Jan 112021

Before Christmas, at the mercy of chance, I replayed Fallout 4, a game that had not entranced me the first time around. This time, thanks to mods (most especially the Unofficial Fallout 4 Patch) I had a better time and appreciated the design a bit more. As I played (and tweeted), it occurred to me that each of the game’s locations, must have required a ton of work, yet probably never elicited any specific responses. So, for at least a few of these spots, I thought I’d put together a list of some locations in Fallout 4 that stood out to me and explain why.

Andrew Station — One big difference between FO4 and previous Bethsoft games is that the interiors of dungeons tend not to be divided into multiple cells (compare to Skyrim where I think almost every dungeon had at least two internal cells). However, in structural terms, many dungeons in FO4 are quite similar to the fundamental designs Skyrim used. Andrew Station is a good example. There’s a small, castle-like exterior fortification which produces a brief, intense firefight. This is followed by a station interior in the style of a linear crawl. This is the simplest overall dungeon structure: it’s just a series of rooms, all (or almost all) of which must be entered on the way from the start to the finish. Although the size of the rooms can affect the outcome, in general this design encourages a large number of discrete encounters, generally melee focused. This is exceptionally useful for medieval combat games, and relatively easy to build. Where Andrew Station differs from the classic Bethsoft linear crawls is that it is truly linear, as opposed to the more typical blocked loop that brings the player from the “end” back to the beginning. Near the end, one can eventually enter Eddie Winter’s hideout, which brings a good end to the arc of the game’s best companion, Nick Valentine. The station itself has no story to speak of, alas.

Back Street Apparel — This is probably the game’s most frequently encountered realist design. The architecture of the space is made to mimic a real locale — in this case a clothing shop with an apartment above, a mixed-use case that’s common in Boston. In general these produce highly networked spaces with multiple routes to get from one place to another. The particular arrangement in this case allows for both sight lines and obstruction in the front, with some reasonably-placed traps (including a hidden turret, which is unfortunately often revealed by a VATS shot) to force the sneaker to consider his approach. It’s a very small zone with a handful of raiders, and if you play the game for a while Radiant quests will send you here a dozen times. This is a fine zone but it can’t support that many visits.

Boston Mayoral Shelter — The intersection of realist designs and linear crawls is something I call the ivy runner. This takes the form of intersecting and splitting hallways with rooms off to either side. This is a common enough design in real life, particularly in institutional settings, and it allows for more interesting encounters than linear crawls. In particular, scouting ahead can allow the player to set traps and then start a fight, although depending on detection radius there’s a danger the hallways will turn into a mosh pit. The local story here is very well done: tableaux at the top make it clear that a large number of people fought their way into the bunker and died in the process. Recordings inside clarify that the mayor embezzled public funds to build this spot for his family, but after the blast people found out about it and attacked. The ending is tragic, and it seems like everyone who knew about the spot died at the time, thus it was not inhabited since. This location has synths in it for no clear reason; their presence doesn’t improve the experience of the story or the structure. It’s marginally better than using ghouls again, but it would have been more amusing to build off the idea of the nest you can find and have a family of Deathclaws inhabiting the place (it would have played nicely off the history).

A non-Vault fallout shelter with its door broken down by a bulldozer.
Evidence of the violence that ultimately destroyed the Mayor’s shelter.

Boston Public Library — The Library is full of Super Mutants for no apparent reason, although one doesn’t have to kill many of them because a mass of turrets and robots in the building are also taking them on. The overall design is realist, although it has a sort of blocked loop, that forces you to reach a particular room in the library to open a path back to the metro entrance. In that room there’s evidence of an apparently recent effort to scan and save the text of all the books, obviously doomed. But, there’s nothing to be done about it because the scanned text can’t be retrieved in any way. This seems like a story idea that got truncated, leaving only a strange and disappointing dungeon in its wake.

Cambridge Polymer Labs — This is a stab at a realist space, although the laboratory area doesn’t seem to have any bathrooms, which would have made things messy around the time of the explosions when the boss locked his team in to finish their research project in hopes it would buy them a spot in a military shelter. Typical of these games’ stories, everything went wrong, and now the few “survivors” are ghouls. A small set of rooms opening into a large space, particularly with ghouls, tends to result in melee where the ghouls charge out of the rooms into the large center and get mowed down. Except for the hidden ghouls who come out only when the player is close, this tends to result in a big fight followed by nothing, as happens here. Annoyingly, if you pick up items that turn out to be useless for the area quest, you can’t drop them, and they take up space in your inventory forever.

