As followers of nuclear weapons policy worry about arms control and watch Iran begin to fulfill its new agreement, another group is abuzz with excitement about its own newsworthy nuclear occasion. Video gamers across the globe are eagerly anticipating the November 10 release of Fallout 4, the newest version of Bethesda Game Studios’ bestselling series set in a post-nuclear-apocalypse wasteland. In Fallout, the player assumes the role of survivor, roving the land, defeating aggressors, and generally trying to stay alive.
It’s hard to overstate the game’s popularity, and the new installment is expected to live up to, and perhaps even eclipse, its canonical predecessors. When, in June, Bethesda demonstrated Fallout 4 at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), GameStop.com host Danny O’Dwyer said of the frenzied reaction, “I actually cannot think of an E3 game announcement that’s had this much impact.” Fallout Shelter, a free-to-play teaser game for mobile devices released in June, brought Bethesda $5.1 million in its first two weeks. A pre-order campaign in which buyers could purchase a special Fallout 4 edition that came with a real-life replica of an in-game gadget sold out quickly. Microsoft is trying to get a piece of the action by selling a special Xbox One bundle that offers their console and a copy of Fallout 3 along with the new game. And to get fans through the final days before the game’s release, Bethesda teamed up with Carlsberg brewery in Britain to concoct the limited-edition Fallout Beer (Sorry, rest of the world, this is a UK exclusive.) Consumer research firm Nielsen rates Fallout 4 the second-most anticipated 2015 holiday video game after Call of Duty: Black Ops III.
So, for the uninitiated, what is the big deal? It is nearly impossible to get a hold of such a big-ticket game before it actually launches due to piracy fears, but having played Fallout 3 and consumed some of the many Fallout 4 previews, like the official trailer and a series of instructional videos, the appeal of both the series and the new version is pretty clear.
Fallout has all the basic trappings of a first-person-shooter role-playing game—your character is given weapons, skills, some form of currency, and an epic problem which you need to navigate with the use of weapons and whatever else you can get your hands on. But of course, this framework alone isn’t enough to create the kind of wild excitement that surrounds Fallout without a compelling story to go with it. Who are you and what do you need to do to survive? In Fallout 4, you are the male or female soon-to-be “Sole Survivor,” living in the year 2077 and enjoying time with family, when a nuclear attack destroys your city, forcing you to run towards Vault 111, one of the underground bomb shelters in the Fallout game world. (In previous Fallout games, some vaults turn out to be creepy hubs of human experimentation.) Your family dies in a desperate attempt to enter Vault 111, while you make it inside and induce cryostasis. You wake up 200 years later, in 2277, only to learn that no one else in your Vault has survived, and that you are now an inhabitant of a scarred landscape riddled with new monsters and demons above and below ground. It is now your job to determine friend from foe and, essentially, live.
It’s a depressing premise, but Fallout’s dazzling visuals help enliven a dark story. In the game’s post-apocalyptic world, cities are desolate and charred, trees blackened and bare, and surviving communities live on the fringes, suspicious and hostile. Meanwhile, the game’s initial pre-war world, while meant to be 21st century, looks in many ways like the 1940s or 50s, complete with round-cornered appliances and mid-century modern starburst clocks. It incorporates an “atomic vintage” aesthetic: geometric atomic patterns, stars-and-galaxies motifs, and grainy, gray-scaled public service announcements (resembling this real one), instructing families on how to prepare for a nuclear attack. The retro-futuristic look, in paying homage to an American cultural aesthetic popular in the middle of the 20th century, creates a link between the game’s fantasy world and the historical reality of the Cold War, when people really did cower at the prospect of nuclear annihilation. Even the Fallout 4 trailer toggles back and forth between the lively, almost kitschy past (complete with a doo-wop song from the 1940s group The Ink Spots) and the desolate present, showcasing the intimate connection between the two.
