Special thanks to Shane Smith for the awesome banners that you will see in this article, and in Dark Side of Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze Pt.1. If you’d like to see more if his work, you can find it here.
Fallout is a very special series to us; having spent so many hours just roving its expansive wastelands, and enjoying all the rewards it has to offer for exploration and discovery. With that being said, however, “enjoy” seems like a pretty weird term to use when you stop to consider some of the horrible themes seen throughout the game; it isn’t just in the main story line, either. Everything, from the historical events of the Fallout universe to the day-to-day lives of each character, provides much more context to the events that happen throughout each game than the main quest storyline can give you. It’s a context which is desperate, terrible, and makes us wary of what comes next. Nevertheless, enjoying a franchise will often mean that you want to learn more about it; the more you know about Fallout, however, the clearer it becomes that things are so much worse than they seem.
In the context of these games, humans can be (and usually are) awful to themselves and everyone around them. The games’ mirror our own human history, of which a huge portion is all about how we constantly come back from being beaten down, in one form or another. In the context of Patrick and I, we live in Perth, an arguably civilized society where our biggest concerns and arguments are about how we should regard one another. Because, for the most part, we’re beyond the need to kill each other over living space. In Fallout, though, those concerns and arguments are a little regressed, and the need to kill is very much alive. There might be kids in Fallout having to eat rats to survive, there might be soldiers fighting an ultimately futile war, the game is full of individual moments which are really, really awful on their own. However, there are overall themes that are so much more terrible than all of these things combined which no one in the game world seems to even notice. More than that, neither do you, the player, and you’re entirely complicit in the out of control spiral into total destruction for which Fallout’s Earth is inevitably destined. How is this possible? Well, it starts with the fact that…
In the Fallout universe, humanity has splintered into opposing factions which have subsequently spread out across the world; possessing various strengths, cultural beliefs, ideals, and, most importantly, very strong opinions on how life in the Wasteland should be run. There are the biggest, most reputable groups such as the NCR, the Brotherhood, Caesar’s Legion, etc. that are vying for power across post-nuclear war America. However, these are just a few of the most powerful examples taken from a very, very, long list of independent powers that exist throughout the wasteland; the greater majority of which aren’t even armies or empires. Small shanty towns, caves full of stray children, the post-apocalyptic equivalent of cities; all of these qualify for what amounts to their own nation-states. Although, this is an idea which they absolutely run headlong towards the only logical conclusion.
“You came to the wrong neighborhood, human. Jeff here thinks you got some purdy toes.”
They often have self appointed law officers, administration workers, and even town doctors who are independent of any kind of integrated organisation with other towns. They are specific roles, which are assigned to specific people; making that community capable of autarky, running as it’s own micro-society, separate from every other community. You rarely encounter wasteland communities unless you’re sent there by someone who knows somebody, and you almost always have to complete a list of tasks and personal favors for many of the locals before they’ll even begin to think about trusting you. The people of the Fallout universe are among the most stand-offish characters in all of video gaming, and it’s not exactly surprising since the favors you perform for the townspeople will usually be something along the lines of “Please kill the things which are trying to kill us.”
The reason why our real-life western world is the way it is today is because in one way or another we managed to find a way to (relatively) live together in peace. The people living a couple of suburbs down the road mean nothing to me, nor I to them, because we never have to interact with one another. Even if we did, chances are the worst that could possibly happen is that we hate each other. However, in Fallout, if someone hates you, there’s a good chance that person will be killing you very soon. There could be a town that’s running out of food, knows that yours has plenty, and is now scheming to murder you and all of your loved ones, for beans and some irradiated meat. Right now, at this very moment, a platoon of imperial-aged soldiers could be marching towards your house with the idea that enslaving you is their god given right, and they will most definitely torture you, if you resist.
“I am Maximus Probus and this is my ‘Welcoming Platoon’, now for those of you who will submit first and easily – who likes fanning palm branches!?”
In order for society to survive, let alone progress, humans have to work together in larger numbers, and for the greater good. However, with that being said, that’s very unlikely to happen in the Fallout universe because all of the major militarized factions are keeping one another at bay. While they’re trying to enforce their own way of life, all the smaller towns are too busy keeping out anyone who doesn’t get along with them to even consider diplomacy as a viable option. Throw in the normal hazards of the wasteland like mutated monsters, lethal levels of radiation, and a lack of many resources, and it seems like it’s only a matter of time before humanity completely collapses and dies out as a species. When neighbors can’t even stop themselves from brutally murdering one another, it’s no wonder why Fallout still has some serious racial prejudice happening on top of all of this.
Before the various governments of the western world began announcing people of all races were (supposed) to be treated equally, white people pulled some serious dick moves across history. We’ve stolen land, enslaved innocent people, and murdered those who were ungrateful for the “betterment” we were providing. Well, before the bombs dropped on the US in Fallout, society was still hovering around a time that mirrored a period from our own past. A simpler time when white was white and black was black, and Disney wasn’t even considered to be even vaguely racist! Boy, the humans in Fallout sure brought back all of those values for the mutants!
