Bethesda has a thing for skeletons, and so do I.
No, not like that.
Like this: in Fallout 4, as in other Bethesda games, skeletons tell stories without whispering a word. But there's something special about the post-apocalyptic skeleton. It offers a glimpse at humanity pre-war, before the bombs fell, sometimes, you imagine, as the bombs fell. They capture a moment in time, as the world turned to dust, as the fire blew the flesh from the bones of billions of people. What if Sarah Connor's nightmare becomes reality? You get Fallout.
The skeletons also do a better job of showing us the horror of post-nuclear war than pretty much everything else in the game. Bethesda's Boston is packed with burnt out buildings and bust up fusion cars, but it's the skeletons that hit closest to home. In these troubled times, Fallout 4's skeletons bark a stark warning: play nice, they croak, or you'll end up a bag of bones just like me.
I love a surprise encounter with a skeleton. I stop to study them, letting my imagination run wild. Never mind the quest I'm on, the junk I'm searching for or the Raiders I must kill, it's the skeletons that demand attention.
The other night I stumbled upon two skeletons huddled together at a broken bus stop. I imagined them as husband and wife, embracing each other for the last time as the burning bright light engulfed them.
Last week I found a sole skeleton sat in a chair, a pistol nearby, bullets placed carefully on a table. Chems and beer were strewn about the place. I imagined the skeleton plucking up the courage to end it all, no doubt as an army of Ghouls tore at the door.
It's all a bit depressing, isn't it? Well so it should be. The world of Fallout is a desperate one. Nuclear war is a serious business. Our flesh is at stake.
But what I love most about Fallout's skeletons is they're sometimes - often! - hilarious. They encapsulate perfectly the brilliance of the Fallout tone, as set out by Interplay in the late 90s and, for me, hammered home by Obsidian's wonderfully-written New Vegas: dealing with the apocalypse is a ridiculous folly, so we may as well have a laugh while we're at it.
Take, for example, this skeleton, spotted by Redditor DaEvilPenguin while out and about in a Fallout 4 subway station.
"This guy knew how to party," you'd think, stumbling upon that. The teddy bear is the crowning touch.
Brilliantly, Fallout 4 has an Easter egg that references Cheers, the long-running and hugely popular sitcom set in a bar in Boston. Fallout 4's version is home to a pair of skeletons who are, quite obviously, meant to represent Cliff and Norm, sitting where they should, propping up the bar. If Cheers was real, and the nuclear apocalypse actually happened, Cliff and Norm would no doubt stubbornly refuse to budge. There they would stay, propping up the bar, burnt to a crisp, until their bones turn to dust.
Fallout 4 skeletons also pose mini mysteries. Redditor Optimus-Christ posted the screenshot below and wondered: "Whatever is in this safe must be good." Did the bombs fall as they were throttling each other? Also, why is one of the skeletons clothed and the other not? The mind boggles. Theories welcome.
And skeletons often find themselves in... embarrassing situations. Take this poor chap, for example. Not a particularly dignified fate.
I wonder if it's someone's job at Bethesda to be "boss of skeletons". This person is in charge of all the silly positions, I imagine, all of the props, the lighting, the scribbled notes and the terminal journal entries that reveal the back-stories to the skeleton vignettes players uncover as they creep about in the dark. Perhaps this person leads a team of environmental artists who specialise in skeletons. Imagine the meetings! What a world we live in, that such storytellers may exist. What do you do for a living? I tell stories with video game skeletons. I'm not being sarcastic here. I'm jealous. What a fun job!
Some people don't like Fallout's skeletons. I've seen threads on Fallout 4's Steam forum where people ask how to get rid of them. Those fussing over base-building want to clear out skeletons from their settlements. You can't pick them up, so players resort to pushing them and blasting them with grenades. There's even a video guide.
Bah! Those who wish to sweep away Fallout 4's skeletons like troublesome leaves on a blustery autumn day are missing the point. I love the skeletons and they should stay where Bethesda placed them, sometimes sad, sometimes cool, sometimes funny, always Fallout.
I'll leave you with this: a video of a creepy skeleton in Fallout 4.