I liked Fallout 4. It was a big game with a lot to poke at and, mechanically and technically speaking, wasn’t a travesty in the way so many open world Bethesda games are. But it also had its problems, myriad in number but mostly falling under the banner of tepid ambition. One of those problems, however, I haven’t stopped thinking about even three years later.
It was simply yet remarkably inconsequential. It was an unaffecting story that put people on paths that you were, more or less, just there to witness, which was an unfortunate departure from what made the rest of the series such a success. Fallout 3 was full of impactful choices and New Vegas created a full and breathing world the likes the franchise hadn’t ever seen, but Fallout 4 had none of that.
This made the Fallout 76 segment of the Bethesda E3 Showcase less of a shock. Granted, it is a fascinating endeavour. Putting out a game that comes before anything we’ve ever seen in the massive mythos of the series is bold, and with that, a bold step should be taken, and making it multiplayer and persistent online definitely counts as that. It fits the idea that humans that left the vaults were the ones that shaped the wasteland, and now we get to be those humans.
But it also plays into a greater trend that the series has been embracing in ignoring nearly everything surrounding its aesthetic that doesn’t fit to the point that it is painfully offensive. A major feature of Fallout 76, for example, is that you can unleash nukes on other players. Or, for the real wanton destruction fetishists, anywhere you want on the bucolic West Virginia countryside.
This somehow feels more tone-deaf than that The Division 2 segment in the Ubisoft presser. Our very real world is frightened that North Korea is going to wake up on the wrong side of the bed one day and let their missiles rip. And now we stand on the precipice of the meeting where Trump, the man that manufactures and sells the wrong sides of beds, has to ability to either assuage those fear or condemn us all.
Then here comes Fallout 76 turning nuclear proliferation into a casual mechanic at best and an irresponsible joke at worst. The consequences of letting a nuke fly aren’t even consequences; instead, it appears that you simply unlock new resources, new enemies, and clear out some settlements so you can rebuild in their place. Remember when nuking Megaton was a huge, paralyzing decision in Fallout 3? Ha, so serious back then! (It did, however, also have the mini-nuke launcher, so take that with a grain of salt, as Heather Alexandra explores for Kotaku.)
And Fallout 3 strikes an even harder contrast from when Interplay Productions was running the show. They proposed the question of indulgence. Before the bombs, we found pride in our unchecked consumption of the world and of those around us. After the bombs, that excess bled out into our hunger for control of what was left. It was a meaty and grim consideration of our human nature. And that’s long since gone.
It’s been a slow and unceremonious neutering of the franchise’s ethos. But that’s not to say it hasn’t also been problematic from the beginning. The series is categorically about an alternate history where the 1950s milieu is preserved like a mosquito in Jurassic Park amber. But do you know what was one of the biggest social escalations of that time? The civil rights movement. Do you know what’s missing from Fallout? Anything regarding that.
Yussef Cole writes about this much better and at length in a Medium post from November of 2015, but one analysis stands out: “for what else but whitewashed can you call a world that where the civil rights movement of the 1960’s might conceivably never have happened?” And that’s a hard feeling to shake as Bethesda’s turn at bat leans harder and harder into blissfully ignorant portrayal of a gleeful 1950s that never went away. Just innocent, Rockwellian warbling about West Virginia and country roads.
Even the rampant aspects of indiscriminate slavery are squashed in this happy-go-lucky filter. Amanda Kerri wrote about this and “historical memory” in a piece for Rock Paper Shotgun last January. This willful disregard is what creates that wistful longing for those otherwise shameful years when the Confederate flag flew high. For all these designs of moral choices and karma meters, at no point are you ever to consider that these people that awoke from the vaults are the same people that think slaves loved their masters.
Really, this is a long-winded way of saying Fallout has and continues to change (unlike war). It once used it skewed perspective to present a dire facet of humanity, but it has since gone on to throw even that aside. That now resides in the bin where it keeps the unsavory aspects of the lustful remembrance of Good Ol’ America. It turns nuclear detonation into something as commonplace as encountering an overpowered player in GTA Online.
It takes out so much of what made Fallout, well, Fallout.