Fallout 76 Sure is a Video Game

We live in a challenging time. Politics have never been this vicious.[1] Food has never been so tainted.[2] People are murdering each other on every corner.[3] This is a time for every American to take a hard look within and consider their values, their goals, and what the country means to them. It’s a time to increase civic engagement across the board, to increase political literacy, and for those who have the ability to rise up to correct the wrongs perpetrated against those who have been wronged.

In light of all of this, I have chosen to instead write about Fallout 76.

I’ll start by stating that I really like the Fallout series – at least those starting with Fallout 3. I tried playing the first game, but was killed by a radscorpion three times without landing a single hit and realized that the game was too hard for me and quit. Fallout 3, though, had a lot of charm, humor, and wonder about it. The DC Wasteland looked great (and, I would argue, still does even without mods) and Bethesda did a fantastic job of populating it with characters that made you compelled to continue on through your journey and make the Wasteland a better place. (Or wreck it, if you didn’t care about the NPCs you encountered.)

Fallout: New Vegas brought the series back to the West and introduced three factions that struck a very specific chord with me: They were damn close to figures in a morality play. And anyone who’s gotten me drunk and talking about writing knows that I fucking love morality plays. Medieval Christians had a lot of odd ideas, but one of the better ones was to cut through the bullshit and make Death an actual thing that you could interact with and try to negotiate with (and, of course, fail, because you were a sinner and Death cares not). New Vegas was pretty simple at its core: Three groups are trying to control New Vegas, because it’s relatively pristine after the atomic bombs fell, and you could be the deciding factor. That simplicity, however, gave Obsidian, the developers, room to iterate and be creative – like a canon. Then you added in a few really solid expansions (yes, even Dead Money!) and you have a classic.

Fallout 4 was lackluster in many respects, because Bethesda implemented a lot of stuff that didn’t quite work. Crafting is something that I’ve always begrudgingly accepted in games. I grew up on stuff like RTSs and Diablo, or Baldur’s Gate, where you don’t craft so much as trade and pull swords from corpses. 4 sort of made it a lynchpin, following from Skyrim’s template. Radial quests were another addition that didn’t quite work. (Why, for example, must I keep saving the same settlements? Haven’t they figured out that they can build turrets yet?) Despite that, the addition of a speaking protagonist and returning to the East Coast, and touching on themes like AI and pulp fiction, made the game fun to mess around with, if not as engrossing as New Vegas and Fallout 3.

We now have Fallout 76, the bane of the Internet. 76 is a multiplayer game that supposes all of the players have been released from a Vault on the same day and are sent to reclaim a slice of Appalachia after the bombs went off. Mutants, ghouls, and Mr. Handies are everywhere, of course, but the real surprise is that there are no human NPCs around, having been all conveniently killed just before you got out of the vault, thus saving Bethesda untold amounts of money in having to write dialog trees.

If you’re reading this, you’re likely aware of the reception the game’s received. Spoilers: It’s not been great. Critics have agreed on a consensus. The public has fallen into two camps: It’s worse than the ending to Mass Effect 3 or “You’re letting your expectations get the better of you and aren’t looking at it for what it is.”

Friends, I have appeared as a neutral third-party. I am here to deliver unto you the Truth™ of what Fallout 76 is. I am your deliverer. The Truth™ is that Fallout 76 desperately needed another 6 – 8 months in development, a creative lead who was willing to stand up to stakeholder expectations, and should not have been released for another year. I have reasons both concrete and speculative to back this up!

Let’s first begin with Bethesda’s announcement at E3. As we all know, all conventions like E3 are marketing platforms. They now exist so that companies can boost up expectations among the marketplace for what the new thing is, get people amped up to buy that new thing, and then figure out a fallback plan when things implode. (Best case: You get something like a showcase at CES, where no one says anything negative ever. Worst case: You get something like the Diablo: Immortal clusterfuck where Blizzard’s leadership has completely been disconnected from its playerbase.) As evidence, I would like you to go back to Todd Howard’s announcement, take a step back from being a fan, and, now with the superpower of hindsight, consider the announcement spiel in the context of what was delivered. Use the brain in your noggin to consider how much time was spent in the announcement talking about the tech behind the game instead of the story in the game, which, as we know, is what drives people to play Fallout games. Why is that important? Because the tech was the most-solidified thing that they had. Now, I don’t mean tech in the sense of code, or physics: I mean the tech like “allows us to view distant weather systems across the map.” What that tells me is that Bethesda had spent a not insignificant amount of time working on how to get the basis of the game down, and then ran out of time to polish the stuff that was built on top of that.

