You take a step into the post-nuclear wasteland. Armed with nothing but a wrist-mounted computer, a pistol, and a retractable baton, you convince yourself that you will be the one to return civilization to the world.
So naturally it’s time to go pick up some coffee cups.
Fallout as a series never shied away from themes of building a new world out of the ruins of the last. The main characters of both Fallout 1 and 2 are tasked with scavenging important electronics (a water chip and a terraforming device, respectively) at the start of each game, and it’s only while seeking these things out that they get caught up in the larger forces of the world.
But scavenging in every Fallout game up to New Vegas revolved around picking out what was actually valuable or useful. While Fallout 3 and New Vegas drastically increased the amount of junk laying around the world – the isometric games, perhaps due to the engine limitations of the day, were far more conservative about item placement – you still had to pick and choose in order to make it work. Picking up every pen, teapot, or teddy bear was a waste of time and weight.
But Fallout 4 changes this. Every single object in Fallout 4 has a purpose, even all the detritus and filth left over after the apocalypse. Those coffee cups are a great source of ceramics, and that teapot might provide essential screws. Those basic resources are then used to construct settlements, which are essential if you intend to gain levels are a reasonable pace and which provide you an easy source of both materials and money for further crafting. Waste not, want not.
The problem is that this focus on scavenging completely changes the basic reward loop of Fallout 4. Instead of locations being a place to have an interesting encounter, they are little more than resource mines delved by the player in search of adhesive tape or household cleaner. The general effect is a coarsening of interaction. Enemies exist to be murdered, their weapons and armor scrapped for parts. Locations exist not as distinct areas with an interesting backstory, but as XP and junk mines to grind in. Such a reward loop removes everything that made Fallout so interesting: talking to your enemies, attempting different solutions to varied encounters, and so on. Every encounter is the same, every location is the same. The only difference is the wallpaper.
In addition, it also doesn’t make much sense within the context of Fallout 4’s narrative conceit. Fallout 3 and New Vegas got away with leaving junk everywhere because, well, it’s junk. Why bother? But Fallout 4 explicitly says “none of this is junk to people trying to rebuild.” If that’s the case, why the fuck is there so much of it? Why is it impossible to walk ten feet without stubbing your toe on a clipboard? You’d think that somebody would take this shit away and use it if it’s so useful. But they don’t. So why am I encouraged to do it? Why is there so much of it everywhere if it’s so damn handy?
Fallout 4 has a lot of problems, to be sure. Perks, dialogue, and quest design all suffer from oversimplification, and the improvements to combat don’t make up for it. But most of the game’s flaws inevitably come back to this notion that people love to crawl across a battered wasteland to find a tin can they can smelt. It’s an absolutely ludicrous system that punishes players who try to play Fallout 4 like an actual RPG and not like one of those five dollar Steam survival games everyone loves for no reason.
Scavenging can be cool. But Fallout 4 ruins itself by turning everything into an important item. When it’s all important, none of it is.