Opinion: Setting the World on Fire: Bethesda Ruins 20 Years of Fallout in Under 3 Minutes

So Fallout 76 (2018) looks like a steamy pile of disappointment. I figured I’d just drop the bomb right there, in the spirit of total nuclear apocalypse and all. I’ve been ranting to my fellow writers and staff at GameLuster about my complete disappointment behind the scenes and decided to voice my concerns for everyone else to read as well. But instead of going on an anger and shame-fueled rant about how I’ll be skipping this pointless, reductive, stupid, backwards, pandering, empty, dull, inane, trite, self-defeating, meandering, mistaken, insulting, immature, and indignant entry in the Fallout franchise, I’ll go back to the older games, all the way to the very beginning, and conclusively show why all of the above adjectives are more than just selected for comedic and polemic effect. Shall we?

The idea of Fallout 76 is that you and people on your server are released from the vault 20 years after complete annihilation of the US (and the entire world) via thousands of atomic bombs in order to rebuild West Virginia. Already this very idea reduces every single Fallout game to a complete joke. You’ll recall in the first Fallout (1997), the overseer only starts releasing inhabitants when absolutely necessary. This happens a long 84 years after the Great War in 2077. What happened, Jacoren? Was that all the fury you could muster? The official purpose of every vault was to ultimately determine how the inhabitants would fare in attempts to rebuild America after a nuclear catastrophe. So what happened?

Now, the purpose of vault 13 was to remain closed for 200 years, initially. The purpose changed to render the inhabitants as reserve troops to be deployed when needed. So for 64 years, not one person was needed at all? Vault Tec never considered that, gosh, rebuilding everywhere as soon as possible would lead to total dominance of the initial survivors? They’d truly willingly give up control over the entire Nevada region for—well, no reason at all? I guess it just wasn’t their purpose to surface after 20 years, huh? Can’t claim reclamation if your vault wasn’t built in 2076, sorry. Even though plenty of other vaults should theoretically have been finished in the same year. Pay no attention to the vault behind the curtain.

The second part of the idea by itself turns every game into a joke, as well. The vaults may very well, and indeed do, vary in their stated and designed purposes. Most, if not all, of the vaults ultimately test if the inhabitants can successfully rebuild society. Clearly, surfacing before all the deadly radiation has gone would skew the results of such an experiment towards failure from the start. Yet, the stated purpose of vault 76 is to open 20 years after the Great War, in 2097. So, what happened to the all clear, the message from outside to inform the inhabitants that it is safe to surface? What happened to the idea that the area could still be irradiated after all that?

Now, as I am completely ignorant on the topic of nuclear energy, fallout, and atomic bombs. I had to quickly take to Google before writing this to determine just how dangerous nuclear fallout would be. Of course, I took Hiroshima and Nagasaki as examples, as well as Chernobyl, a nuclear disaster of a different kind that would serve as a nice contrast. In August 1945, one bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and one was dropped on Nagasaki. From these singular events, up to a quarter of a million people died instantly, at least. The radiation would affect people for at least a decade after the bombings, causing widespread leukemia, anemia, cataracts, birth complications and defects, and so on. All of this from just one bomb on each city. Chernobyl is, of course, the infamous failed nuclear plant that killed several thousands in the area and caused the irradiation of the immediate vicinity as well as rivers, lakes, and other areas. To this day, 30+ years after the accident, much of the area is still inhospitable to man as several minutes in unsafe zones can prove fatal.

Now, rebuilding both Japanese cities happened relatively quickly. Safety measures such as the fictional Vault Tec would employ were, of course, non-existent, so people picked up their lives fairly quickly (partially, anyway). Several years after the bombings, the cities had already been cleaned up and under construction. Not quite the 20 years it takes in Fallout 76. Chernobyl is also an odd one since there was no detonation, only the leaking of material (for one), which makes it hard to use in a comparison. There’s also the so called Seven Ten Rule which states that fallout from an atomic blast disappears exponentially by a factor of every “seven increase in time”, meaning that the immediate effects of radiation on the ground should be as good as gone in as much as two weeks. Hell, even vault 8 in Fallout 2 (1998) opened in about 14 years after the Great War urging its inhabitants to surface and rebuild.

But there is still quite a few leagues between reality and the reality of the situation. Hiroshima and Nagasaki still suffered major casualties long after the radiation should have dissipated, meaning that the Seven Ten Rule really isn’t quite as reliable as mere maths would indicate. If human beings were exposed to radiation immediately, that surely meant major health complications down the line, regardless of the two weeks it would take for the radiation to clear out. Additionally, dropping one bomb isn’t quite the same as dropping hundreds of bombs in every state of the US. Dropping that number of bombs would undoubtedly induce a nuclear winter, meaning a release of particles that would find their way to the stratosphere and block out all sunlight, effecting plant and animal death for decades. The bombs dropped on North America alone would mean decades of scarcity, famine, desertlike conditions and so on.

