I've been thinking about Fallout 76's story and I've come to the view that the story itself is actually quite interesting – but it would work much better in another medium like a book or TV series. This is because of the way interactivity – pretty much the defining feature of video games – combines with the story. In previous games interactivity actually enhanced the storytelling, as it required the player to make active choices. Being a game made the story better. But in 76 they have had to make so many concessions to get the game aspect to work that it now actively detracts from what could be a very interesting story.
Let's start by considering Fallout 4. It's main quest, though not perfectly executed, does confront the player with a major choice to make: which faction to side with. Making that choice requires the player to commit to an answer to the question "can a machine be a person?". This is a question that has been extensively explored in science fiction, and Fallout 4's treatment is hardly the best on most dimensions. Plenty of books, television series, and movies have played with this idea. But in most of those media the audience passively observes and, perhaps, contemplates whether they agree or disagree with the actions of the main characters.
But in Fallout 4 you have to make up your own mind. Synths are people and are treated as slaves? Then you probably side with the Railroad. Synths are an existential threat? Side with the Brotherhood. Perhaps you even decide that synths are people, but loyalty to family is more important and side with the Institute. People still debate what the "right" faction to side with is, and will continue to do so for years to come. It's natural to ask how this is any different to arguing about what characters did in a non-interactive story like a book. To me there are two main differences. Firstly, the game is much less explicit about what the creators consider to be the "correct" choice than most non-interactive media. Secondly, the experience of considering a decision before it has been made and contemplating what the correct choice is seems qualitiatively different to seeing someone else's choice and judging it after the fact. Some of this difference is that, at least on first playthrough, you don't know what the outcome of your choices will be. But it also seems to me that explicitly making a choice – commiting to a certain point of view – is different to passively going along with someone else's choices and not being made to form an opinion. It's the closest most of us will ever come to facing those choices in reality.
So that's Fallout 4 – it's story explores well-trodden ground, but the game aspect adds something to the storytelling by making you an active participant.
Now let's consider Fallout 76's story. Fallout 76 is the story of not one, but two apocalypses. There was the nuclear apocalypse of 2077 that did a fair amount of damage to West Virginia – followed by the seceond apocalypse of the Scorced Plague. It's a fascinating canvas to explore the question of whether it is possible for humans to learn the lessons of history. There's the usual pre-war horror stories documented, as well as the usual post-war "War Never Changes" stuff of raider gangs forming and destroying towns. But then there's a second apocalyptic threat, and the utter inability of disparate forces (the Responders, the Free States, and the Brotherhood of Steel) to come together and present a united front. And after that come the residents of Vault 76, who have to go into the wasteland, figure out what happened and defeat the Scorched threat. Will the people of Vault 76 stick together and cooperate to take on threats like the Scorched Queen? Or will the demands of survival in a hostile world make them turn on each other like the raiders after the war?
The central question of Fallout 76 is this: can the residents of Vault 76 avoid repeating the mistakes of their predecessors? Can they learn the lessons of history, or are they doomed to repeat it?
That is a really freakin cool premise for a story. But it doesn't really work as a video game in its current form – or at least, it would work a lot better if told in another medium.
Take, for instance, the way players discover the stories of those that perished before people emerged from Vault 76. This is done through holotapes, notes and terminals. I like this form of storytelling in Bethesda's other games – it's a nice way of adding some additional lore, or turning an otherwise boring location into an evocative vignette. But it falls flat carrying a narrative on it's own – there's no interactivity to this aspect of the story, so it feels like the whole thing could be better done by putting all the holotapes into a compilation and listening to them as an audiobook.
And the story of the people emerging from Vault 76 is even worse. Since it's a persisent world, we can't actually defeat the Scorched Queen. Of course, there are ways that Bethesda could implement this – there could be some global counter that goes up each time people launch nukes at the Prime site and a Queen gets killed, and goes down when players do something that harms other players, and once that counter reaches a certain point "we win". But if the Scorched were actually defeated the game would basically end – and then people would stop playing (and new players would miss out on the main story). And the extent to which players can actually do things that negatively impact each other is actually quite small due to (IMO very valid) concerns about griefing. So that whole "will we repeat the mistakes of the past" story has almost nothing to do with what you actually do in the game. It's ludonarrative dissonance on steroids!
I think this story would make a brilliant TV series. The residents of Vault 76 emerge into West Virginia. The Overseer doesn't run off and leave holotapes everywhere. Instead she and most of the residents form a community somewhere, and she sends off a small scouting party, which form the main protagonists of the story – you know, a gruff military type, a science nerd, and perhaps a historian (fun idea: have the historian lecture people about "learning the mistakes of the past" and yet have them repeat mistakes over and over again in their personal life) – the usual band of interesting characters. Our scouting party gradually explores West Virginia, piecing together stories which are told through flashbacks. Maybe they run into a survivor or two that joins the scouting party (that way there's some tension to any "did this person die or not" plots they do). While they explore tensions form among the rest of the residents of Vault 76, who eventually fracture into separate groups. It's basically the same story, but you replace all the tedious inventory management with dialogue between well-written characters. It would perhaps even work as a single player game, though I think the prominence of flashbacks to the time before the emergence from Vault 76 really make it suited to a non-interactive medium.
Of course, this is isn't the question Bethesda were asking themselves when they were making the game. They didn't come up with this story and then ask "Should we make this a TV show or multiplayer game?", they probably asked "We want to make a multiplayer Fallout game, what story should we tell?". And the answer to that second question might be that this was the best possible story that could be told (after all, combining meaningful story choices and a persistent multiplayer world seems like a hurculean – perhaps impossible – task). But if the absolute best story you can come up with for a game is one that would work so much better in just about any other medium, that should be a pretty big signal that something is wrong.
I guess we'll wait and see if Bethesda themselves are capable of learning from the mistakes of the past.
tldr: This story would have worked much better as a TV series, since the game elements actively interfere with the storytelling rather than enhancing it.
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