The Vault Boy, the smiling blonde mascot of the Fallout universe, is not nearly as cute as he may seem. In the world of Fallout, he is the main way the Vault-Tec organization put a friendly face on a company that aimed to privatize the apocalypse, ensuring that the elite remained secure while the rest of humanity was treated as participants in an elaborate and disturbing social experiment.
The Vault Boy’s role in that operation is certainly appropriate. After all, his original design was based on Monopoly’s Rich Uncle Pennybags, who himself was based on J.P. Morgan, a banker who allegedly used financial crises that affected the common man to bolster his own power. (They called him the “robber baron.”)
We all laugh when we see Fallout‘s smiling Vault Boy maintaining his optimism through the grimmest of scenarios, but the reality of the character is horrifying. He is the eternally smiling representative of a group of individuals who formed a company capable of creating great technological wonders yet opted to consolidate their power by delivering the promise of hope rather than something genuine.
If you’re trying to figure out when Bethesda Game Studios became Vault-Tec, you might be tempted to cite Fallout 76 as the turning point. You may be right. However, the equally disturbing truth of the matter is that Fallout 4 was the company’s very own Vault Boy, a now-troubling attempt by the studio to put a happy face on just how far it had strayed from the vision it had initially sold its fans and customers.
With the release of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Bethesda realized a vision that seemed impossible at the time: the studio managed to make a PC RPG that worked on consoles. By PC RPG, I mean a role-playing experience that featured deep character customization options, many paths to an objective, active skill-based combat, and many of the other features that defined the great PC RPGs of that era but were not necessarily prevalent among console titles. By “worked on consoles,” I mostly mean that Bethesda was able to make such a game playable with a controller while selling console gamers on the idea that such a massive, complex, and methodical role-playing experience was worth losing dozens of hours to despite any troubles and gameplay hurdles.
It was an impressive accomplishment, but it wasn’t a complete triumph. As good as Morrowind was, it was also tedious. Navigation was confusing, combat was slow and often unsatisfying on a visceral level, and the game’s presentation certainly wasn’t on par with the biggest console JRPGs of the era.
From that point, Bethesda seemingly decided to make PC RPG experiences as accessible as possible to console gamers (who, let’s be honest, represent a good portion of the video game market) while also incorporating the best of what console gaming had to offer. This is why Oblivion sacrificed some character creation depth and world building for better navigation, combat, and a more modern presentation. This is why Fallout 3 altered some of the character building options, dark humor, and subtle storytelling of the original games in order to incorporate a first-person perspective, a V.A.T.S. system that retained character-based combat, and a fully-realized 3D world.
This approach eventually led the studio to the release of Skyrim, which was both the most accessible Bethesda RPG yet and the most financially successful. Even though Skyrim wasn’t nearly as complex as Morrowind and lacked Oblivion’s ambitious mission design and faction stories, it was still a deep, beautiful, satisfying, and well-written experience. Most importantly, it was an RPG. That matters because Bethesda Game Studios had always been an RPG developer. Whatever concessions the studio has made over the years, it made them in service of testing the strength of the genre’s foundations. Most of the designers, writers, and other leading talent made a name for themselves through their work in the RPG genre. It was in their blood.
So, why didn’t Bethesda Game Studios make Fallout 4 a true RPG?
Fallout 4 is not a true RPG in the sense of what we’d come to expect from Bethesda up to that point. The game’s combat is so shooter-focused that it rarely matters what character you choose to build. Its dialogue options are so limited and meaningless that they might as well not exist. There’s no morality system in Fallout 4 that ensures your actions affect how people perceive you (beyond the odd piece of dialogue), nor is there much ambiguity in the motivations and actions of characters around you. You play a role in Fallout 4, but rarely do you get to deviate from the role that is assigned to you by the game’s script.
None of this matters because RPGs are some kind of inherently superior game genre. These shortcomings matter because the Fallout series helped introduce video gamers to true RPG experiences and, quite frankly, Bethesda’s ability to make ambitious RPGs has traditionally helped disguise some of the studio’s many other shortcomings.
In the past, it’s been easy to forgive things like the notorious number of glitches in Bethesda games, the studio’s constant (sometimes frustrating) balancing of accessibility and depth, and its tendency to take its sweet time to make a new game because in the end we knew we were going to get a Bethesda RPG. To this day, there really isn’t much like a Bethesda RPG on the market. Titles like Kingdom Come: Deliverance try (and come close), but there’s really no substitute for a proper Bethesda RPG.
