This isn’t to say you have no friends in life but, rather, no friends willing to purchase or play “Fallout 76” with you. The loneliness, in that case, feels amplified. And that’s what I experienced when the game was released last month.
A little before the game launched, I texted my best pal in the whole wide world. We’ve been through so much together, the kind of friendship where if something is important to me, it’ll be important to him. “Fallout 76 Wednesday,” I texted him — the seventh time I’d reminded him that the first online Bethesda game is happening. “Unless you think we’ll play a lot of it, I’ll pass for a while,” Joe texted back.
My optimistic brain did its best Jim Carrey impression, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance. Yeah!”
Earlier this year, Joe would reject my Fallout coaxing in chat and the million other ways we communicate: “I don’t know about the concept, man,” and “Well, it seems kind of pointless?”
To be fair to Joe, less than a week after the game launch, critics of the game echoed those statements. “A pointless walk in the post-apocalypse,” writes The Guardian. The game has a lot of “pointless online nonsense,” writes Forbes contributor Paul Tassi in an otherwise favorable piece.“ Nevertheless, "Fallout 76 Wednesday” arrived, and Joe was out. Alone, and without a friend, I started the game.
“Fallout 76” is a shared online experience to explore post-apocalyptic West Virginia a few years after China obliterates the United States. Everyone is a “Vault Dweller” emerging from the fallout shelter Vault 76 on “Reclamation Day.” Despite Joe’s claim, the game does have a point: to collaborate with real people, your fellow Vault Dwellers, to rebuild America. The game also has a problem: real people.
After spending a few minutes creating my character, I left my bedroom in Vault 76 only to hear another human in the bedroom.
“Hey, Uncle Jack, now look at all the extra s--- I can put on my face,” said an invisible, anonymous player. “That looks nasty, brother,” responded another host-less voice, presumably Uncle Jack. It’s safe to say that waking up in bed and suddenly hearing two invisible men banter about grooming tips is a nightmarish first impression for anyone’s day, let alone hearing odd banter from strangers rattling around a video game headset.
And it’s hard to get away from those voices.
During the first hours of the game, everyone is given a quest to find the Overseer of our Vault. That means following a pretty straight path to certain locations she visited. That means players all over the game will be going to the exact same locations, lining up at computer terminals to check off our quest list. It’s absurd. It’s like Frodo finally ending his quest to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom, only to find an orderly queue of other hobbits waiting to toss their ring in.
That’s another controversial issue with the game: Every in-game character you meet is another real human. This is a divisive issue, and I’m of the belief there should have been a few human non-playable characters, or NPCs. “Fallout 76” is obviously not the first game (even among Bethesda’s intellectual property) to have a massive multiplayer online world. I can understand the decision behind keeping NPCs out, but I don’t think it’s a strong one.
Written characters bring color to the world that simply can’t be replaced by the blogs and literal radio plays you’re forced to listen to in this game. Some of the audio storytelling is compelling, but their run time is usually too long, leaving these stories prone to interruption by other emergent elements of an always-online world — like other players, your own friends and other enemies that might suddenly spawn in.
Sometimes this decision leads to what Bethesda intended: Human players acting as part of the story, like YouTuber Many A True Nerd becoming a friendly but all-powerful player helping out new visitors. Ironically, people like Many A True Nerd aren’t that many, and aren’t around nearly often enough to provide a consistent experience.
Playing with friends like Joe would’ve meant the ability to coordinate playing a role, even if it’s just being a fellow survivor. But making complete strangers necessary to the game’s formula leads to too many unpredictable moments of breaking immersion. I was reminded of a Penny Arcade comic strip from 2012 about Sony’s “Journey,” an online multiplayer game of rich tapestry that silenced other players while furnishing a quiet meditation on the meaning of life itself. That point, pondering our place in the universe, would have been hard to make if a player suddenly declared in the middle of your contemplation, “Hold up, I dropped my bong.”
The drive to discover the game’s ultimate story is a little muted, as well. Because it’s a prequel, we know America will continue to rot for centuries after this game. Thus, the focus is squarely on building relationships and interacting with your other players. I found that difficult when I had no friends to bring along and was instead required to meet them.
During my Joe-less wanderings, I ran into a couple. A man and a woman were foraging through an empty farmhouse. We just bumped into each other, and we had a standoff for a few seconds before a Scorched (Fallout 76’s zombified humans) interrupted us. We all took it down.
“I guess it makes sense that we should all help each other!” the woman said. She offered to team up. I silently agreed, feeling like a mute third wheel to West Virginian Adam and Eve.
We explored a nearby amusement park. We set up camp nearby. We even cooked and shared food and talked politics around the fire, as though it was Thanksgiving, post-apocalypse.
Then my game crashed. Yes, this is still a Bethesda game, infamous for bugs due to the ambition of their vision. The studio is aware and warned fans of “spectacular” bugs during its beta leading up to last week’s launch.
I logged back on, and suddenly, there was no one within miles of me. My new friends were gone. It was time to strike out on my own again.
The map limits 24 players per “world” instance, meaning the game leaves plenty of room for solitary play. And once you leave the reverse funnel of the early game, it’s easy to play for hours without running into another human soul.
Still, like my Appalachian Adam and Eve, other players are still finding help in the game. A cursory glance at Fallout 76’s subreddit shows posts from players who are bored and just looking for help. And they’ve taken to share tales of friendly travelers,
“A guy followed me for a few minutes just so he could give me some power armor. I was sure was a trap so kept running away (I’d only played about an hour at that point). Finally I just took it and the guy waved and ran off,” said Reddit user kweenmermaid. “Thanks stranger.”
Players, including myself, derive enjoyment out of hiking through the West Virginia map, which is the most beautifully imagined world Bethesda has created. From towering high-tech drilling rigs straight out of “Westworld,” to volcanic mines, it’s filled with exciting locales to explore. If you ignore that there isn’t much to do besides exploring and surviving, the game feels like an extremely chill hiking simulator, just with a slight chance of buggy zombies spawning suddenly behind you as a result of the game’s always-online nature of populating the world with things to shoot.
The “Fallout 76” experience was always going to be a risky bet. Being a Bethesda game meant it was likely to be a clanky and stilted play experience, but it removes what makes its games great: rich and diverse methods of building lore layered with narrative choice that makes the world feel alive. This directed storytelling is what makes Bethesda’s technical blemishes not only tolerable, but part of the charm.
There’s been considerable critical backlash to the game since its release. Professional reviewers have given the game a mediocre reception, while YouTube gamers pump out video after video with various criticisms directed at the game.
“Fallout 76” is a confusing and large game. It may be months before we can have a full view of this game’s worth. It might end up like “The Division” or “Warframe,” games that only grow as developers work through fixes.
But for now, maybe the real point to “Fallout 76” is the friends we make along the way. In the short term, I suppose that’s what I’ll have to do. Thanks a lot, Joe.
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