Fallout 76 will have nukes. Provided players find the keys, they will be able to fire these nukes off whenever they please. This gameplay feature, announced at last night’s Bethesda press conference, is presumably meant to encourage player-created drama in the upcoming online survival game. It’s also the clearest signal yet that the Fallout series, under Bethesda’s leadership, has forgotten where it came from.
During the presentation for Fallout 76 last night during Bethesda’s E3 press conference, executive producer Todd Howard announced that one of the key features for the game would be nuclear missile silos strewn throughout the game world. Devious players can use these silos to fire nukes, provided they find a complete activation key. Fired missiles can devastate player settlements and creations.
“Why don’t we put multiple nuclear missile sites on the map,” Howard explained to a chuckling crowd. “And then let all of you do whatever you want with them?”
It’s an exciting idea that tempts players with the destructive power that first ruined the Fallout world. It asks them to decide if they will abstain from mass violence or give into their inner troll. But as much as this idea could lead to wild moments for players, it marks a clear paradigm shift from the series’ tone and attitude towards nuclear war.
Fallout’s relationship with nukes has always been complicated, particularly throughout Bethesda’s games. Fallout 3’s Capital Wasteland bears the most visible and tragic scars of any location in the franchise, but the first major moral choice of the game once leaving Vault 101 is a reductive one between detonating the atomic bomb in the center of Megaton’s town square or turning the man attempting to hire you for the job over to the authorities. In Fallout 3, nukes are are bad, yes, but if you want to nuke the main hub town within an hour or two of the game, go for it. Do you like blowing shit up? Here’s the Fatman mini-nuke launcher: all the spectacle and power without any of the horrific consequences.
Previous Fallout games, especially those made by Interplay and Obsidian Entertainment, saw nuclear war as something else. Nuclear detonation clearly marks the divide between the Old World and the new one. Fallout used to ask a question: was the Old World, with all of it excess, any worse that the Wasteland? Pre-War times, as communicated in games like the original Fallout and occasionally Fallout 3, were understood as an indulgent period in human history. The series’ lore suggests that technological comforts led to complacency while racism and jingoism lurked beneath the surface. In 1997’s Fallout, the Brotherhood of Steel’s zealous safeguarding of Pre-War technology is an extension of the same hoarding and gluttony that helped bring about the Great War, the cataclysmic nuclear war that annihilated civilization. The Brotherhood is a diverse group of intellectuals and stalwart knights, but they are also paranoid, distrustful of outsiders, and overwhelmingly militaristic. The Brotherhood is the technocratic, war-hungry offspring of American military values. This got lost in Fallout 3, which created a splinter group of unambiguously good Brotherhood soldiers. But the game occasionally understood how poisonous the Old World’s militarism was. Fallout 3’s Operation Anchorage DLC primarily takes place in a simulated version of the Battle of Anchorage commissioned by the egomaniacal General Constantine Chase. The resulting simulacrum brims with American exceptionalism rhetoric and cartoonish depictions of the Chinese invaders. The simulation is self-aggrandizing, and the player is meant to understand it’s little more than propaganda. America yearned for dominance, and that yearning courted disaster.
This understanding of the Pre-War world changed in Fallout 4. The player could choose between two different characters: a male war veteran or a female criminal prosecutor, both blissfully unaware of their roles supporting a withering American state. When the bombs fall and they flee to their vault, they are cryogenically frozen. They awaken over two hundred years later to embark on a journey to save their son Shaun. The protagonist’s chief motivation is a return to an idealized yesteryear, reuniting with the remnants of their nuclear family and rebuilding the life they had before. Fallout 4 uses its Massachusetts setting to lift images of American history without grappling with their implications. We get an android smuggling ring called the Railroad hiding at the end of Boston’s Freedom Trail, a battle in the shadows of the Bunker Hill monument, and futuristic Minutemen. These images invoke America’s founding moments, but they signify an uncritical yearning for the past that stands apart from previous Fallout games. What does the Wasteland achieve in reviving this history? We never learn, nor do we ever get the sense that the protagonist’s quest for Pre-War comfort is anything other than admirable.
What we’ve seen of Fallout 76 so far contains an earnestness that is a natural extension of Fallout 4’s uncritical excavation of American iconography and “golly gee” wistfulness. The reveal trailer plays “Country Roads” by John Denver. The song has been adopted as something of an unofficial anthem for the state of West Virginia in real life. The music is coupled with sweeping landscape shots and images of a pristine Vault. It is Reclamation Day, we are told. The day when vault dwellers open their doors and embrace the most American of pastimes: conquest and colonization. The tone is earnest—what might have been satire in previous games is presented genuinely this time. We, as players, are the American vanguard, cleansing the wild Wasteland and restoring, to the best of our abilities, the cancerous vestiges of the Old World. What better tool for establishing our dominance and might than the nukes that brought us down in the first place?
Fallout 76’s decision to give players the ability to carelessly detonate nukes could be seen as a more pronounced version of the frivolity of previous Bethesda titles, those games in which nukes are tools rather than rhetorical devices that serve a point about America’s history. It’s a frivolity that clashes with the series as originally designed by Interplay Entertainment, who painted nukes and their use as an evil that scarred the world. They were a failing of the Old World, not to be taken lightly. There’s an interpretation of Fallout 76’s nukes that sees the carelessness of their potential use as a commentary on the moral ineptitude of the Pre-War world that so readily dropped the bombs. But the end result is mostly a pretty explosion for players to look at, the way the series has seen nukes since Fallout 4 and parts of Fallout 3.
Fallout has always straddled the line between serious reflections and wacky antics. It’s the reason that Fallout 3’s morally ambiguous DLC The Pitt lives side by side with the sci-fi romp Mothership Zeta. The Fallout experience encompasses a spectrum of the excessive and insightful. It’s how the Fatman can remain in New Vegas—Obsidian Entertainment’s fantastic spin-off title— even as the New Vegas add-on Lonesome Road’s climax gives the player the keys to a silo, antagonist Ulysses urging them to use the devastating power of nukes to wipe the New California Republic and Caesar’s Legion off the map and reset the status quo yet again. Perhaps Fallout 76’s frivolity will live side by side with New Vegas’ iconoclasm. Maybe the constant, player-created nuclear fury will be a commentary in itself. Maybe it will just be a ton of fun. We’ll know when we see the game.
But just as the Wasteland picks up symbols—the bear-laden flag of the New California Republic, the terminology of the Underground Railroad, colonial militia uniforms—Bethesda takes series iconography and tosses it into a blender until all the context is lost. In Fallout 76’s case, this means nukes. In New Vegas, Ulysses asks, “Who are you, that do not know your history?” When I imagine the series’ nukes reduced to emergent play troll toys, I have to ask Bethesda the same.