THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF TODD: A POST-MORTEM ANALYSIS OF FALLOUT 76
Recently, I’ve been walking around ground zero. I don’t mean the epicenter of a nuclear blast in Fallout 76’s Appalachia, I’m talking about the online Fallout community. People everywhere aren’t just disappointed (like a vocal group of fans were with Fallout 4), they are ANGRY. Maybe rightfully so; Fallout 76 is, to say the least, pretty underwhelming by Bethesda Game Studios’ standards. On the other hand, the reception to this game has actually been quite overwhelming, but not in a good way. Fallout 76 has gotten a legitimately awful reception by almost every conceivable measure. Sales are down over 80% compared to Fallout 4’s first week numbers, and Fallout 76’s metascore is hovering in the 50’s (with even lower user scores). So this begs the question, how did we wind up here? How did this disaster happen to the once glorified creators of Fallout 3 and Skyrim?
To answer that question (besides blaming the shoddy marketing for 76 which I’ve already discussed at length here) , one must look all the way back to when Bethesda first acquired the Fallout license from its original creators at Black Isle Studios (the remnants of which are now largely scattered across Obsidian and InExile entertainment). Tim Cain (one of the creators of Fallout) once said that he was more interested in exploring the changing morals/power dynamics of a post nuclear world than making a cooler plasma weapon. For Todd Howard and Bethesda, it almost seems that the opposite is true. If one just watches their reveal presentations of FO4 and 76, one would likely believe that Bethesda cares a lot more about creating cooler weapons (or letting the player create them by hoarding junk) than exploring the harsh realities of a post nuclear world. As much flak as it got from hardcore fans back in the day, Fallout 3 was actually closest to capturing the spirit of the original games. Since then, Bethesda (either intentionally or unintentionally) have gone further and further away from what makes Fallout well, Fallout. The Vault Boy image, the 50’s retro-futuristic aesthetic, and the “war never changes” motto are all still there yes, but it seems they are only there for show. On the surface, Bethesda has projected the appearance that this is still the same Fallout franchise, but when you really dig into it, the same DNA just really isn’t there anymore. Bethesda has succeeded in expanding the Fallout universe wider, but it hasn’t made it much deeper.
Although it has a myriad of its own flaws, Fallout 4 at least tried to say something. There is still a moral conflict at its center (mainly revolving around the Institute and how advanced technology may once again doom humanity), however poorly executed it may be. Fallout 76 doesn’t really have much to say about anything, which is not terribly surprising considering all of the human inhabitants of the world are dead. It still could have at least tried however. Instead, Bethesda decided to make one of the “back of the box” marketed features of this game the ability to go “nuke your friends”. Fallout has always been about the horrors of nuclear weapons, and the many consequences that come with their use. In Fallout 76, nuclear weapons have been reduced to a mere end game toy, to be used at the player’s discretion, with little in terms of consequence. Compare this with Fallout New Vegas’ Lonesome Road expansion. Yes, in that DLC the player could launch nukes as well if they so choose. However, that choice was a serious one, and came with major consequences for the world, it didn’t just cause some high level loot to spawn somewhere.
With Fallout 4 however, it was pretty clear that Bethesda’s focus had started to shift away from the series’ core RPG mechanics and nuanced storytelling. Bethesda, for better or worse, focused a lot on the “fun” factor. Why bother to create towns full of interesting NPC’s with their own moral dilemmas when you can just allow the player to build them for themselves? Fallout 76 is in many ways, a natural progression of that design philosophy. That same design philosophy was largely applauded by gaming critics in 2015; IGN (who have given 76 a 5/10) gave the game a 9.5/10 for example. Even Todd Howard admitted after the reveal of Fallout 76 that the game had originally started as a multiplayer mod of Fallout 4. Yes, there are key differences between the two games (mainly the lack of npc’s and half baked multiplayer) but basically the exact same buggy old engine that is being torn apart by critics now largely escaped criticism in 2015. The graphics were still dated then (just compare FO4’s graphics to TW3’s, which was released earlier that same year), there were still a multitude of bugs and performance issues, and the focus had already shifted from complex RPG mechanics and moral dilemmas to helping settlements, radiant quests, and collecting junk with Preston Garvey. A fairly large and vocal amount of Fallout fans actually noticed this then, but not many critics did. This is why, at least in my opinion, a lot of the faux outrage by critics over Fallout 76 rings hollow. If these same critics would’ve called Bethesda out on their shit in 2015, then Fallout 76 likely would not exist, at least in its current form. Maybe these critics saw these same problems with Fallout 4’s core design/engine but chose to ignore it. Maybe these flaws just weren’t as glaringly obvious before with a world full of actual NPC’s. Either way, any gaming “journalist” who didn’t call out Bethesda on Fallout 4’s flaws is complicit in this Fallout 76 debacle.
