Fallout 3 American Culture Essay

by MATTHEW GAULT

I wandered the wastelands, desperately searching for a water chip to fix a broken machine and save my people. I spent countless hours searching the California wastes for a Garden of Eden Creation Kit so I could feed a starving community.

I searched for a way to shower the D.C. wasteland in life-giving water, fought super mutants in the metro tunnels and wasted what felt like years playing the slots in New Vegas casinos while Caesar’s Legion fought the New California Republic to a bloody standstill.

I know that war … war never changes.

If that last line sent a shiver down your spine — either out of nostalgia or excitement — then you already know what I aim to prove — the best work of nuclear fiction ever made is a video game series called Fallout.

Video games are huge business, sales of electronic entertainment have surpassed movies, books and television for several years now. But more than that, video games are art. The medium possesses the unique ability to transport a player to another world completely.

Like films and TV, it’s a visual medium where the creator’s vision is explicit. But like books, video games often create unique, beautiful worlds that trigger the user’s imagination while providing dozens of hours of entertainment.

Like all art, the best video games tell us something unique about the human condition in general and the culture that created them in particular.

That’s what Fallout does best — it’s a 20-year-old video game franchise that helped the MTV generation understand, mock and control its elders’ Cold War paranoia.

Fallout is set in a post-apocalyptic world as conceived by American 1950s Defense Department propagandists. It’s a world in which the grandchildren of the Cold War conjured the fear of the previous generation and dispelled that fear by turning it into a playground.

One of the most wonderful things about the Fallout series is its art style and setting. Every game in the series takes place in a radioactive wasteland almost 100 years after the last nuclear bomb fell. Humans have rebuilt society, but it’s a hard existence. Bandits raid peaceful villages, cities persist as dens of vice — and factions with warring ideologies fight for control over what’s left of the wastes.

What makes the setting unique and not just another Mad Max ripoff is its retro-futurism. Its American history diverges from our own. Here, culture stood still in the ’50s, and so technology advanced even though American culture did not.

So the wastes of the old world are an Googie nightmare, full of pulp scifi creations straight off the cover of a Jack Vance novel.

Squat robots whir, click and flail their strange arms. The laser rifles look as if they belong to Tom Swift — and every rocket bears an elegant fin.

The art and propaganda posters from the era still litter the wastes. The world of America before the last war is a Leave It to Beaver Hellscape — an America that never existed save in the fevered imagination of conservative pundits.

Strong-jawed men grin behind tobacco pipes while women bring them slippers. Little Timmy wears a beanie with a propeller and the family dog chases the family robot through a tasteful colonial two-story. It’s nostalgic, cute and wonderful.

But play the games long enough and you’ll realize that the nostalgia masks a dark history. One where the Cold War’s nightmare scenarios played out to a disastrous conclusion.

The Fallout universe and our own share the same history … until after the end of World War II. Then things get weird.

In the Fallout year 1947, Bell Labs never finished its work on the transistor and technological miniaturization never happened. Which explains the weird robots and bulky weapons that permeate the wastes.

After the war, America’s fear of global communism is so great that it splits into 13 commonwealths to quell internal political divisions. The different commonwealths are different enough, the country reasons, that everyone can find their niche.

But the opposite happens. A divided America fails to be strong on the world stage. Richard Nixon never goes to China. The Soviet Union never collapses. An uneasy, Cold War style tension persists for 100 years. American culture stagnates, stuck in a kitschy ’50s wonderland.

Then, in the 2050s, everything falls apart. The Middle East raises oil prices so high that some countries in Europe collapse. A plague ravages America and the government shuts down the borders. Terrorists nuke Tel Aviv.

As the fear of all-out nuclear war escalates, a company called Vault-Tec offers a solution to the frightened American public. The company has built hundreds of elaborate underground fallout shelters across the country.

It offers an escape. A new life in a protected vault with other, like-minded members of a community — complete with food, water and entertainment … for those who can pay. Thousands sign up and move into the vaults.

In 2066, China invades Alaska to capture its oil fields. America annexes Canada and moves through it to meet the Chinese. The war escalates. One of the countries launches its nukes. No one knows who.

The bombs destroy the world.

It’s in this bleak, irradiated America that the games are set. Typically, the player begins as a vault dweller several generations removed from the nuclear war. All the character knows is the comfort of the vault. Then something goes wrong — and the player must explore the wastes to solve the problem.

It’s a simple setup, and on the surface doesn’t seem as if it should hold the title of the best piece of nuclear fiction ever written. To understand why I believe that, you need to understand my generation. I was born in 1983. I have only vague memories of Cold War.

I remember the fall of the Berlin Wall as something that occurred on TV while the adults in the room cried. I remember the collapse of the Soviet Union as a photo of Muscovites pulling down a statue of Lenin on the front page of the first newspaper I ever seriously considered.

