Like the rest of the shut-in world, I've been playing Animal Crossing to cope (opens in new tab). I enjoy checking in every day to perform simple chores, like chopping up trees for wood, watering plants, and picking fruit. It's repetitive and boring, but subjecting myself to that mindless rhythm is super meditative. My mind goes blank and my stress dissipates for a fleeting, beautiful moment. And 10 minutes later, I'm stocked up on supplies or goods that go toward building out my little zen garden.
But at the end of every day, I'm still indebted to a predatory raccoon. My efficacy is limited to what kinda cash Tom Nook is willing to lend me, my will and motive choked and diminished by the allure of interest free loans—a twisted, compromised fantasy.
Surprisingly, it's Fallout 76's off-leash approach to a similar zen garden sandbox that has me acting out my Animal Crossing adjacent dreams, and all without a cartoon bank hounding my ass.
Waste(land) not, want not
I wasn't big on Fallout 76 (opens in new tab) when it first launched. Not many folks were. There was some good questing to be had, but without warm blooded NPCs, the world felt a little too empty and charmless. The Wastelanders update's hot human injection already makes the world feel more lived in, and I'm just a few hours into the new questlines.
But what really stands out aren't the usual morally confused choices I've made so far. What I'm loving most are all the new NPC camps, billboards for my own indefinite home-making aspirations.
They remind me of Animal Crossing's villagers, albeit with less defined personalities. One of the best parts of Animal Crossing is checking in on your neighbors to see what they're building. Their homes are made of the same stuff yours is, money and crafting supplies, but they're curated by developers. They're little display cases of potential, prompts for making your own goals, big or small. I might spot a villager's tea set and immediately pine for the thing, carving out a corner in my new dining room just for it. Or I might rip off their entire color scheme and layout.
Fallout 76's C.A.M.P. system is similarly expressive. I can carve out my own space, imagine a home, and make my own goals on the gradual path to putting it all together. I'm building out a few modules that make for a cozy sleeping hovel and open concept kitchen right now, the kind of hacked together place I can take with me until I find a more permanent spot and can visualize a more ambitious, cohesive space.
Whenever I run into an NPC camp, I almost always leave with a new line item on furniture or decoration wishlist, propped up by some new ideas for the actual layout of my pad. None of it is as bright or pleasant as anything in Animal Crossing, but the simple absence of a fictional debt collector and no adherence to a schedule makes Fallout 76 feel less like a job and more like a project.
Current ideas: I'll definitely make some kind of bathhouse to mirror my current Animal Crossing ode to Tub Geralt. A library and a reading nook is a must, ideally with a bay window overlooking some nice West Virginia scenery. Maybe I'll make a new set for The PC Gamer Show (opens in new tab) like Chris did back when Fallout 76 launched. This instinctual self-direction doesn't kick off in games for me very often, and I'm surprised I fell into it so quickly after just a hours of touring some new NPC pads. I'd still love to see quests doling out some more domestic crafting recipes as quest rewards, and the ability to create and share custom designs feels like a must, but what's there will likely sustain me for a while yet.
The process is just as satisfying as the result, too. With hundreds of hours clocked in Fallout 3 and New Vegas, Fallout 76's admittedly unwieldy guns and basic enemy AI makes for a simple combat loop so baked into my subconscious that I might as well be tapping a button to shake down a tree for fruit a dozen times over.
Cleaning out a building's filing cabinets and desks for scrap for 20 minutes straight articulates a lot like picking weeds in Animal Crossing. My mind goes blank, I become calm, placid, and afterwards I'm stocked up with everything I need, through selling or crafting, to make some new furniture, and maybe I scooped up some cool clothes along the way. I'm currently digging my bathing suit and cap goggles combo.
That it's all nestled in a big open world littered with new quests and characters is just an added bonus. I'm not mainlining the story at all, leisurely popping in and out when I want to nudge things forward or veering off to complete sidequests as I stumble into them, so long as they interest me. Because for me, the main quest is finding that view for the bay window reading nook that I want to make, know I can make, will make.