Looking back at the successes and failures of Bethesda’s (sinking) flagship
In 2015, when the mushroom cloud rose above the Boston wasteland and the corrupt Institute was finally destroyed, I was anything but happy. I’d been working undercover with Massachusetts’ own Rebel Alliance, the Railroad, to end the subjugation of artificial humans – synths – who seemed to possess their own free will and sentience, a fact that I saw ignored by so many in the wasteland and especially by the Institute that created them. To this end, I’d been undercover, working as a double agent so as to avoid raising suspicions about my ultimate goals, and making sure every move I made against the evil corporation who had misguidedly placed its trust in me was sneaky, undetectable. Eventually, I couldn’t hide the truth anymore, and I made a big, risky move that led to my discovery and then the ultimate takedown and detonation of a hidden nuke.
But I hadn’t really decided to do… any of that.
To really get to the root of my unhappiness with Fallout, we have to go right back to the start of the decade and Fallout: New Vegas. New Vegas was an impressive game — where 2007’s Fallout 3 opened with a long, linear, confined narrative, New Vegas planted you in a tutorial town, of sorts, that you could immediately leave if you so desired: you could follow instructions, re-learn how to shoot bottles with BB guns, and defend Goodsprings from the murder-hunger Powder Gangers, or you could just run away and join them. You could follow the “optimal path” down the highway to Primm and Nipton to get your first taste of the game’s various factions, or you could ignore all the NPC warnings, run straight into Deathclaw territory and immediately get yourself killed… or survive, somehow, and find yourself right in the heart of New Vegas and able to pick the story up from a point that would have taken hours to get to otherwise.
There were so, so many stories to be told in the Mojave Desert, including the various sidequests that almost always gave you some sort of dramatic and interesting choice, but even unscripted ones that still had a valid place: when I first encountered Caesar’s Legion at Nipton, I found the atrocities they had committed to be so reprehensible that I decided then and there I was killing the smug Vulpes Inculta, crappy gear be damned. I thought I was bravely forging a path against what the game wanted from me, but it became clear this was always an option — now, Legion assassins would ambush me at random times. It improved my experience! It made me feel like I had made a lasting change to this world! I found out, many years later when Twitter was finally part of my day-to-day, that a lot of other people had killed the Legion at Nipton as well, and this wasn’t a presented “choice”, it wasn’t a task assigned to you, it was just a decision you could make.
After plugging through Fallout New: Vegas and savouring all the rich stories and interesting narrative turns through my 60 hour journey, I finally reached the — admittedly underwhelming — end. At Hoover Dam, I had my final fight against the Legion and the minor side character now promoted to final boss. That said, it might have only been underwhelming because I’d already killed Caesar, and everyone else who might conceivably stop me from becoming the new ruler of the wasteland… but that’s a moot point. The screen faded to black and we reached the controversial “ending slideshow”. I remember reading a lot of criticism of this; that it removed narrative impact, that it was a cop out. For those who don’t remember, you get narration over still images of all the changes and futures of the companions and the Mojave denizens that you interacted with over the course of the adventure.
I loved that slideshow. It wasn’t an incredible feat to include, but it showed the impact that I had as a player. It showed me consequences for all the little decisions I made, even down to the quest where you pick a brain for an Elvis impersonator’s robot dog. There’s also the matter of the actual ending: who is going to have power over New Vegas? Who will have power over the Mojave? Will you keep Mr. House operating the strip? How did you get to the end? There were four dramatically different options for the world to proceed down and then fifteen for your character, depending on how you interacted with the world around you.
Fallout 4 has four endings, and three of them are the same. A lot of things fed into this and it all sunk in when the credits rolled. First, Fallout 4 moved from an unvoiced, purely text-based dialogue system influenced by stats to a fully voice acted system with significantly fewer, and zero meaningful stat checks. It doesn’t just change how deep into the role you as a player can sink yourself, but it means the story is going to follow a path of predetermined choices — you have less of an influence on what you say or how things are done. The second is the Bethesda style of writing choices into quests: there are two options with clear biases. This was definitely present in Fallout 3 also, with choices like “will you detonate the bomb in Megaton?” or “which of these bug themed faux-superheroes will you kill?”. The writing wasn’t bad, it was just clean-cut, with no room for improvisation. Fallout 4 gives you the option of joining a faction: the Institute, the Railroad, or the Brotherhood of Steel. Regardless of which faction you choose, there’s a predetermined point where you will take one of the other factions out in a huge fight, and the other in a dramatic finale.