Coastal Cottage — I complain about objects in the settlement areas that can’t be scrapped a lot (thankfully most of the spots in “Far Harbor” are more forgiving about scrapping) but come on, there is a sofa in this settlement that can’t be removed or interacted with. A sofa.

County Crossing — A small rectangle of a settlement, with the tiny space confounded by two unscrappable structures. It has access to water in the back, but you’d have to build a lot to make it worthwhile, and this would mean hauling junk here because there aren’t many nearby sources of quality junk. The first time I used the workshop a random encounter of Automatron robots blew me to bits while I was scrapping trees. This is just one of the “way too many” settlement locations — spots that have a tiny population and aren’t rewarding to develop. In general I prefer building on brand-new spots, rather than trying to work with the troublesome stuff already present in these.

Corvega Assembly Plant — The Corvega plant is really two major areas. The plant interior is primarily a series of arenas, with short linear crawls in between. Arena rooms are typically large and open with mostly good sight lines, and just a few obstructions to prevent raider AI from charging in for melee immediately. The largest room is at the top of the building, but tragically underutilized. The raiders start off ensconced in one corner of the room and later arrivals appear back where the player entered, rather than pouring in from all angles as they should. The factory also has a large superstructure on its roof, improbably well preserved considering the nuclear blast and 2 centuries of rot. This part is large and confusing and tends to produce firefights in fits and starts because the NPCs are hard to find and their AI has difficulty tracking to the player location once they become aware of him. These highly vertical areas also suffer from the lack of good arc attack weapons that can be used to efficiently generate offense from lower levels up towards higher ones.

Dunwich Borers — This location is pretty interesting because it uses two very different structures. The exterior takes the form of a spiral pit, a fairly common structural motif in this game. Spiral pits have an interior void and an exterior of tiers or slopes that are mostly or entirely open towards the void. This generates large long-range combat situations, as the player and enemies attack each other across the void and along the slopes, generally inflicting serious (or fatal) damage before they can reach melee range. The raiders inhabiting the exterior fall in this way. Inside, the area is a linear crawl (populated mostly with ghouls, as suits the design) with a blocked loop. This motif is very common in Skyrim but somewhat less so in FO4, and uses either an unpickable locked door or a one-way drop to connect the “end” of the dungeon back to the beginning (for a quick exit). Unfortunately, the way the dungeon branches makes it fairly easy to miss the pit leading to the bottom and a sort of explanation of the Lovecraftian experiences. Even then, if you’re not prepared, it’s quite possible to miss the underwater evidence: the sunken temple and the buried statue. I really like the shape of the story here but I think it’s a little too easy to miss out even if you go in.

Easy City Downs — Hey, it’s the area that convinced me to do this! Structurally, Easy City Downs isn’t all that interesting: it’s a racetrack with some shacks in the middle and a small set of bleachers. However, the robot races are really amusing and the nervous chatter of the announcer, promising the race isn’t rigged, is pretty good. I don’t often fight too many of the raiders and triggermen here, since it’s relatively easy to get on a terminal and make the robots do the work. Once you find and kill the proprietor, Eager Ernie, you can learn that he actually has rigged the races due to the demands of a local raider warlord. I would have liked to see more about this drama but the villain of this story vanishes from the game after a certain point and I don’t think there’s any dialogue for him even if he’s still present.

Fallon’s Department Store — Although this isn’t a spiral pit, it takes advantage of our expectations of a department store to create a realist space with a large central void that favors engagement at a distance. This is one of the few spots where it felt like the Super Mutant aesthetic intersected with the location in an interesting way — each time I came here a mutant was hanging out in the coffee bar with several meat bags, like a restaurant server. The store itself is rather empty and picked-over, and the numerous safes in the room at the bottom are all using the same loot table so that spot feels anticlimactic. The maze-like parking deck outside, a trap for wanderers, is more entertaining, if only because of the absurdly excessive number of traps.

Federal Ration Stockpile — I like quite a bit about this location. There’s usually an entertaining fight at the little raider settlement out front. The stockpile itself is more of a linear crawl, with a big and essentially optional loop out around the alleged stockpile room, which seems much too small and sparsely appointed to have lasted a full two centuries. Given the number of raiders, what can be gathered in there hardly seems like it would last a week. Beyond that there is a further linear crawl back into the lair of the raiders’ leader, which also exits to (and can be entered from) a nearby ruined church. There is a moderately interesting drama outlined here with the raider running the Beantown Brewery, so it’s worth checking out both spots, though Beantown is structurally much less interesting.