One of the things I really like about Fallout 76 is that it is a gorgeous setting. The forests of Appalachia are verdant; the toxic wastes are horrid; the ruins of Charleston feel on par with bits of the DC Wasteland. The weather system is, indeed, striking. That portion of the game, the passive bit of the world, was done very well.

However, what we find when we get past that is that there are a ton of bugs in the game; bugs that you think should have been caught and at least partially addressed prior to release. Some nerd on Reddit came up with a list. Take a gander. (List as of November 26, 2018.) Bethesda games being buggy has been a loving joke for a while now, but that’s an amazing amount of stuff, there, and as someone who’s played a couple of Bethesda games shortly after launch, I can say that 76 stands out in the bug density. Now, several of the bugs I’ve run into on the list are not game-breaking by any stretch of the word, but they are off-putting; often enough to make me quit the game and go fire up Total War: Warhammer 2 and sail around the world as Sartosa, raiding and harassing Settra and, by and large, having a much better time doing so.

What those bugs tell me is that what was released was not a truly tested game. It’s past alpha, for sure, but I’m not sure that it got past closed beta. Enough of those seem like the sort of bugs one would run into during a beta test, report, and have fixed in a weekly patch. Indeed, while I’ve been writing this, Bethesda has pledged to maintain “better communication” with the community and release patches for some of these bugs on a weekly cadence, sort of what you’d expect to see during a beta.

This isn’t to say that Bethesda didn’t do a beta. They did. They called it B.E.T.A., as an acronym for Break-it Early Test Application. The skunky thing about this release, though, was that it was very limited in scope – over a couple of weeks – and seemed more focused on stress testing the servers than actually tracking down and fixing bugs. If memory serves, they did the same thing with Elder Scrolls Online: A limited beta period where the focus was getting as many people online as possible in an attempt to stress test their servers and get a rough approximation of what they would need in order to launch the game without something akin to a Diablo 3 launch. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. It’s good to stress test your servers. It’s good to open up your game to folks. (At least the FO76 beta wasn’t thrown behind a creepily restrictive NDA.) The thing that bugs me about this, though, isn’t that it’s a stress test, it’s that Bethesda called it a beta, opened it over a severely limited amount of time, and then released a product that has, as linked above, an impressive amount of issues that should have been caught and fixed in a much longer, more focused beta test.

 

There are other things in this game that lead to questions about when this game was meant to be released and when it was actually released. They’re much more involved than bugs; they’re design choices. They’re design choices that feel half-thought out, like they were first taken from Fallout 4, the development team was playing around with them and figuring out where to go with what, and then decided to move forward with them when hit with a strict deadline brought about by sales goals. The ones that stand out are: Quest design, enemy level placement, and NPCs.

One of the things that Bethesda does well, and one of the things that keeps me coming back to their games, is designing quests in a way that meshes with the narrative in an engaging way, that brings the world to life, and makes what you’re doing have some purpose beyond completing the quest will bump you up to the next level. As much as I dislike The Witcher 3, the most significant quests did a good narrative job of tying their goals into Geralt’s goal of finding Ciri.[4] The Bethesda Fallout series has taken a different approach. Some of the quests tie into finding your son, but more of them are along the lines of you acting as a representative of a different form of society – a Vault dweller – who is uniquely able to affect the lives people living in ruins. The games offer you a way to address problems, either by helping people address them or making their problems worse, in a way that allows you to tweak the world in a way that you think makes sense for your character. In other words, the quests in Bethesda’s Fallout games make perfect sense for an open-world post-apocalyptic game.

This tradition is kind of carried over to Fallout 76. You’re still given the same sorts of quests you would be given before: Fix a food processing plant; develop an inoculation for a disease; clear out a Super Mutant areas. The catch is that there’s no point in doing so aside from an abstract narrative goal of “reclaiming the wasteland.” Why is there no point in doing so? Because everyone other than the Vault Dwellers you’re playing with is dead. Right off the bat, when you leave the Vault and go into a first town, you’re met with corpses of a group called The Responders, who seem to have been founded in order to make people’s lives better by providing medical aid, survival training, and secure towns in which to trade and rest. But of course, they’re all dead. You can “join” their group, but you’re really only doing so to get quest rewards.

This is tricky. On the one hand, you’re still getting quests from them. On the other hand, if you take a step back and consider that, in joining the Responders, taking their training, and completing quests for them, you are, in effect, setting your character up to build up the Responders for the future, once everyone from Vault 76 has resettled the Wastes and has had a chance to build a society. This makes sense, but the explanation lacks something for an interactive medium like video games. For a video game to be successful in such a thing, I would argue, you still need some steady framework with which to interact. The most obvious way to plug that gap is with NPCs still alive who are act as an anchor with whom you can interact. We’ll touch on this more, but, for the moment, my thoughts are that the approach that I believe Bethesda is taking – the approach above, that you are acting as the first representatives of a reborn Responders, or Brotherhood, or Raiders, or whatever – is way too abstract and isn’t developed enough to be meaningful. It’s like if you’re in a tabletop campaign and the DM opens by saying “You can do whatever you want. I have just built the skeleton of the world. You must provide the flesh.” Yes, fine. I enjoy collaborative storytelling as much as anyone, but some direction of why I should care is better.

