I'm on the second floor of a townhouse in Concord when I stumble across the fight. But the combatants aren't raiders, gunners, or Super Mutants as you might expect. In fact, they aren't even alive. The two skeletons are locked together in a dusty corner office. One has pinned the other down across the top of a large metal safe, bony hands wrapped around its opponent's spinal column.
There's no quest-line related to this grisly tableau, no conveniently placed note or audio log to explain it. I can only piece together a semblance of story from assumptions and guesswork. It's obvious they died fighting, possibly over a business dispute given the office-like surroundings, but I don't know that for sure. Considering their pose, chances are it was the bombs that killed both of them, rather than anything to do with the fight itself, but again, I don't know for sure. I don't know if they were men or women, young or old, rich or poor. All I have are the fragments of a 200 year old story, the details lost forever through time and decay.
This isn't the only time I've encountered a scene like this on my journeys through post-apocalyptic Boston. The Wasteland is littered with dozens of fragmented stories sitting by the roadside or half-hidden amidst building rubble. It's possible to pass them by without noticing at all. But more often than not I find myself stopping to investigate, trying to conjure the unknowable events that led to this particular end.
I do this because I find these environmental vignettes to be most interesting aspect of Fallout 4, and the one that is truest to its underlying tone. They are part of a quiet, background horror that forms the base layer of Fallout 4's atmosphere. It's a layer that's constantly trying to push to the surface, but which, for better or worse, is suppressed by Bethesda's approach to storytelling and open-world design.
It's possible to see how these layers work in the visual design of the Wasteland. Fallout 4's apocalypse is a remarkably colourful one, far more vibrant than the dull, sepia tones of Fallout 3, and not something you would traditionally associate with horror. Rather than being foreboding, the wasteland is strangely inviting, with lots of big, brightly coloured landmarks drawing you in for a closer look. Considering how Bethesda designed the world with exploration in mind, this makes perfect sense. Yet despite this brighter, breezier endtime, that background horror is always there, and all you need to do to experience it is stand still.
Switch off your Pip-Boy radio, turn down the game's ambient music, and just stop in the wilderness for a couple of minutes. It won't be long before the eeriness of the scene becomes uncomfortable. Compared to other open world games like the Witcher 3, or even Bethesda's own Skyrim, there's very little motion in Fallout 4's vistas. Wildlife that doesn't immediately attempt to murder you is scarce, and aside from the barest flicker of the topmost branches, the forests and woodland seem almost petrified. When it rains, the droplets plummet directly downwards like stones, unaffected by wind, while the Commonwealth's storms are soupy, suffocating clouds of radiation that sit like a dead weight across the landscape.
The world's topography also plays a crucial role in conveying this uneasy sense of place. Fallout 4's landscape isn't so much rugged as shattered. There's hardly a single smooth surface in the wasteland. The roads that connected Boston together before the bombs fell are now smashed and useless. Ruined buildings spill their interiors out onto streets and hillsides like entrails. Debris is scattered everywhere. The woodlands are littered with human detritus - shipping crates, abandoned cars, while the decaying remnants of civilisation are encroached upon by the Commonwealth's twisted excuse for nature.
The result is a landscape like broken teeth, all sharp angles and jagged edges. City and countryside are jumbled together, and very little is clear-cut or certain. Even the question of whether the world has actually ended or not is met with an ambiguous shrug, as humanity and its radioactive offshoots struggle on with a grim determination somewhere between hope and denial.
Unfortunately, the game's narrative doesn't play to this theme quite so well. In typical Bethesda fashion, dialogue and storytelling are very explicit; go here for reason X, perform act Y, receive reward Z. It's not surprising or necessarily unwelcome, but it does somewhat dispel the eerie and foreboding atmosphere when a plastic-faced NPC drops a great big dollop of exposition into your quest before using you as a glorified errand boy.
Which is why moments such as stumbling upon those fighting skeletons feel so special. These shards of nonspecific stories, encapsulated in a single image, fit so much better with the broken, mutant world Bethesda have created. When the Earth has been torn apart at the atomic level, it makes sense that not every story is tied up in a nice little bow, that there are gaps in its history and culture that cannot possibly be filled. This is a technique that has been perfected by From Software in games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne, that notion of feeding the player fragments of a story and letting their imagination do the rest.
I don't know if such a deliberately ambiguous approach would or even could work in a game that paints in as broad strokes as those designed by Bethesda. But there are hints of it in Fallout 4 that are successful. Perhaps the best example are the mannequins. Throughout the wasteland, you'll encounter mannequins that appear to watch you through the shattered glass of shop windows, or which have been arranged in rather disturbing patterns. Shortly after I discovered the grappling skeletons in Concord, I came across a particularly bizarre scene in which three naked mannequins stood around bathtub with a decapitated skeleton lying in it. The mannequins were clutching different implements, one held a machete, while another grasped a plunger. There were no hostile creatures in the building, but the whole situation was so utterly unreal that I didn't hang around for very long.
I love the mannequins because, even in a world as warped as Fallout 4's, mannequins don't move by themselves. In the context of the game this indicates that someone has been wandering around the wasteland posing mannequins because, well, I have no idea why, and that's kind of terrifying. It's possible there's a quest that explains everything which I haven't discovered. But I sincerely hope there isn't, because the mere suggestion that a deranged wanderer might be doing this for reasons beyond my comprehension is enough to thoroughly creep me out every time I see one.
Although I enjoy a game that provides lots of "stuff" to do as much as the next person, like any creative work, there comes a point where you've seen all it has to offer. At that moment its ability to retain your interest depends on subtler attributes; the way it conveys a sense of place, or little mysteries or ambiguities that it presents without comment. It's these parts of Fallout 4, which occupy the spaces between the hand-crafted missions and activities, and which will still be present when all of those are "completed", that I enjoy most about the game, and which will keep me coming back long after the tale of the Vault Dweller has been consigned to my list of unlocked achievements.