"There's only so much you can do with dead people." – Bored necrophiliacs/Fallout 76 players, probably.
Fallout 76 brought about many puzzling design decisions. Previous titles from the studio had very on-the-nose stories, Skyrim and Fallout 4 in particular. It seemed like everyone you met had this attitude of:
"That person right there, that's the protagonist. Let's tell them all of our problems and fast-track them to being our faction leader."
Regardless of how cheesy it was to be the Archmage/Listener/Master of The Thieves Guild/Dragonborn/Thane of All Holds or how quickly you climbed the ranks of the Minutemen in Fallout 4 – you were undeniably right at the center of the story and had a bearing on how it unraveled dynamically.
One of the largest problems with Fallout 76 is not a "lack of story" or a "lack of interesting characters". The problem is that none of it is interactive. There ARE interesting characters, and you get to read/hear about them doing interesting things – none of which are of any inherent consequence to you.
You can roleplay, but you will never get to see how any of these interesting characters react to your choices, your thoughts, how you resolve problems, you aren't given dialogue opportunities. All of the work put in by these various factions all more or less culminate in you piecing together their stories and finally killing the Scorchbeast queen. You don't get see entire swathes of people wiped from existence. You don't get to witness the emergence of a new threat. You don't have any hand in how the various factions established their domain. At every juncture of the story, you are sifting through the rubble, tapping terminal keys and pressing your ear to your Pip-Boy as the real problem of the game unearths itself:
You get to read and hear all about interesting characters who had more "fun" than you get to.
Fun is in quotes because there is nothing inherently "fun" about fighting a losing battle and being collectively funneled into inevitable death, BUT – at least these characters were able to interact with each other and had a lasting impact on the game world.
These characters laid down the breadcrumbs for you. You get to play the resolution of the story – you only get to hear/read secondhand: the inciting events, the rising actions and tension build-up and even arguably parts of the climax – they all happened before the vault door opened and you entered an emotionless, static world.
When you log out of your individual instance, the most significant change you have on the world is your tiny CAMP, items you've collected, and the temporary orange tint you can sprinkle on one of the areas. You are given busywork with themes, such as collecting pumpkins and repairing water purifiers, you will see no lasting effect on the game world for doing so. The robots who are partially responsible for dolling out the busywork don't qualify any of your actions either. It's entirely mindless and pushes against any reasons one might have for role-playing.
"Why am I doing this quest?" "Do I like this character enough, have they given me a good reason?" "Does this align with the conceited character I'm roleplaying as if I'm doing this for free?" "Does this have consequences that might prevent me from progressing down another questline for an opposing faction?" "Do I set aside my morals for the sweet gun I'm being offered?" "Do I KILL this person and just take this sweet gun instead of helping them? Can I swipe it without them seeing?" "Can I propose a peaceful solution, or convince them that this isn't worth it?"
In MOST scenarios in this game, the questions above… which in previous titles have branched into interesting resolutions and consequences, which added to replayability and bolstered role-playing… can't be answered, and are useless to ask a robot who can't really be conversed with anyways.
There are online/co-op games which get this right, despite the limitations that online play imposes. Fallout 76 made no attempt to do this and built a static story entirely within these limitations, and it is very difficult to see the explanations for these limitations as anything but a story-friendly excuse. Online Fallout is a technical feat… for a heavily modified Gamebryo engine. It pushes no boundaries of ORPGs, MMOs, Co-op Action/Adventure or any discernible genre it borrows from, and it falls short on every single one.
The disappointing reality is that if anyone was to take on the technical challenges of designing an online environment with interactive NPCs, branching quests, warring factions and maintain some of the freedoms that singleplayer allows, I would have thought Bethesda would be the ones to try it.
If they made any real attempts at pushing the boundaries by combining the best aspects of single-player Bethesda RPGs with cooperative play, some of the launch issues might be forgivable. But even fo76 is starting to come around and see that once the vast majority of game-breaking bugs and performance issues are resolved, absent any new content which makes an actual attempt, the game underneath is empty without a dynamic, interactive story and RPG-esque elements that made previous titles the staples they are.
Happy to discuss any of this. Thanks for reading.
© Post "Fallout 76: Players want to be PART of the story." for game Fallout.
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