Building a childhood clubhouse is, if not an ubiquitous experience, it’s certainly an ubiquitous theme. Bart Simpson had a treehouse, and it was kind of a nice treehouse. Treehouses are a pain in the ass to build (as I so learned in middle school). When I was a kid, we built forts. A fort was raw, it was primal. It wasn’t treated wood purchased from Home Depot and nailed neatly together. It was cobbled together junk I found, and after a Saturday of building, I could stand back with my hands on my hips and take pride in my work.
Just past the woods line in my backyard, nestled against a sheer rock drop, I built my first fort in a thicket a friend and I cleared out. It was the summer of 1991 and I was eight years old. The air was thick and moist, and smelled of the hot wild grapes growing in the woods. Frankie and I stacked heavy rocks on one side for a wall and used the remaining tangled brush as a barrier on the opposite side. Deep in the woods, we had discovered an old Volkswagen Beetle wreck, far from any road. Scattered around the car were various tools and a cache of sheet metal. Frankie and I scavenged and lugged what we could back to the fort, including the bucket seats from the Beetle, and outfitted our hideout.
A tree in the corner of the fort served as a lookout nest, and its hefty vines a means of escape –a lookout for whom and an escape from what, we never really figured that out. Home Alone was a recent favorite movie of mine, so we devised booby traps of falling rocks and buckets of water; the only real safe way into the fort was to lower oneself from the rock drop on a ladder we had made from an old cargo net. Even still, the traps were only ever sprung when we intentionally triggered them on one and other.
The key to building a good fort is uselessness, and building forts in Fallout 4 is the crowning champ of uselessness. It’s a whole fiddly system of extraneous bullshit busywork. And I loved it.
In Fallout 4, the player can build settlements by throwing a bunch of garbage together scavenged from the ruins of Boston. The denizens only have a few basic requirements to consider the settlement home, but the piles of pilfered paraphernalia can be used to build toilets for people who don’t use the bathroom, dumpsters for trash that never comes, and pool tables that are never played. Even the required defenses, much like my own traps and lookout towers, are for foes that never come.
Settlement residents pantomime lives, creating routines that seemingly give the appearance of a functioning establishment, but it’s not much more convincing than a couple of eight year olds trying to build stuff from looted sheet metal. I think Frankie and I assumed we needed to do something in the fort we built, but I don’t think we ever really bothered to ask why we built a fort in the first place. Building settlements has no bearing on the progression or the resolution in Fallout 4, they don’t matter either.
There is a sense of pride, though, in scraping together disparate junk and carving out a space of your own with what feels like no help at all. I didn’t receive any guidance from my dad or anything like that as a kid, and I certainly didn’t receive any guidance from Fallout 4; its building system barely fucking works. But when it all finally comes together, there’s nothing like standing back with all the satisfaction of an accomplished eight year old on a Saturday summer afternoon.