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How Fallout lost its soul

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The game series took an existential threat and made it meaningless

Fallout 76 - profile of power armor helmet with autumn trees in the background Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks

I knew the Fallout series had lost its way the moment Bethesda announced that players in Fallout 76 would be able to launch nukes at each other.

The heart and soul of this storied franchise began leaking out years ago, of course. But Fallout 4 was an empty, if addicting, experience save for a few notable moments, including a certain suicide letter. Fallout 3, Bethesda’s first entry in the series, was the beginning of the end of the franchise’s personality.

Yet each game retained precious bits of the dark satire of mid-century American ambition that animated the game’s earlier installments. What could be more Fallout than a gigantic robot that spouts patriotic Cold War-themed slogans like “Democracy is the essence of good. Communism, the very definition of evil,” or “Mission: the destruction of any and all Chinese communists”?

Fallout took the jingoism of that era and painted it in the garish proportions of caricature, with the very setting of a post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland acting as meta-commentary all its own. Background radiation, if you like.

Fallout 76 lost touch with these themes, however. Amid its dismal launch and the many justified complaints of players who struggled with bugs, the game’s empty world and abusive behavior from other players is the dismal irony of its vaunted nuke system failing.

From Vice’s report on the matter:

The “nuke loop,” as developer Bethesda calls it, was envisioned as a difficult puzzle players would work through towards the end of their time with the game. But players acted quickly and launched their first nuke during the game’s beta phase. Nukes started flying across the map soon after the game’s initial release, and players have even coordinated the launch of three simultaneous nuclear blasts, which crashed the server.

There’s satire here, for sure, but now it’s about Bethesda itself rather than the ostensible themes of Fallout. Any MMO developer (including those working on Bethesda’s own Elder Scrolls Online) could’ve told the Fallout 76 team that players will find a way to rapidly tackle even the toughest long-term, group-based challenges. Developers may think something will take months to happen, but you can be assured the players will get there in days, if not hours.

More than that, though, Bethesda threw out any meaning the series enjoyed by making nukes into easily hacked toys. The setting has decomposed into kitsch; a backdrop interchangeable with any other. It becomes much harder to make a point about unspeakable horror if that horror is an exploitable mid-game activity.

Nuking the content

Perhaps there’s some merit in this. As Polygon’s Cass Marshall reported, a Fallout 76 player named SatelliteJedi tried to solve Bethesda’s end-game problems himself.

“I am your raid boss, I am your content,” he declared in a Reddit post, even developing a backstory for himself and his cabal (they’re baby-punching arms dealers, essentially), and designing a raid encounter where his friends would play bodyguards and he’d be in the last room as the final boss.

Other players eventually just nuked him.

Players creating their own characters and stories was supposed to be the point of Fallout 76, but the mechanics of the game simply don’t support their efforts in practice. “SatelliteJedi’s entire system had to be a work around of the current PVP system,” Marshall wrote, “creating a story in spite of existing systems, and not because of them.”

Thus does Fallout 76 thwart player-driven efforts to lend meaning to a meaningless wasteland. The absence of NPCs was meant to focus players on building their own world, a sandbox where they’d create their own dynamic communities, a bit like Star Wars Galaxies or Eve Online.

Fallout 76’s sandbox even had the potential to take meta-commentary to another level: The very nature of anarchic open worlds where gamers make the rules has an artful symmetry with post-apocalyptic hell. Each brings out our demons, and each can also allow us to form unexpectedly strong relationships and rediscover what’s best about ourselves.

Instead, the game needlessly stymies players who try to do just that. Thus, all we can focus on is the glaring lack that’s on display everywhere in the game. A lack of story, a lack of meaning, a lack of context — and of course, a lack of the pitch black, politically-charged humor that originally made Fallout such a popular franchise.

Fighting in the War Room

Fear of nuclear hellfire was a ubiquitous, global terror during the Cold War, right up until the fall of the Berlin Wall. The death-seeking militarism that drove this fear, as well as its layers of ideology, bureaucracy and self-important technologism, were ripe for the one thing that might have given us the illusion of control over our nightmares: comedy.

Brave work like Doctor Strangelove sent up the absurdity of our atomic overlords. This was the break the country needed, from the President saying “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” to an American general fretting about his “precious bodily fluids” to a cowboy of a soldier gleefully riding the nuke he’s dropped onto a Soviet base.

The movie’s iconic ending, a series of nuclear blasts set to Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again,” is in many ways the precise tone of Fallout at its best: wistfully resigned, but still deflating the pretensions of serious Cold Warriors.

Another example from the same period, Sheldon Allman’s “Crawl Out Through the Fallout” from his 1960 Folk Songs for the 21st Century album, made its way onto the playlist of Fallout 4. With lyrics like “Crawl out through the fallout, baby/Into my loving arms/through the rain of strontium-90” it was both funny and deadly serious, again hitting the same note as Fallout at its best.

The nuke is the heart of the Fallout series, which is set in an alternate timeline where the fanciful dreams of early Atomic Age businessmen came true, and there were two nuclear reactors in every garage. And, of course, the bombs had to be dropped at some point.

The early Fallout games were set in a post-apocalyptic hell, but its point was twofold: one, that this was the inevitable result of those mid-century fantasies and, second, the world devastated by the nukes wasn’t worth saving. To read the lore of the series is to discover that even the pre-apocalyptic world was as much a nightmare as it was a joke.

We’re not supposed to want to live on either side of Fallout’s nuclear dividing line.

Put another way, the use of atomic power as a toy, as something one has no responsibility for, is one of the chief subjects of Fallout’s satire. It pokes fun at the grimly comical way we misuse our awesome technologies.

Thus, creating a Fallout game where nukes are used like so many broken toys is a final nail in the series’ narrative coffin.

Fallout 3’s Fat Man, itself named for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, straddled the line but stayed on the right side of things for a bit. It was, effectively, a rocket launcher for mini-nukes. The thing was absurd and even comical, from concept to shape, and was the ideal artifact of Fallout’s pre-apocalyptic world where rampant, irresponsible militarism could create something so deadly and so stupid.

It was a weapon that made a point, but it was also another step toward the series losing its way.

The Fat Man brought nukes into the hands of players, where once Fallout had held them at a rarefied remove. They became just another weapon with ammo you could find almost anywhere.

Encountering a nuke used to be a matter of utmost significance, treated with a kind of reverence — hence the cults that worshipped them. The nuke was Fallout’s angry god, and you trampled in its garden at your peril.

But now you can just launch one to clear out an annoying obstacle set by an enterprising player. Historically, the player had to live with the consequences of the old world’s nuclear warmongers. Now Fallout 76 invites you to become one. And doing so doesn’t change anything of consequence; the unthinkable is now just a button press that takes place during a glitchy online game that used to at least pretend to take these ideas seriously.

Is there any solution to this? Can we have our nukes and feel sad about them too? I don’t know, but Bethesda has to get back in touch with what made the series so compelling in the first place if there is to be a way forward here, and restore nuclear weapons to the place they occupied in the old games.

More than that, it must recall that games should be about something, and that this franchise it inherited had meaning. In a world where nuclear ambitions and brinksmanship seem to be ramping up once more, we could use that Strangelovian voice again.