Some bad shit went down in Vault 51, and the only way to find out about it within Fallout 76 is by playing countless hours of its battle royale mode, Nuclear Winter.
Many of Fallout 76’s best stories all take place long before the player shows up. To learn about them, players need to read journals, hack computer terminals, and study the landscape to try and piece together Appalachia’s pre-apocalyptic history bit by bit. The same goes for the mystery of what happened to Vault 51, a location that remains locked to players exploring the open world. Last month, it finally became accessible, but only to players who put dozens of hours into Nuclear Winter, the recently-added battle royale mode. Everyone else is forced to learn about the game’s new lore by watching YouTube videos or pouring over wiki entries, a frustrating choice for a game that usually rewards exploration over tedious grinding.
Inside the vault lies a labyrinth of living quarters, common areas, and gardens, most of which are locked behind laser grids when you first start out. Only after players reach a high enough Overseer rank by competing in matches do the other areas begin to open up, making it possible to venture deeper into Vault 51 and uncover the tragedies that occurred there.
The first of these, the theater, becomes accessible at Overseer rank 6. In it lies one of over a dozen holotapes recorded by the original vault dwellers, this one belonging to a businessman named Harold Clark who snuck into the Vault posing as someone else. “Get this: there’s this giant computer here and it’s running this whole show by itself!” he says in it. “Nobody pulling the strings, does it all on its own! Amazing!”
The computer in question is ZAX, an artificial intelligence referenced in other Fallout games and first hinted at in Fallout 6 in a series of clues quietly added to the game back in May. What happened to the people in the other vaults, and why none of them ever came out, has been a question on players’ minds since the game was released. The story behind ZAX has been Bethesda’s first attempt at providing a deep and thorough accounting.
In classic Fallout fashion, the record is fragmented and contradictory, scattered across holotapes like Clark’s as well as dozens more terminal entries hidden throughout the vault. They document a group of 52 people slowly descending into a living hell thanks to the gentle prodding and nefarious social experiments engineered by ZAX. Rather than work together, the residents are encouraged to undermine one another in exchange for better food rations and nicer living quarters. Democratic elections fall apart when ZAX exposes candidates’ embarrassing secrets. When one of the vault dwellers, Helen Marks, eventually tries to put an end to the infighting, ZAX poisons her, sending the vault spiralling even deeper into chaos. Even if it’s not a story that plays out in real time, it’s by far one of the more interesting human dramas to appear in Fallout 76—but again, it’s unfortunately one that many players probably won’t ever encounter for themselves.
Players can only find out the sinister intricacies of how ZAX manipulated everyone in the vault by accessing its terminals within the main computer room, which is locked off to anyone below Overseer rank 100. Depending on how good you are at Nuclear Winter, getting to that level can take almost 100 hours, since XP is awarded based on your number of kills and how long you’re able to survive. And even then, there’s no way to search Vault 51 at your own pace. Visits are limited to the couple of minutes it takes to matchmake for Nuclear Winter.
This has led a number of players who would prefer to simply learn about Fallout 76’s backstory through exploration to revolt against the mode. “I play Fallout 76 literally every day,” wrote user Glorf12 in a post on the game’s subreddit this week. “I can’t stand PvP. After a month I’m only level 30. I hate every second of playing Nuclear Winter yet if I want to know the lore of the place I’m forced to do it or I have to watch a video.”
“Please for the love of god do not lock away lore behind a PvP grind in a FALLOUT GAME,” they wrote.
Since ZAX continues to live on, even if all of the vault dwellers it was intended to oversee do not, players are hopeful it will play a part in the game’s cooperative story content coming later this year. If that does turn out to be the case, hopefully Bethesda finds a way to share the AI’s messy backstory without forcing people to compete in dozens of hours of a battle royale first. That just seems like the type of thing ZAX would do.