Philadelphia had been sheltering in place for about six weeks when I started my second playthrough of Fallout 4. It seemed like everyone in my life was planting orchards and selling turnips on an island full of charming animal friends, and I got nostalgic for my carefully tended tato gardens, rattletrap cabins, and grumpy villagers. The Fallout 4 aesthetic seemed well-suited to my melancholy mood, thanks to the somber instrumental score and the crushed remains of human civilization littered around the irradiated wasteland. As I started a new save, I reflected that the first characters you meet in the Commonwealth are defined by their losses: the Abernathys lost their daughter; the Minutemen, their home; the Sole Survivor, her entire way of life before the bomb. After six weeks of grief, anxiety, and total physical isolation, I too felt like I had lost something.

By any measure I was—and am—very lucky. I write marketing copy from my kitchen table, visit friends virtually, and take group fitness classes on video. I leave the house only for necessities, and since I don’t have a car, I only go as far as I can walk and only buy as much as I can carry. That includes a tiny grocery store, a butcher shop that sells tallow soap, and a gin distillery; I’ve gotten to know the grocery store owners and the woman who makes the gin. It’s practically idyllic. It wasn’t until I started to run low on kitty litter that I discovered the limits of my extremely local life.

I masked up and rolled my pet stroller two blocks to the nearest drug store, intending to buy as many boxes I could push on four wheels. The drug store was a disaster zone of bare shelves and erratically deployed painter’s tape; aside from the predictable pandemic shortages, there were no more Swiffer cloths or ant traps, and there was only one box of kitty litter left. I loaded it onto my pet stroller, dismayed, and looked around for other heavy goods to justify my trip. The impulse felt familiar. In Fallout 4, bombed-out shops and cafes are among my favorite places to visit in the wasteland; if you don’t come across any magazines or bobbleheads in good condition, you can always grab broken light bulbs and paint cans to light up the junkyard library you’re building for a settlement.

The analogy didn’t quite work at the ransacked drugstore. Bleach? One per customer. Detergent? Out of stock. Three cases of seltzer? You are over-encumbered.

An image of the Sole Survivor next to empty shelves. Fallout 4, Bethesda, 2015.

I wasn’t looking for any of these things.

At home with my single box of litter and my two elderly cats, I tallied my options. There are two big retailers a mile away that would probably keep litter in stock, but that’s a long way to navigate narrow sidewalks while rolling fifty pounds of clay. The delivery services that could ferry my order from the same retailers are constantly in the news for their abysmal working conditions. I considered paying a friend with a car to brave one of the megastores on the outskirts of the city, or signing up for a pet supply delivery service. Every plausible scenario involved putting friends, neighbors, or complete strangers at risk.

That’s when I realized. Whatever this is—the darkest timeline, the glitching simulator—I am not the hero. I am a wasteland settler, following a scripted path in a narrowly circumscribed area. I am an NPC hoping that some combination of money or courage will entice an adventurer to bring me the items on my list. The kitty litter is my fetch quest.

*

By the end of June, my Sole Survivor had built a village of trailers in an abandoned drive-thru theater lot, started one romance, and gotten tangled up in all-too-familiar politics: dishonest leaders, scarce resources, fatal disagreements over who counts as a citizen. I had created a charismatic, tech-savvy character with the intent of hacking and snarking my way out of trouble, but if you play the way I do—impulsively collecting quests, companions, and junk—then your commitment to the bit gets buried under busy work. On the surface, your Sole Survivor’s choices explore the oldest philosophical conflict on earth: do you serve your own interests, or those of your community? But in the Commonwealth, you can do both. You can steal and trespass with MacCready, who loves crime, and bypass all those tempting locks when you travel with Strong. You can befriend a paladin of the Brotherhood of Steel even as literally everyone else in the wasteland is grumbling about their airship. Sure, certain outcomes may be closed off by your choices, but above all, your Sole Survivor’s defining personality trait is exceptionalism. Against all odds, she will survive. She’ll save the whole wasteland from itself, whatever that means. That’s what makes her the hero of this story, regardless of whose side she takes: not the quality of her actions but the world-breaking scale of them.