Instead, Fallout 76 looks like a vibrant natural park as if copied from one of those images you see of abandoned railroad tracks that have been overgrown over time. And 20 years after global nuclear detonations, no less! Never mind that vault 8 reopened in a waste land cornucopia of death, disease, famine, and general inhospitableness. Look at all those trees!

I don’t need to return to 1998 to make this point; just compare this trailer to Sanctuary Hills in Fallout 4 (2015). You’ll recall that many of the trees seemed dead, damaged beyond repair, a whole 210 years after the Great War. So, uh, qu’est ce que c’est, Fallout 4, nature broken? What, Fallout 76 can grow back forests of trees in decades, but you can’t grow back the odd tree after two centuries, you wimp? The idea behind this game, the very concept, is already plenty insulting to its own predecessors. “This is a nuclear wasteland, not an amusement park,” Howard said at E3. “More, more, more,” Bethesda cried, as all the previous entries were reduced to pathetic failures merely by comparison. Four times bigger than Fallout 4 and 16 (sixteen!) times better. And I haven’t even taken my hat off, folks.

The most striking way in which Fallout 76 degrades the previous games, itself, and thus the entire Fallout series, is in its totality. Everything about it is wrong. When one returns to Fallout 1 for yet another playthrough, one is immediately struck by key elements that define the Fallout series. Emptiness, loneliness, absurdity, nothingness, anxiety, pointlessness. These aren’t just words I looked up in a book, but emotions that wash over the player the moment he steps out of vault 13 and into Shady Sands. Without a single explosion, and yet with complete confidence, the player is presented with the following facts about the world he inhabits: there is nothing there, people are barely surviving, and everywhere is death without purpose. The desert of California is truly the perfect setting for it. This is the land where nothing grows. People need to rely on complete strangers to rid them of seemingly simple pest problems. And later, raiders kidnap a girl from the village and the villagers are helpless to stop them. If the player is unable to rescue her, one can only assume just how pointlessly she would die in the hands of yet another small faction of raiders, especially since they have held female prisoners in the past, some of whom the player has to kill in order to join their ranks. That is, until one plays Fallout 2 where Tandi, this kidnapped girl, plays a big role, of course, and one has to conclude she was rescued or never kidnapped.

But bleakness persists instead of a homey feeling. Fallout games simply radiate despair; a far cry from a place you belong at the end of country roads. And loneliness! Your death screen is nothing more than your bones in your torn up vault suit; no name, no equipment, no tombstone, no companions, just you and the desert. No one but you shows up in the ending cinematics to Fallout 1, despite the fact that you meet plenty of people and even go on adventures with some of them. Fallout 76 of course ruins this completely by being designed with co-op in mind. Up to 4-player co-op, like you’re playing Magicka and waving wands around. Forget bleakness and meaninglessness in a demolished America where tribes of savages eat each other without higher purpose. Wouldn’t you rather shoot a mutated sloth in the face?

Ah, but you see, you can always just play it solo. This would, of course, be a viable excuse if it meant the game wasn’t designed with co-op in mind. Having four people in one group isn’t quite the same as having merely two where one can excuse design decisions as simple oversights. Bethesda hasn’t forgotten that Fallout is a singleplayer experience, has it? I’m afraid to say it really has. Loneliness and solo adventure aren’t quite the valid sensations when one is confronted with the fact that they’re always online. You will always meet other players, since enemy NPCs have been reduced to cave trolls anyway. Griefing is always a threat, since you’re always online. And how can one really feel alone if what one does is always connected to everyone else moving around in the same virtual space anyway? The idea behind loneliness in previous Fallout games is that there is no one else like you, which emphasizes why the road you walk, i.e. the actions you take and decisions you make, is yours to walk alone. Lonesome Road says it best: you’ll walk it alone. It fails to convince when you’re always in the company of everyone else, without respite.

