Why ‘Fallout’ Is the Best Nuclear War Story Ever Told
The video game series helped me understand the Cold War … and my parents
This article was originally published on June 26, 2015.
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 T.V., 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.
At top — Fallout 3. Above — Fallout 2. Bethesda captures
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 a nightmare, full of pulp sci-fi 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.
Fallout 4. Bethesda capture
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 T.V. 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.
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 and 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.