Its core audience has moved on, and its new audience doesn’t understand it.
It’s 1995, two years before Interplay will release their seminal roleplaying game Fallout. I’m seven years old, still a solid 9–10 years from ever hearing the word ‘fallout’ in a video games context, and I’m standing in the control room of a nuclear reactor. Thirty other seven-year-olds are with me, impassively pushing switches more or less at random while our teacher, probably bored out of her mind, tries in vain to keep us focused on the tour. Workers stand around in yellow radiation suits, demonstrating how uranium slugs are loaded into the reactor (affixed to long rods, shoved in through narrow holes in the reactor’s loading face). Excited to have a day free from school, I’m not listening to the tour. I’m thinking mostly about what’s in my sack lunch, how many buttons I can press before somebody notices, and how difficult it is to manipulate fissile material through a glove box’s thick rubber gloves.
As you may have guessed, this was a decommissioned reactor — specifically, the X-10 Graphite Reactor at Oak Ridge National Lab in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The workers were plastic mannequins, the fissile material plastic blocks. You genuinely aren’t supposed to press the buttons, though: the reactor is a museum, shut down in 1963 and designated a National Historic Landmark two years later (1). Sadly, I don’t remember anything the guide said to us during the tour. In my defense, the boys were doing incredible impressions of a person dying of radiation poisoning, and I had been to the reactor several times before. (It turns out that in a town of 35,000 that’s mostly known for its contributions to the atomic bomb, there’s not a lot of educational stuff to see that doesn’t revolve around decommissioned military projects.) However, I think if I could remember the tour, it would have been something like — here is the reactor’s main room, here is where the reactor conditions were monitored, here is a very very very simplified explanation of how uranium is enriched, here are some historic photographs of Oak Ridge when it was still the Manhattan Project, etc. I suspect that the tour would not have been concerned with any sort of examination of the atomic bomb as anything other than an engineering problem. It is a fundamental conceit of the reactor, the lab, the City of Oak Ridge, the US military, and the United States generally that the bomb had to be built, and so it would be built. There were certainly people asking “should this be built,” but none of them were anywhere near the mouth of the blessed atomic sea (2) in the 40s, the 90s, and probably not now, either (3).
All this is to say that anything that might be said about the atomic bomb other than very roughly how it was made was not said, or if it was said, it was said to a wholly uncaring audience of small children. Which makes it exactly like modern Fallout.
Fallout, for the uninitiated, was originally a roleplaying game released in 1997 by a studio based in California called Interplay Productions (now Entertainment). The idea was that, after a series of escalating tensions driven by resource scarcity, the world as we know it was destroyed by a nuclear exchange that lasted for approximately two hours on October 23rd, 2077. What remained of humanity continued on as best it could, some living on the Earth’s surface, some living in underground shelters called Vaults built by a company called Vault-Tec. In the year 2161, you are an inhabitant of Vault 13 and you are tasked with leaving the Vault to find a water purification chip because Vault 13’s has gone bad. As you might have guessed, this deceptively simple task quickly goes off the rails and leads to an adventure that will suck up potentially hundreds of hours of your time as you fight monsters, uncover conspiracy theories, rebuild civilization, and ultimately fight and kill (or join!) a giant fleshy gloop monster named Richard Grey who screams at you with a dozen voices. It’s quite an experience. Fallout 2 puts you in a similar position, except this time you’re from a small village called Arroyo and the McGuffin is a terraforming device you need because of a severe drought. One thing leads to another until you get kidnapped by the remnants of the US Government and taken to an oil tanker to be experimented on with a genetically modified virus called FEV that turns you into a hulking green rage monster, but of course you can escape and blow up the tanker, thus severing forever the last connection humanity had to the pre-war political order (6). You then settle down in your little village with the other villagers and some people who left a Vault to join you. Normal. (This is of course a HUGE oversimplification, I’m trying to hit what I think are the salient plot points here.)
If I had to pick a few lessons that Fallout and its successor Fallout 2 are trying to teach us, it’s this: You can’t destroy the master’s house with the master’s tools, and the master very much needs to be destroyed, and the apocalypse is not actually good. I’ll come back to the apocalypse in a minute, but for now: The US government in the first two Fallouts (called the Enclave) is a monstrous out-of-control organization, xenophobic, genocidal, collaborated with private interests to kick off the Great War that ended the world-as-we-knew-it for its own ends and to line its own pockets. There is nothing worth saving there; FEV has mutated to render whoever is exposed to it sterile and insane and the Vaults are sadistic psychological experiments conducted on their inhabitants by the government and Vault-Tec. The very tools they created are corrupted and unpredictable. The only hope humanity has is to destroy the old world entirely and forge a new one.