Worse still, and finally, is the insane addition of calling in nuclear strikes. This moment in the presentation left me absolutely speechless. I could only watch and wonder why no one was stopping it from happening. One need not imagine a world where a nuclear holocaust is a reality, a fact of life. Many have already done so. Fallout, appropriately in its title, asks what the ramifications of such a disaster would be. Evidently, people would fight for scraps. Warring tribes of raider savages; reversions to mysticism; the nigh complete loss of infrastructure; small peoples living in fear, clueless as to how to continue, lacking the motivation and know-how to make a difference, dying young in a number of banal ways from being raided to simply being stung by a bloatfly. All this due to the detonations of atomic bombs en masse, all around the world. No one nation shot first; allegedly, apparently, the Vault Tec director fired the first nuke in order to effect the nuclear holocaust he desparately wanted and needed for his vaults to gain and maintain relevance. Banal is a fitting descriptor for life after 2077.

And Bethesda ruins this by allowing you to mercilessly, effortlessly, shamelessly fire nuclear weapons on other people’s settlements just to loot scraps. There is no moral compass anymore, no gray area in which to live or act in the Waste Land. There is no choice between trying and failing to retain some level of morality, and surrendering your humanity to your animalistic desires and instincts. You are reduced to an empty shell, much like the power armor skeleton, that cares about only one thing: indiscriminately murdering everyone else just because they may have a stock for a shotgun that your third party member may need. Never mind diplomacy. Never mind cooperation with strangers in an MMO environment, not at all uncommon in games like Rust (2013) or DayZ (2013) that inspired this trash game. Shoot them dead to win pointless money and fire nukes on their settlements to kill giant crabs and acquire new trousers. I am turned into a ghoul and my jaw has dropped completely from my face.

Forget you, Fallout: New Vegas (2010) where choosing to fire nukes at the end of Lonesome Road made you feel like a monster. You would murder unsuspecting NCR and Legion troops, turning them into dead men ready to expire, or simple feral ghouls that lack all humanity. You would doom children to die on their playgrounds for a simple gun or piece of power armour. You would hate it, or at least knew that you should. Forget you, Fallout 3 (2008) where you can destroy the entire town of Megaton for some caps. You would doom sentient ghouls and humans alike, again hating it or aware that you should. Both games never had the stuff to be Fallout games anyway, genuine Fallout games. See, Fallout is only about doing whatever, whenever. Nuke a town and look for scraps. That’s what cool games allow you to do. Forget about the implications on player character morality or even tangible ramifications and consequences in the game world where NPCs are doomed to die in banal, absurd ways. No, just blow it all up. How else would you rebuild, nobly rebuild West Virginia other than by nuking everyone and everything you dislike and disagree with? Speech skill is for losers.

And what do we get in return for all this? What is the trade we’re forced to make at nukepoint? Why, we get to shoot mythical creatures in their fat faces for caps. Never minding, of course, that caps wouldn’t be used as currency 20 years after the end of the world. Never minding, of course that radiation cannot bring mythology to life. Why, we all get to parade around in highly customizable, stupid power armor. Never minding, of course, the looming threat of microtransactions that will add in new power armor or customization options. (Hey, it’s just cosmetics.) Why, we get to effect no lasting changes or measurable consequences either inside or outside West Virginia since none of any of the other games ever mention the area or any faction that originated there. Never minding, of course, that we’re supposed to be one of the first to open and rebuild society and that Fallout 4, for one, takes place 200 years later on the same coast, and so someone should have caught even the tiniest of winds of it. Well, at least we’ll be able to play solo and do quests and relate to desperate people in hopeless situations, right? Uh…

Yes, here is my prediction, the real meat of the article: I predict there will be no NPCs beyond enemy monsters to shoot. There will be no factions, no towns, no cities. Firstly, because this doesn’t work in an always online game. Rust doesn’t have any friendly NPCs; it doesn’t have dialogue options. You can expect to see none of what makes Fallout S.P.E.C.I.A.L., the C in the middle without which the game P.A.L.E.S. in comparison to what it could be, lacking all intelligence to justify playing it. It won’t have NPC interactions because Bethesda wants you to interact with other people in the always online world. Every character is you and others, after all. The size of the world reflects this as it allows for multiple bases being built without constantly being in view of one another. Abandoned buildings will be there for you to ransack in order to rebuild your own bases. You are the first to leave to rebuild anyway. No one can beat you to it, and no one has. Except better games like Fallout 2 and Fallout: New Vegas, the locations of which didn’t need to revolve around you to survive up to a point.

This is how the world of Fallout ends, ladies and gentlemen. Not with a whimper, but with a malicious bang. Bethesda wanted to turn one of their IPs into a multiplayer one and Fallout had to bite the dust. Firing nukes is fun; it’s just supposed to be fun, games are fun. It all ends with a bang, and you’re the one pushing the button. I hope you’ll feel a little bad when you do so, which will be slightly more feeling than your player character or the world of Fallout 76 will have. Light ‘em up, boys. At least the map is four times bigger, eh?

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