“Sure, it’s not their fault they look the way they do, but my god they’re grotesque!” is what the people in Fallout say. Their physical appearance was completely changed by the nuclear fallout; skin burned, voices charred, and some even glow in the dark! Or maybe they’ll grow ten feet tall, six feet wide, and beat any other living things to death while screaming into their faces. Or perhaps they’ll sprout extra limbs and hands, crawling along out of your nightmares and straight for you! No matter which way you cut it, these things, these mutants, are disgusting, filthy monsters that are still totally capable of intelligent thought and feeling complicated emotions. Did we not mention that?
“TELL ME I’M PRETTY!”
The mutants are people that were altered by the ambient radiation; they might be nasty to look at, and frightening to encounter, but they are essentially human at their core. Because of their reputation for vulgarity, however, normal humans have entirely no interest in integrating, after generations of being treated like outcasts the feeling is mutual for the mutants. Ghouls don’t just turn into slavering, flesh-hungry beasts, they retain their humanity, still acting and feeling like a normal person, and over time degrade into the monsters you pick off in the subway tunnels. The Super Mutants are pretty nuts already, but are still sane enough to communicate with, and in New Vegas’ Jacobstown that craziness is being treated like what it is: a degenerative disease.
The worst part is that Jacobstown is the exception, there isn’t even a place like that for the ghouls; the reason why the more violent and aggressive mutants are the way they are is because the mental illness has gone unchecked and been allowed to fester for countless generations. There’s just little hope for them anymore; they’re basically treated like animals by the greater majority of people in the Wasteland, and the Mutants themselves have taken an often disgruntled, sometimes violent, stance against the “smoothskins.” The ones who aren’t killed or don’t find refuge only roam the wilderness, losing touch with civilisation and eventually their sanity.
“It’s time for a group hug! A flesh hug! Come human, SURRENDER YOUR FLESH TO CUDDLES!”
But hey, who cares about some disgusting mutants and ghouls? Or those damn smoothskins? Who cares if we separate people based on appearance, or origin? This is the Wasteland, guys, and that means that hard decisions have to be made, so sometimes that includes a bit of segregation to keep everyone safe. You don’t have to like it, but chances are good that, by the end of the first playthrough, you’ll have some pretty strong feelings towards at least one kind of mutant (you bigots). This leads us to our next point, heartless Fallout players everywhere, because…
You remember pre-war morals and human empathy? Yeah, neither does the wasteland. It’s a kill or be killed world, where cold-blooded murder is just seen as a consequence of life after nuclear war. It happened so gradually, becoming so normalised, that no one really cares anymore; you won’t have been in Megaton for more than 20 minutes before you’re already being offered missions to go kill people. What’s worse is that you’re probably pretty accepting of those missions, if not one “bad guy” then definitely someone else who’s been lumped with that label. And it is you, the player, making these decisions: games like Fallout, that have such a diverse range of choice in how you role play, mean that your character is a pretty clear reflection of you.
“My name is One Eyed Michigan, and I enjoy long walks along the Mojave, Nuka Cola, and the screams of the innocent.”
It might be easy to blame the terrible, terrible sins against humanity almost every Fallout player has committed during their different games like we have in the past. Your character was brought up in a confined, brainwashing, rule-burdened society for their entire life. However, the open-ended nature of Fallout’s gameplay means that the Courier or the Vault Dweller aren’t wandering down a pre-determined path, it’s the player that decides how the story unfolds. Once you get your hands on a gun, it’s your decision who bites the dust. It’s not like that matters though, right? You wouldn’t be the first to murder in the Wasteland and you’re not going to be the last: Just like that, you’re the same as every other cold-blooded killer out there.
The people of the Wasteland act as a series of moral benchmarks, each group or significant person representing the overall goodness, or lack thereof, if their respective regions. While playing the game, we can use our own sense of morality to gauge how we size up against everyone else and see just where we stand in the world. We can, but often don’t; it’s easy to “lose yourself” while playing a game like this, after awhile you stop consciously thinking about the decisions you’re making and just go with what feels natural. Sometimes what feels natural is being a big, damn hero and saving the day; sometimes what feels natural is walking into town and systematically hunting every last one of them down, hacking up their bodies and piling them into an altar in the town-center.
“I’m going to snipe those raiders to stop them from robbing the merchant, then I’m going to rob the merchant.”
The most worrying part of all this is not only how readily this mindset develops in-game, but how likely it would take you over in real life. No one knows what the end of the world is going to be like, Fallout probably isn’t even close to what our world would look like in a similar scenario. It’s not a giant leap, though, to picture yourself running around in the shoes of the character you see on-screen, shooting mutants before they shoot you, giving out medicine to the sick, gunning down an entire camp for the approval of a particular faction, or slaughtering innocent people for giggles. You’re in the wasteland, where sacrifices need to be made and rules barely exist, so when in Rome, murder, rape and pillage as the Romans do. The things that happen in Fallout can be pretty grim and should shock some kind of self-reflection into the player, but just remember that, for all the terrible things that are out there in the Fallout world, you’re probably responsible for about a third of it.
DISCLAIMER: This is a work of satire, parody and fiction, at no point was it my intention to assert that the things written in this article are actually true, unless it turns out that they are true. In which case suck it, I was totally right. I don’t own the characters, or the concepts, and I’m sure I’m not the first to come to many of these conclusions, but stealing my words without asking would be kind of a dick thing to do. To the original owners of the discussed characters: please don’t sue me, I am not a rich man.