Old World Blues, or My Problems with Bethesda’s Fallouts (and 76 specifically)

fallout 1 - Old World Blues, or My Problems with Bethesda's Fallouts (and 76 specifically)

Okay, okay, I know you've probably seen a million 'fallout 76 bad' takes on this subreddit already, but I wanted to approach the topic in a little bit of a different way this time, and discuss an aspect of the game I haven't really heard a lot about: that being, the plot. This isn't going to be an in-depth spoiler analysis, or some 'gotcha' list of plotholes, or anything, but more talking about the theming of 76 and how it relates to the other games in the series (particularly New Vegas, as I think it's probably one the members of this subreddit are most likely familiar with, as well as being a pretty ideal contrast when it comes to FPS Fallout games. With that said, let's begin.

My favorite moment in NV is pretty much a single line. It comes after you enter the Lucky 38, Mr. House's casino. You ask him why, exactly, he thinks he deserves control over New Vegas, and why it shouldn't go to the NCR instead. He responds with the following, quite possibly my favorite single line from any game:

"If you want to see the fate of democracies, look out the windows."

It's such a great line, because it does what I think the Fallout franchise has the potential to do best: inverting the morality of the Old World (and by extension, the player) and offering a critique to the systems in our own world we might consider 'good' without question. I'm not going to argue that Mr. House is the only legitimate choice, or anything, but the fact that you can install an immortal cyborg despot over an independent city-state and still remain totally within the bounds of a 'good' character should speak for just how nuanced and complex NV's writing is. The NCR is a bastion of democracy, a beacon of order, a symbol of the Old World, in all its glory. But the Old World, in itself, was sick, and it was sick in a way that birthed the Wasteland itself.

Next, let's look at Fallout 4, and in doing so, I think that it's telling to examine it's intro- specifically, how it relates to Fallout 1's own. In Fallout 4, the intro sequence mostly consists of your character's own idyllic life in an immaculately manicured suburb, being waited upon by a retro-futuristic robot butler. In Fallout 1, by contrast, the Old World itself is almost never shown- save, of course, for a brief sequence in the intro, in which two power-armored soldiers shoot an unarmed Canadian citizen in the back of the head. They turn to the camera, smile, and wave. The Old World has had an idyllic sheen since pretty much the first Fallout game, but pretty much everything within that game served as a reminder that it was exactly the kind of callous inhumanity and unchecked hubris the Old World held in abundance that let this whole mess start in the first place. In Fallout 2, you actually get to meet the remnants of the US Government- survivors of the Old World, just like your Vault Dweller character from the first game. They try and kill you.


Finally, let's look at Fallout 76. I think it's fair to say that 'plot' as a whole is a less significant part of the current Fallout 76 experience than it might be in other Fallout games. What Fallout 76 does have, however, is a theme, and it's a big, weighty theme, whose shadow looms tall over the entire Wasteland. That theme is Civilizing the Wasteland.

Everything you do in Fallout 76 is, to some extent, about bringing civilization back to the world. The inhabitants of Appalachia are all either dead or mutated beyond recognition, into barely-sentient beasts for you to gun down by the hundreds. You scavenge for scrap and items to improve and repair your weapons and CAMP. You construct buildings and workshops to improve yourself. All of these things are, in some way, about standing as a bastion of order in a chaotic world. And this makes sense. Within the context of the game itself, Vault 76 was all about doing just that- rebuilding order, reclaiming the wasteland. You did these sorts of activities in 4, too, of course, but within 4 there was usually context- communities of wastelanders to interact with, whose problems guided and shaped your approach to the world around you- kill this Deathclaw so that this town can be safe, find this person's missing child, those sorts of things. Fallout 76 strips it down to its most fundamental levels. Civilization is good. Creating civilization is, in itself, good.

However, ask yourself this- in what way does this differ from the actions of the Old World? They militarized themselves against the hive-mind hordes of Communism. They expanded their reach into Canada, suppressing whatever resistance they found along the way. They saw themselves as a bastion of order, bringing civilization to the world, no matter how many of their own citizens they had to experiment on or detain to do so. And it brought them nothing but destruction.

Fallout 76 makes what I think is its best, most nihilistic point pretty much by accident. At the end of the campaign, you have to launch a nuke to destroy the Scorchbeast lair. There's some hemming and hawing from an Overseer's audio log about how we shouldn't fall into the same traps as the Old World, but it doesn't matter. It's the only way to make the story progress. It awakens a Scorchbeast Queen, and you kill it. And then? Well, what else is there to do, other than to launch it again?

Of course, I'm being a little bit facetious here. Players don't launch the nuke because they believe that it's a right or moral thing to do- they launch it to get better gear, and to fight tougher monsters. That's all well and good. But look at it from a story perspective. You, the survivor of the most devastating nuclear exchange on Earth, have simply turned around and used the weapons once more yourselves on an enemy you thought was worthy. Of course you did. You were poisoned the moment you left the vault- perhaps even the moment you entered it. You were born into an endless cycle of militarism and exploitation, and you will never truly leave it for as long as you live. God bless the USA, and God Bless Vault-Tec. Thanks for reading.

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