“Fallout 76 is a prequel to all the other games, and it’s our biggest one yet. It is four times the size of Fallout 4.”
Todd Howard had a right to look proud at E3 when he said this. Fallout 4’s map took twenty real minutes to run across, contained 235 unique locations, and it teemed with narrative. And that’s before the mods got flowing.
Yet, no other studio except perhaps CD Projekt Red could have said this to such a warm reaction. Bethesda’s name carries enough value to make meatier and meatier geographies an exciting prospect, and, even then, this announcement drew the conference’s thinnest cheer.
As gaming milieus approach endlessness, there are two risks to studios pushing at their technical and literal limits.
The first is that virtual environments must reward enough fun and thrills to justify the work in maintaining them. Assassin’s Creed: Origins revived a decade old series with RPG mechanics and a less obtrusive Animus, but its capacious map was often boring. Similarly, time-sensitive missions felt like tick boxes rather than purposeful tasks. I, for one, never want to see a camel or skyline time-lapse again.
The other risk is that developers lose sight of what made so many masterpieces work. Ocarina of Time. The Witcher 3. God of War. Grand Theft Auto V. Minecraft. They pull us back in over and over because, amongst other things, they do something only video games can: change.
In all of these games, the landscape shifts as we navigate it, whether because time or something more dramatic passes. Seven years pass when Link pulls the Master Sword. Ciri falls like a meteor on Skellige. Kratos reveals the bridge to Yggdrasil. Night falls over Los Santos.
At the least, player interactions change the landscape, deepening narrative immersion, altering the fabric of the game’s environment, or even changing the nature of play itself. This makes for storytelling far more resonant than any mere new ground could.
Fans of The Wind Waker will recall how, in its second act, Link returns to his home Outset Island to find monsters and constant nightfall. It’s a subtly creepy sequence, because it inverts memories of the game’s jaunty first half hour, and it has all the perversity of a cartoonish home invasion. Four years earlier in Ocarina of Time, Hyrule Field was lovely and eerie alike within mere hours of gameplay.
Even Skyrim made its Sneak skill more effective at night. This small nod to the environment was enough to evoke a symbiosis between players and the polygons around them, and it offered new strategies and a feeling of causality.
The obsession with bigger and bigger maps misses the point. Like meditation in real life, good game developers ought to cultivate a greater sense of presence rather than rehash habits in new places. Fallout 76 may incorporate the expansiveness and flexibility of a post-nuclear settlement sim, but the symptoms of superficial improvement are there.