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The real enemy within Fallout 76 is capitalism

It’s all so clear now!

Vault Boys from Fallout 76 Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks
Cass Marshall is a news writer focusing on gaming and culture coverage, taking a particular interest in the human stories of the wild world of online games.

Fallout 76 is the first game in the Fallout franchise to treat nuclear weapons as toys instead of looming, terrifying threats.

For some, watching a party of players hoot and holler as a mushroom cloud blooms on the horizon is antithetical to everything Fallout stands for. The original games take place in the shadow of man’s incredible folly and greed, and the bombs reset everything that humanity had collectively worked for.

There’s no denying that nuclear weapons have completely lost their fangs in Fallout 76. But in a way, maybe that’s not a bad thing. I never grew up in a world where I had to learn to duck and cover, or find my nearest emergency shelter. If the world is to end now, I suspect it’ll be through climate change. A mushroom cloud is an effective shorthand for conveying destruction, sure, but it means nothing to me otherwise.

You know what does ring true to me? The real threat of Fallout 76 is capitalism. The only problem is that that’s extended beyond the narrative and into the metagame itself. A nuke is obvious, but capitalism is more relevant and insidious — especially when it comes with monthly subscriptions and microtransactions for a full-priced title.

Fallout 76 Power Helmet shown at Bethesda’s E3 2018 booth Photo: Ross Miller/Polygon

Appalachia and automation

When players emerge from Vault 76, they find the wasteland devoid of human life. Which is funny, because that’s a lot like my Fallout 76 friends list!

There are no human NPCs — or at least, not until next year’s Wastelanders update — but you can find records and diaries they left behind. Some of these are from after the bombs fell, but there’s a good amount of detail as to how West Virginia worked before the world ended. One of the biggest issues back then was automation, along with a lack of government support for workers and their families.

You can find evidence that this ruined people’s lives. Workers protest that they are unable to feed their families. Military bases are staffed solely with jingoistic, communist-hating robots that human commanders despise. Corporate executives gleefully email each other about the amount of money they’ll save on wages.

Nuclear weapons and conspiracies aren’t really the thesis of Fallout 76; the game doesn’t retread ground covered by previous Fallout titles. Instead, it focuses on concerns like unions, corporate violence, and dwindling economic security during a global war. There’s a lot of meat on the bone here! I felt terrible reading about corporations draining as much as they could out of employees, especially because I would later read the workers’ side of the story.

While the game depicts people in power lying and bullying their workers into silence, the Atomic Shop and in-game economy have quietly been setting up a similar feat.

Fallout 76 ‘this is fine’ illustration Illustration: James Bareham/Polygon

Shopping spree

Fallout 76 has gotten some free updates. Some of them have even been good. Others, like the new vault raid, were bad. The biggest changes that dramatically impacted my experience were all centered around the Atomic Shop, the in-game marketplace — but even non-Atomic Shop-related updates have rendered the game all about business.

Now, when I’m playing Fallout 76, I’m always thinking about purchasing and money and shops.

For instance, players are able to create in-game shops that mark their CAMPs on the map. Sometimes the vendor bots are tucked into the side of a CAMP, and sometimes the entire base is built in the pretense of a shop, but there’s no other way to put your base on the map and indicate you’re willing to interact with other players.

So when I navigate the Appalachian wasteland, I find the husk of factories and towns that were destroyed by capitalism, plus a dozen little shops, each trying to undercut other players and make money. The only way players can meaningfully rebuild West Virginia, it seems, is by doing the exact same thing as in the pre-apocalypse. And hey, if you want to have a pretty skin on your vendor station, that’s just a few hundred Atomic Points away!

Building and customizing bases also requires a player to pay up. Want to play a member of the Free States, or a fearsome raider? There’s no real way to display this in-game ... unless you head to the Atomic Shop and pick up the themed cosmetics. Sure, you can farm Atomic Points, but these cosmetics come so fast and furious that the only way to get everything you need is to pull out your wallet.

So, we have a role-playing world set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Capitalism soured society, the new order learned to work without it, and Fallout 76 comes down firmly on the side of corporations being the bad guys ... but the game is still stuffed with things that nickel-and-dime the player.

Bethesda has come out with a solution to solve this clash, but nobody likes it.

a roadside shop at night with a traffic light hanging in front of it in Fallout 76
A shop in Fallout 76.
Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks via Polygon

Fallout last

This week, Bethesda introduced a Fallout 76 subscription service called Fallout 1st. For a $12.99 monthly fee, players can create private servers, wear an NCR ranger costume from Fallout: New Vegas, and get a bunch of Atomic Store points every month.

The subscription also offers some heavy in-game benefits — a new fast travel point on the map and unlimited storage space for crafting gear — and those benefits are tied to the subscription. Building supplies take up a lot of storage space, which is limited, but Fallout 1st lets you bypass that by distributing a scrapbox. Now you can access a private server, which gives you oceans of loot, and then store the bulk of it with no extra charge!

But of course, this new tier of gameplay only lasts for as long as a gamer is willing to pay. A player who gets used to their scrapbox will feel kneecapped if they let their Fallout 1st subscription lapse. Previously, the community had been enraged about the in-game benefits of a refrigerator.

Fallout 76 - A player approaches another player’s shop to make a deal Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks via Polygon

A refrigerator, which cost about $10 of Atomic Points, could preserve a player’s food and make sure that it wouldn’t spoil. It was an envied cosmetic item and an in-game buff all in one, and it further led Fallout 76 down a path of starving in-game content in favor of increasingly powerful microtransactions.

All of this raises the question of what the point of Fallout 76 is, beyond making Bethesda a lot of money. The developers have offered minimal support to the bustling, chaotic role-play community that has defined the game. Anything that the game itself is trying to say is drowned out by the airhorn of constant promotions, sales, and Atomic Points offers. Fallout 76 seems as profit-oriented and careless as the corporations it maligns in its in-game text.

We are not going to see a new Fallout game for quite some time; Bethesda has its hands full with the next Elder Scrolls title, as well as an all-new game, Starfield. An online game could have worked, and it has certainly shown potential thanks to the ingenuity of its players. The question is, once again, can Fallout 76 even survive? A legendary franchise rests on the increasingly shaky shoulders of this online game, and a subscription service drives home just how unfinished the rest of the game is.

After all, it’s a very odd live role-playing and social game that allows me to spend money on a subscription for cool new emotes, but has yet to add the ability for me to say hi to another player through text chat. Bethesda has identified the problem in the text of the game itself; the question is whether the company will care to fix, it or just plow ahead regardless.

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