Back when I was growing up, I didn’t have a whole lot of experience with story-driven RPGs. I played my fair share of Pokémon, but you never really faced anything narratively complex in that series that went beyond, “There’s some bad dudes, doing some bad things, stop ’em. Oh, also you’re 10 years old”. Pokemon was also linear. I wasn’t accustomed to games with quests, branching storylines, different paths you can take, skills to put points into, or perks to choose from. It wasn’t until high school that I got my first taste of those types of games from the likes of Fallout 3 and Fallout New Vegas. It didn’t take too long before I became hooked on what Fallout had to offer.
Since then I’ve loved the Fallout series, and that’s why it hurts a little to see Fallout 76 completely miss the mark for many fans. Players complain of boring, grindy gameplay; an empty and lifeless environment (ironic, given the locale); a lackluster narrative; poorly-integrated PvP, and endless depths of glitches, errors, and exploits, some of which completely break the game.
And it’s such a shame too, because there are actually a lot of interesting new things on the table. Once again, we find ourselves in a new vault at the beginning of the game, which already opens up new ground as to what kind of horrible experiments we the character have suffered through during our time in that vault. Well, okay except this time it isn’t so horrible. I mean you do get to leave the vault without having been turned into a plant person, sacrificing other people every year to avoid vault extinction, or being named Gary because you are a clone of a man named Gary. But, maybe Vault 76 is more sinister than it appears (more on that later).
What we also get with Fallout 76 is a brand-new location, taking place in West Virginia, that beautiful mountain momma. And… wait what’s that? Are those, trees? Like, actual
tree trees? The kind that are alive and not dead? They are! There are trees, grass, bushes, and plant life! Greens, reds, yellows, oranges, actual colors! At least in terms of the environment itself, 76 offers something we haven’t really seen or experienced before. It’s a nice visual change of pace from the barren wastelands and deserts we’ve become accustomed to, and shows a different side to the post-apocalyptic world.
And the creatures! All the different new creatures. By my count, we see roughly 25 new types of creatures and enemies in 76, which is astounding. With mutated beavers, sloths, frogs, ticks, bees, squirrels, and more, there is an incredible slew of new life to see (and well, kill) in 76, maybe even more than we’ve ever seen all at once. Also making an appearance are a number of mysterious and mythical boss creatures, all of which have some kind of tie to West Virginian legend or folklore, of which there is a lot of apparently.
On top of all of that, and most importantly, Fallout 76 has a lot going for it narratively. That may sound strange given that the story of Fallout 76 consists almost entirely of finding deceased people’s holotapes and speaking to robots. While that may be true, there is still an incredible amount of untapped narrative underneath this shallow layer. The potential for an amazing story is all there, it just wasn’t fully conceptualized and pieced together. Ultimately that just wasn’t the direction that Bethesda took.
My somewhat over-drawn point is that Fallout 76 had potential. It has a fantastic framework for what could be an exceptional entry in a series we all know and love. All the pieces are there. We have a new vault and its lore/backstory; a lush new environment teeming with life; a disgustingly awesome and varied collection of brand-new animals, creatures, and enemies to discover and fight; and the makings for what could be an incredible new story.
Which is why it’s too bad that 76 just didn’t deliver, and has turned many people away from both the game and Bethesda itself. In this piece, I want to discuss what gave this game potential, specifically focusing on its narrative elements. I want to try to paint a picture of what Fallout 76 could have looked like if it was designed as a traditional, narrative-focused single player game.
Let’s start from the beginning, the “gimmick” behind Vault 76. The whole deal with this vault is that a large group of people has been gathered and protected from the apocalypse outside, with the intention that after 20 years, they will be released from the vault and tasked with rebuilding the world, taking it back from ruin and destruction. At a quick glance, that concept seems quite benign and maybe even…sensible? You know, considering Vault-Tec’s penchant for evil and generally nasty science practices the likes of which GLaDOS would be jealous of.
And, according to the wiki anyway, the vault itself does not have an ulterior motive or secret experiment behind the façade of protection. This is one of the few control vaults where nothing terrible is planned to happen. Despite that fact, it is likely among the deadliest of the vaults, and certainly one of the most narratively important vaults we’ve seen thus far. Here’s why.