By 1998, Interplay was in serious financial difficulties and eventually lost the rights to Fallout which were then picked up by Bethesda Softworks, a Maryland-based developer primarily known at the time for the Elder Scrolls franchise and currently known for rereleasing Skyrim a bunch of times. In 2008, Bethesda pumped out Fallout 3, an action RPG where you… are a Vault dweller who needs to find a water purifier. I’m simplifying of course — the objective is not to take a water purifier from the wasteland and bring it back to the Vault but to use a water purifier from a Vault to bring clean water to the wasteland. Kind of a neat little callback, but that’s the only effort Bethesda put into connecting the themes of their Fallouts with the originals. This game, unlike Fallout, Fallout 2, Fallout Tactics (4), and Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel (5), is set on the East coast, in the vicinity of Washington DC. Also unlike previous Fallouts, your only option is to deliver the water purifier. The enemies aren’t charismatic, they don’t want to convert you, they don’t even want to talk to you. They just want to tear you apart. There’s only one ultimate objective to reach. The game does offer you a few different ways to reach it, but these differences are ultimately window dressing. You can even skip a huge chunk of the game if you know where you’re going and the game rewards you for doing it (7). The final mission of the game involves you riding the wake of a giant mecha, a huge piece of Pre-War tech named Liberty Prime, as it cuts down waves of enemies while its loudspeakers blare slogans like “America will never fall to communist invasion” and “Democracy is non-negotiable”. It’s huge, it’s bombastic, and it’s gloriously stupid. Why? Well, for the same reason Bethesda is now using Vault-Tec’s mascot, a perpetually-grinning emptyheaded bobble toy named Vault Boy, as the series’ unironic mascot: they saw what Interplay had done, thought it was really cool, and decided to take the symbols without understanding the message the symbols were meant to convey. Your dad in Fallout 3 is a scientist. If this were Fallout 2, your dad would be strapped to an exploding oil tanker and you’d be holding the detonator, but since this is a Bethesda game, not only are the master’s tools fair game, the master’s house is what you’re striving to fix them with. Fallout 3 strives to be apolitical but instead fails in the exact way that all self-consciously apolitical media fails when attempting to deal with inherently political topics. It ends up firmly in support of the status quo. This is why, when you come across Madison Li again in Fallout 4, she’s working for the Institute, which is essentially the Enclave crossed with the Apple Store.
So why does Fallout 3 fail so badly at understanding the message that the old world must be cleaved away so a new world can be built? I think there’s a few reasons, but chiefly, it has to do with the developers, the age of the intended audience, and the era it was released in. The first Fallouts were written in the 90s in Southern California by people born in the 60s-70s and probably played by people born around that time, or a little later. Not people who would have remembered or even experienced the ‘Duck and Cover’ (8) era of nuclear paranoia, but people who would have been raised by people who did, at a time when we all collectively were able to admit that hiding under a desk during a nuclear attack is nothing more than something to keep you busy in your last minutes alive. People whose consciousnesses were being formed at the height of the Cold War. The setting is important too — the original Fallouts are all set in Southern California and Nevada. The United States (the real one, not the Enclave) committed a lot of nuclear sins during the arms race with the Soviet Union (9), and also made a lot of stuff that’s just (10) plain (11) weird (12). Since disposing of nuclear stuff is difficult, and at the time the Army didn’t really know how to do it, they just buried it in the desert. (This is an approach I can understand if not totally respect.) It’s impossible to overstate the magnitude of the impact the Cold War had on the western United States. The White Sands Missile Range, site of the original Trinity test, covers about 3200mi2 of New Mexico; to this day, about 85% of land in Nevada is owned by the US Government (13) (mostly BLM land, but a healthy chunk is DOD). Untold numbers of missile silos dot the Northwest, their payloads waiting to be unleashed. The Department of Defense exposed huge numbers of people in Utah and Arizona to fallout from nuclear tests conducted at the Nevada Test Site (14). This is not just the backdrop against which Fallout was developed but also its context and its message: War, war never changes. Uncaring governments working hand-in-hand with large corporations will visit technological horrors upon us for their own ends unless they are stopped. It was a message that would have resonated with a generation raised by parents traumatized by the threat of nuclear annihilation, their own first memories of the world being shaped by the height of the Cold War. Take Fallout out of that setting and what do you have left?
