Bethesda is a brilliant company. I’m a huge fan of their games and continue to be. This is partly why Fallout 76 has been such a tough pill to swallow. To their credit Bethesda have sought to fix it and I’ll still buy Bethesda games. They’re still a great company, they make fun stuff. Frankly, though, I think in their pursuit of open worlds their narratives have suffered. Fallout 76 was the culmination of narrative decay that had been taking place since Skyrim and they finally just jumped the shark.
Bethesda games involve a lot of exploration. You can spend hours just wandering around, reading books, kill bandits, and getting hammered with the god of mischief and never once touch the main quest. You can just explore, and that’s awesome. Players get lost in it to their delight. So, as Bethesda looked at their fan base they found that many of their players preferred to jump down rabbit holes rather than play through the main storyline they took the hint and removed the core narrative leaving only a rich lore and beautiful scenery behind. This was a problem and the fans threw a fit as a result.
Seth and I built the Worldcraft club because we’re obsessed with worldbuilding, it’s a process that’s distinct from narrative but very much tied to it. I think the temptation with open world games to lose track of solid narrative is very real. You’ve created a world and incentivized its exploration, your players have obliged and gotten lost. But they still crave meaning and narrative even if it’s a little thin on the ground (I’d argue Fallout 4 had a pretty anemic and boring main narrative). Ironically, I might suggest to Bethesda that part of the reason their players spent so much time wandering through the various dungeons they created is that their narratives were not as appealing as they could be. This is not to say that they weren’t fun, or, if you were really engaged in them that you weren’t right to enjoy it. I’d only say that most of the enjoyment from the game comes from wandering around with the main narrative as an afterthought, at least that was the case for me.
Fallout 76 represents the limits of worldbuilding, a well constructed world will be brimming with stories but if you don’t include a compelling central narrative your players will get bored or frustrated playing it. Even games that leaned heavily into their worlds like WoW knew this and made core narrative events for their players to follow that felt suitably epic. So, that’s my take. That’s at least part of where I think Bethesda went wrong here.
Stay tuned for more writing from the WorldCraft Club as we explore worldbuilding and the crafting of fictional settings to inspire your creativity.
We’re happy to host guest blogs on here whenever we can, it gives James a break and let’s other people contribute their ideas. Let us know if you have a worldbuilding concept or strategy to get off your chest, we’d love to hear it.