The trailers running up leading up to the release of Fallout 76 – 2018’s most controversial game – was a rendition of John Denver’s “Country Roads, Take Me Home”, an ode to Denver’s origins and the game’s setting: West Virginia. When brainstorming the game’s marketing campaign, Bethesda could not have imagined the irony of this song choice. The song’s hook – ‘Country roads, take me home,to the place I belong’ – accurately summarises 76’s glaring flaw: a game that exists outside of its single-player home, marooned in a genre where it is constantly lost in translation. 76, frankly, does not belong as a multiplayer game.
As each week passes by, a new 76 disaster seems to crop up. The once-beloved single-player franchise has experienced a disastrous multiplayer adaptation, mostly due to Bethesda’s own shortcomings in development, but partly down to an industry habit that haunts single-player games: attempting to translate single-player design to a multiplayer framework. Fundamentally, merges between single and multi-player – outside of a few lightning in the bottle success stories – end up with a Frankenstein-style result. 76, however, is not the first, nor the last, victim of this risky design choice, with many games beforehand failing in the exact same ways as Bethesda’s worst rated effort. Dizzy ambitions of being the first to alchemise gaming’s opposites always end up resembling dirty dish water rather than the new flavour studios and publishers envision.
Despite 76’s common pitfalls, no game has failed in the way it has on this large of a stage. While the game had detractors from the beginning, its barely polished design, threadbare quality control, muddy design goals, and disregard of its fans has left Bethesda in serious trouble. These are significant negatives that anchor the game to its 52% Metacritic rating, but running parallel to these issues is a game that is fundamentally pointless. Traversing and interacting with the colourful hills of West Virginia leaves players with an empty feeling, not merely due to the scarcity of assets and quests, but because the philosophical and design foundation of the game itself is built on uneven ground.
When Fallout fans think about why they love the franchise, a few quintessentially RPG similarities can be found: world-building, character building, quest variety, NPC interactions, exploration, and tactical combat. Bethesda whittled these aspects away with its modern 3D iterations, Obsidian’s New Vegas notwithstanding, yet the games still maintained enough of these design aspects to appeal to Fallout fans. Taken both individually and collectively, these RPG tropes function best in a single-player setting. Can they work in a multiplayer game? Yes, but never to the same heights of immersion and effectiveness as solo play. The Elder Scrolls Online, for example, is a serviceable MMO game, but the title could have been so much better as a single-player entity, as this would change the entire fabric of the game’s world. Common complaints such as quest design and dialogue would be inexcusable in a single-player game, but because of the game’s addition of multiplayer, developer and publishers expect these negatives to be forgivable.
As soon as other people enter a game’s world, the way in which players interact with it changes, eroding any sense of individual immersion. What studios seem to forget is that when other players become involved, all sense of individual player agency dissolves, hence the almost-creepy emptiness that plagues 76. If developers wish to marry single-player RPGs and multiplayer, they truly need a splash of magic, as seen in wildly successful online RPGs such as Ultima and World of Warcraft.
Shadowrun is a perfect example of a franchise that lost its way down the multiplayer path. The series broke into games with an RPG title of the same name in 1993, a game that saw a series of successful early 90s ports built off the back of a four-year lineage in the tabletop community. The series returned to games in 2007 with, oddly, a multiplayer-only shooter, entitled Shadowrun. While the title had its positives, it was brought down largely by the Shadowrun name, which usurped many fans expectations.
Mixed reviews at the time noted that if the game was named something else, then perhaps it would have fared better. By using the legacy of a single-player focused game, the 2007 Shadowrun limited its own potential. Thankfully, Shadowrun returned with the aptly named Shadowrun Returns in 2013, which was a single-player RPG akin to its origins. Two expansions, entitled Dragonfall and Hong Kong, followed up the game, with each boasting decent sales figures and were cRPG critical darlings.
Then again, at least 2007’s Shadowrun and 76 made their ways to shop shelves. Numerous other multiplayer single-player games fail to make it out of the studio, such as the infamous Halo MMO. Looking back, taking a single-player and multiplayer shooter staple like Halo and attempting to blend it into an MMO appears ludicrous, hence the project’s failure. Eventually, Bungie scrapped the idea and decided to fund an RTS, but the lost game has screenshots floating around the web as memories of what could have been. The Halo MMO is just another example of studios stretching games out of their successful lanes. Instead of gambling on a new IP, publishers err on the side of austerity which, in the case of 76, can end up with a game so thin it barely functions.
What Shadowrun proved, though, was that games, even if they have undergone a short-sighted move to multiplayer, can make the jump back. While 76 has placed Bethesda in deep water, it still has a chance at redemption. Hopefully, 76 is a learning lesson for the company: if it wants to enter multiplayer, do not rely on games with a single-player foundation. Hopefully, Bethesda does not spoil its own legacy if Starfield and The Elder Scrolls follow similar follies.