I tried hard to get into Fallout 4. I explored Diamond City, hung out with Nick Valentine and Hancock, and aided an endless stream of settlements that had helpfully been marked on my map. It wasn’t until I compared my progress in the game to my husband’s that I had to admit the game wasn’t clicking with me. My husband had built a beautiful settlement, with internal plumbing, turrets and walls for protection, and individual beds for each settler.
He eagerly asked to see my settlement in my game. I showed him six sick settlers wandering around an empty parking lot. “I’m so hungry,” one of them begged. I turned the game off. It hadn’t clicked with me, and I finally gave up on trying to make it click.
My time with Fallout 76 has been a startling contrast to that experience, in several ways. The game lacks a lot of the same initial draw and appeal that Fallout 4 had: There are no NPCs, besides a few robots. There’s no introduction that’s clearly designed to grip and force you to start caring about this world (or at least start seeking some good old-fashioned vengeance). You’re a blank slate — you don’t have a son to find, or a spouse to avenge.
Despite this, I’ve already eclipsed my playtime from 4 in Fallout 76. When I’m not playing the game, I’m thinking about the game. I carefully maintain my CAMP, building a workshop and a humble home for my settler. Part of this is likely in spite of the endless bugs and broken parts of the game — it’s hard to enjoy a game properly when you can’t even log in. But I’m also realizing that the game’s range of wild experiences, some clearly not intended by the developers, is part of the reason I’m enjoying it so much.
A lot of my appreciation manifests in the game’s weird events and creature variety. As Polygon video producer Jenna Stoeber notes, “[Fallout 76] rewards my aimless wandering with bizarre and imaginative sights, not to mention strange and impossible creatures. The game is set in West Virginia, but it takes place in a nightmare of sometimes unknown scope.” I definitely find a lot of the locations in 76 more memorable than Fallout 3 or 4’s settlements and structures.
But the game’s appeal for me goes beyond the surface and into the design of its systems. By stacking perk cards and coming up with unique builds, my friends and I have created a bizarre set of characters who are a genuine blast to explore the world in. One of us plays an alcoholic sniper-doctor, who rocks a hideous set of mutations that allows him to bolt around at super speed — escaping danger by leaping through the air and hurtling onto roofs.
I personally play a character with maximum strength and luck. It’s an extremely silly build, but I plow into a horde of enemies while swinging wildly. When I go down, a piece of legendary armor injects me with a stimpack, or the Mysterious Savior appears from nowhere with a sting of dramatic music to get me back on my feet. Sometimes I’ll be mowing through a series of ghouls in VATS when the Mysterious Stranger spawns to give me a hand. He shouldn’t even be alive in the world of Fallout 76, but I guess that’s the mystery.
My character is a weird, over-optimized creature that shouldn’t exist by the natural laws of man, existing in a world where parking lots hold cars that just repeatedly play the explosion animation and ricochet plastic golf ball baskets everywhere. Between the game’s constant inability to keep it together and the fact that my Pip-Boy keeps resetting the date to Reclamation Day, Oct. 23, the entire experience takes on a surreal, Groundhog Day-style tone. The fact that my actions don’t matter ... stops mattering. I take a childlike level of joy out of the spectacle of this world, enjoying the experience for what it is, and not wishing it would suddenly snap into place and become the Fallout game I initially wanted.
It’s that weird lack of attachment to the world that, ironically, allows me to enjoy it so much. In Fallout 4, I was asked to care a lot, and about very specific things. I’d meet a new character, and the game would prompt me to ask them about my missing son. I would actively avoid the topic as much as possible, but even that started to feel weird and awkward. Why wouldn’t I care about my son? the game seemed to ask. Don’t you love him? He’s your son.
Sorry, Fallout 4! I never cared!
I find myself becoming more attached to the people I find in the world of Fallout 76, who are — oddly enough — exceedingly polite. While I usually dread meeting people in online games, especially with an open mic inevitably revealing my feminine voice, the community in Fallout 76 has been unrelentingly positive in my experience. Sometimes I haunt Flatwoods, coming up behind new players and giving them bags full of supplies. I strike an accord with the power armor clad players trying to farm the Whitesprings Golf Course, and we share legendary loot and chems with each other.
My biggest problem with the game remains the fact that finding the fun can often take too long. Unlocking weird builds, finding hidden bunkers, learning where to go to find the parts of the game that appeal to you all ask for an investment of time, on top of the investment of actually purchasing the game. Fallout 76 is weird and compelling, but I’m also keenly aware that, well, it’s not for everyone. The online team play desperately needs improvements, many of the bugs still need to be fixed, and Bethesda clearly have a lot of work ahead of them. Despite that, there’s a game here that’s definitely worth saving and building upon.
I didn’t originally expect the game to be for me, the sort of Fallout fan who loudly pontificates at length about the beauty of New Vegas and the Master’s Vault back in the original game. Fallout 76 is barely Fallout, besides some shared aesthetics, but that’s OK — I’m not in it for the franchise at this point. I’m in it for the unrelenting weirdness that’s so strangely fun.