Why has the Fallout 76 Experiment Failed to Spark?

It had so much promise. Fallout 76 was meant to be Bethesda’s next great leap into the unknown. The tantalising online ad reels and longer trailers showed how beautiful the game looked, and it was a title on everybody’s lips. What we actually got was disappointment.

Endless bugs, gargantuan patches and an apparent lack of purpose means that Fallout 76 already looks like a failure barely three months after its release. The groundbreaking foundation laid down by Fallout 3, continued so well by Fallout: New Vegas and Fallout 4, has been overturned, and gamers have resolutely responded with frustration. Physical sales of the game were down 82 per cent compared to Fallout 4, with digital sales down 48 per cent. Forbes magazine described attempts to improve the game as ‘a huge uphill climb, and one that Bethesda may not want to make.’

The game’s inadequacy compared to its predecessors may go beyond the endless technical glitches and poor application of multiplayer. The previous three Fallout games – which are not perfect in every way, but rank considerably better than Fallout 76 – are more solitary experiences. There is no multiplayer, no dependence on other people (who can be so unreliable!) and all interactions are made with non-playable characters who most of the time are easy to find. These are complex games, but there possess a basic simplicity that means they can be picked up at any point and enjoyed. Walk for a few minutes, and you will find something interesting. The land in Fallout 76 is too big and too empty. You end up asking yourself what the point of playing the game is.

Fallout 76 also misfires when trying to capture what makes the Fallout games truly special; their built-in critique of historical consciousness and imagination. As Joseph November and Tom Cutterham’s chapters in Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History have explored, the Fallout games recycle and reconfigure certain socio-cultural imaginations from two key moments in American history. These are the frontier-exploring individual of the Wild West, and the nuclear-powered tech fantasies of the 1950s. The player explores a new world on their own, encounters savage ‘others’ (be they raiders, super mutants or Roman legionnaires) and ultimately the future itself hinges on the decisions of this one character. Along the way, you have to decide whether to uphold the values of the pre-apocalypse world – democracy, efforts towards equality, and so on – or to sacrifice these liberties in order to embrace a promised technological paradise. The Fallout games are a moral exploration of an uncanny American history and the emphasis it places on individual action.

Fallout 76 can still be seen as having these dilemmas, but in attempting a multiplayer evolution of the formula, the individualistic streak is gone. The popular imagination of a lone wanderer conquering the world before him, along with the critique of this construction and its consequences, is now absent since you are constantly having to rely on others. Fallout 76 undermines the social commentary that makes its predecessors so endlessly engaging. Who would have thought that Armageddon could be boring?

Fallout 76 has not managed to match the incredibly high standard of the games that came before it. The infuriating bugs in the system and removal of non-playable characters has made the gaming experience feel pointless, irritating and empty. It is no longer a pinnacle gaming experience nor a fascinating exploration of both the future and the past. It is exactly what there would be after a nuclear apocalypse. Nothing.

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