It’s hard to remember a more disappointing launch for a game than Fallout 76. For the past two decades, fans of the much loved Fallout series have received separate instalments, each one building and developing a complex world set in a post nuclear apocalypse USA.
Most have a relatively simple premise: you emerge from a bomb shelter, or “vault”, and attempt to reintegrate into an unfamiliar society, before being dragged into a sprawling world of mutant zombies, bandits and military factions.
Fallout 76, released last November, was different. Rather than finding themselves in an unfamiliar society, players were, instead, expected to create their own world from scratch – the first people to emerge after the bombs fell.
Add to this the fact that the game was to be played entirely online for the first time – an experience with infinite variables, on an engine that wasn’t designed for it – and life in this post-apocalyptic take on US Appalachian region seemed like an impossible task.
Reviews were at best mixed, and mostly negative. It was seen as broken, buggy, and at times, just ugly. Many felt the world itself was simply lacking – and partly due to the decision to have no human NPCs (non-player characters).
Previously, these NPCs had done more than guide you from objective to objective. They were bounty hunters, bartenders, power hungry mayors, crazed doctors and hundreds more who injected the wasteland with humour, personality and heart.
Back in February, gaming website Polygon said the game “may not be possible to save”, remarking on how post-launch updates had actually made the game less enjoyable. A particularly damning write up was titled I keep playing Fallout 76 because I despise myself. For a game to function online, it needs a vibrant community around it. And from the outside, Fallout 76 looked to be dead in the water.
A year on however, the game’s landscape has changed dramatically. The same factions that walked previous editions once again roam the barren landscape. Shopkeepers ply their wares as you travel through. A raider has been put on trial by a jury of his peers, a beggar sits in rags asking for anything passers by might be able to spare.
These figures haven’t been added after criticism; they’re dedicated fans who roleplay as characters they’d like to see. Through hundreds of hours of commitment, they created the experience they wanted all along, and in doing so, saved the game itself.
Space_Mau5e used to roleplay Fallout back before it went online. He loves the opportunity to engage with roleplay communally but a lack of any – usually standard – in-game communication tools only makes things more difficult.
“I would love for a text chat or some other method of talking with players beyond just the forums,” he says.
Space_Mau5e uses Discord, a dedicated messaging platform, and jumps from server to server trying to find active PC players who are willing to join in. Meeting people can often come down to dumb luck. So, why bother?
For Millie it’s her history with the franchise: “We all really love Fallout, the world and the lore, the characters that world allows for, and 76, while still somewhat flawed as a game, gives us a place where we can all meet and express our characters.”
Her favourite character to roleplay is a high ranking Brotherhood Scribe, who’s secretly a cannibal, using her rank to lure initiates to their doom: “I even have a camp that is a research outpost, with a secret slaughterhouse in the basement,” she says. It’s an idea she came up with as a joke playing a previous edition in the series, and Fallout 76 gave her the opportunity to bring that joke to life.
Luke roleplays as an alien abductee. For him, it’s all about the ingenuity of the community. Players have constructed elaborate mazes, well decorated hotels, and a terrifying murder church worthy of a Batman villain. He points me to a Youtube video of a giant game of Skeeball that uses the game’s two headed mutant cows in place of the balls.
“The creativeness of this is awesome,” he says, “as is the collaboration and willingness of people to get involved.” According to one of the comments on a Reddit thread about it: “There’s a strong argument that this has transcended the realm of absurdity and is now fine art.”
Brent Fairchild is a legend in the Fallout 76 roleplaying community, where he’s better known as Dr. C.J. Martin. He’s been playing his character since launch, developing quests for other players, giving them jobs, roles, and a sense of direction. After starting as a simple doctor character helping other players out with basic items, he’s become a Fallout institution, with dozens of employees and franchised surgeries across the game.
“When I got the game, I decided that, since all the Beta testers complained about the lack of NPCs, I would take it upon myself to be the game’s NPC,” he says. In a year of playing, he still hasn’t completed the very first storyline that the game tempts you into.
“Roleplaying has always been my thing,” he explains. “As a child with autism, it was always hard for me to communicate with others, but through roleplay I could try communicate without the anxiety, because it wasn’t me talking, but a character.”
And the wider community love him for it. Back in April, when his disc broke, he told the staff of his in-game surgery, and through them, word got out.
“The community reacted stating that Dr. C.J. Martin was the best “DLC” [a term for new content, added into a game after release] in the game. Suddenly my phone started popping up with messages from players with PSN [game download] codes. The community wanted Dr. C.J. Martin and they paid for a digital copy, saving not only me, but my business.”
“Fallout 76 is not a perfect game,” he says, understanding of the games flaws, while recognising the ambitiousness of the project. “But it is filled with great players who want to help make it great.
“I’ve been very fortunate to surround myself with helpers, from my wonderful managers, our associates, and our clients, to the community of people who roleplay right alongside me, finding joy in our little digital Appalachia, not from some pre coded characters, but from the interactions with others who love the Fallout franchise, and who learn how to love each other.
“That love and kindness” he says, “is contagious.”