Fallout 76 Is a Great Opportunity to Expand Environmental Storytelling
Fallout 76's lack of human NPCs and quests means the opportunity for environmental storytelling in West Virginia is at an all time high.
Making my way through the Capital Wasteland, I spot a sewer grate slightly ajar. Opening and descending into the tunnel below I find a familiar metallic door unlocked and beckoning me to pilfer whatever materials it holds within. I eagerly make my way inside to find miscellaneous items strewn about and overturned shelves and chairs.
Clearly someone got into a fight, but there are no bodies or dried bloodstains. Maybe scavengers already made their way through here taking everything of value, but then why would they overturn almost every piece of furniture. Then, I see it.
On the far wall a small button encased in yellow. I push it and watch amazed as the center of the floor slides away revealing a stairway below.
As I make my way inside, I smell the familiar scent of blood and corpses. Inside this safe room are bodies disemboweled and missing limbs strewn up with rusted hooks. It all clicks into place, a family of sorts lived here and took shelter when raiders came by. The raiders eventually found the button for the safe room and mutilated those who were hiding inside. I check to see if there is anything of value lying around and make my way back to the surface, leaving the chilling scene of raider violence behind.
This, and many other small locations like it, are unmarked on the Capital Wastelands map. Scenes such as these are not involved in any questline, untouched by dialogue from other characters, and unremarked upon by the game at large. Instead, they merely exist to show smaller stories of the wasteland’s brutality, and even offer a tinge of grief for those who were never capable of being saved.
Small stories such as these can be found throughout Fallout 3, New Vegas, and Fallout 4, and are some of the best rewards for eager explorers. Forget the significant questlines of finding your father, your killer, and your son. Forget taking on quests from the various townsfolk who seemingly can’t fetch a unique item themselves. Forget about the map with its icons. These unmarked areas that are nevertheless unique are some of the best aspects of the modern Fallout games. Puzzles to solve by using clues left in the environment, stories to put together without an icon leading you to the next exposition heavy note. Loot that you weren’t directed to find but are happy to stumble across.
Thanks to Fallout 76‘s ditching of human NPC’s and their quests, the opportunity for unmarked stories told by the surrounding environment is at an all-time high. They might even end up being one of the stronger aspects of Bethesda’s upcoming multiplayer Fallout game. Watching the many videos and interviews done since Fallout 76‘s announcement at E3 2018, I noticed this opportunity due to Bethesda’s desire to delve into the weirdness that permeates the West Virginia landscape and its history, as well as the expansion of the map into a much larger area. While all that space is so that running into other humans can become harder, and therefore more special, it also means that landscape has to be full of locations, big and small, each with their own story.
High off of the praise for Nick Valentine and his investigative cases in Fallout 4, Bethesda doesn’t have a companion character to nestle its detective work on in Fallout 76. Instead, they should saddle the player with the responsibility of solving mysteries introduced by the world. Locked areas, password protected terminals, and skill check barriers are nothing new to the Fallout franchise, but without an NPC to talk to, steal from, or kill, you should have to rely on your own wits to problem solve.
Waypoints and icons can’t fill up every portion of the map lest it becomes a UI nightmare to navigate, which means areas between locations of interest can be instead dedicated to stories like the safe room, tragedies that the player isn’t directly pointed to except by the environment. Context clues placed by the way things are oriented, the odd shape in an otherwise natural landscape, and breadcrumb trails you’ll only notice when looking for them. Coming up with scenarios no longer has to be focused on the story but instead on the gameplay. Crafting has taken center stage as opposed to a grand narrative, which means resources are more valuable and finding hidden caches before another player can become a race.
Bethesda has a great opportunity here to delve into one-off scenes that are stumbled upon, experienced, and then left behind not on a quest log but the player’s mind. They’ve already expanded upon the variety of enemies you’ll combat, and I think what can make Fallout 76 even more memorable would be the stories that left impressions on the player and nowhere else.