Why did the war and resulting destruction of the world in 2077 happen in the first place? Multiple groups of people with unique morals, opinions, values, and points of view thought very differently on how a world should be run. It’s just what happens. Humans are impossibly different and varied, and when you get enough of them in a room, it’s only a matter of time before conflicting viewpoints begin to arise.
Ultimately, the ancestors from the old world could not resolve their issues with one another. The hate, animosity, and toxic discourse escalated to a breaking point, they blew each other up, and tore the world apart in the process, leaving their descendants to pick up the pieces of their failure.
With that in mind, let’s review the situation with Vault 76. Vault 76 houses 500 people, certainly enough for there to be varied points of opinion. These people are diverse and come from all walks of life, and they are smart, competitive, and accomplished (from before the war). These people have been tasked with rebuilding the world, but there is just no way they are all going to agree with each other. What we have is a potential recipe for the exact same series of events that brought about the end of the world in the first place. Even though this was seemingly not the intent of Vault-Tec, 76 was perhaps the worst of all the vaults they designed, depending on how things unfolded following the opening of the vault.
THE PEOPLE YOU MEET
I personally like the idea of there not being other people around when you leave the vault. I mean, it does make a whole lot of sense that after only 20 years or so, you’re really not going to find another human out there. The exception, of course, being the other vault dwellers. But that is actually perfect! Imagine that these other vault dwellers are not other players, as they are in Fallout 76, but are instead the NPCs you meet throughout the game. That is an interesting twist.
You all come from the same place. Whenever you meet someone, you know they’re from your vault. Usually in Fallout, a player would come across all kinds of people from all over the place, but not so here. And sure, right now in its current state, the people you come across in 76 are people from your vault. But given that those are other players and not NPCs, you’re probably not having very meaningful interactions with those people that go beyond repeatedly shooting them to attempt to initiate PvP, giving a thumbs up, or jumping around like a loon.
And when you think about it narratively, you must know these people. You’re probably friends with at least some of them. Imagine the conversations you could have with them about their lives, their beliefs, their struggles. Or even just little things, like joking around with them or thinking back on times in the vault.
You’ll be walking around the world and meeting all these friends and familiar faces, another new thing we haven’t experienced. There will definitely still be a ton of people you don’t know yet who you will be meeting for the first time. It would have been difficult to get to know absolutely everyone in the vault. But you’ll still have the chance to come across people you do already know. You’ll be going about your business when all of a sudden, your character comes across someone they recognize, and you’ll actually have the chance to have a proper dialogue with them. Your character would light up when seeing these people again.
“Bill? Is that Bill? Bill! It is you! Aw man I woke up late for Reclamation Day, but look at you, already getting to work, rebuilding the world. That’s so you, Bill.”
My dialogue writing abilities aside, we get to actually talk and converse with these
people. We get to have that narrative, world-building, and character development. We get to tackle those tough subjects and get in-depth with them. All amplified because we are attached to these people since we all come from the same place. We all have the same goal. We’re even friends with some of them already. The only friend we already had in Fallout 3’s Capital Wasteland was our dad. Dads can’t be friends. But that’s beside the point.
Vault 76’s inhabitants may start out on the same side and united in their shared goal, but this would likely change as time went on. Everyone would begin to spread out into the world and develop very different ideas to reach that ultimate goal of rebuilding the world. This leads to splintering and fracturing of the vault dwellers and thus the factions of the game are born! Maybe these are the origin points for factions you come across later in the other games. Maybe there are ones you at least caught a whiff of before in previous games but never actually saw, but here they are now. Maybe there are some you’ve never heard of because they were either short-lived, or just specifically local to West Virginia.
Surrounding Vault 76 and the task it set upon us, that of course would begin to raise questions and initiate discussions: Should we actually rebuild the old world? Was it so great? I mean look where it got us. We need to do something different, screw the old world. This is the beginning of a new world order.
Some people will agree, others won’t, ideas will conflict, and from this would come those factions. Now I’m not entirely sure what they could or would look like, or even how many there would be, but let’s brainstorm a little.
First, perhaps there are the purists who just want the world back the way it was, without a single hair out of place. The world was basically perfect, we just slipped up with the
whole “let’s blow each other up” thing. We won’t do that this time. We’ll do better. But in any event, the systems we had in place were rock solid, and we shouldn’t stray from that.
