minute. And it will be there. The genius of the horror in Fallout 4 is that it’s always coming for you.


After seeing this list, Angela slightly regrets that she named her Fallout 4 character Romana instead of Furiosa.


2 replies »

  1. I’m trying to find the passage by Lovecraft (or maybe it was Dereleth) about the vast uncaring universe that humanity has blundered into, unbidden – I feel it’s appropriate here, but I’m having no luck finding the exact passage.


  2. “You’ve got scores of characters to rescue, snuggle, or kill,”

    Is this a typo? I ask because there were several sex worker characters in Fallout 3, and I’d like to imagine that the presence of sensuality in video games is no longer a cause for news blowhards to scream that video games are plunging the youth of the nation into an orgy of Devil-worship and murder.


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