Fallout 76: Turning 'Almost Heaven' Into a Post-Apocalyptic Tourist Destination

Feb 21, 2019

Tourism Day was recognized by the West Virginia Legislature this week. In light of that, we bring you a report on a video game that tourism officials believe makes a positive impact in bringing visitors to West Virginia. By now, you may have heard of Fallout 76 - the latest in the popular line of Fallout video games. It was released last fall with much fanfare by Gov. Jim Justice and the West Virginia Division of Tourism. West Virginia Public Broadcasting spoke with a local gamer, and we bring you this special look inside the video game.

John Barton, W.Va. gamer and writer.
Credit Daniel Walker / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

John Barton is a lifelong West Virginian from Gilmer County, a husband and father of three boys, a writer, former teacher, and…an avid gamer.

Barton has written stories about the Fallout 76 video game for online news outlets like West Virginia Explorer and 100 Days in Appalachia, and he remembers the moment he saw the first Fallout 76 teaser trailer last spring.

Screenshot from Fallout 76.
Credit Bethesda Game Studios

“First you hear, ‘almost heaven, West Virginia,’ and ‘take me home, country roads’ just coming through, and everybody’s like, ‘Oh, is it in West Virginia?’ Whereas, everybody from West Virginia’s going, ‘Oh my god, it’s in West Virginia!’ cause where else are you gonna play that from?” he said. “So, there [was] a lot of speculation happening on the internet, but everybody local was like, ‘Did they base this here, really?’” 

It was officially confirmed at the 2018 Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, that the game would be taking place in West Virginia and be a prequel to the family of Fallout video games that started in the late 1990s.

Credit Bethesda Game Studios

The Fallout gaming universe is set in post-apocalyptic times with cyberpunk and retro futuristic art and style. The storyline for Fallout 76 takes place 25 years after nuclear war consumes the United States, and the goal of the game is to reclaim the land – starting with West Virginia.

Fallout 76 is the first in the series to be played entirely online and alongside other players in real time. It also features the largest in-game map ever seen in a Fallout video game. That map features six expansive regions based on actual West Virginia landmarks, towns, and history. 

Barton said developers did an amazing job gathering both big and small details about West Virginia history and current events, and then adding a science fiction twist.

Watch the television broadcast of this story as it aired on “The Legislature Today.”

“There are little popups and mentions of things, and just stories that tie into it. The super mutants popping up, and their story about how West Tech had poisoned a water supply in an experiment near Huntersville; sounds an awful lot like the Freedom Industry spill, and you see current events tied into it that way,” Barton explained. “[The game] mentions Charleston and describes Charleston as being where a lot of labor protests took place, and you start wondering if they were talking about unions from long ago, or the teacher strike from this past year.”

There are nods to the Mine Wars and coal mining.

The New River Gorge Bridge and several other W.Va. landmarks appear in Fallout 76.
Credit Bethesda Game Studios

Landmarks like the Capitol building, John Brown’s Fort, the Chester teapot, West Virginia University’s Woodburn Hall, the Greenbrier Resort, and the Hutte restaurant in Helvetia all make an appearance.

Players can explore towns like Charleston, Beckley, and Harpers Ferry.

There are monsters in the game pulled straight out of West Virginia folklore, such as the Flatwoods and Grafton monsters, and even the Mothman.

The Mothman and many of West Virginia's monsters appear in Fallout 76.
Credit Bethesda Game Studios

“You had to get the state on a deep personal level," Bartons said. "There were things that had to make sense to you in order to try to portray that view of West Virginia; that’s what got my interest."

The game also caught the interest of Gov. Jim Justice who announced in October a partnership between West Virginia Tourism and developers of the game, Bethesda Game Studios, headquartered in Maryland, as a way to both promote the game and also promote the state.

The West Virginia Tourism Office held events leading up to the game’s launch in November. The Office has released articles online pointing out landmarks, lore, and they created an interactive map of in-game locations.

But since the game’s release, reviews have been mixed. Many players have cited major glitches, issues with game mechanics, and have even argued the game is boring and has no storyline. Fallout 76 even dropped in price due to poor ratings.

Bethesda Game Studios has released statements saying they are committed to improving the game going forward through system updates and bug fixes. The latest update was on Feb. 19.

But many West Virginia gamers, like John Barton, still argue positively for the game – for its beauty, attention to detail and state history, and its expansive map, believing the game showcases West Virginia in a unique, and never before seen way.

John Barton has written about Fallout 76 for WV Explorer and 100 Days in Appalachia. He and his wife, Christal, run a nonprofit called WV Autism, where they work to help children with autism spectrum disorder improve social skills through gaming. He and his family live in Milton.