‘Fallout 76’ and the Horrors of Home Ownership

I remember playing “Fallout 3” and opening the vault door for the first time. There’d been a horrible calamity; you had lived in subterranean bunkers all your life and were finally emerging outdoors for the first time. It’s manufactured as a memorable moment, and also a kind of panacea to the previous era’s first-person shooter convention of hallways and corridors galore. The designers seemed to be saying: “Leave those dusty tight spaces behind. Go into the world. Be free.” So what if there’s a settlement of rabid mutants to contend with? At least the sun was on your face.

Ten years later, Bethesda Game Studios is teasing their latest installment in the popular post-apocalyptic RPG series, titled “Fallout 76.”. Based on the ninety-second clip they released on Wednesday, the focus appears to be more on creating a home from within the rubble than escaping it. And boy, do I know how that feels right now.

My wife and I are in the process of buying our first house. We live outside of Atlanta, where the insects appear to have been irradiated by nuclear waste, growing many times the size of the midwestern bugs I knew as a child. Violence mars otherwise peaceful neighborhoods. And there is an absurd lack of housing options for a population in high demand for shelter. It’s basically “Fallout” with better biscuits.

The first time I squeezed below our house-to-be to check the foundation reminded me of that memorable vault-opening scene. I was alone in a dark place underground. No natural light shined through. I didn’t know where the exit was; in fact, it was near-impossible to navigate through the stuffy confines at all, slithering atop a slab cut from the earth that was never meant to be inhabited. But I made do. I set out to accomplish what I could. And when I finally emerged, the vista before me felt luminous and free, like some frontier where anything might happen: even if that was a lie, a slice of liberty only when compared to a wretched hole.

“There’s some issues with the crawl space,” I told my real estate agent, “but we can fix it.”

If you’ve ever done something like applied for a mortgage, or any of a hundred other mundane, complex actions attempted by reasonable adults, you’d wonder why game designers see fit to stuff their games with ravenous zombies or alien hordes when more challenging, noxious, unrelenting obstacles surround us every day.

Bethesda’s minute-and-a-half teaser for “Fallout 76” alludes to these more pedestrian trials overcome by a citizenry attempting not only to survive but carve out, within the blast radius, something that feels familiar. The camera pans around a sequence of rooms, each bedecked with the droppings of daily life: last night’s empty beer bottle, this morning’s empty coffee mug; a glass case showing off trophies for “Outstanding Achievement;” filled bookshelves, rumpled bed sheets, framed posters on a wall. On the radio plays a baritone cover of John Denver’s classic “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” The camera cuts to an old television where some leader is speaking at a podium in front of a crowd. “When the fighting has stopped and the fallout has settled,” the man says, “you must rebuild.”

Some outlets are reporting that “Fallout 76” will be an online survival game, with players building bases, defending their turf while embarking on missions to scavenge more materials or overtake others’ territory. (Bethesda promises more details at E3, the annual industry convention that officially begins on June 12th.) But the notion of base-building is what interests me most, describing as it does my real off-screen pursuit of finding a place to call my own. It parallels that instinct nearly all creatures have, be them humans or birds or loan officers: Surround yourself with a structure in which you can live, thrive, and, if necessary, raise your young.

Our first child is a year old. He can barely walk. He calls everything “Ba!” or “Ca!” He is, in some ways, completely helpless; in others, he is stronger than his parents. We owe him a safe space in which to grow and learn. So when, due to a clerical error and personal negligence and an arbitrary law, we learn that we can’t move into our house when we thought we could, I am filled with rage both at myself and others, a feeling I rarely get outside the constructed funhouses of a tough video game.

You don’t need to thrust a rusty broadsword at some high-level cleric with titanium armor to feel powerless; all you need is a super-competitive real estate market combined with the opaque requirements of our financial institutions to borrow an outrageous sum of money in order to slowly pay off a structure that may or may not become infested with mold and rats. The yearning for such a thing to transpire is completely irrational and utterly intoxicating. If “Fallout 76” can inspire in its players the same mix of fear, anxiety, and euphoria I held exploring the dark, dank foundation of a building built forty years ago, Bethesda may have a winner.

At the end of the teaser, a voice speaks plaintively and with hope. “In Vault 76,” it says, “our future begins.” Sounds like someone putting a down-payment on a house.

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