Fallout 4 was, as I wrote nearly three years ago, “A great game but a terrible RPG.” With Fallout 76 now out, it looks as though that game has managed to magnify some of the worst problems of FO4, without moving the ball forward at all in terms of solving them. The most striking thing about the Fallout 76 reviews now popping up online, at least to my eye, is how often they describe feeling as if the game is caught between two very different experiences or stretched between disparate goals. I haven’t played Fallout 76 yet and I recognize that there’s a difference between experiencing something personally and reading about it, but these descriptions aren’t unique to any one reviewer, or even any pair. Virtually all the coverage I’ve seen mentions this issue, one way or the other.
One of the biggest problems with Fallout 4 was the disconnect between the first-person base-building components, which called on you to establish a network of settlements across the Commonwealth and the narrative elements, which took you on an exploration of the game world in an effort to find your infant son.
In the settlement half of the game, you collected oceans of junk for crafting, rounded up settlers and fended off baddies in a handful of automatically generated quests, with the end goal of building somewhat better defenses and weapons. There was no real endgame to the concept and, outside of a handful of minor quests, no impact on the game plot. I lost interest in this base-building mode almost immediately, once I realized how limited and anemic it was. There was no way to repair existing structures and no way to actually produce anything. You could build scrap stations that generated scrap materials, but you couldn’t build a new mechanical loom to start producing cloth from the cotton you were farming or take over the ironworks to create new sources of metal. This component of the game had essentially nothing to do with your exploration of the Commonwealth or efforts to find your son. Some people liked it more than I did — not a difficult challenge — but it didn’t mesh well with the larger plot arcs of the primary story. Playing the game, I found myself wishing Bethesda had either thrown it out entirely and focused those resources on improving the RPG aspects of the game or converted it into an entire stand-alone game in its own right.
Fallout 76, according to pretty much everyone, strips out most of the narrative and story elements, adds multiplayer, and increases the depth of the base-building concept. The complete lack of NPCs means that the single-player quest chains are shorter and have much less depth. This was to be expected, but it also means that the single-player story component of the game doesn’t anchor players the same way FO4 did.
Let the Past Die
The first game I remember playing that made great use of the ‘found holotype’ concept was System Shock II, probably in part because in that game, the last messages and final moments of the crew were digitally recorded instead of showing up as text entries in a random terminal. Dozens of games have used this mechanic in the last two decades. But it’s not a mechanic that you’ll find much in Fallout 2. Fallout 2 also takes place in the bombed-out ruins of the Great War, but there are precious few moments where you spend time hunting down the narratives of long-dead individuals. In Fallout 3, Fallout New Vegas, and Fallout 4, disaster porn archaeology plays a much larger narrative role. Some of these stories are better than others, but by the end of FO4 I was suffering from definite holotape fatigue.
The problem is simple. Because the holotapes / computer records / old journals are always from the interval directly before or after the Great War, which concluded 200 years previously, everyone is always dead. There may be a bare handful of encounters where Bethesda slips this trap by having you encounter the ghoul-ified author (either as friend or foe), but they’re the exceptions that prove the rule. It’s possible to build a holotape quest that still has impact on the current-day, especially in the Fallout universe where a handful of Old World nuclear missiles still slumber uneasily in their silos and 200+-year-old ghouls still talk wistfully about the pre-War period — but these set pieces ought to be rare and deployed only on occasion. Used any other way, the fear, hope, and occasional outright terror stored in these records become commonplace and trite. The overwhelming message from reviewers is that Bethesda failed to understand that it was already leaning on these elements too much in FO4 and incorporated them into FO76 as the sole means of encountering any manner of a plot.
As Polygon writes:
The bigger problem, and one that will be harder to solve, is the hurdle it takes to invest in the fiction of Fallout 76, and the struggle players will have if no one does buy into the world.
There’s plenty of story and fiction strewn around the world, with players getting a quest to follow their Overseer and rebuild Appalachia after the bombs fell and the world succumbed to nuclear fire. The problem is that all of the prebuilt story is incredibly weak. Everyone died, and worse yet, the clues and stories they left behind are uninteresting. After the third or fourth time you find a “survivor story” next to a corpse, you stop caring. Every single NPC quest has the same ending in this game: no moral. Everyone died. This ranges between bleak and boring, depending on your sensitivity.