Visual appearance is not the only way in which Fallout 4 ties its fictional landscape to the real world. In the game, players have the important task of managing a set of personality attributes—strength, perception, endurance, charisma, intelligence, agility, and luck, collectively referred to in the game as “S.P.E.C.I.A.L. perks”—that can help a character drastically increase chances for survival. Players who invest in cultivating perks can significantly alter their game play: If your character prioritizes the “endurance” perk, you could gain abilities that would allow you to withstand radiation or practice cannibalism, which in turn could open parts of the Fallout world that other players may not easily access. Those who worried about surviving nuclear annihilation during the Cold War had to consider similar issues—not actually pondering cannibalism per se, perhaps, but taking very seriously the idea of preparedness, and the ways in which identity and morality could change or be compromised under extreme circumstances. Post-nuclear lifesaving self-help books, some of them government-sponsored, were popular in the United States from the 1960s through the 1980s. One, Nuclear War Survival Skills (originally compiled at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 1979 and then updated by Cresson Kearny in 1986), touches on the need to be mentally prepared for the post-nuclear apocalypse. From chapter three, on “psychological preparation:”
The more one knows about the strange and fearful dangers from nuclear weapons and about the strengths and weakness[es] of human beings when confronted with the dangers of war, the better chance one has of surviving… Fear often is a life-saving emotion. When we believe death is close at hand, fear can increase our ability to work harder and longer. Driven by fear, we can accomplish feats that would be impossible otherwise. Trembling hands, weak legs, and cold sweat do not mean that a person has become ineffective. Doing hard, necessary work is one of the best ways to keep one's fears under control.”
Wrapped in with the nostalgia-provoking graphics and deep moral questions is Fallout’s dynamic and compelling storyline. The series’ strong following has a lot to do with the non-linear nature of its plot; with seemingly infinite options, it presents players an opportunity to confront ethical dilemmas and choose multiple paths to resolve them. For instance, in Fallout 3’s nuked-out landscape, the main character encounters a scattering of freakish and wicked creatures—mutated humanoids, monsters, mechanical adversaries—some of which by default will attack while others are open to interaction. And although the player’s character must accomplish set tasks to win the game, there is plenty of room to develop personality. Throughout these interactions, characters can choose how to respond in surprisingly nuanced ways. Alex Games, a gaming expert and software engineer, recounts a fascinating dialogue he had with a cabal of vampires called “The Family” in Fallout 3 in a charming essay published in the book Well Played 3.0. Not only did he talk philosophy with these bloodsuckers, he also struggled with himself over whether to kill them. (I, sadly, didn’t have the moxie to get as far into the game.) With each decision the player makes, his or her character develops in ways that will govern who the player can interact with in the future and where he or she can go.
At its core, the Fallout series taps into a world that is unknown and unfathomable to us, and yet uncomfortably close and familiar. This is why the game is so riveting: It allows for the experience of post-nuclear shock and destruction, an event that seemed plausible to many millions of people 60 years ago, even if today it has faded in the public imagination. (Whether nuclear dangers should get more attention is a subject for another column.) The 2011 nuclear power plant catastrophe at Fukushima and a series of historical close-calls in which nuclear weapons were nearly detonated still loom in our minds, both repellent and fascinating, precisely because they are rooted in the mysterious, frightening, and palpable power of the atom.
While harnessing these themes to create a thrilling premise, Fallout also presents a provocative and loaded question—what makes you S.P.E.C.I.A.L. enough to survive a nuclear war?—and invites players to answer on their own terms. Within the game, decisions can be meaningful, perhaps even revealing of what a player’s real-world approach would be to navigating tough dilemmas. Giving players the freedom to take on a good or bad persona, the game allows exploration and experimentation with one’s own survivalist response without judgment or grievous consequence. It is definitely macabre, but given that nuclear warfare is one of the biggest ”what ifs” the world has ever experienced, the opportunity to open the vault is tempting.