The “double agent” situation I described at the beginning was just a feeling — I could have done anything and aroused no suspicions and sabotaged no relationships. It was only at select points I had the option to choose one of two things to progress the story in the “You Joined The Institute” path or the “You Joined Someone Else” path. It was so frustrating, so disappointing to me that this was the direction that Fallout storytelling was heading after 2010, especially as I worked within the thin framework to immerse myself into the character and really engage with the story and had the hollowness of my decisions rubbed into my face a few hours later. Now, I agree, it definitely seems overly intense to rag on Fallout 4 this much when it’s just one game, but now I see this hollowness in so many subsequent RPGs.
We even saw Fallout 4’s influence seeping into New Vegas developer Obsidian Entertainment’s next project, The Outer Worlds. It’s as though Obsidian just… forgot what made its Fallout game so special and decided to bake a preset narrative with boring options into its own game. There are lots of dramatic decisions, and they definitely avoid the Bethesda trap of making one decision “good” and one “evil”, with most being a selection between two shades of grey. Except, you can dig further and find out that there’s always a third option, which is actually the only good solution to the problem. You’d be a fool not to choose it. The main narrative doesn’t even achieve this — it doesn’t even matter if you kill every NPC you run into, since they protect one key character and you end up on the “good” path of saving the Galaxy. Or, you end up on the “bad” path. That’s it. The game seems so rich with choice but it boils down to one, almost passive decision. At least it gives you an ending slideshow to show the consequences and futures of key quests and NPCs. Fallout 4 doesn’t.
I’ve nattered on about narrative for a while here, but those attuned to the Fallout series (or really, anyone who even vaguely paid attention to what was happening around them for the previous entire decade) has probably noticed I haven’t even mentioned Fallout 76 yet. There was so much interesting DNA being filtered and spliced to make this new 2018 Fallout: Interplay’s vision for Fallout Online that got cancelled in 2010 after the developer failed reach the four-year development schedule required to keep the intellectual property rights; the base building and crafting gameplay tested in Fallout 4; the pressure for another experimental Fallout game from another developer à la New Vegas to follow the numbered mainline entry.
As Bethesda Game Studios Director Todd Howard got up on stage at E3 2018 to announce this new, small server but still massively multiplayer wasteland simulator, we saw a lot of that DNA make it through, for better or worse: it was to use the engine from the previous game (likely due to development timeframes), leaving no significant graphical jumps or, as it turned out on release, bug fixes, and the building and crafting mechanics were there, massively improved and expanded from Fallout 4 where they were very popular, even in their limited capacity. There was one core piece of the Fallout DNA that didn’t make it to this new title, though — there were to be no NPCs in this world. The core narrative was that you would be the first humans to emerge from a Vault, Fallout’s series of nuclear bunkers, there would be no other people around! With this swift stroke, the revered series — I gave Fallout 4 a beating here, but I still enjoyed it overall — copped a harsh blow. There was no more dialogue, and role playing systems were massively simplified. It didn’t even end up making sense, since the core narrative saw you interact with plenty of things left behind by humans who had seen the post-apocalypse before you.
Fans were, to put it very lightly, not okay with that, and in 2019 Bethesda did backtrack on that decision, announcing plans to add human NPCs back into the game this year alongside a number of new ways to play the game including as on-trend battle royale game mode. Sadly, though, those updates don’t reconcile my biggest issue with Fallout 76. If anything, they just serve to highlight the problem: they signify the end of the franchise, for what could be a very long time. This isn’t due to Fallout 76’s lacklustre sales, poor quality control or critical failure (I could talk about all of those things for a long time to come) but instead because of its very nature: it’s now an evolving, updating service.
Much like we haven’t heard a peep out of Grand Theft Auto for seven years as its online mode continually grows and refreshes — and we called the six year gap after Grand Theft Auto IV an excessively long time — it’s not clear when Fallout will move on and begin to rebuild itself. In an age where sequels to games like Overwatch and Fortnite are just updates to the original and not entirely new experiences, and in a time where multiplayer games are expanded and updated over five, seven, or 10 or more years rather than completed and delivered to players as a complete experience: will we see another Fallout in the short term, or will we reflect on the next decade and say “remember Fallout?”
I love Fallout. I love the aesthetic, the memories of plodding through a nuclear wasteland with 40s radio tracks blaring through my headphones, the constant reflections on the stories I’d created and the people I’d met. I love the thrill of exploration and discovery that’s stayed intact through all the games. I even miss frantically struggling against goddamn cazador poison in the middle of the Mojave desert, sometimes. I feel like the things I love are slowly, a little at a time, being sidelined or discarded, though, and it saddens me. I’m just hoping that this decade we see Bethesda pull a New Vegas on us and give us that incredible, deep, memorable roleplaying experience we all deserve. At the end of the day, isn’t that what made Fallout… Fallout?
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