Medical boxes that are being repainted yellow and red to serve as chem boxes in raider locales. Also, Dogmeat the dog.
I did not know Dogmeat was a drug-sniffing dog.

Fens Street Sewer — This is a pretty standard linear crawl, befitting the ghoul denizens. I like the little story being told by the tapes you can find here, however, and particularly the way the killer’s self-aggrandizement shows its hollowness in light of the apocalypse. There’s also a pleasing verticality in several spots, though it doesn’t result in any good fights.

Gunners Plaza — This site kicks off with a tough fight against multiple Gunners in a little arena out front. High-level Gunners on the roof are armed with missile launchers and a Fat Man, accentuating the game’s lack of options for dealing with such enemies. The front entrance opens into a large arena-style room with good sight lines, but there’s no way to ascend in here. Passing through leads to more of an ivy-runner kind of area with a sealed door hiding the boss. The area is rich in high-level enemies, which produce some good engagements, and turrets, which do not. The second floor and basement are much closer to the ivy-runner paradigm. There’s not much of a story here. Three terminals on the first floor tell a weirdly declarative and unfunny tale from the past. There’s an intriguing conflict drawn by two holotapes found on bodies, but the commander’s holotape, which could clarify what’s going on, doesn’t do anything of the kind. It’s a narrative waste of an area that actually has numerous entertaining fights.

Graygarden — I love the idea of this weird little settlement that’s basically just robots doing what they were told to do hundreds of years ago. The robots themselves are reasonably fun to interact with. The settlement mechanics here are bizarre, though. The settlement boundary lies within inches of the agricultural area but for some reason extends a huge distance down the slope. What can and can’t be scrapped is also very strange — several trees are untouchable, as is a car for some reason. It doesn’t really matter, though, since all I ever do is build some turrets to protect these sweet innocent bots and move on.

Hopesmarch Pentecostal Church — This location is a template, a reuse of a “church” asset that appears at least 4 other times in the base game. This is the only version I ever remember, because of the way the location is approached. Here, in the “glowing sea” area, the blast was strong enough to liquefy the rock or cause the ground to collapse. Either way, the result is that this church has mostly subsided into the earth and can only be entered from above. The act of descending into a church is evocative in and of itself, and the way it upends a familiar design is very affecting here, especially with the help of the hellish locale. This location has quite a lot of ghouls, and their horrific aspect plays well against the way the location inverts the normal churches. The little story on a somehow-still-functional terminal is superfluous.

Hubris Comics — This is a fun little realist space that ends up being much bigger than one would expect. The initial “comic shop” area leads up into a suite of offices where one can find a little drama playing out about a radio version of the comic “The Silver Shroud” making an uncomfortable transition to television. Surprisingly there’s no obvious radio studio, but at the top of the building there is a small TV space. The area is full of ghouls, but one has to think that some funny stuff could have been done by placing Super Mutants here instead.

Jamaica Plain — The first arrival here entails a big fight with an army of ghouls, though as usual they trickle into the encounter so it’s not very difficult. Among the houses and other buildings there are a number of bodies: a crack team of professionals who were trying to steal “The Treasures of Jamaica Plain”, but got slaughtered by the ghouls. The treasures themselves are not that difficult to reach, especially if you find the correct keycard. It transpires that they are just ordinary objects locked into a time capsule – a newspaper, a globe, a few pieces of medical tech, some books. Precious in their own way, but in the future that actually arrived they are valueless, and if the fallen professionals had survived, they would have been horrified to find these contents. It’s darkly funny but also tragic, one of the few quests in this game that really touches on that feeling. There is also a settlement here but it’s really terrible, with almost no dirt, only a tiny area for building, and much of that taken up by unscrappable trash, including a whole sealed-off house! I dislike this settlement area very very much and I am always told to put up a tower here, so I feel bad for the poor bastards stuck here.

Longneck Lukowski’s Cannery — A standard blocked-loop linear crawl where it transpires that the guy running this resurrected meatpacking joint is canning dead ghouls, with predictable effects on his clientele. I genuinely like the lower area, where the brickwork of an even older factory creates some areas that would not be out of place in Skyrim. The ghouls add to that ambience nicely. Unfortunately the last encounter kind of sucks, as the only way to reach the villain at the end is to take an elaborate route up onto a conveyor belt in order to reach a repaired catwalk and then follow that. This is no fun to work out under fire and hardly makes sense as a route a guy would take to get to his own office.

