Let’s clear one thing up first, this is not an article advocating for the mostly plotless wasteland of Fallout 76 to become the norm for single-player Fallout games. Rather, the Bethesda team needs to reassess how they write protagonist characters and main questlines, putting less emphasis on canon characterization and more on customization and roleplaying.
Of the main series of Fallout games, Fallout: New Vegas seems to stand out as a fan favorite. It’s odd; the game was made on an incredibly short timeline by Obsidian Entertainment, with fewer resources than many of Bethesda’s Fallout games, yet it is beloved by many fans. It rivals its technologically superior successor Fallout 4, and is vastly more popular that Fallout 3. Some like the clever writing, while others enjoy the return to the West Coast setting of the classic isometric Fallout games, but almost all appreciate the blank slate nature of the character.
In the vanilla version of Fallout: New Vegas, nothing is known about the player character’s life before the opening events of the game other than the fact that you were a courier that was hired by mysterious pre-apocalypse businessman Mr. House to deliver a very important package. That’s it. There are a few dialog options that can allow the player to give a few facts about their past – like that they’ve been to the city of New Reno or fathered a child years ago in Montana – but these are optional, and sometimes require certain perks to even get access to. The DLCs add some backstory, but it’s mostly just your history as a courier. Mostly, you’re a blank slate. The gunshot wound to the head that you receive at the beginning of the game has even led some players to roleplay the courier as an amnesiac, although the developers have said that this is not intended.
This is unique within Fallout games. The first Fallout set your character’s backstory as a vault dweller, and Fallout 2 made your character canonically the grandchild of the protagonist from the first game. Fallout 3 similarly makes you a vault dweller and confirms other details, including your age and family ties, since your father is central to main quest.
Fallout 4, takes this a step further by actually having canon versions of the player character. While Fallout and Fallout 2 have character presets as well as a customizable character, Fallout 4 has Nate and Nora, a married couple with a son. You can customize how they look, even change their names, but you cannot change the fact that they were married and have a son named Shaun, since this is an important part of the main questline. Some quests and other world interactions even rely on the fact that Nate was in the military before the events of the game.
Fallout 4 is the epitome of what the Fallout series should move away from. Many players don’t care about Shaun, and only do the main quest reluctantly, since some other parts of the game require the player to complete certain stages of the main story to become available. Fallout: New Vegas, in contrast, doesn’t have much of a “main plot” at all. The inciting action is just you getting shot, and your personal investment in the plot involves getting revenge on the guy who shot you, which usually concludes about a third of the way into the game. From there, the main plot is just your choice of aligning yourself with several major factions and shaping the political climate of the region.
This is how Bethesda should move forward in the future. The main plot of Fallout games should be de-emphasized, and it should be integrated into the world at large. They shouldn’t be a separate plot – like how invading the Institute in Fallout 4 won’t matter to a random settler at Abernathy Farm – but should affect the world as a whole – like how various choices you make in the Fallout: New Vegas main quest will radically change the lives of the Kings, residents of the Strip, or other towns and factions in the Mojave wasteland. Main characters should have little backstory and little “personal” connection to the main quest, since the player won’t share that connection. Instead, players should be allowed to customize the main character and be able to roleplay in the world how they want.
It’s unclear whether Bethesda plans to go this direction with future Fallout games, but if Fallout fans want to play a game with a blank slate character, the upcoming Fallout fan project Fallout: Cascadia will have a protagonist named the Drifter, who has no backstory whatsoever. Otherwise, we can only hope that Bethesda will focus less on the main story and more on side stories and immersive worldbuilding.