Why did I decide to walk all the way to the sea in one evening while playing Fallout 4's new Survival Mode? I don't know. Does the swallow question why it flies south in winter, or the salmon why it must hurl itself against the rapids? All I know is that on firing up a new save, I felt the call of the ocean in my marrow.
Perhaps it's that my flat is a gigantic Dutch oven right now. Perhaps it's that I wanted to try out Survival's systems without trudging through any story encounters. Either way, to the balmy blue I must go, and to do this I would need, basically, two things.
Firstly, a selection of motivational quotes from GoodReads.com, because what is starvation if not a weakness of the imagination, symptomatic of a deficiency of vim. Besides, Fallout 4 doesn't track psychological deterioration like Don't Starve, State of Decay and other, younger wasteland sims, so it was up to me to compensate by filling my brain with as much dangerous nonsense as I could manage.
Secondly I would need loads of Charisma, because Charisma is (seemingly) the most useless stat in Survival Mode, and I had no interest in making life easier by spending points on more sensible stats, like Endurance and Perception. Reality does not generally permit us the luxury of preparing for the worst, gentlemen and ladies. And if I must die of a bacterial infection, I'm damn well going to do it with great hair.
Still catching up about Survival Mode? The short version is thus. Besides the usual hazards you've got to worry about hunger, thirst and fatigue, which quietly eat away at your character stats if left unattended. You both inflict and receive more damage (a new Adrenaline perk applies a boost for each foe downed, but resets when you sleep), and enemies are no longer marked on the HUD. Stimpacks take a couple of minutes to kick in, so you can't just spam syringes when you're cornered. Many of the more common remedies, foodstuffs or drugs now have undesirable side effects - some concoctions dehydrate, and radiation meds inflict weariness. You can't carry nearly as much stuff and are at risk of various chronic conditions such as insomnia. Most punishingly of all, you can only save the game when you use a bed, and you can't fast-travel.
As with the Survival Mode of New Vegas, I wouldn't say all this revolutionises the game but it certainly changes your outlook. You'll venture into ominous-looking buildings not for loot or glory but because you're fresh out of Instamash, turning your nose up at rare armour parts as you scour lockers for the ultimate prize, a squirrel kebab. Abandoned campfires with sleeping bags or even, shock, a mattress, are suddenly the most welcome sights in the wasteland. Quite why you can't just take a bag with you escapes me, but hey, it's a video game.
It is, nonetheless, easy to feel complacent in the opening stretches of the game, when the necessaries are reasonably abundant and real threats are scarce. Jenny Han writes that "looking on the bright side of life never killed anybody". With that reassuring thought in mind, and several chunks of radroach meat in my pockets, I exit the vault and set off courageously eastwards. I'm trudging up the slope near a lake when I spot my first wasteland NPC, a radstag doe peacefully munching grass in the shade.
How to proceed? I consider the advice of Donald Trump: "Don't just sit on the runway and hope someone will come along and push the airplane. It simply won't happen." I don't have an airplane (the opportunity to call in a Brotherhood of Steel Vertybird is a good few dozen hours off, I think) but I do have a 10mm pistol. So I shoot at the doe. It runs away. I give chase. It runs right through a pack of molerats and straight into a raider camp. I am savaged, clubbed and blown to bits. Thanks Donald.
A problematic turn of events, this. But as Regina Brett reminds us, "no matter how you feel, get up, dress up and show up." So with that in mind, I slip into something dapper -
- and set off to the bandit camp again. This time I manage to get away alive, albeit with several crippled limbs. So many negative attitudes in these parts. Does nobody read Deepak Chopra in the 23rd century?
With apologies to Mrs Brett, I think it's going to take more than a dashing fedora to win over Boston's marauders. Let us not forget Santosh Kalwar, who advises disciples to "walk like lion, talk like pigeons, live like elephants and love like an infant child". I choose to read this as "maybe try the long way round", and head down the road past the Red Rocket fuel stop, teaming up with Dogmeat on the way. He immediately gets himself chewed up by molerats, which calls my attention to another of Survival Mode's quirks - companions no longer self-resurrect after a fight, obliging you to either expend a precious Stimpack or leave them to limp back to a safe area. OK, Dogmeat. I'll patch you up this once. Next time, though, you're going on the bloody BBQ.
Shunning the Minutemen dug in around Concord's centre, we traipse along the north of the map past USAF Satellite Station Olivia. I'm running low on bottled water and thus Perception at this stage, so I decide to stop in for a breather. Five exhilarating minutes later, I'm lurking in a toilet cubicle, blind-siding punks with a security baton as they gallop through the door, one after another.
