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Hope in the Wasteland: Revisiting Fallout in 2017

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I like to call myself the Slowest Gamer Ever. I’m sure that isn’t strictly accurate, but I tend to be several years behind the curve with the popular games everyone else has already played, and I go in long streaks where I don’t play anything except mobile games and maybe the odd MMO. Among other things, this means I still haven’t finished several of the games I list among my favorites. The Fallout series has definitely suffered from this—I adore these games and their aesthetic, I think of them whenever I see something even vaguely from a related time period, and I probably own more merchandise from the Fallout series than I do from any other game. But until recently, I hadn’t played Fallout 3 or Fallout: New Vegas since 2012, and I didn’t buy Fallout 4 either. I kept meaning to get back to the series and for one reason or another, it just kept not happening.

And then Trump got elected.

Like most millennials, I don’t remember the Cold War as anything but a somewhat distant period of history. I remember being afraid of nuclear war as a kid anyway, because I read a lot of history and I worried about pretty much everything, but at some point I realized the ever-present risk of nuclear war had ended when the USSR collapsed.

Over the past few years, mostly thanks to increasing aggression from North Korea, nuclear war has started to feel like a slightly more realistic fear again, or at least within the realm of possibility. The cavalier way Trump talked about nuclear weapons on the campaign trail was unnerving even when I didn’t think he could possibly win (and arguing with people who told me Clinton was more likely to start a nuclear war was incredibly frustrating). Watching him provoke both China and North Korea before he even took office—on Twitter, no less—was a lot worse. Suddenly I was worrying about nuclear war again, only I had a reason this time, and I wasn’t sure if I could deal with returning to the Fallout games after all, now that it was all a little too real and the games’ use of China as the enemy in the Great War felt uncomfortably prophetic.

It was like adding insult to injury: in among the fears about what the Trump administration would do to harm marginalized people and destabilize foreign relations, there was this extra little twist of bitterness that they might have taken away my ability to enjoy a short escape from reality with one of my favorite games. A friend of mine encouraged me to get back into Fallout 3 anyway. I made time for it and discovered that the world presented in these games struck me as paradoxically hopeful, in exactly the same way it always had before I thought it had any potential to reflect the future.

The thing is, the world presented in the Fallout games seems like a pretty classic example of the Crapsack World trope: maybe not everything is awful, but a whole lot of things are, and chances are high that the average inhabitants are going to get killed no matter how hard they fight to survive. The scarred landscape itself is an inescapable reminder of the death and destruction caused by that final war where the whole world burned; the water is toxic, highly irradiated areas can kill you in seconds, and crumbled pieces of bridges and buildings lie everywhere. It’s almost impossible to find anything that survived truly unscathed. The inhabitants of the Wasteland aren’t much better, forcing you to spend a considerable portion of your time just trying to stay alive. Giant mutated cockroaches and flies are some of the least dangerous creatures you’ll encounter, and when the irradiated scorpions the size of large dogs are the smaller variety, the place is a nightmare for anyone who’s even slightly unsettled by bugs. Human inhabitants include cannibals, slavers, Caesar’s Legion, pointlessly sadistic raiders, and a small handful of rich people living in sheltered comfort while everyone else dies or barely scrapes by. Characters do terrible things to each other, and the player character has almost unlimited opportunities to do terrible things as well—to random NPCs, to major characters, and to entire settlements or factions. Seemingly nice places tend to hide horrifying secrets, and everything indicates that the retro-futuristic 1950s charm of the pre-War era was a thin veneer over a different kind of dystopia. The more you dig into the lore, the darker it gets as you understand the extent of the Vault-Tec experiments and the absolute callousness with which huge numbers of powerful people viewed human lives, all hidden behind the cheery Vault Boy mascot. In general, it’s not a place most people would want to visit, let alone live. It’s a good example of a return to Hobbes’ state of nature, where life tends to be nasty, brutish, and short.

And yet—

There is, of course, something deeply comforting about immersing yourself in a familiar fictional world, especially after a long time away, and that’s not unique to Fallout. But this particular world is starkly beautiful despite its scars, and at its heart, Fallout is rich with themes of survival and, yes, hope. The player character has as many opportunities to help people and do good things as the reverse, often in ways that change life for the better for entire settlements or regions. The plot of the first Fallout game, for instance, is about saving your home vault and in the process saving the whole region from supermutants. Fallout 2, again, is about saving your community. Fallout 3 lets you return pure, free water—literally, the “waters of life”—to the entire Capital Wasteland. New Vegas starts with the player character being shot in the head and left in a shallow grave, after which the character picks up the pieces and soldiers on, eventually resulting in the chance to establish a safer life for everyone in the Mojave by working against Caesar’s Legion. I don’t really want to spoil Fallout 4 for myself, but if nothing else, its main plotline is about saving your family, and a major component of the game focuses on creating, improving, and protecting safe, functional settlements for ordinary people who just want to live in peace.

It’s not just the main storylines, either. For all the awful people in each part of the Wasteland, there are settlements of people living relatively normal lives, not just struggling to survive. Decent people in Goodsprings willing to help a random stranger left for dead. A kid in Canterbury Commons who fantasizes about superheroes because his life is safe enough he actually finds it boring. Decorations that serve no purpose except to decorate, like the New Vegas sign or the lights strung across the Megaton crater, because people everywhere like to put in a little extra effort to make their homes not just functional but pretty. Merchants and couriers who regularly risk their own lives (for money, of course, but still) to spread goods and information from settlement to settlement. The Brotherhood of Steel, full of problems but still doing a great deal to protect others and maintain a base of knowledge. The Followers of the Apocalypse, maybe a little naïve but genuinely dedicated to helping people. As the player character, you too can help people in big and small ways in nearly every settlement you visit, with actions that might not save the world but that still matter.

Despite the near-constant danger, despite horror both subtle and overt, the Fallout series is ultimately about survival—the resilience of fairly ordinary humans in the face of impossible odds, and our ability to rebuild a new world out of the ashes of the old one. It’s a dark world and it’s full of ugliness, but humanity survives. People survive, and love each other, and show kindness even when they don’t expect anything in return, and try to make their little corner of the world a better and safer place. For the Yuletide fanfic exchange a few years ago, I received a wonderful fic about Christmas in the Wasteland that summed this up perfectly: “Men and women die. Cities burn. The world is born anew out of the ashes. And war… war never changes. But people always find a reason to celebrate.” The world ends, and we keep going anyway. We survive.

It’s not an easy hope or a perfect one, but when the news constantly fills me with dread and I’m legitimately worried about real-life nuclear war, it’s the kind of hope I need. Fallout’s window on a devastated world reminds me that the end is never as simple or comprehensive as it might seem, and what we do today still matters, because something always survives.