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No NPCs in Fallout 76: It’s weird, but still workable

And if not? Well ...

Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

Let’s say it simply doesn’t work out. The justification may be sound, and the guy giving it may be revered by fans of the Fallout series. But let’s say that after Todd Howard, designer of some of the most beloved role-playing games ever, insisted this one have no human NPCs, players just aren’t digging Fallout 76.

If that happens, I asked, can the developers then go back and bring human NPCs into the game? Because not even a month after Fallout 76 was announced, players were already talking about how to “fix” this — even if it means humans volunteering to play NPC roles in the game.

Pete Hines, Bethesda Softworks’ top spokesman and public face, respects the question even if his answer doesn’t commit to anything, hypothetically or otherwise. But either way, “players are going to tell us what they want more of or less of or what’s missing, and we need a schedule that allows us to react to that,” Hines said. “Whatever that is. It might be this. It might be something else.”

Technically, that’s a yes. But implicit in all of this is that Hines and Bethesda Game Studios really want people to try a role-playing game this way before talking about what they don’t like about it. And Hines said he needed some convincing, too. “It’s one that Todd and I spent no small amount of time talking about, just the two of us, for me to wrap my head around and understand,” he said.

“And I was like, ‘OK ...’ Like, ‘I’m going to try it, and I’m going to see ...’” Hines said. “I mean, it’s definitely different; like, you’re not getting some of those personalities and so forth.”

But Hines thinks there’s still a narrative justification for a design choice this drastic, and it’s peculiar to Fallout’s canon. “When I was thinking of [Fallout], at first it was, ‘The bombs fell, nothing happened, and then I emerged from the vault,’” Hines said. “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.”

Fallout 76 - a barn/garage marked ‘The Devil’s Pitchfork’ Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks

It was a departure for the designers working on Fallout 76 too, said Chris Mayer, the game’s development director. “It’s definitely challenging to take away the dialogue trees for our design team; it’s how they’ve made games for a long time,” he said. “But when Todd wanted the directive of ‘every human you find is another real human,’ then these guys had to think really creatively to find new ways to tell the story, and new ways to get the player engaged.”

There is still a main storyline quest to Fallout 76, stressed Emil Pagliarulo, Bethesda Game Studios’ design director. “You get the thread right in Vault 76 when you listen to the Overseer’s holotape on her terminal,” he said. “She’s like, ‘Listen, I have a mission: I’m supposed to secure the nuclear silos.’ So you’re following your path, and you’re basically experiencing her journey through West Virginia at the same time that she is.”

Hines said the main storyline is loopable, to serve an ongoing multiplayer game along with the side quests, events and other experiences that will be added in later. The main quest is not, for example, like blowing up The Institute in Fallout 4 or activating Project Purity in Fallout 3 — stories with non-repeatable outcomes.

On one hand, if Fallout 76 is really any good, then this and the base content delivered at launch should be as exciting and enjoyable as any of the RPGs preceding it were at launch. But the tinkering potential that a live multiplayer game like Fallout 76 has — a potential that other games in the series could only tap with big, formal expansions — is also good reason for anticipation, and those building the game know this.

Fallout 76 - three armed people running along a mine cart track Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks

“We have an aggressive patch schedule,” said project lead Jeff Gardiner. “We have some really great ideas for post-launch content that we can’t show or talk about, but we’re hoping between the uniqueness of the game and our fan base, we’ll keep players in, keep them engaged. All the [post-]launch content that we have planned, that I can’t talk about, we plan on making free as well.”

And then there’s modding, which is broadly discussed as something that will be supported eventually, although no one is hazarding even a ballpark figure at when it will arrive. Hines, regarding human NPCs, hedged his answer there a little further by suggesting that when modding arrives — which will be dependent on private server support — that might be the time human NPCs come to Fallout 76, in the form of community mods that players may insert into their games should they wish.

Hines noted that whatever the NPCs are, or whatever is serving their functions in Fallout 76, they’ll still serve a sense of rugged individualism — as well as fans who just want more time with a Fallout world and not so much others who play around in it, if that’s really what they desire.

“Every time I play, I play solo, and my whole take is, ‘I’m a lone wolf scraping out an existence in this world,’” Hines said. “I’m not getting help from folks. I’m not grouping up with people. I’m playing the way that I would naturally, as opposed to forcing myself to do something like, ‘Well, I’m gonna group up with people, because it’s supposed to be about playing Fallout with others.’”