Fallout 3’s setting, on the other hand, is a completely different animal. Set in the ruins of Washington DC (referred to in-game, amusingly, as the Capital Wasteland) and released in 2008, it’s a world away both geographically and chronologically. If you were, as I was, a young person on the East Coast playing this game, you would have no context whatsoever. I barely remember the Soviet Union falling. At the time, my feelings on the use of nuclear weapons could have been described at best as ‘mixed’. Wandering around the Capital Wasteland, there’s nothing to give you any sense that the world is or ever was embroiled in a conflict between uncaring, unethical, just-plain-greedy organizations and people just trying to get by. Let’s look at the setting: the real-life area Fallout 3 is set in is occupied largely by government employees and their families. Montgomery County, Maryland, home of Bethesda Softworks, boasts a median annual household income of over $100k and is home to both the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Johns Hopkins University. Three of the area’s top employers are Lockheed Martin, the US Department of Health and Human Services and the US Department of Defense. (No wonder the game doesn’t want to talk about FEV.) If Fallouts 1 and 2 are telling a likeminded audience that we must take their swords and beat them into ploughshares, Fallout 3 is telling an audience of uninformed children that ploughshares are cool and all and maybe something we can think about down the line, but swords are totally awesome and we should use as many of them as possible right now. Yeah, OTHER people used swords irresponsibly, but YOU can handle them just fine, and they should be used on your enemies! What an interesting message to come out of a studio headquartered half an hour from the Pentagon at the height of the Iraq War.
Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not trying to write a “Fuck Fallout 3 and Fuck Todd Howard” article. There’s already enough of those and I actually think Fallout 3 is a perfectly serviceable video game for what it is, it just fails at being a Fallout game. Fundamentally, the problem with Fallout 3, and the Fallout series in general, is with the audience. The people who originally played Fallout and loved it are probably at least in their 40s and no longer have the same sense of anxiety about nuclear war, never mind having enough time to sink 300 hours into a video game. Fallout’s current audience is younger, too young to have an immediate feel for its context. I can (and have!) spent all day reading about the Cold War, but I’ll never know what it’s like to sit through a nuclear bomb drill or wonder if today’s the day the Big One hits. In that sense, there can never be another Fallout. Fallout 3 is an attempt to recontextualize the setting for a new audience, and in doing so, it misses its own point. It wants to tell us that it’s not Us vs. Them but Us vs. Big Shadowy Corporate Interests and war never changes, but what it’s really telling us is that yeah it never changes but we can win. It’s the “This War Will Destabilize The Entire Mideast vs. No It Won’t” (15) of video games. It knows that nuclear war is a threat, but it also thinks it’s a totally awesome one. The apocalypse might happen, but it’s ok because you can win at the apocalypse. It’s a 15-year-old in 2007 calling people ‘godless commies’ with zero understanding of the term. It’s a child on a tour of a nuclear reactor thinking about how cool explosions are. It’s a lot of things, but it ain’t Fallout, and nothing ever will be again.
- Although the lab has been closed to visitors since 9/11, you can visit the reactor as part of a guided tour given by AMSE: https://www.ornl.gov/content/tours
- In the interests of full disclosure, I worked at ORNL at several points in the 2010s. My most recent employment there ended in 2018. Although I never went back to the reactor to take the tour as an adult I can confirm that the lab’s management is not interested in introspecting about the lab’s role in the potential end of the world.
- This one’s set in the Midwest and is not considered canon.
- This one’s set in Texas! And it’s also non-canon.
- Some events in Fallout New Vegas make this one debatable but I’m sticking by it, the Enclave Remnants are just a bunch of old people with a vertibird. They’re not doing shit.
- The first part of the game is concerned with finding your dad. You follow a trail of clues to a scientist named Madison Li who is the last person to have seen your dad, but if you know where she is you can just run directly to her as soon as you leave the starting area. It’s not even hard. She just looks up at you and goes “Oh hey, your dad went to Vault Whatever, he’s there”. I can’t even express how little I think Bethesda cared about the story they were writing. But that’s not the point… I’m just salty as hell about it.
- ‘Duck and Cover’ refers both to a method of personal protection against a potential nuclear attack and a PSA released in the early 50s. The PSA is deeply, deeply unsettling: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IKqXu-5jw60
- In this context I’m mostly thinking of the Nevada Test Site, but the DOD also made a royal mess of the Marshall Islands: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_testing_at_Bikini_Atoll
- Convair NB-36H
- M-29 Davy Crockett Weapon System
- Atomic demolition munitions or ADMs
- Carol Hardy Vincent, Carla N. Argueta, & Laura A. Hanson, Federal Land Ownership: Overview and Data, Congress Research Service (March 3, 2017): https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42346.pdf Retrieved Dec. 28, 2019.