Fallout 76 is an online multiplayer game, and Bethesda has insisted that there are no human characters in the game that aren’t actual players. When I played the beta, my enemies were the environment, other players and monsters. The quests were given out via computers and robots.
I was interacting with other human characters in the quest, however. They were just already dead. Every single one of them.
Time to hunt down some corpses
Fallout 76 has an interesting story structure in which the bombs fell, some of humanity tried to carry on and replace society’s infrastructure but then all those people died or were killed.
I played as one of the characters who just emerged from an opened vault, along with the other human players of the beta, and we had to figure out what to do and how to survive based on what was left behind by that first wave of survivors. Survivors who, ultimately, didn’t survive.
This fact becomes comical in a grim way in the game’s opening hours. If a memo from a terminal asked me to go look for someone, I knew I was going to find a corpse. If I’m asked to check in with someone, that person was already dead ... but something around the corpse gave me an idea of what to do next. There was never any shock or tension in these reveals, because I was already told that the story wouldn’t have any human characters in the narrative.
The unexpected outcome of this strategy for the game’s story is that Bethesda created an introduction to Fallout 76 that resembled Idiocracy more than a Fallout game. The survivors I was reading about in the terminals went to work trying to figure out how to find clean water and feed others, while I’m surrounded by characters with silly names who are over in the corner trying to figure out how to turn their flashlight off.
The adults were all dead, and I was left with the kids in jumpsuits trying to punch two-headed cows.
Which is fine. This world is dangerous and that’s kind of the point. The food will kill me, the water will kill me, the monsters will kill me and the other players will kill me. The people who came before me, the ones who seemed much better prepared than I am, all died. The early quest structure keeps pretending that this will be a surprise, but it never is. We had been told by Bethesda that computer-controlled humans aren’t going to factor into the game, while the game itself was written to suggest that this should come as a shock.
So if those people didn’t make it, what hope did I have? Which is kind of the point.
“When I was thinking of [Fallout], at first it was, ‘The bombs fell, nothing happened, and then I emerged from the vault,’” Bethesda’s Pete Hines said in a previous interview. “It’s really: ‘The bombs fell, people were trying to live their lives here and recover and exist, and then they disappeared.’ And listening to those survivors’ holotapes really gives you a lot of that NPC character and flavor, without NPCs, in a way that I didn’t expect.”
The setup could have been a good way to introduce dread, but instead I was surrounded by player-controlled goofballs taking audible bong rips. If hell is other people, then, well, I didn’t make it into the good place. Fallout 76’s design tries to be heavy, but all the players during the first night of the beta seemed to want to treat it like a playground. It had the strange effect of making those first four hours feel like children playing in a funeral home.
And if the environment really is that deadly, why does death feel so weightless? Dying meant that I lost my junk, although I could go back to where I died and pick up it in a small paper bag, but I kept the rest of my gear. It was easy to respawn close to where I was killed and run back to my little bag. The grim visuals started to look silly once I realized how little I had to care about death.
The only people who really should have worried, it turned out, were the characters who came before me. The ones I would never have to meet.