On the other hand, there are many substitutes for Fallout 4. In fact, there’s not much that separates Fallout 4 from a game like Far Cry 5. Both emphasize first-person action, feature simplified skill systems, utilize companions (although Far Cry 5’s companions arguably contribute more), include light decision making, and rely on stories that are only somewhat shaped by your actions despite the player’s ability to roam freely. I liked Far Cry 5, but there’s honestly nothing that really makes Far Cry 5 special in the modern gaming landscape. It feels like a game that many studios could have made. The same is roughly true of Fallout 4. There’s very little in the game itself that would lead you to believe that it was made by Bethesda.
Perhaps that’s why those of us who felt let down by Fallout 4 saw the failures of Fallout 76 coming. After all, a multiplayer version of Fallout in the style of titles like Rust or 7 Days to Die would only emphasize the most controversial and detrimental changes featured in Fallout 4.
Fallout 4‘s action is slightly more twitch-based, but still treats enemies like bullet sponges that can be taken down faster by acquiring a better set of skills and crafting better weapons. Its dialogue and quests are simplified to the point of ensuring that players can’t easily go “out of bounds” and cause things to happen that the developers aren’t prepared for. Its crafting and base building ignore all elements of role-playing in favor of an ultra-simplified “checklist system” that tries so hard to simply be functional that it often sacrifices all logic (such as how a theoretically abundant material like dirty water is treated as a somewhat limited resource at a time when most of the world’s water is dirty).
What stings most isn’t necessarily the ways in which Fallout 4’s biggest design shortcomings carry over to Fallout 76 but rather the implication that Fallout 4 was little more than placation from Bethesda Game Studios. Fallout 76’s generic gameplay, somewhat outdated concept (the multiplayer survival genre has fallen out of favor in recent years), and horrifically outdated engine all suggest that Bethesda actually wanted to make Fallout 76 instead of Fallout 4. At the very least, the similarities between the two games suggest that the team split its attention between the two projects in recent years and was willing to sacrifice elements of Fallout 4 in service of making a “game as a service” project like Fallout 76. It almost feels like Fallout 4 was the single-player portion Fallout 76 rather than Fallout 76 being a multiplayer take on classic Fallout games.
Mind you, Fallout 76 was not doomed to fail from the moment it was conceived. The idea of a multiplayer Fallout game that emphasizes survival and finding your place in a world that is trying to find its legs following a great disaster is certainly intriguing. After all, the idea of a massively multiplayer Fallout game has been touted since the franchise’s creators, Interplay, were still in control of the license. The potential has always been there.
However, a potentially great multiplayer Fallout game would require a studio willing to make a multiplayer game that still represents the reasons people care about Fallout. That means true character building molded through gameplay, combat that allows for multiple paths to victory, and implementing true horror fostered by the fear of player failure, to name just a few things. That’s a hard thing to do. At the very least, we haven’t seen many studios capable of accomplishing such a feat.
With Fallout 4, Bethesda proved that it can shy away from doing the hard thing. Actually, Fallout 4 proved that the studio it will shy away from doing the easy thing too if it means that it can theoretically increase the company’s profits by a few points. After all, it wouldn’t have been difficult to make Fallout 4 an expanded and improved version of Fallout 3 (or, in a perfect world, Fallout: New Vegas). Instead, Bethesda opted to take an already successful RPG franchise and ask, “What can we do to get people who are otherwise uninterested in playing this game to actually play this game?” In its attempts to answer that question, Bethesda demonstrated its willingness to make a more generic game.
Fallout 76 might be satisfying in a repetitious way, and its simple multiplayer gameplay may indeed inspire some people who were otherwise uninterested in playing a Fallout game to give the franchise a try. That’s nice and all, but Bethesda used to be a studio bold enough to try and get those gamers to play the RPGs that the developers loved. The studio accomplished that with Skyrim, a game that sold over 20 million copies while retaining much of what made its RPGs notable in the first place, yet still elected to favor those who don’t play Bethesda games over those who do when designing Fallout 4 and Fallout 76.
None of us should kid ourselves into believing a major studio won’t chase money when given the chance, but when we’ve reached a point where a studio is willing to abandon its identity, not in search of big money but slightly more money, then you’ve got to start questioning what you’re really buying. In the case of Bethesda Game Studios, it’s starting to feel like you’re buying the Vault Boy. You’re buying into an image that Bethesda is selling you. It’s an image built on the innovations that made the company successful. It’s an image designed to remind you of the good old times and suggest that any item bearing that image is capable of taking you back to that era.
Maybe there’s a world in which Bethesda decides to turn this ship around and focus on making Starfield and The Elder Scrolls VI the kind of massive RPG experiences that it theoretically could still excel at making. However, that’s a world that requires Fallout 76 to fail and fail spectacularly. It’s also a world that requires Bethesda to realize that Fallout 76 failed not just because of glitches or bad PR, but because it wandered so far from what the studio had previously accomplished. Sadly, that world requires you to believe that Bethesda will recognize its mistakes actually started with the best-selling, but soulless, shallow, and detrimental Fallout 4.