"You attract only the people, situations and outcomes that you either want or need," says Russell Anthony Gibbs. True enough, Russell, but it helps if you have an AI companion who falls off walkways, then takes the scenic route back to the player and riles up every NPC in the building. There are so many people, situations and outcomes to deal with that I'm horribly dehydrated by the finish, but eh, what's a couple fewer points on Intelligence in the grand scheme of things? As Einstein has declared, "Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life thinking it's stupid". Quite right. You shouldn't judge fish by their Sneak stats, either. It's not my fault the lady with the minigun has such acute hearing. Perhaps I should try walking like a lion again.
Several deaths and reloads later I finally make it through to Ten Pines, the Boston Wasteland's most down-at-heel NPC settlement. They have a mattress to spare, fortunately (if there's one thing you'll really come to hate in Survival Mode, it's people getting uppity about vagrants sleeping in their beds). From there I'm able to scuttle across to an abandoned cabin beneath an imposing flyover. I've swapped out the fedora and suit for some no-nonsense spiked armour by this point, as supplied by a helpfully dead Scavenger near an upturned train car. It's good against rifle bullets, less so against gravity, and no help at all against malnutrition.
There follows more death than I can be bothered to recount, so here are a few general thoughts about why Survival Mode is worthwhile to fill the gap in the narrative. It's not just that you feel like you're living life to the full when you're reduced to a strict diet of radioactive grass and Bloatfly organs, though the sense of precarity is definitely a tonic, after 60-70 hours coasting through Fallout 4 on standard difficulty. It's that you start paying attention to subtleties you're otherwise taught to ignore.
The lack of a magic HUD motion-detector, for example, makes you more sensitive to Fallout 4's audio cues and the vexing way certain enemy models (e.g. those offensively compact laser turrets) are lost in the undergrowth. More substantially, you start to think of the landscape as it really is, beneath the quest markers and Kodak moments - an intricate if rigid and very stagey expanse of boltholes, part-demolished infrastructure and resource spots. You learn to lay in emergency supplies in case there's no opportunity to save after completing an objective, and to distinguish the roads that ferry you around tricky regions from roads that simply make you a target.
There are plenty of the latter out east. Having stumbled on a group of shady mercenaries and bought up all their .45 ammunition ("Money can't buy friends, but you can get a better class of enemy" - Spike Milligan), I follow the trail past the Mass Fusion Storage building and am set upon by Stingwings. I'm about level 3 at this stage, so it's a pretty short battle. "Nobody can hurt me without my permission," comments Gandhi, but then he'd probably unlocked the perk that lets you tame animals by looking at them.
This setback actually works in my favour, though, because on respawning and visiting the merc camp again, I find that they've all been slaughtered by Radroaches. I seize the opportunity to stock up on gear ("Man should not consider his material possession his own, but as common to all" - Thomas Aquinas), acquiring a shotgun of my very own and some beefy cage armour. With this, I'm sure, I'll finally break through to the shore - just a few miles to go. Or at least I hope so. I ran out of radiation-free water half-an-hour ago, and it turns out Nuka Cola actually increases your thirst, though it does also stave off tiredness. Death by caffeine? Not the worst way to kick the bucket, I guess.
It's perhaps high time I attempted to do things quietly. By dint of much trial, error and abrupt fatality, I plot a cunning course through a cluster of deadly NPCs - a bunker defended by laser turrets, a Supermutant encampment, a Forged base and one of those crazy Mr Gutsy killbots. I'm almost out of the danger zone when Dogmeat decides to play catch-me-if-you-can with the Supermutants, meeting a fiery end on a ridge. I think about intervening. Apart from anything else, he's carrying all my Sugarbombs. But as Elvis Presley insists, "when things go wrong, don't go with them." Sorry, Dogmeat.
The sun is beginning to rise, and I'm nearly there. I can see the terrain levelling off in the distance. I can taste the salt on the breeze. "Ever notice the word 'rough' in through?" quips Anthony Liccione. "There is truth to that, though the way may be rough, we are still able to get through it." This is exactly the kind of pragmatic reasoning that will propel me serenely past an army of men with baseball bats. It's the final push. I have a double-barrelled shotgun. I have excellent hair. And nothing - not Dogmeat, not Stingwings, nor my body's near-total lack of fluids - is going to mess this up for me now.
Well obviously I didn't mean "now" as in right now.