Fallout may be one of the biggest AAA gaming franchises around, but over the last few years the post-apocalyptic series has found itself in turmoil. What started out as a gritty narrative-driven role-playing game has, with the release of 2016’s Fallout 4, transformed into more of a silly action game. And with the reveal of Fallout 76 at E3 this year, some fans are convinced the series has fully lost its way.
As Bethesda announced last night, Fallout 76 is an online survival game where you will interact with other vault dwellers who hope to rebuild the world. Todd Howard, Bethesda director and executive producer, mentioned that while it’s possible to play 76 on your own, the game will be easier with buddies. Actually, based on the footage shown off by Bethesda, it doesn’t seem like the world of Fallout 76 has many survivors beyond other players. There were seemingly no non-playable characters to speak of during the trailer, only teammates, rivals, and hostile creatures.
This makes sense, of course: within the game’s lore, vault 76 opens before most of the others. There aren’t many people roaming around the wasteland during this time, period. Fans are nonetheless worried that no Bethesda-authored characters means that there will be fewer opportunities for the kinds of narrative choices or meaty storylines that the franchise is known for. Sure enough, most of the gameplay shown during the keynote was multiplayer.
The most controversial aspect of last night’s gameplay demo was Fallout 76’s nuke gameplay. As Bethesda explained, the game’s locale will be dotted with nuclear sites that players can raid for launch codes. Codes in hand, players will be able to attack others with nuclear missiles if they want to, meaning that you and your creations can be a target. Veteran fans are disappointed with this news, because they’re used to playing meaty, narrative-driven single-player RPGs without being harassed by other people. Given that Bethesda introduced these new concepts by stating that “some of your fellow survivors may not be neighborly,” it sounds like they’re expecting Fallout 76 to be a chaotic experience, rather than an introspective one.
Already, the reaction to Fallout 76 leans negative within more hardcore circles. On the Fallout Reddit, one of the top threads is titled “‘You can play solo, but you SHOULD play multiplayer!’ will ruin the franchise.” On Twitter, fans are debating back and forth whether or not Fallout 76 will “ruin” the series, too. And on the ResetEra forum, posters seem split on whether or not online will make for a good Fallout experience.
“I’m fairly certain this new title won’t take story or lore very seriously,” one fan in the Reddit thread lamented. “The sad part is that 95 percent of us won’t be bombing each other,” another wrote. “It’s the stupid ass five percent which will ruin the game for us.”
Players have good reason to worry about some elements of Fallout 76, based on how similar mechanics have played out in other games in the genre. Multiplayer survival games like Rust, Ark: Survival Evolved, and Conan Exiles are all notoriously harsh experiences where dedicated players can wipe the floor with people who don’t spend as much time in-game grinding out resources and gear. Base-wiping super weapons, along with unpleasant experiences like getting enslaved by other players sometimes drives people who enjoy multiplayer survival games to play on private servers. “There’s a similar mechanic [to nukes] in similar-looking survival game Conan Exiles where you drop a God on other people’s bases,” said video game fan Phil Hartup on Twitter. “It’s not as catastrophic gameplay wise as it sounds, [but in] games like this getting your base eradicated by people who play 24/7 is fairly standard. It’s going to be a colossal culture shock for people going from Fallout 4’s comfy towns to getting obliterated and teabagged by gangs of gibbering randos though.”
Obviously, much of the anxiety surrounding Fallout 76 is based on partial information. We don’t fully know how the game will work, so people are fearing the worst: a stripped-down version of Fallout where assholes reign supreme. The wariness didn’t fester in a vacuum, though. As I wrote back in 2016, Bethesda has steadily been stripping away some of the role-playing elements that have defined the series. Fallout 4 featured fewer character-building RPG options, and dialogue choices are often summarized with a word or two. The overall tone of the series since Bethesda has taken it over has also gone from stark and serious to campy and absurd. Worst of all, most situations in Fallout 4 could only be resolved through violence. Fallout, in short, has been becoming more of a meathead series as time goes on... or at least, that’s the popular narrative driving some of this uncertainty.
What many fans missed was that while the base Fallout 4 game was disappointing when compared to older games, some of the DLC was terrific. Far Harbor in particular was a story-rich addition that explored the mysteries of the synths — and it did so while giving players real options beyond murder. Choices mattered, factions mattered. The story left me thinking well after I was done. Far Harbor was classic Fallout, through and through. This is to say: Bethesda is certainly capable of delivering the rich RPG that fans want, especially when it does not have to worry about making a ton of new assets.
Fallout is becoming more of a meathead series as time goes on... or at least, that’s the popular narrative.
The discourse around Fallout 76 doesn’t take this into account, and it’s likely due in part to many players missing out on Fallout 4’s expansions. But in a way, this anxiety isn’t really about Fallout at all. The last few generations of consoles have steadily embraced more and more online experiences, and for a while, nearly every franchise under the sun was adopting multiplayer in some form. While many games do manage to make multiplayer work, some online fans are convinced that a multiplayer pivot tends to be a cash-grab from game developers, rather than something meant to enrich a game. Video game fandom online tends to operate from this assumption: if a game developer does something, they’re probably trying to rip you off or pull a fast one on you. To wit, gaming news websites have some version of “fans are angry at developer” stories nearly every day. Fallout 76 is operating within that hostile space.
Bethesda in particular grapples with a fractured identity. It has created some of the most beloved series around, yes, but it is also the company known by some for things like downloadable horse armor, paid mods, and dumbed-down RPGs. Fans regularly make fun of how often Bethesda ports Skyrim, so much so that even the developer got in on the joke last night. And so when Fallout 76 turns out to be an online-only experience, it fits in perfectly with this perceived negative identity for the company. The irony is that while people bemoan the death of yet another single-player game, Bethesda keeps pumping out prime single-player experiences that people tend to ignore; games like Dishonored and Prey don’t sell near as well as the developer’s other offerings. Last year, Bethesda jokingly-but-not-jokingly begged fans to “save player 1.”
Fans are convinced that a multiplayer pivot tends to be a cash-grab from game developers, rather than something meant to enrich a game.
I consider myself a hardcore Fallout fan, and while I do worry about where the franchise is going, much of the anxiety surrounding Fallout 76 feels unwarranted. It’s one thing if we’re talking about a mainline game like Fallout 4, but Fallout 76 is an offshoot. It’s not fair to expect the same sorts of experiences from a spinoff as you would a main game. The best spinoffs reinvent or reframe things, make them feel new again, and potentially even bring new people into the fold. Last night, Todd Howard said that Fallout Shelter, a game that many hardcore fans brushed off as too casual, has attracted over 120 million players — more than any other Bethesda game combined. Likely, the success of spinoffs like Shelter and 76 end up providing Bethesda with more resources to pour into the kinds of games fans are pining for.
By the end of Nuka World, the final expansion for Fallout 4, I was starting to feel tired of the current iteration of Fallout. Bethesda needs to give the core series some time to breathe, and if Fallout 76 gives the developer room to experiment with what Fallout can be, I’m all for it. The alternative is waiting a long time for any kind of Fallout game, because most of Bethesda’s resources seem pointed at Starfield, their first new franchise in 25 years, and Elder Scrolls VI. Despite the controversy around Fallout 76, these Bethesda projects prove that the publisher is committed to single-player experiences — but that fact is easy to forget when other players are firing nukes at you.