Then maybe there are those who believe the old ways were flawed, we need new direction. There’s a reason we are where we are, and why things unfolded the way they did. We can’t possibly follow in the footsteps of our predecessors. That wouldn’t make any sense, and that path can only ever have one ending: destruction.
Then, of course, you have people such as yourself who were born in the vault who don’t really know what the world was like. Maybe they do their own thing and have their own ideas, but they’re looked down upon by other factions because they’re just naive kids who don’t know any better. They don’t know what they’re talking about or how the world works.
Beyond that, maybe you have the more extreme factions, such as one that wants to
destroy the world again, starting with West Virginia. After truly seeing the damage done to the world upon leaving the vault, maybe there are some people who become severely despondent. There is no hope for humanity, we are monsters. There’s no point in rebuilding and reconstructing because we will just tear it all down again. That could take 10 years, maybe 100, maybe 1000, but in the eyes of these people, it will happen eventually. Why bother making progress if we’re just going to lose it again? These people decide to completely abandon the goal set upon them by Vault 76, and want to bring an end to humanity to stop this horrible cycle.
Now hey, isn’t that interesting. Speaking of all the pieces of something great being present in this game, need I remind you of the existence of actual nuclear silos in 76? That old devil, that primal temptation of destruction. It’s what tempted the old-world leaders and brought the old world to its end. And even still, after all that destruction from the Great War, these silos survived and still stand today. As if to say that no matter the years that pass or change the world sees, that destruction will always lie just beneath the surface, waiting for humanity to inevitably utilize it again. Because war, war never changes (had to drop that in somewhere).
In any event, these silos could play such an integral part to the story. Over time, each faction learns of the presence of these silos, and each of them wants to take the sites for themselves. Some people will want them for defensive purposes, others would want to dismantle/disable them so they can’t be used ever again, and others (like that extreme faction) would want the nukes to put their destructive plans into action. They are a perfect set piece just waiting to be used as a focal point for the story. But that, of course, is not what winds up happening.
THE BIG DECISIONS
The fact that all these factions would be comprised of vault dwellers is what makes the concept of factions particularly compelling this time around. These are all your people. You’ve grown up with them, and gotten to know and care for a lot of them during your whole life. These are your friends, family, neighbors, and loved ones. Heck! Are your parents or grandparents all tangled up in this? Siblings? Best friends? A partner or love interest? There is serious attachment there. And now you’re forced to choose between them all because they all have differing thoughts on how to build, foster, and nurture a new world for humanity’s future. These aren’t just random strangers trying to pull you into their causes, these are the people you’ve known your entire life.
This could lend to some really difficult decisions and morally gray bits, things that good stories are made of. You are invested in these people, and you may be forced to choose between them based on what you think is the right path for the future of humanity. That’s a massive decision! Both for yourself and what you believe is right and who is worth sacrificing for the greater good, and for your descendants whose lives may forever be affected by the actions and decisions you make on those country roads.
Okay so here’s an example. Let’s say your character had a childhood bully, and throughout life, he/she was still kind of a jerk to you. At some point in the game, maybe you meet them. Later on, you also come across someone you have feelings for or are romantically involved with. Your bully and love interest are on different sides. Who do you side with? Do you let your personal attachments decide where to go? Is that wrong? Should you decide the course of humanity without allowing emotional attachment to interfere, to look at the situation objectively and make a sacrifice for the betterment of humanity?
Maybe you don’t like the bully since he is nasty and abrasive towards you most of the time, but he also makes some really good points about what our duty is as a species and how we should go about rebuilding the world. Whereas with your romantic interest, though you have feelings for them, you feel like you agree a whole lot less with their point of view. Following their path would not suit humanity very well, in your eyes. Interesting decisions could spawn here surrounding emotions and feelings vs objectivity and the bigger picture. And those are the big questions! But this is just one decision you would have to address. Undoubtedly there would be many other situations to mull over and conflicts to settle among your people, whether they concern the main quest or a side quest.
THE MORALS AND LESSONS
This is also an incredibly interesting time. This game takes place a mere 25 years following The Great War. The wasteland is still incredibly young. The vast majority of the people in the vault are probably from the old world. And actually, maybe this is a perfect opportunity. Maybe your character was born in the vault. The vault is the only world you ever knew. Other dwellers know what the world used to be like, and they can reminisce about it with you. And remember, these are the people the world was taken from originally. They have to grapple with the loss of their homes, their belongings, maybe a loved one. They have to go back to their old homes and other places from their lives and see the damage done, if there’s even anything left. You get to see those feelings of actual, pure loss.
