“Nobody helps anybody anymore.”
So says an audio recording pulled off a dead body sitting on the porch of a small shack that has seen better days. The body had been “Sophie,” and in her final days, she wasn’t too happy about her situation. She had survived the bomb dropping, the one that irradiated the Appalachian world in which Fallout 76 exists. But in the apocalypse, things went from bad to worse and she, I assume, sat on the porch and waited to die of blight or radiation poisoning or something equally horrific.
These audio recordings have been around in games for a long time—not invented but certainly popularized by 2007’s Bioshock. They are used when the denizens of a world are all dead, but the game really wants you to know that a lot of work was put into world-building. Since they can’t speak for themselves anymore, everyone in Appalachia took up podcasting—unfortunately, few made it past Episode 1. I am their only listener.
Or I would be if Fallout 76 was what developer Bethesda Softworks has trained everyone to think a Fallout game is over the past decade—or really a Bethesda game at all. Their first, 2008’s Fallout 3, was controversial in certain circles for taking a beloved, narrative-driven turn-based role-playing game and making it into a narrative-driven first-person role-playing shooter. But it was met with critical acclaim and commercial success, and became a pillar of Bethesda’s intellectual property right beside the wildly popular Elder Scrolls series.
But even if Bethesda changed everything about Fallout, that narrative-driven aspect was key to the franchise’s success. The games featured huge worlds with tons of characters to interact with and talk to; Fallout 4 had 110,000 lines of dialogue for its NPCs. In the games, you could make decisions that would affect those characters in sometimes meaningful ways.
Fallout 76 is so named because your character emerges from the nuclear-war-proof bunker “Vault 76” (and not because there have been 72 other games in the series since 2015). It too has a huge world—several times the size of Fallout 4—but all of those characters? They’re just like Sophie: dead. It’s Fallout 4 for people who liked everything except the narrative. Now, scripted story comes in the form of those audio tapes and text prompts. But even that’s not what Fallout 76 is really about; in lieu of non-player characters (NPCs) to interact and converse with, the world is littered with other, real people.
Boot up Fallout 76 and you’ll be put in the same world as a few dozen others. You can see their names and locations at any time just by pulling up the map. Many are loners; some move in groups. There are big Events on the map to which you can travel in an attempt to foster camaraderie amongst strangers, where you all team up against some big baddie(s) or try to do something that one person alone couldn’t do. There, you will use the same Fallout combat that fans of the series must come to tolerate. It’s slow and imprecise, floaty and completely lacking oomph, no matter what you’re using. Typically, a depleting health bar is the only sign of progress. Eventually, your opponent rag-dolls. It’s over.
And the people run off again.
I first felt the isolation while I was sitting down at a fireplace, cooking food because you must eat and drink at regular intervals. Another player ran up to me and then ran to another one. I assume they were attempting to use the same fireplace but the action was blocked because I was there and sharing isn’t caring in Fallout 76. They then cooked and left. Despite our closeness for that brief period, neither of us said anything or acknowledged the other. We simply went about our digital lives—each just trying not to starve.
It was a simultaneously bizarre and incredible non-interaction, just one of many. Few times has another person ran into my space and had a little speaker icon appear letting me know they wanted to actually communicate. A few times, I was that guy. But eventually, I just gave up.
The first time I ran out of health, struck in the back by an irradiated cockroach, I was given the chance to “Call for Help” instead of just keeling over. So I did. For thirty seconds, I watched myself on the ground as a little animation played above my head shouting for help. But no one came. And I died.
Sophie’s words echoed in my mind.
Without a proper narrative—the ramblings of corpses and computers aren’t quite as compelling as clearly crafted characters—the experience becomes a post-apocalypse simulator. It is a game about surviving in the aftermath of a horrific incident, where you have to drink and eat. And a lot of that food and drink is irradiated; you can fall ill. You cobble together clothing, weaponry, and other supplies. And there are other people out there doing exactly the same thing. You see them, maybe acknowledge them, and then go your separate ways. Ships passing in the night.
Knowing that those other people are real people who are exactly as disinterested in you as you are them is genuinely a little sad. I’ve never felt so… inconsequential before. Video games are designed to make you feel like a protagonist. Even in a group, you are the one to bust open the doors for your squad, regardless of the tactical logic of that move. Even if you’re a rookie, you press the big red button that saves and/or destroys the whole world. In co-op, everyone get to be the protagonist, but the narrative is structured around a team dynamic. You are together always and forever. In a typical massively multiplayer online game, a guild structure is built in. Communication is encouraged by both the game and its world.
But Fallout 76, which is more massive-comma-multiplayer than massively multiplayer, isn’t that. In fact, it might be the bleakest big-budget, “AAA” game ever made, as it forces you to confront loneliness in a world that is built on it despite being in a game that hopes not to be. Fallout 76 clearly want to be something more, what with its mechanical emphasis on the idea of socialization. The wasteland doesn’t encourage communication. Seeing those other people, real people, also trying to avoid the inevitability of death after the world has ended but not asking you to help them out, serves as a constant reminder of your insignificance. You might be the protagonist of your own story, but not Fallout 76’s.