At the end of the day however, these are still just Video Games we’re talking about here. They’re inherently predicated on fun. Some people however (including myself) believe that games (like other art-forms) can be so much more than that. Most people don’t just watch movies or TV series because they’re fun to watch, they watch them to gain a deeper understanding of the human condition and/or to relate to some fictional person or situation. Games (and RPG’s in particular) are unique in that you can be IN the story, and solve these moral conflicts by choosing one way or the other. Bethesda has seemingly forgotten this, but thankfully developers like CD Projekt Red, Rockstar Games, and others haven’t. Instead, they have focused extensively on the RPG mechanics, choice and consequence, and compelling writing/characterization. And for them, it has paid off. Just look at the critical and fan reception to Red Dead Redemption 2 (or the excitement over the Cyberpunk 2077 gameplay) compared to Fallout 76. Yes, RDR2 is getting lavish praise, but look at what people are praising the most. They’re praising the incredibly detailed and reactive open world, they’re praising the incredible writing and character development, they’re praising the high level of player interaction, choice and consequence, and reactivity of the world. Yes, RDR2 has crafting systems and a camp management system etc, but the game isn’t completely built around hunting and gathering in the way that Fallout 76 is built around collecting junk. Without that RPG and writing focus (and yes, RDR2 is an RPG), it would just be a soulless shell of what otherwise could’ve been an amazing game. And sadly, that is what Fallout 76 is. Even with a super cool and fun world to explore, and the ability to have fun with friends, the pervasive feeling among most who have played Fallout 76 is just that it’s missing “something”. It’s missing life. It’s missing a soul. And most importantly, it’s missing any semblance of morality. Fallout 76 is a world where nothing really matters besides collecting junk, and maybe that’s analogous to where we currently are as a society, but Fallout used to be about so much more than that.
As a longtime fan of Fallout and Bethesda Game Studios, it is truly gut wrenching to see things come to this. It’s sad to see a game adding so much anger and vitriol to a world that’s already chock full of it. Also, the people who work at Bethesda are still exactly that, people; all of the hate and flaming being directed toward people like Pete Hines, who are just doing their job, is quite frankly disgusting, and not helpful in the least. Hopefully, the critical rebuke of this game will serve as a wake up call to Bethesda Game Studios. Maybe they will finally realize what the people really want is not flashy new gimmicks like settlement building and multiplayer. What the majority of people want are the same bread and butter mechanics that have made RPG’s great for decades (just refined and used in new worlds/experiences), and what used to make their own games so great and exciting.
Instead of clamming up and ignoring criticism, Bethesda should take a step back and analyze people’s complaints, and then be open and honest with the community on the path forward. If Bethesda uses this debacle as a learning experience, Fallout 76 can pull a No Man’s Sky type turnaround (with a few major updates at least). Hopefully, it will also allow them to refocus on what’s important for Starfield and TES VI before it’s too late. Their reputation has already taken a pretty big hit with Fallout 76, and if Starfield runs into similar problems, their reputation could be permanently ruined. And that would be a shame, because the world wants and needs Bethesda to be on their A-game. Maybe this will also light a creative spark under Todd Howard and co., since it seems like they may be lacking a bit in that department. I for one surely hope so, and I am rooting for them to turn things around.