We see a lot of loss in Fallout. The world is a dangerous, betrayal-ridden doomscape. But we haven’t seen or experienced the level of loss that these people have. They lost their entire world, their way of life and their culture. We did lose that too, by association as a humanity, but we never had to experience that directly. We don’t know the indescribable pain of losing an entire world.
To a point, we saw that in Fallout 4 with our main character, but that was just one individual. Imagine an entire vault of hundreds of people we can have discussions with about their loss. In 76, we could have gotten into this subject matter with a significantly higher degree of depth and volume. They are the origination of loss in this series. They took up that mantle before anyone else did. That’s powerful stuff. We get to see a
glimpse of what they went through, and the resolve they needed to have to move forward instead of being entrenched in the past.
The physical setting of Fallout 76 is also truly perfect. The world came to an end, but hidden away among all the death and decay and lifelessness in other parts of the world is this lush, colorful environment. In fact, depending on what section of the world you’re looking at, you could be convinced that you‘re looking at the old world, that this is before the apocalypse. Almost impossibly, this place persevered. It’s as if there’s still hope for life, healing, and recovery. The presence of both the beautiful environment and the nuclear silos represents the idea that much like a light of hope can be found in the darkness, destruction can be found in that same darkness. Both have the power to remain. The question is, which path will we take this time, and how will this all end?
Can we succeed where our ancestors failed? Are we just doomed to repeat history, to be entangled in hate and conflict for all of time? Are we better than that? Can we push past our demons, egos, and self-centeredness to be better people? A better humanity? Or are we just going to fall into the same pitfalls we did before? Will we once again allow our disagreements to take over to the point where we blow each other up a second time? If we do, we destroy everyone as well as all that life and color that had somehow managed to survive. We destroy that last shred of hope for humanity.
All of this plays right into the exact conflicts and hurdles that the old–world ancestors grappled with. This game could have shed light on those exact problems that led the world to where it is today. How do you maintain a healthy world where everyone is
happy? Maybe that’s not even possible? Fallout 76 could have given a glimpse into the same struggles that started it all, which seems like an excellent focal point and narrative direction to set the stage for 76’s world. After all, the entire background story of this series, the very reason we the players have had to navigate these destroyed and amalgamated environments, is that people could not work together to live in this world.
The more I thought about all the pieces 76 dumps in front of you, the more it felt like they all fit together so perfectly. If only there weren’t pieces missing, some pieces looked slightly different, and they all formed a different picture than the one they currently do.
Obviously, this doesn’t address everything that has people turned off from 76, but it does address how the narrative, lore, quests, character development, world building (in more ways than one), overall player investment, and some gameplay aspects could see an improvement.
Truly, I see where Bethesda was kinda going with this. Vault 76 was supposed to be filled with tons of diverse people from all walks of life. We were supposed to be those people. We’d meet tons of people we don’t know, but we would see some friends along the way (probably our actual real-life friends). People would all do their own thing, and you’d have to navigate this world full of people who may not see eye-to-eye with you.
The responsibility of creating a world with a story was put onto our shoulders, but that was never a realistic expectation to task us with. There are no NPCs to direct the flow of ideas and a narrative, to serve that slice of morals, experiences, and hardships. The base ideas are there and a game like this may sound reasonable on paper, but it just doesn’t work as it would with those NPCs to help guide us through a proper story with a beginning, middle, and end. All the pieces for something great are there, we just didn’t see it come together in an effective way, or get fleshed out enough.
I didn’t explore this here, but maybe there is a way to make a story work using the formula that Bethesda employed in developing Fallout 76. Perhaps there is room for compelling narrative in a survival-multiplayer space like this one where players are meant to “make their own fun”. If so, then we would need to see some additional systems and structure in place to make for a more story-conducive environment, to give players more reason to engage in the RP and become invested in the world. Maybe we’ll see that down the line, maybe we won’t. Hopefully, whether it be Fallout 76 or the next installment entirely, we can witness the franchise return to form and deliver what we know it is capable of, and remind us why we love it so.