Once upon a time, back in August of 2016, I wrote that Fallout is dead, and that Nuka World, the final DLC for Fallout 4, killed it. But folks, that was before I’d heard of Fallout 76. And even after hearing about Fallout 76, which I’ve been cutting some slack because it’s not a core entry in the series, I’ve been holding out hope. Who knows, I argued, maybe they could use this as an opportunity to observe some of the issues the players had with Fallout 4 and do a little course-correction before Fallout 5.
But I am a foolish little baby woman who does stupid things.
This past week, Twitter has been abuzz with criticism of Fallout 76 in the wake of their recent preview event in West Virginia. Gamespot posted footage collected from their demo showcasing a nuclear explosion, which is a playable feature of the open world MMO, in combat against other factions of players. Longtime fans of the series were upset, citing the material’s deviation from the core premise and values of Fallout, while others expressed disbelief over the objection in light of the game’s content, which includes many other ways to inflict violence on others.
Gamespot, who captioned the footage as “EPIC,” eventually deleted the Tweet, but the conversation has lingered. Is it fair for fans to take issue? In many ways it reminds me of the original controversy when Bethesda released Fallout 3, which many consider a farce compared to the tone of the first two games. The series’s themes of survival, cooperation and competing ideologies were almost entirely eclipsed by the change in setting and de-emphasis on groups and factions. While New Vegas was able to somewhat provide a path to bridging the gap between the two eras of Fallout, in the end, Fallout 4 only did more damage. It’s as if every subsequent generation of Fallout is meant for a new audience, with little thought to the existing fanbase.
Fallout 76 repeats this pattern by completely ignoring everything that people loved about it in the first place. Factions are replaced by your team, NPCs now consist of other players, and stories are removed to make way for the sort of tasks and goals you self-assign in some vain quest for arbitrary glory. The mystique of abandoned buildings undisturbed, of unique weapons with a story to tell: it’s all destroyed for the repetition of raids and loot drops and grinding. The stillness and loneliness of a world destroyed is gone, swapped for hostile strangers on your local server.
But more than that, there’s this business with the nukes. In Fallout 76, you can literally drop bombs on other players (or rather, in general widespread areas, where those caught in the path of destruction will receive some notice, so they can evacuate). And this is probably the most egregious departure from the original series of all. Granted, there are many ways to kill people in Fallout (though no-kill playthroughs are possible), but this is different. We’ve spent years and years walking through the decay and dust of Fallout games and seen the (fictional, but still impactful) results of war—the conflict, the murders, the discord, the opportunists, the misguided dictators and the path of destruction they leave behind. While some of us may have taken the most nihilistic approach in our journeys through Fallout 3, New Vegas, or Fallout 4, or took the neutral, self interested way out in the original games, in general, there is a loose sense of affinity. Most of us don’t want to harm others unless we have to.
There’s a difference, in ethics and philosophy, between dropping a nuke (effectively salting the Earth and killing many people at once) versus shooting someone in the face, in that the distance afforded by technology plays a role in how we separate ourselves cognitively from the results of our actions, making it easier to engage in violence. This goes to a meta level when you consider videogames are virtual environments with real people represented by digital faces.
But perhaps some of the issue is that as players we still make a distinction between pre-emptive overkill and the “it was him or me” violence we can justify in our own self defense. The latter sits extremely well within the Fallout universe, with its raiders, competing factions, slavers and other villainous survivors one might encounter in a post-apocalyptic world. But the former encroaches on an unspoken rule that has informed the series from the start. As Tim Cain, lead programmer and among the original designers of Fallout, said back in 2002, his goal was “[to] explore more of the world and more of the ethics of a postnuclear world, not to make a better plasma gun.” While this premise was spoken of in terms of what Cain had envisioned for Fallout’s future, it clearly shows up from the very start, establishing iconic antagonists with clearly outlined motivations and values, like the anti-technology Brotherhood of Steel, or the Caesar’s Legion, a group driven by the pursuit of civilized society through violent integration. Perhaps some of the friction arises from the fact that Fallout appeals largely to a morally neutral fanbase, the sort of folks who act in self-interest but won’t hurt others unless they have to.
Of course, all series must adapt and change in order to survive a shifting audience over time. But it’s a tragedy that Fallout is no longer in the hands of the people who were passionate enough to maintain meaningful narrative standards. I’ve said many times that Bethesda is in the business of making “Fallout themed content” but honestly, that started back when the reins were handed over from Interplay, and as time goes on, of course the series is only straying further from the path. I”m not surprised at all that the current team thought nothing of allowing in-game groups to bomb one another. Who cares, right? It’s just an open world sandbox for playground mischief where people can fuck around for awhile with their friends. It doesn’t matter. None of this matters.
But in a sense, it does. Even in this current cultural climate, some things are still sacred. Some folks still want to imagine a world where a half-life isn’t just a short term cease fire; some of us still want to live out the fantasy of rebuilding a world from scratch—or at least, trying to get by and make the best of our journey in the aftermath of disaster. This is far from the sole example of Bethesda’s tone deaf creative decisions, but despite how contradictory or hypocritical it may seem, I’m all for criticizing it. It gleefully and willfully ignores the current social climate in favor of feeding into our enthusiasm for meaningless destruction. Yes, some of us blew up Megaton. Not all. In fact, most probably didn’t. Maybe Fallout 76 is for the Enclave and Caesar’s Legion players among us all.
In Fallout: New Vegas, there’s a brief period in the game where all the floors of the Lucky 38 are accessible, and you can visit the cocktail lounge. It’s a classic ‘60s-style bar that harkens back to a real-life establishment back when Las Vegas was known as the Atomic City, the Las Vegas Sky Room (home of the Atomic Cocktail, which can also be found in the game). From there, patrons used to watch out the window as the U.S. government tested and detonated nukes, admiring the desert explosions from a safe distance while sipping their drinks behind glass. The moment is meant, as with many in Fallout, to highlight that horrifying period of time where the novelty of nuclear science and the deadly weapons we built with it were a subject of fascination, and not fear, illustrating how bizarrely out of touch that era seems in an irradiated and dangerous post-apocalyptic world.
I wonder if the writers of Fallout 76 have ever played New Vegas.
Maybe they should.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.