A quest will often explore the stories of certain characters, but they’re characters that have long since passed, and all you get are long monologues and one-way directives from a person who no longer exists and you can’t interact with… Some of these stories are intriguing to be sure, and when you come across a tale about a character who piques your interest, you get excited to find out more about their last living moments. But there’s such an over-reliance on having disembodied voices talking at you for every aspect of the game that it’s easy for these standouts to become lost. The lack of a more relatable and personal connection between your actions, the world, and its inhabitants means that it’s easy for quests to feel like meaningless wild goose chases.
Something interesting happened here awhile back, and now you are just wandering around by yourself through the remnants of that seemingly more interesting event. Robots bring some life to the world, especially one you meet fairly early in the main quest, but unless you enjoy reading text entries and listening to tons of holotapes you likely won’t get out of the story what Bethesda intended. At the end of the day Fallout 76 does deliver somewhat on the promise made by Bethesda. This feels like the fatal flaw of Fallout 76.
These are far from the only problems with Fallout 76 — the reviews above abound with discussions of poor mechanics, bad UI design choices, clunky gameplay, and a lot of discussion over whether or not the game is fun in the first place. The long-term reinvention of No Man’s Sky into a game now widely regarded as good (or, at a minimum, vastly improved) is proof that years of elbow grease and listening to player feedback can turn a bad game into a decent one. If Bethesda commits to FO76 for the long haul, I don’t doubt that it could ameliorate many of the gameplay and multiplayer concerns. But the storytelling issue concerns me because there’s no evidence that Bethesda understands why leaning so hard on the narratives of people who came before the player is a bad idea for storytelling. Used sparingly, it creates evocative, interesting quests and set pieces, like the Dunwich Building in Fallout 3. But it’s no mistake that when you look at many of the top-rated quests in Fallout games, the quests listed are the ones that combine elements of Fallout’s ancient history with things happening in the game’s modern-day. Resurrecting a giant jingoistic robot, exploring the dark mysteries of Cabot House, and helping a crazy ghoul launch himself and his followers into space using a pair of 200-year-old rockets? Classic Fallout. Searching for holotapes to tell the story of how a now-dead man lost his now-dead family and built a now-ruined shelter in an even-more-ruined building? Increasingly-common-and-less-classic Fallout.
The good news for Bethesda is that good multiplayer games don’t need to have great stories to build evocative, interesting worlds that people want to inhabit. Fallout 76 is not a replacement for Fallout 5, and FO5 is, by all accounts, years away. There’s time to fix this problem. But the only way to address it is to recognize its source: an over-reliance on kitsch, faux 50s branding, and holotape tear-jerkers. Every Fallout game from FO3 forward has at least a few places where this type of storytelling absolutely works, and the games shouldn’t jettison that — but leaning on it as the dominant storytelling paradigm is a mistake. It exacerbates the fundamental tension between the two ‘halves’ of Fallout, and I maintain that Bethesda would be better off cleaving the multiplayer and base-building sections of their universe into an altogether different title rather than continue trying to fuse them together in ways that ultimately diminish the success of both.
Last week, there was a minor controversy over whether reports that Bethesda would keep using the Creation Engine to build Elder Scrolls 6 and Starfield should be read with the weeping and gnashing of teeth that many gamers’ exhibited after the news broke. As Kotaku explains, much of that anger was misguided — a game engine isn’t a single monolithic ‘thing’ and its various components evolve over time. But I can’t help thinking that the arguments over the Creation Engine’s age are partly linked to a pervasive feeling that the mechanical systems underlying the games in the Fallout universe — which never felt particularly sound even in the best of times — are breaking down under stress. Fallout 4’s world was visually rich but the narrative world felt far more constrained than either FO3 or FNV. Fallout 76 seems to have much the same problem, only worse, and it isn’t fully explained by the series’ decision to embrace multiplayer. These games are leaning on narrative conventions that aren’t strong enough to take the weight.