Kendall Hospital — The hospital entrance boasts a small, two-story version of the spiral pit, dotted with raiders and turrets around the edges for long-range sniping. The player has to ascend this one to reach an elevator. After a brief crawl-style segment, the level opens up on a much larger and more populated spiral pit that the player must descend. At the bottom of this pit is a brief encounter with a deathclaw, apparently the main subject of sport among the raiders that are found here. The fuel for the bonfire in the first pit, however, is mostly synths (with a few humans here and there), speaking to this locale’s past as a safehouse for the Railroad. This is the single area that gets the most mileage out of the spiral pit motif and its ability to create distance and favor ranged stealth.

Mahkra Fishpacking — A factory structured as linked arenas, with a huge number of raider bodies in it. At first there’s no evidence of what exactly killed them, although I encountered a pair of Super Mutants nearby. Once I got to the basement it became evident that the cause was Synths, but this felt off. Many of the corpses were really brutally killed (dismembered etc.) more suggestive of Super Mutants. In addition, it doesn’t seem like there’s any reason for the synths to be here. With Super Mutants you can play that stuff off because they’re dumb as rocks, but the Institute is supposed to be smart people run by a mastermind. It feels like a cop-out to have them go into the smelly fish place “just ‘cause”.

Massachusetts State House — The State House employs what I would call a “maze” construction in its entrance. Because so many of the buildings in Fallout games are decaying, and of course there was nuclear damage, it makes sense to include collapsed floors and filled-in rooms. These are a constant in all dungeons, but in maze types they are used to generate coiled and difficult-to-parse topologies as opposed to the relative simplicity of the typical linear crawl, which they otherwise resemble. The maze segment opens out into a large tiered pit, although this one is not really used for any encounters. At the bottom of it is a surprise Mirelurk Queen, who can really give a player a hard time at lower levels. For whatever reason, there’s a really good, threatening scripted encounter with a single mirelurk right after this fight. The rest of the location is an essentially linear climb up to the top level of the pit and a confrontation with a heavily-armored raider, after which an elevator takes the player back to the entrance in classic blocked-loop style. This is a really satisfying dungeon, but it’s very easy to blunder into it underleveled for both the queen and the boss raider, and there’s no way to back out once the queen appears.

Milton General Hospital — This is a classic maze construction that demands the player go back and forth between two or three floors to get past collapsed walls and doors. Unfortunately it uses elevators all over the place and the companion AI therefore keeps getting lost. This is one case where the idea of a busted building leads to an excessively complex interior. It’s not much more fun for me to navigate than for the AI. This is where the climax of the “Silver Shroud” quest happens, and that unfortunately is also a bit annoying in itself, although the ability to scare off Sinjin’s henchmen by speaking as the Shroud is fun. Protecting Kent is a little tough if you don’t.

Salem Witchcraft Museum — An otherwise forgettable linear crawl becomes pretty interesting thanks to effective scripting. It’s a good quick build of tension until you run into the trapped Deathclaw. Unfortunately the museum itself isn’t much to look at, except for the apparent Blair Witch joke.

A skeleton in a desk in the corner of a basement
First he makes you sit in the corner.

Sandy Coves Convalescent Home — This is a realist area only slightly mazed up, and relatively pristine, which is explained by the robots still maintaining the place with a belief that the residents are still there or something. Many of the various rooms offer little tableaux of life before the war, although the only one that emotionally resonated for me was the woman who kept flowers. Though there’s absolutely no reason to do it (other than giving the player something to shoot) Synths eventually come in to kill the batty old robots here. This place would have been fine without combat, or just letting the players who wanted to do it shoot the bots.

Saugus Iron Works — This is one of the spots on the map I really wish would not respawn enemies. Saugus is host to a unique species of raiders who call themselves “The Forged” and apparently engage in fire-based self-mutilation. Probably the initial visit to this spot will involve a local farmer whose son has run off to join the raiders (and, as it happens, has come to regret it). The location itself is primarily composed of two large tiered rooms that favor long-range engagements, as well as a small blast furnace area where the boss is confronted and a roof superstructure that is large but not on the scale of the Corvega factory. I’ve never managed to resolve the quest without killing the leader of the Forged, and it seems unlikely they would hang together after. Considering that the factory would be a very useful resource, and lies directly between two settlements (often raiders from the factory wander into range of the defenses at the Slog), having this place be permanently dead after the first visit would make a lot of sense both narratively and structurally.