In real time, my world remained small. My city had shifted into “yellow phase” and reopened some shops and outdoor seating. Many businesses in my neighborhood ignored this and carried on with their red phase policies—order ahead, pick up at the curb. No casual shoppers went inside the big retailers: employees only, masked and distanced. Placing an order no longer seemed analogous to sending a level 2 adventurer into a raider-invested satellite station to retrieve a locket. I made a long list (yes, including kitty litter) and added a good tip in advance. I checked a box labeled “do not text me if items are out of stock.” I wanted it to be easy.

It was not easy. The shopper, who was also the driver, texted photo after photo of empty shelves. Trash bags were out of stock. Allergy meds available only in generic formula. Kitty litter was only sold in a flat of 10-pound bags for some reason. I’m sorry for the trouble, I texted the shopper. I’m sorry for the inconvenience, he texted back.

My phone pinged with the email receipt, which inexplicably included a headshot of the shopper. He was very attractive, actually. My boyfriend had broken up with me just a few weeks earlier, but in truth we had been distant since the beginning of the pandemic—separated by a river and his unwillingness to practice even the most basic level of long-distance communication. For a brief moment, I understood playersexuality. If this young man completed his fetch quest by saying even one kind word to me, I would absolutely start a relationship with him.

That’s not what heroism looks like in our timeline. But this is: he left the scavenged supplies by my front door and texted politely when he was a safe distance away.

*

There are grassy parks the size of a city block scattered throughout my neighborhood, but only one within walking distance that is large enough to lose yourself in. I talked a friend into masking up and joining me for an hour of tramping around in the woods and picking up trash. It is a half-hour walk just to get to the park entrance, and at the moment there’s no fast-travel option. We walked through a short-lived summer storm, then a simmering wet heat.

Trash is a sign of human life, I realize. No wonder the Fallout tableaus of beer bottles and bullets are so irresistible to me.

The park managers assigned us to comb over an abandoned golf course that I didn’t even know existed. Separated from the park’s busy lakes and soccer fields by a dense line of trees, the rolling green lawns of the course are gradually being overtaken by native plants: yellow lilies in the overgrown water hazards, a panicled purple shrub that might be lavender. I wished, not for the first time, that I knew how to read a landscape. The urge to pick alchemical ingredients is strong.

In these marshy meadows where the two rivers converge and seashells rise out of the earth after a rain, it was easy to forget we were still in the belly of Philadelphia. Sometimes we caught a glimpse of a riveted bridge or the corner of a blocky brick building. Trash was sparse: a cluster of bottles at the foot of a concrete bench; paper streamers fluttering from a witchy-looking bower constructed of fallen branches. Occasional golf balls, some smashed open like eggs. It’s thrilling to come across them, like unearthing signs of a distant culture. People ate here, drank here, celebrated something joyful here, and now little remains but marsh grass. Trash is a sign of human life, I realize. No wonder the Fallout tableaus of beer bottles and bullets are so irresistible to me.

When you travel through the post-apocalyptic wasteland of any Fallout release, human ephemera reminds the player that regular people were just trying to live their lives at the end of the empire. As civilization’s advanced technology brought about its own destruction, citizens were shopping for groceries, waiting for the bus, watching television. But lest you wax too rhapsodic about the lost ways of life, Fallout 4 reminds you that the society before the bomb was as rife with violence and exploitation as any raider camp. Computer files reveal nefarious experiments and vindictive bosses. You have the option of tracking down a centuries-old mob boss. And of course, the main quest is driven by the rush of competing factions to fill in the vacuum of power left by the collapsed empire. But ultimately, whether your Sole Survivor chooses to side with science, the military, or the citizenry, the player fills the vacuum with their own power.

Offgame, we don’t have that option. As the empire collapses, we’ve been divided into the factions of those who accept the burden of risk, those who try to avoid it at all costs, and those who deny there is any risk worth avoiding. There’s neither an exceptional figure who can align our interests under one banner nor a way for us to sustain our basic health and humanity without putting others in peril. Moving within our circumscribed paths among our golf balls and half-empty Frappuccino cups and scrounged-up basic hygiene supplies, we trade risk back and forth like it’s the bottlecap currency of the wasteland.