But let’s turn our attention back to more fiddly-bit technical design choices and save the discussion about narrative design for another day, shall we? This is getting long enough and I don’t want to wind up writing another book that no one will read.[5]

In playing Fallout 76, I’ve experienced something I haven’t in other multiplayer games. Typically, what you find is games that approach levels in a couple of ways: First, and the way that Bethesda games usually approach them, is enemy levels that scale with your own. In other words, enemies will be tougher and more dangerous the stronger you are. The second method is that you have areas of a map divided up into zones – or Acts, or Chapters – that have defined enemy levels. For an example of this, think of the way World of Warcraft was universally set up. Instances/dungeons and zones had a level range in which it was appropriate for your character to go and play; once you got past that range, it ceased to give you awards, and there was no reason to go back.[6]

In Fallout 76, I’ve run into an issue where, having tried to follow the Overseer’s journals as if they were breadcrumbs, I’ve run into nothing higher than level 6 enemies, despite being, at this point, level 15. Then, suddenly, upon trying to leave Charleston for the next zone, I find myself facing a patch of enemies in the 20 – 35 range, dying immediately, and being immensely frustrated. I’m not sure what the plan there, was. In looking at the map, I realized that my path, so far, had been in areas that were green and verdant looking – up until I hit the 20-35 monsters, at which point the map turned gray and bombed-out looking. Ostensibly, then, that would mean that everywhere that looks roughly pleasant has lower-level enemies. That’s all well and good, but as near as I can tell, all of that has also been along a highway, which is what I’ve been using to get from quest marker to quest marker, up until I hit the point where I came across a gas station with enemies ten levels higher than I am.

Well, as it turns out, this is the result of an algorithm that attempts to scale enemies to the levels of nearby players. At least, ostensibly. While this algorithm seems to work for friends of mine, I remain awash in a swamp of level 6 Scorched, rushing at me from all sides while I mow them down like some incredibly lazy Doom Marine, never to get anything more powerful than a hunting rifle. Sure, occasionally I see a level 15 or so, but I’m killing enough of its lower-level buddies that I’ve propelled past it to level 19, and now, the most challenging thing about those enemies is switching to a better gun – i.e., the shotgun, because, again, everything I have is one step above a pipe gun because, again, I’m awash in level 6 enemies – before taking it out, finding nothing of value, and logging out to go annoy the world as the Vampire Coast in Warhammer 2.

 

But really, that’s all bugs. There’s probably some glitch in the algorithm that’s keeping enemies from leveling. There’s likely something keeping enemies from not scaling down from an encounter with a stronger player by the time I get there. And there’s an unseemly list of reasons why the rest of the game is a buggier mess than the Deep South in high summer. And, for the most part, I can ignore those things. I liked every other Bethesda game, after all.

But the thing that got me thinking about all of this in the first place, the thing that makes me consider why this game was released in this state at all, comes back to the question of NPCs. Has has been thrown about in this piece, Bethesda’s marketing materials, interviews, and countless forum posts: There are no human NPCs in the game. Bethesda was quite proud of this. “The world is yours, for all others have died,” they seem to have said. “Yea verily, thou art Ozymandias, and this is your dominion. Go forth and build your works out of junk.”

The idea behind this, as near as I can figure, is that you and your fellow Vault Dwellers are acting as the progenitors of whatever society emerges from the ashes of the old. You are faced with endless waves of Scorched, Liberator Bots, and every other incredibly annoying enemy that’s in this game for the purpose of removing them so that civilization can return.

That’s a decent idea for a short story, sure, or even some B-grade novel series or AMC TV show, but it makes for a dull game – at least a non-narrative-driven game. Why? Because, as previously discussed, everyone around you is dead. You might find their journals, their collected wisdom, their thoughts and dreams, scattered throughout the wastes in the form of notes and holotapes, but you won’t find them. You’ll find their bodies, but the only impact that has is that the word “Corpse” flashes on your screen, you pause for a moment, and then loot a couple of caps off of them before returning to wandering around and building a giant dick-house. (Cheating, I know, because that was Fallout 4, a game with a narrative and some attempt at getting people to care about the world around them.)