Shaw High School — Structurally this one isn’t anything remarkable, but I like the little story in here about how the principal’s plan to use mental performance enhancing drugs to get himself some extra pay backfires because the delinquents he used to distribute them actually took some. Like most Roxbury locations this has Super Mutants, but not in enough numbers to produce much challenge or interesting encounters.

Spectacle Island — This settlement area is almost too big. It certainly invites build activity that’s more ambitious than the size limit (based on items within the build area) can bear. I like the little mini-quest to turn on the mirelurk-repelling sound system but I sincerely wish more of the crap on this island could be scrapped or the build limit was higher.

Suffolk County Charter School — A realist space that requires an extended detour through a linear crawl of a basement. This area is inhabited by unusually pink ghouls, and very early on one discovers a tray of unappetizing looking “food paste” that, it transpires, has appeared because the school participated in the Nutritional Alternative Paste Program (almost certainly a reference to the “Pink Slime” stories). This would have been a great place to put some kind of weird one-off boss or at least some conclusion funnier than a fight with a bunch of ghouls and a boring final message from the principal.

Thicket Excavations — This is likely to be one of the first locations where the player encounters a spiral pit. This is not as evident in the first visit, where the Vault Dweller is asked by a friendly fellow to help patch some pipes. If this is done, a subsequent visit will reveal that the quarry has been drained and occupied by raiders, with their headquarters in the bottom. I really like areas that have dynamics, and the double-cross here, though relatively mild, feels more of a piece with the dog-eat-dog nature of the post-apocalyptic wasteland than most of the game, which is probably excessively earnest.

Vault 81 — A vault that isn’t horrible! It transpires that this is so because the first overseer sealed the research team that was meant to carry out experiments on its denizens into their research pod, dooming them to death. The intro to this vault is sharply done, with an adorable (thanks to improved models, children in this game can actually be adorable) boy offering you a tour, playing on the backstory. That same boy is later imperiled, forcing a trip into the abandoned research zone. The structural motif here, of one area “looking in” on another, unsuspecting one is a repeated element of Commonwealth locations (e.g. Pickman Gallery, Vault 75) and the game itself (the relationship between the Institute and Commonwealth). In here you have to kill a bevy of mole rats. These fights would be cool except the rats seem to be able to dig through metal as well as dirt, leading to sloppy encounters instead of a “floor is lava” avoidance of dirt areas. The introduction to Curie is good, though. Saving the boy rewards a bedroom in the Vault I would never use because it’s a huge pain to get there.

Vault 88 — A massive area where you can build your own vault, which I mostly did not bother to do, but hey, you could. Also, the vault furniture really should have included some kind of hydroponics bed. I didn’t care for the quests here either because the Overseer is just a terrible character. It is nice to get happiness-boosting tools, however. Also, I enjoyed exploring the huge vault area and scrapping my way through the walls. I liked the nests of radscorpions I found somewhat less, however.

Vault 95 — Typically ridiculous “science” from Vault-Tec here, with detox followed by the exposure of a (finite) cache of drugs. Apparently this resulted in horrific violence and the destruction of the vault, as per usual. The vault looks properly grotty but otherwise is a relatively standard ivy-runner dungeon without any particularly interesting encounters.

West Roxbury Station — A location full of Super Mutants, with a strange little puzzle in the bottom involving shifting trains back and forth. The key to this puzzle is actually to get out of a train and squeeze along a wall, which I felt was a pretty unsatisfying solution. A funny but easily missable tableau of a drug deal interrupted by the bombs is unfortunately at odds with the story being told on the terminals about why the trains move the way they do.

Weston Water Treatment Plant — I really wish this were more elaborate. The front area with Super Mutants is a decent shooting gallery, but the interior with the pumps and the changing water level is a really cool idea that’s kind of wasted on it mostly happening in just one giant room. For whatever reason the mirelurks that popped out were all really low-level, too. This would be a great place for a queen to show up, but instead the dungeon ends on an anticlimax.

Wilson Atomatoys Corporate HQ — This is a maze-like design, more networked than most, with numerous ways to go up and down on the lower floors but only one way (blocked by a keycard or master lock) up to the very top. The juxtaposition of the childlike but horrific Super Mutants and the numerous Giddyup Buttercup child’s toys is pretty good. The backstory that unfolds here, about the CEO turning the toy factory into a weapons plant and forcing out Arlen, whom I’d already met, is standard ‘80s movie stuff, but affecting on a certain level.

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