As I journey through West Virginia, there are moments where I really feel like my goal to rebuild this little corner of America matters, and is within reach. There was building a line of camps up the banks of a dried out riverbed, and venturing out to the nearby town to find supplies to build defenses, only to find a much more prosperous neighbor nearby under attack by super mutants. My team ran through an airport lot to the gates and slamming them shut to keep a line of Scorched out until we can reload and ready ourselves. At one point, I met a sharply suited man in Flatwoods, who put on his best accent to ask us about the local nightlife.
The problem with these moments is that it takes too much to get to them. First, you have to wrangle with the considerable technical issues. My friends and I had to go back and forth over a few sessions, figuring out how to join as a team and occasionally getting dropped or barred from entry. That’s irritating, but it’s also to be expected from a launch day multiplayer game. 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.
This is a world where we are the cast, where players make up the merchants, couriers, raiders, and protectors ... but it’s a tenuous world that’s tough to inhabit. Starting off as a Vault Dweller, again, is old hat for the Fallout franchise. The effect is even worse when you leave the Vault only to find yourself surrounded with a few other players who are hopping around. It’s like in a MMORPG, when a friendly NPC tells your character that they are the key to stopping the demon army, and they are granting you with this artifact weapon of unimaginable power. It’s a nice fantasy for a moment, but then when the cutscene ends and you find yourself surrounded with a dozen other chosen ones with the exact same weapon, the story breaks. In Fallout 76, we haven’t gotten far enough out of the gate yet to build our own stories.
Fallout 76 isn’t interested in telling its own story, either, nor does it seem particularly interested in building its own world. The super mutants are back, and so is the Brotherhood of Steel, even though that raises lots of questions about how that’s even possible. The Bethesda Fallout games have never been particularly interested in maintaining the world laid out in the original RPGs (why is there Jet, a drug that hadn’t been invented yet in the New California Republic, in Vault 95?). But if this world isn’t built for die-hard Fallout fans who have read through the series’ official bible and memorized the timeline, who exactly is it for?
That’s the schism at the heart of Fallout 76: in order for the game to work, you need players who love Fallout so much that they’re willing to assume the role of NPCs and carefully check the fourth wall to ensure the fiction holds ... but the world doesn’t do enough to bring those players in or reward them for their efforts. It’s a game that offers a little bit of everything: survival, exploration, role-playing, base management ... but every instance where I can imagine the game excelling at something is reliant on other players to buy in to the fantasy.
If I want to be a humble courier or merchant, travelling the roads of West Virginia with a bag full of expensive teas and fruits to sell, but no other player stops to trade with me, what’s the point? If I want to really immerse myself in the role of a good citizen of America out to rebuild society, but the other players at events jump in circles and blast Toto’s Africa for some reason, is that a realistic goal for my playtime?
In the first Fallout, the first hub players will encounter is Shady Sands. Shady Sands starts as a humble village that is taken care of by a kind but relatively toothless community; it later blooms into the heart of the New California Republic, the largest democracy in the reborn America. When I think about Fallout, I don’t think back to the iconic Brotherhood of Steel or Enclave helmets. I don’t think about how scary Deathclaws are, or how much I like fighting waves of super mutants. I think about Shady Sands, and the New California Republic, and what it took to rebuild a democratic federation in a land where war never changes.
Fallout 76’s early game seems frustrated that I’m focused on the vision of building my own little Shady Sands with friends in the heart of West Virginia. The game dangles jangly keys in front of me. Don’t you want to talk to the Mayor of this settlement? Don’t you want to see what the Overseer found? My quest log fills up with prompts, but I’m rarely interested. Instead, I’m looking to see if there’s a way that I can plant roots in this game and settle down to build something long-lasting. There’s so much potential there, but it’ll take a village of players to really unlock the best possible Fallout 76 experience.