I remember the adults sitting around with satisfied smiles, as if they were the ones who had defeated communism.

The fall of the wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union were watershed moments in world history. It marked the end of an era of fear and anxiety that had permeated American culture for almost 50 years. But I was too young to properly understand that. The Cold War never scared me the way it frightened my parents or grandparents.

That’s why I love Fallout so much. The video game series helps me make sense of a deep cultural fear in a way that histories and novels such Alas, Babylon can’t. History gives me the facts, Fallout gives me the feeling.

People born in the ’80s are an odd lot. I watched the war against radical Islamism unfold with cynicism. When a team of Navy SEALs killed Osama Bin Laden, college students around the country formed flash mobs out of pure joy.

It makes sense. They were children when the towers fell and had spent half their lives living in a country at constant war. I’d already witnessed the collapse of the other great threat to America — the Soviet Union. I was cynical.

The first Fallout came out in 1997 when I was 14 years old. It and its sequels have been a constant of my gaming life since. In the irradiated wastes of an old world tinged by a weird American culture that never happened but almost did, I found something strange … and understandable.

The world of Fallout was the world my parents feared when they sat before glowing T.V.s — and watching aging actors warn the country against the evils of a foreign people I’d never met.

More than that, this wasteland was only possible because its history never moved on. The turbulent ’60s and ’70s never materialized. People clung to the old way of doing things … and it killed them. Nostalgia is a poison and Fallout shows us how deadly it can be.

Buy ’Alas, Babylon.’

The Fallout series is also full of dark, weird humor. In New Vegas, one of the prominent gangs is The Kings — who revere Elvis as a saint and emulate his style. In Fallout 2 my character starred in adult movies to make extra money. Then he ate radioactive fruit, grew an extra toe and the director fired him.

I laughed because the situation was ridiculous. Just as ridiculous as the decades of brinkmanship between rival superpowers that almost created a world with ghouls, mutants and irradiated porn stars.

Fallout is wonderful because it gave me the power to understand the fears of my parents. But more than that, it gave me permission to laugh at those fears and a way to control them — in a digital playground which undermined nostalgia for America’s Cold War past.

This is going to be a ~7,000 word series on someBecause listing ALL the things wrong with it would take 200 years. of the things wrong with the central story of Fallout 3. Yes, I know this is a celebrated and beloved game. It made a bunch of GOTY lists back in 2008, and still appears on lists of favorites today. To be honest, I liked it too. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to pretend that the entire story wasn’t a giant heap of sophomoric tripe. None of it fit together, none of it made sense, and it was filled with awful, frustrating situations where you were forced to do stupid things because doing something smart would resolve the problem without requiring the player to go out and shoot things.

If you’re one of those people that can’t stand to hear people say bad things about stuff you like, then this is going to be hard for you. I’ve broken the series into five parts to help soften the blow.

Good luck!

(Yes, I covered a lot of these points way back in 2010 when we covered Fallout 3 on Spoiler Warning. But I wanted a version of this rant that people could take in without needing to sit through 15 hours of 480p video.)

A fundamental misunderstanding.

The original Fallout game was a gritty world where you explore the vast California desert in search of a water purification chip. It drew influences from Mad Max, campy 50’s sci-fi movies, and pulpy comics of the same era. It had a streak of pitch-black comedy running throughout it. It wasn’t about the 1950’s, it was about the future that the 1950’s anticipated. It was a game that took place in the future of the past.

Bethesda saw this template and concluded that a Fallout game needed to take place in the desert, it needed to be about water, it should contain screwball comedy, and that it should be the 1950’s forever.

In Fallout 1, you needed a water chip to save the lives of your people who lived in an underground vault. In Fallout 3 you’re trying to clean water for a wasteland that you have no reason to care about, for people who seem to be doing okay without your help, because your idiot dad told you too. (Yes, Dad is an idiot. I know he sounds smart because he’s got the voice of Liam Neeson, and Liam Neeson can make anything sound brilliant, but trust me: Dad is a bone-head. We’ll get to him later.)

They tried to keep the “desert” concept, but moved the game to Washington D.C. where a desert motif makes no sense. They tried to keep the pulp sc-fi tone, but it was often undercut by Bethesda’s putty-faced NPC’s, horrendous washed out color paletteSay what you like about how primitive the 2D Fallout games looked, they had color that POPPED., and blunt attempts at photo-realism. They completely misunderstood the humor, replacing ‘dark comedy’ with ‘goofball situations’. And finally, the whole 50’s thing was greatly exaggerated and then rendered nonsensical by moving the timeline forward to 200 years after the war.

This fundamental misunderstanding of the Fallout tone and themes infuses the game and is the source of nearly every major design failing.

FYI, 200 Years is actually a very long time.

