I wound up losing track of time and breezing through another nine hours of this game in less than a day. It's weird. I think I've started to divide the world into two categories - Fallout 4 and Things That Take Me Away From Fallout 4. And it doesn't take much for the second category to earn my sudden and unmerited resentment. Ugh, I have to go buy groceries, why is life putting me through this hell?
It's a silly attitude. I don't think it comes down entirely to the virtues of Fallout 4 as a game. It has many faults. I've played games with better shooting, better resource management, better stories, better art design, better character customization, and just generally better gameplay. However, what makes Fallout 4 so compelling as an experience is that it genuinely feels like it's giving me access to another world.
It's a world that's in almost every conceivable way worse than this one (though it does have cool noir- detective robots), and not somewhere I'd want to visit in real-life, if given the opportunity. Yet, in this world, your character is a person of consequence. He's a guy who can find a broken vacuum cleaner, strip it for parts, and then use those parts to improve a struggling frontier settlement. He can talk gangsters out of killing people. He can get his dog to more or less obey him. In other words, he has autonomy and independence, two things that are, in the real world, in very short supply.
I have this theory about freedom. I think that what we call "freedom" is actually an amalgam of three different things - choice, autonomy, and independence. Choice is having multiple options presented to you and being able to select the option you like best. Autonomy is doing things for your own reasons, and not because someone tells you to do them. Independence is not having to rely on other other people, or factor in their actions as a constraint on your own.
The line between these categories (especially autonomy and independence) can be a little blurry, but I've come up with a few examples that might illustrate the differences.
A person stranded alone on a desert island would have high autonomy - there's no one to tell them what to do; high independence - they don't need anyone's help to go about their daily routine; and low choice - everything they do is constrained by survival, and the limitations of the island's resources.
A person who is a successful investor in a robust capitalist economy would have high choice - there's an absolutely dizzying array of investment opportunities to choose from; a high autonomy - as one of society's elite, there are very few people to tell them what to do; and low independence - once they invest the money, even if they take a leading management roll in the venture, the success or failure of the investment depends a lot on the actions of other people (workers, customers, fellow investors etc).
A medieval serf would have high independence - they farm the land directly and personally make most of their own material possessions; low autonomy - the landlord tells them what to do, and backs those commands up with the church and the sword; and, well, honestly, a low degree of choice, due to the fact that the medieval economy was not especially diverse, and they were poor besides, but I think you get the basic idea. It's easy enough to imagine a medieval serf with 100 different cable channels, but no more political say in their own destiny.
So, the thing about a modern, capitalist society is that it's great at maximizing choice. There are so many things to buy, so many fashions and entertainments and varieties of mayonnaise that you can never exhaust them all (something to which this blog is a testament). Yet autonomy is a luxury. Unless you are wealthy, you answer to a boss. For eight hours a day, or about half your waking life, you have someone who literally tells you what to do, how to dress, how to feel (or at least, how to appear to feel, can't have a crabby day in front of the customers, can you). And the shadow of this hangs over even your non-working life - can you get fired for things you do in your off-hours, things which might be an "embarrassment to the company?" Only by becoming your own boss can you possibly avoid this.
But even then, even if you are a well-off person with every conceivable luxury and no employer holding the threat of unemployment over them as a spur for compliance, you still cannot buy independence. The supply chains behind all those wondrous assortments of products are too complex for any one person to bypass. The knowledge necessary to create and improve all our incredible inventions is too vast for any one person to learn. Maybe, if you went "off the grid" you could reach some semblance of independence, but then, you are no longer part of our society. The only way to have that sort of freedom is to renounce everything else capitalism has to offer.
Or, you know, you could build a virtual world to simulate it. That's what I think makes open-world games like Fallout 4 so addictive. Even the most complex video game is going to have fewer choices than the real world, but autonomy is trivial - so long as quests are not mandatory, and success or failure isn't tied to time limit. And independence is even easier - don't require multiplayer, and don't make your NPCs too finicky or demanding (even when you "require" NPCs for some character needs, like food and such, if they are simple and easy enough, they will feel like tools for the player to exploit).
The virtual world, then, is a surrogate that supplies a variety of freedom that's rare in the physical world. It is a chance to be autonomous and independent (and, probably not coincidentally, powerful) in a way that would otherwise be unavailable to the player. Add in a dose of the fantastic, to make it fun to talk about, and you have a potent tonic against the stresses of everyday life in a capitalist society.
And if that makes playing video games sound kind of sad, well, I'm not sure that it is. What's the alternative? I don't think there's any way to maximize all three forms of freedom and still remain recognizably human. Maybe our society doesn't get the balance exactly right - in fact, I'm sure that it doesn't, though the specifics of how it can improve, or even what improvement would actually look like, are the subject of very passionate political disagreements - but I don't think there's a future where individual humans are an economy unto themselves, or a society unto themselves, or a world unto themselves. So long as there are two people who want to live together, they will face constraints on their freedom. Which means that escape valves, like Fallout 4, will always be pleasurable.