The central problem, here, is that there’s no anchor tying this world down. And the reason that’s a problem is because you have the word “Fallout” in the title. That name, by tying the game to a series of games, carries with it certain expectations that are incredibly hard to get past. I know people who have gotten past that, and they love the game. I’m happy they enjoy the game, but I – and a whole hell of a lot of people – are utterly baffled by why this was thrown into the Fallout series instead of reskinned and thrown into the marketplace as an open-world survival game.

(That’s disingenuous. It was thrown into the world as Fallout to sell copies and so that they could put trash bags in a collector’s edition, because lol fuck customers.)

Bethesda clearly spent time on trying to build a world. The holotapes, the glimpses of factions you get, the world you traverse through, all of these things point to ideas someone on some design team had of a narrative. While you walk through these places, you get flashes of large scripts being thrown down on tables during writer’s room sessions. People workshopped dialogue. Conversations were had about just how big a Vault-Tec University should be, how many students were there, and what sort of things those students would have been writing about.

Then, at some point, the next step – designing virtual people in which to live in the world – was thrown by the wayside in favor of robots and raider camps with interesting names filled with nothing but corpses. There was, at some point, a great world with a lot of detail and interaction, but that, instead, was thrown away so that you could escort a Mr. Handy to a decaying shack so that it could then sing a song for a dead person. That’s the level of quests we’re stuck with when we’re not being told by an automated broadcast that Scorched are swarming an airport and we need to protect people (who are already dead).

The game is some weird danse macabre, where we’re trying to match the steps of ghosts. However, unlike the dance shown in this documentary, there is no sense of gothic glee or wonder.

But the question is: Why would they do all of this? Why would they make these decisions? Setting aside the bullshit that Todd Howard said about making this a world for you to inhabit and all of that stuff, I have the suspicion that Fallout 76 was the unfortunate result of corporate pressure to release a game after someone at Zenimax realized that Bethesda Game Studios (BGS) hadn’t released anything since Fallout 4, and Bethesda the publisher since Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, which, while I enjoyed a lot for it’s pulpy joy and is-this-real subtext, had fair-to-middling reviews.

What happened, in my opinion, was that BGS was in development with a full-on Fallout game set in West Virginia. They had started planning out the factions, the world, and recording some preliminary dialog, and then were told that they had to make an announcement at E3, and that this had to be their next game. Looking around at their offices and realizing that the Elder Scrolls and Starfield teams were in no shape to release anything, they landed on Fallout 76 and had to make do with what was there. Thus, a full-on Fallout game was branded as an open-world survival game with heavy crafting elements where you and your friends told the story, where there were no human NPCs, and you had a mystery on your hand to solve as to why no humans were around.

It is, in my opinion, the only explanation for most of the deeper issues that we’re seeing in this game. If I’m right, and stuff like living factions and actual human NPCs was planned, I’d think that, within the next year, we’ll see announcements about some exciting new major updates to Fallout 76 – free, of course, because Bethesda values its customers – that re-introduce what people love about Fallout: Factions and actual people.

Another reason why I think this is because this seems to be an industry issue at the AAA level. Games are pushed out on a market-driven schedule, leading to stuff like the Mass Effect: Andromeda fiasco, with the game tanking a BioWare studio and all support for the game being pulled following poor reception. The prevalence of Early Access being a way for companies to start selling games before they’re done is certainly not a good thing for games at a AAA-level, either. (And, one might say, Fallout 76 was released in an Early Access state without being branded as such.)

So what about it? What can we do about this? Well, for the love of God, stop pre-ordering stuff and stop buying $200 Collector’s Editions. Start thinking about games as an art form if you want them to be an art form. Think critically about what’s happening behind the scenes and acknowledge studios that do good work – like Creative Assembly, Firaxis, and the countless indie studios that put out clever games with well-thought-out mechanics. (Even those whose work you don’t particularly like, like me and CD Projekt Red! I may find their Witcher games incredibly dull, but good God do they take their time with games and it shows.) That’s tough, I know. I keep pre-ordering stuff because studios tie in content with pre-orders. However, we, as a market, need to stop doing that. It encourages a downward trend where games are released well before they’re in a state that could, conceivably, be considered ready.

Of course, I could be wrong. This could have all been planned from the start. I sincerely hope not, though, because that means that, truly, we live in the most boring of dystopias.

[1] They have. American politics has never been the realm of the polite.

[2] It has. We have, of course, backslid a lot, but we used to throw Jell-O in everything and think that was fine.

[3] They’re not.

[4] They did not do a good job of making Geralt into anything other than a flat character, but what are you gonna do?

[5] The Justice Trio! Now available on Amazon!

[6] As another example, think of Star Wars: The Old Republic’s planets.

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