Since I was a child, I’ve struggled with chronic depression. I’ve seen many therapists over the years regularly and am currently seeing a great one, but for me, depression is a thing I seem to fall back to by default. I have to work actively day to day to keep myself out of it, and, for the moment, I’m doing that well.
I graduated college in 2015 and was offered a high-paying position in the small town of Paducah, Kentucky. I was born and raised in South Carolina, and I didn’t know anyone within 100 miles of Paducah. But off I went to start the next chapter of my life. It was exciting, in a way, to leave behind everything and everyone I’d ever known. Unfortunately, a few weeks after arriving, the reality of the situation settled in. I had never in my life been so horribly, violently alone.
My coworkers were pretty much all middle-aged or older, and most had children that were older than me. Paducah was the kind of small, middle-of-nowhere town where you either got out right when you graduated high school and never returned, or you never got out. After about a month, I had made no friends. I was rapidly gaining weight from stress eating, my job was awful and overwhelming, and I spent most nights talking to my best friend on the phone and playing Splatoon on my Wii U in my giant, empty apartment.
It’s important to note that up to this point, I had really only ever owned Nintendo game systems. I loved video games growing up, but if a game didn’t have Mario, Pokemon, or Super Smash Bros. in the title I most likely did not play it growing up. At 22 years old, the only RPG I had ever played in my life was Pokemon (I am still an avid fan though). I had never played an open-world game, a first-person shooter, or a game where you could make decisions. I never paid attention to E3, read about games online, or really talked to friends about video games.
In October 2015, I was starting to lose my grip. My job was horrible, I was being verbally abused by my boss, I had made not a single friend despite wandering around town looking. I was obese and getting worse, and I could start to see myself on a precipice I had long stayed away from. As suicide had entered my mind I again had started trying to find a therapist in Paducah, but none of them were helpful enough to warrant a second session. I visited home over a long weekend and was in a bad place. And then, so vividly, I remember seeing a commercial on TV at my mom’s house.
In less than a minute, I saw a world where war and famine had ended humanity, drowned in its own hubris, and turned to a desolate wasteland. A world where you could have friends, build relationships, build cities—a world you could change. This ad for Fallout 4 was my first time ever hearing about the series, but I knew, in just that minute, I had to be there. After a little research, I discovered that Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas were both playable on my potato laptop from college, and those could tide me over until Fallout 4 was released.
On the advice of Reddit, I started with Fallout New Vegas (of course), got an Xbox 360 controller for my computer, plugged my laptop into my TV, and sat down to get started. My first steps into the Mojave are a moment I can never forget. After spending hours in Doc Mitchell’s house adjusting my character’s look and using his recommended stat build, I gathered an arsenal of empty tin cans from the house and set forth into Goodsprings. I don’t know what it is, but I was hooked in a way I have rarely been since. Meeting Victor the robot, and Sunny Smiles with her dog Cheyenne, and the town mom Trudy, and of course the legendary Easy Pete—I was so enamored.
Now, as previously stated, I have never ever played an FPS game before. Not understanding how VATS or shooting worked, I accidentally shot Chet, the shopkeeper at the general store, and killed him. Panicking, I picked up everything off the shelves of his store and buried his body under an avalanche of Blamco Mac and Cheese and Iguana Bites, hoping no one would discover my crimes. At this point, I had no idea how any of the game's systems worked, so my fears were valid. I snuck out of town and up to the graveyard that I had been hearing about and, after dealing with a few bloatflies, got a good look at the horizon. And what I saw seized me. An image I have still not let go of.
The Lucky 38 Casino was lit up, far, far in the distance. I could see it, but in between us the distance through the Cazador Canyon, the Deathclaw Quarry, the raider wastes and the town of Freeside looked immense. Infinite. But, something about this sight… the first thought I had when seeing the Lucky 38 in the night was, “I can get there.”
It feels almost pathetic in retrospect, but the sight of the Lucky 38 halfway across the map gave me a reason to live that night. There was, in the least cheesy way possible, a light at the end of the tunnel. It was so strange—not unlike a cazador to a flame, I was drawn to it in this unbreakable way. I spent the next few days thinking all day of what wonders I might uncover when I finally reached it, dreaming up crazy scenarios of what direction Fallout New Vegas might go. While thoughts of harming myself had plagued every waking hour for weeks until that point, it didn't even cross my mind that day. I was too busy thinking about Fallout.
