I have to admit that even I hesitated briefly when Bethesda announced that Fallout 76 would have no human NPCs. After all, the eclectic array of survivors (along with their equally eclectic stories, ambitions, and machinations) has always been part of the charm of the Fallout series. The more I thought about it though, the more the decision makes sense in ways other than just the post-apocalyptic timeline.
After all, Bethesda has been conveying stories through their extensive world design and eye for detail in each of their titles for years now.
In Fallout’s case: whether it’s a carefully placed skeleton clutching a dusty teddy bear in the dark of an abandoned bunker or hastily painted warnings scrawled across a boarded door, there is an entire world telling players more about their surroundings than any digestible, scripted dialogue with an NPC could.
Fallout 76 is no different. After exiting the Vault and stepping foot into Appalachia, the player discovers Flatwoods, an abandoned town being used as a headquarters for one of 76’s new factions: The Responders. Made up of emergency servicemen and women, the Responders banded together to help any and all in the wake of the bombs dropping. While the camp is empty of live, human NPCs it becomes increasingly apparent what became of the inhabitants as the player explores.
A dead NPC locked in a broken fridge with a lootable Holotape that, when played, shares his last frantic moments alive with the player and reveals that the Responder’s camp fell victim to a Raider attack. While no survivors remain to tell the tale, the player finds the things they left behind and is able to piece together both the good and the bad of this new world.
Meanwhile, a personal computer terminal containing diary entries from Delbert Winters paint the picture of an elderly man of the cloth searching for meaning and purpose. A series of recorded interviews highlight members of the Responders and their volunteers: who they were before and after the end of the world. Letters pinned to an empty frame are addressed to a father who left his young son behind.
The items found in Fallout 76 feel more raw and emotionally charged than those in any previous Fallout title. Why? Because they are the only thing that connects the player to the other human beings that, for a brief time, survived in this Wasteland. There are countless pieces of personal lives scattered around West Virginia waiting to be read, listened to or simply to be seen if players take the time to look.
This type of storytelling isn’t new but now more than ever, Bethesda has to rely on it to convey an entire story to an entire player base instead of rewarding the inquisitive and persistent few in their single-player experiences with engaging side quests and objectives. Picking up letters and Holotapes, accessing terminals and listening to radio frequencies are some of the ways your Vault-dweller will find their way through West Virginia and do their part in rebuilding America. Picking up where the Responders were forced to leave off.
After all, your character in Fallout 76 is where it all begins. Your Vault dweller is an ancestor to the human NPCs you’ve come to love.
So, if you’re holding out on Fallout 76 out of fear that there isn’t any “story”: you’re doing yourself (and Bethesda) a disservice. The story is there, it’s just up to you to play your part in it. Remember: Fallout is a series that shines even more brightly when players find themselves uncovering the smaller details that are easily missed and overlooked in the vast, post-apocalyptic Wasteland.