The original Fallout was a setting where we were just a single generation away from the Old World. People still remembered it, and it still shaped the way people thought. People were still sifting through the ashes, trying to cling to the ruined world. They were still dressing, speaking, and thinking like people from a retro-50’s future. But that tension between the old world and the new can only last so long. It certainly isn’t going to survive for 200 years.

Two hundred years ago, men wore knee-high stockings, powdered wigs, and got married at 14 years old. 200 years is a long time, and technology has transformed us and our culture in countless ways. The change would be at least that dramatic in the other direction, moving from a world of plenty to a world of ruin. To put it another way: 200 years after a nuclear war, people aren’t going to be forming greaser gangs.

200 years after the bombs fell, the old world should just be gone. But no. In Fallout 3 people still dress the same, stores still have Old World food on the shelves, the old machines still work, and people still talk about the war the way we discuss 9/11. Nobody has made any new music, culture, customs, clothingI guess raiders have their painspike armor. Which means the only culture to develop in the last 200 years has been from the psychotic cannibal raiders., or tools. They haven’t even swept the dang floor.

In this world the bombs fell, people crawled out of the rubble and formed little towns, and then nothing happened for the next 190 years.

Note that I’m NOT saying that the Bethesda writers should have made up some crazy future-world with all new cultures. If they did, it would barely feel like earth. It might feel something like Zeno Clash, but it certainly wouldn’t feel like the Mad Max / 50’s pulp sci-fi mashup the series is known for. I’m saying that they shouldn’t have moved the story forward 200 years. The Fallout world makes the most sense while you’ve still got some people around to remember the war. The farther you get from N-Day, the harder it is to maintain that unique Fallout flavor, the harder it is to conceive how society would develop, and the harder it is to justify having old-world customs, attitudes, gadgets, and food.

Why was this done? So that the events of Fallout 3 wouldn’t conflict with the events of the previous two games? This 200 year thing is a really ugly hack to solve that problem. And it was a waste, since they ended up retconning and altering lots of big ideas from the earlier games anyway.

Since the writer could barely make a single quest that didn’t implode under the weight of its internal contradictions, they should have made things as easy on themselves and just stuck to the “one generation after the war” idea the series began with. Like all the other missteps, it was a move that caused more problems than it solved and riddled the whole thing with plot holes.

EDIT: It’s been pointed out to me that the first game takes place ~80 years after the bombs fell. I was basing my timeline on the original Fallout Intro Movie, which states that: “Your family was part of that group that entered vault 13. Imprisoned safely behind a large vault door and beneath a mountain of stone, a generation has lived without knowledge of the outside world.” 80+ years is a bit longer than a “generation”, but there’s no point in arguing over contradictory lore. The point stands that in the world of Fallout 3, we have way too many years of nothing at all happening. Fallout 1 had Shady Sands and the Hub, places where humanity was scraping together some kind of new society. In this game people just sit in a pile of rubble, generation after generation.

What we’re NOT going to complain about.

I’m not here to pick apart the science of Fallout. I’m not here to go all Neil deGrasse Tyson on the retro-future fantasy science that the Fallout setting rests on. In the real world decontaminating radioactive water is supposedly not that hardSo I’ve heard. Never tried it myself. but if the writers say that radiation in Fallout sticks to water, then I can accept that just as easily as plasma rifles and deathclaws. I’m not asking for a simulation of real-world physics, but just asking the world stick to its own rules.

In short: It’s fine if green barrels explode like dynamite in Doom, but if a Cacodemon knocks over a glass of water I still expect the glass to hit the floor and break. Having “different” rules doesn’t mean a story has “no rules”.

I’m also not going to nitpick problems with scope or scale. Yes, two Brahamin is not enough cattle for a community of a dozen, a tiny garden can’t feed a whole family, and Tenpenny Tower is actually only a five-minute walk from Megaton. That’s fine. It’s all fine. We understand that in a videogame you explore on foot, some abstraction and compression of space is required. We can accept that a five-meter plot is “a farm”, five cows is “a ranch”, five houses is “a town”, and a mile is “a really long way”.

I’m also not going to complain about how stupid the Vaults areAside from that dig about greaser gangs I did a minute ago.. Yes, the politics and culture of Vault 101 are drivel, but it’s harmless drivel. Once you get out of the Vault it’s easy to ignore and doesn’t constantly generate more plot holes as the story goes on. Vault 101 is silly, not broken.

We’re also not going to complain about Little Lamplight, because that would just distract us from the task at hand. Yes, Lamplight is really infuriating, but like 101 it’s kind of self-contained. Besides, properly deconstructing Lamplight would take another entire article.

Next time we’ll dig into the setting of the game and look at where it all went wrong.


Shamus Young is a programmer, an author, and nearly a composer. He works on this site full time. If you'd like to support him, you can do so via Patreon or PayPal.


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