Fallout 4 is now less than two months away, and while Bethesda have teased a few new features, they remain tight-lipped on whether the series’ drugs system is getting an overhaul. Now, while I don’t advocate for drugs in real life (I don’t even like taking aspirin), games allow us to experience both the highs and especially the lows of all manner of terrible things we wouldn’t actually want to go through, including substance abuse.
Drugs in games tend to be depicted in one of two ways. They can be displayed as harmless and even hilarious regardless of possible ramifications, such as knocking back some 40oz liquor and punching pedestrians across the street in Saints Row, or doing a hit of “Flash” to heal in The Warriors. Grand Theft Auto V took irresponsibility to new heights, letting you drive drunk with Michael’s teenage son in the car.
At the other end of the spectrum, even within the same series, drugs are shown to be vile poison that will ruin your life if you even look at them sideways; Grand Theft Auto IV featured addicts ham-fistedly moaning, “You gotta stop me smokin’ this shit; I’m killing myself,” and “I have an Ivy League education!” While this second approach is more responsible, it feels so preachy that it can’t be taken seriously.
A few games have struck an even balance between these two extremes. Max Payne 3 and Bioshock made their drugs – painkillers and plasmids, respectively – both clearly harmful to characters’ well-being, while remaining necessary for them to survive. Similarly, the first two Fallout games managed to include drugs (or chems, as they’re called in-game) in a way that made them both potentially useful and extremely harmful. Unfortunately, Fallout 3 watered down the system so drug use had fewer negative consequences, and in doing so, cheapened the experience.
So what was it about chems that worked so well in Fallout 1 and 2? First of all, addiction hurt. Popping some Buffout or Mentats might’ve been a great way to get a temporary stat boost, but if you got addicted, the withdrawal would make your stats plummet to the point where you could barely function at all. Withdrawal lasted a full in-game week, except for the hyper-addictive Jet in Fallout 2. Get hooked on that and you’d never be free of it without the antidote, a one-time quest reward. While addiction in Fallout 3 and New Vegas never went away on its own either, a cure was only ever a quick trip to the doctor away.
Second, chems were rare. You might go through Fallout 1 and only find handful of each chem; buying them at selected dealers wasn’t exactly cheap, either. Compare this with Fallout 3, where you could walk into a raider hideout and find a mountain of Jet inhalers just scattered about for your convenience. So common are drugs and alcohol in 3 and NV that I would often find myself using alcohol or Buffout to increase my carrying capacity to haul all of my loot to the nearest merchant. Ironically, most of what was weighing me down in the first place were the bottles of alcohol.
This meant you had to scrounge for your next hit; during my time as a Jet-head in Fallout 2, I found myself routinely making trips to New Reno purely to stock up on all the Jet I could afford. And this wasn’t to have a powerful edge in combat, either. No, those days were long gone. By this point, I was hitting the Jet just to get my stats back up to normal. For my character, this was an expensive habit that wasn’t really worth the few moments of extra combat effectiveness it offered, but for me it was an experience I’ll never forget.
Fallout 4’s overhauled crafting system could be a great opportunity to make the player work for their chems. Imagine having to choose between using a syringe for a healing stimpak or rage-inducing Psycho, tracking down chemicals to extend the effects of your crafted chems.
For these reasons, I believe dialling up the consequences and rarity of drugs in Fallout 4 will lead to a richer and more challenging experience. According to a recently published report by the ESRB, Bethesda certainly seem to be heading in the right direction. In Fallout 4, according to the ratings board, “players can consume a variety of fictional drugs (e.g., Buffout, Jet, Psycho) through the use of a menu; repeated use of these drugs leads to an addiction status and various negative effects for characters.”
And even if the developer does play it safe by rehashing the Fallout 3 system, the modding community will probably cater to my wish anyway.