I spent three hours traversing a small sliver of the Fallout 76 map alongside three other players, one of whom was a spokesperson for Bethesda, the studio behind the Fallout series. Instead of hunting for a mythical creature in the Appalachian backwoods, the four of us spent time murdering skinless mutants and collecting society's leftover scraps to transform into weapons, tools and shelter. I followed the prompts, completed some missions and stuck by my team. I had a good time.
But now, the Mothman is haunting me. I wish I'd broken away from the group and played my own game, investigating the weirdest parts of the map rather than sticking to the main drag. I wish I'd played Fallout 76 like I've played previous Fallout games -- solo.
The story behind the story
I represent Fallout 76 design director Emil Pagliarulo's nightmare scenario.
"I think a lot about the players who want Fallout 5, and this isn't Fallout 5," Pagliarulo said in a roundtable interview after the hands-on session. "Are they gonna be happy? Are they still gonna enjoy playing this game even though it's like -- I actually think we've pushed a lot closer to a much more Fallout 5-ish, single-player-friendly game, but it's still not. ...I worry about that."
Fallout 76 is an online-only game. This is a departure for the series -- previous Fallout entries have been story-driven, single-player RPGs without multiplayer modes. Fallout 76, meanwhile, is packed with real-person players and it strongly encourages team-based adventuring. In fact, every human character in the game is another actual player, while the robots, mutants and creepy creatures are computer-generated NPCs.
These NPCs are key to Fallout 76's narrative. While the game is designed to be a persistent, living universe where players' actions shape the experience, Pagliarulo promises it still has an emotional core. There's a central storyline that -- along with other, smaller anecdotes -- unfolds through interactions with NPCs, computer terminals, notes and holotapes (audio diaries).
The main narrative focuses on the Overseer, who acted as the matriarch of Vault 76, while the side tales explore the lives of survivors just 25 years after a nuclear apocalypse ravaged Earth. The Overseer's narrative was added to Fallout 76 when developers realized the game was missing something -- the dramatic hook that was so critical in previous Fallout games.
"We realized at some point that maybe that wasn't there, so that we really needed the Overseer and her arc," Pagliarulo said. "She was basically the matron of Vault 76, the mother figure, and she's going out there and exploring, and she also grew up in the area. You get to listen to her story and hear how the change of the world affects her personally."
"The game doesn't pause, so you'll have to hoard your holotapes."
- Emil Pagliarulo
Players won't be spoon-fed the Overseer's journey in Fallout 76. In fact, unless you make an active effort to collect and listen to holotapes, it'll be easy to miss a lot of the story beats.
"I like to absorb all of it, follow the main quest and listen to the Overseer's holotapes, and then get the little stories here and there of the different people," Pagliarulo said. "The game doesn't pause, so you'll have to hoard your holotapes and go into a dark corner or your camp, and make sure you're safe and catch up on things. There are stories, little and big, all over the place."
Main quests ensure players are able to follow the general narrative gist, but emphasis this time around is on player-to-player interaction, survival and society-building. Pagliarulo insisted the story is still a priority, however.
"It's not less important; it's just told differently," he said.