It’s a strange feeling of power I felt over the wasteland, and some part of me I didn’t know existed appeared in this game. I created a wastelander, Heartha, who was nothing like me. She was strong, brave, didn’t take shit from anyone, and always fought for the common folk. She was not to be messed with. In the real world, I was helpless and had no control. But in the Mojave Wasteland, she was in control. She made all the decisions I couldn’t to impact the world around her, dispense justice, and help the weak. At some point, I was forced to accept the truth: This character had come from me, and I had those traits too. Deeply buried, but there.
It took me a few nights to reach the Lucky 38, and of course upon reaching I discovered the adventure had only just begun. Still, I think about that tower, the glitz and glamour of the lights. It gave me something to want, and it gave me something to take. Something to reach for.
Upon finishing New Vegas, I popped in Fallout 3 and continued my adventures in the Capital Wasteland. Fallout 3 is one of my favorite games of all time still, but it didn’t quite hit for me like New Vegas. Still, my adventures with Dogmeat and Fawkes hold a special place in my heart. By the time I finished Fallout 3, it was December, and that meant one thing: Fallout 4. The prize at the end of the road, the crown jewel of the Commonwealth.
By then I had thankfully made a few friends through an improv comedy group in Paducah. Not to the level of having friends over at my place or anything, but at least people to hang out with once or twice a month. Still, my job was getting worse, my health was at its absolute worst, and I spent nearly every evening in solitude in the middle of nowhere.
As a gaming novice, I downloaded Fallout 4 from Steam onto my potato laptop. Obviously it wouldn’t even launch, and upon discovering my laptop had specs that were leagues below the minimum requirements, I decided to purchase a PlayStation 4. I grabbed an original model PS4 and a hard copy of Fallout 4 that month and began my journey into what would become one of my favorite games of all time.
Fallout 4 turned out to surpass the romanticized idea of the game I had created in my head seeing that ad, against all the odds. A new character entered the wasteland that day, and this time, I was ready to take on the world. I was pretty much media blackout on this, so everything I saw was just fantastical and all brand new. I started playing on a Friday night, put it down after a few hours, and went to sleep at a reasonable time. The next day I woke up at 9 a.m., sat down to play, and when I next looked at the clock, it was 6 p.m.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe I legitimately was so engrossed in a video game I played it for 15 straight hours without eating or drinking or going to the bathroom. I haven’t had an experience like that since, but on that specific day, I needed it. Fallout 4, in a strange way, became my way to escape the horrors of the real world. It seems strange that I’d take refuge and solace in a post-apocalyptic hyper-capitalist nightmare crawling with zombies and mutant monsters, but somehow I found home there.
Over the years, I’ve spent over 800 hours in Fallout 4 (about 600 were on PS4 without mods), and I’ve never really grown tired of it. Building settlements in the Commonwealth gave me purpose, structure, and direction, and seeing the fruits of my labor, with citizens tending to the fields and trade Brahmin packed tight with goods, made me feel like I had accomplished something.
These digital people didn’t mean anything to me; most of them are just blank-slate characters to fill up space. But building a better world for them in the Wasteland, some place where I had a modicum of control to improve things, was enough. The truth is, my real world was scarier than the one in Fallout 4, and I found home in Bunker Hill with Dogmeat, Cait, and Nick Valentine.
In the real world, however, my situation in Kentucky had only spiraled and worsened. After just a year there, I left my job to attend graduate school back in South Carolina and start what would be the two best years of my life. I lost a lot of my excess weight, made the best friends I’ve ever had in my life, earned a master’s degree, and finally learned to live my life and love myself. I’ve continued to play the Fallout games constantly (yes, even Fallout 76)—when I’m sad, when I’m happy, when I’m lonely, when I’m angry—but I feel stronger every time I step back into the Wasteland in a way I can’t get from other games.
I am better today than I was a few months ago, and I was better a few months ago then I was a few years ago. While I’m itching for the next exciting thing in my life to begin, I’m happy. I have an alright job and an awesome cat, Ellie, and a nice apartment we share. But looking back to my mental state throughout the years, I think it was more dire than I even realized at the time.
Without the Fallout games, I would not be here with you today. I would not have found the strength that was nested inside me that I saw in my characters. I would not have found a home in the Wasteland when there was nothing for me in the real world.
I don’t know that there is a point to what I’ve written here, other than to tell you that it is okay to find refuge in your favorite games when the world is unforgiving. When you cannot control the inescapable whirlwind of events that is life, you can control what happens in the Commonwealth. When you cannot find the strength to make decisions in the real world, your character can do it in the Mojave. And when your wastelander sets forth to take on the unforgiving world—and is successful—just remember that character came from you.