The first thing you need to do in Fallout 4, obviously, is find a decent weapon. The Wasteland is a deadly, dangerous place and to survive, you’ll need to defend yourself. Make it through that first fight, though, and you’ll soon need to find something else:
In a desolate environment where Stimpaks are in horrifyingly short supply, food is fundamental to survival. Though often steeped in radiation, food is a far more ubiquitous way of regaining health than the chemical alternatives, with snacking opportunities scattered all over the post-apocalyptic environment.
But food in the Fallout universe isn’t just crucial for survival, it’s a critical part of what makes Bethesda’s remarkable world as immersive as it is.
Within science fiction and fantasy- be it a game, movie, TV series, book, graphic novel, comic or tabletop game — food is often used as a concise and effective way of grounding the fictional world in a familiar reality.
Regardless of our individual experiences, our need to eat is universal. So when a character goes desperately hungry, no matter how bizarre and unrecognisable the rest of the world may be, we can relate directly. We might not know what it’s like to lose our spouse and child, to be lost somewhere dangerous and unfamiliar or to be attacked by Super Mutants, but we know what it’s like to be hungry.
Likewise, if a character is forced to eat something revolting, we instantly understand on an innate level.
In the Fallout games, when your character eats an ‘Iguana on a Stick’ to regain health (a consumable that’s been present in the series since the first game in 1997), you probably don’t think “boy, that sounds delicious!” Instead, you’re simply relieved that, in your desperate condition, you managed to find something edible at all.
It’s the video game equivalent of finding those frozen mini dim sims in the freezer at 1am after a few drinks.
In Fallout 4, as in all the major games in the series since Fallout 2, food is available in two forms. Both are remarkably well designed for their ability to not only provide a fundamental game mechanic, but to help deeply and powerfully build the lore of the universe the games are set in.
The first, a staple of fantasy-based RPGs, is the food your character scavenges from the world itself.
Whether cut from the corpse of a defeated monstrous enemy, picked from a mutated plant or found hidden in a cash register somewhere, the environment provides a buffet of choices for the indiscriminate diner, as long as you’re prepared to deal with the radiation.
Life in this decimated Bostonian nightmare is hell, a fact that’s never more obvious than when the only thing you’ve got in your ‘Aid’ inventory is a Bloatfly Steak or Mongrel Dog Meat. But you can’t be fussy (or vegan…) when that’s what it takes to survive.
With Fallout 4, Bethesda have also expanded a mechanic introduced in New Vegas (and also a key aspect of Skyrim): crafting food. The effectiveness of scavenged ingredients can be greatly increased by combining them at any of the many ‘Cooking’ crafting stations found in and around Boston.
The available recipes range from the simple: combine three Radroach Meat (+15HP, 0.1 weight, 3 caps value) to create Grilled Radroach (+30HP, 0.5 weight, 7 caps value); to the complex: to cook up a Squirrel Stew, you’ll need bloodleaf, a carrot, a tato, squirrel bits and some dirty water.
But it’s worth the effort- squirrel stew will boost your XP by 2% for two hours. And, like the toy in a Happy Meal, you’ll pick up some delicious XP with every craft too.
As with most aspects of Fallout 4, the joy of this feature is that it’s completely optional. Cooking in a game not of any interest to you? Ignore it. But if, like me, you’re slightly obsessed with food in games (and in general), you can turn the entire game into a survivalist ‘bush tucker’ cooking experience.
The second of Fallout’s food forms also happens to be a crucial part of the effectiveness of the world’s overall design. Like everything else in the Wasteland, from weapons to fashion, food can be found scattered around as beautiful, melancholy remnants of the pre-apocalyptic world.
Convenient packaged foods, remarkable in their robustness, have survived centuries of nuclear fallout and are as edible now as they were when they were originally produced. Their gleeful, colourful packaging is a visual irony when found among the dislodged shelves and human remains in the Super-Duper Mart.
In reality, the 1950s saw the introduction of the iconic ‘TV Dinner’ in America, tinned foods, ready-made meals and ‘instant’ dinners changing the way families ate in the post-war economic boom.
This sudden disregard for fresh ingredients and desire for convenience is elegantly parodied in the Fallout series, where even centuries after the downfall of humanity, perfectly preserved and still-edible packets of ‘delicious’ foods are strewn around the Wasteland.
Most are direct takes on real products: Cram is the unsubtle stand-in for Spam, Fancy Lads Snack Cakes evoking the Dolly Madison range of snack cakes, Insta-Mash reminding us of these horrors, and as for Sugar Bombs breakfast Cereal, well, just watch this.
Personally, I’m fond of a bowl of BlamCo Mac & Cheese, washed down with a NukaCola.
The names of these products- BlamCo Mac & Cheese, Sugar Bombs, Radioactive Gumdrops- also hint at the intense fascination the nuclear age held before the bombs dropped and the vaults were locked. The same, save the complete annihilation, was true in the real 1950s, with atomic optimism creating more than a decade of hope for the vast wonders of the nuclear future.
In a bloody, grey Wasteland of Fallout 4, these food packages provide not only much-needed HP, but a tangible connection to the world you, the protagonist, has lost. Food so easily transports us to the past, so imagine the deep melancholy every packet of YumYum Devilled Eggs must evoke.
Fallout 4 is an incredibly vast, detailed game that, unlike similarly expansive experiences in The Witcher 3 and Skyrim, is based on an alternate version of our reality. As in real life, it’s easy to get caught up in the demands of staying alive, overlooking the care and consideration from the designers and developers that’s gone into bringing all that food into your Pip-Boy.
But the next time you open a tin of Pork ‘N Beans, consider raising a Purified Water toast to Bethesda for making the act of regaining health such a richly considered experience. Fallout just wouldn’t be the same without it.
Because, in the end, hunger never changes.
Tristan Lutze is an Australian food writer and creator of GeekPlate.com. His recipes and thoughts on food can be found in Good Food on SMH.com.au, on 2ser FM in Sydney, at tristanlutze.com and on Instagram (@tristangled) among other places. His pop culture food recreations can be found by following @GeekPlate on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. He recently hosted the inaugural PAX Australia #FoodFight with Stephanie ‘Hex’ Bendixsen, Eve Beauregard, Tripod’s Scott Edgar and Kotaku’s Mark Serrels, which you can see here.