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Fallout: A study in the unpleasant as compulsion « Nitpixels

Fallout: A study in the unpleasant as compulsion


Having just finished Fallout: New Vegas, these thoughts were fairly fresh in my mind so I thought I’d get them out there.

What I find interesting when I play a Fallout game is how much of the gameplay mirrors the setting, a post-nuclear landscape with a twist. Fallout is the post apocalypse of a future embodied by the Ford Nucleon. Laser guns and plasma rifles, supercomputers as big as a room, old cathode ray TV sets, vacuum tubs and broken down old robots that would look at home on the set of Lost In Space. Fallout is the disaster after an alternate history, and it’s always fascinated me to go through the various shattered urban ruins. Since I used to live in Washington DC (not far from Bethesda, actually) Fallout 3 was a fascinating exercise in seeing places I’d known and realizing “Hey, this isn’t how it looked at all in our world.” The subways, the cars and trains, even the streets were different and the differences didn’t stem from the atomic war. The Smithsonian had different museums even.

As fascinating as “spot the divergence” is in the Fallout games, however, what I found most striking in my New Vegas playthroughs was how the game supports the feeling of being a wanderer in a world where people struggle to make a life in the wretched refuse of a golden age. Much of your food, clothing, weapons and other supplies are in effect garbage and trash recycles from the civilization that just destroyed itself. Most of the buildings, even the ones being used, show signs of being picked apart and their materials recycled. The game has an inventory management system that places hard and fast caps on how much you can carry forcing you to cache gear and supplies in various locales you gain access to. You often have to choose to eat unpleasant or even radioactive things in order to regenerate wounds or drink dirty water to keep hydrated. Your weapons and armor break down over use and must be repaired. Currency is based on the bottle cap, to the point where you will actually be offered a job to go and smash a functional soda bottling plant because it’s being used to make bottle cap currency.

In essence, the economy of Fallout is based on the idea that the only legitimate money comes from before the war, and any attempt to make new money is suspect. It’s a fascinating metaphor that pops up several times in various Fallout games, the idea that this is a world that doesn’t create anything new, it just scavenges in the trash of the old, dead world. One character from Fallout 3 even makes this comparison. What I find most worth exploring here is how this dead, sterile, possibly even necromantic setting which uses the dead past to build the tottering present is so embodied by the art and story choices so that every act ties into the feel of the world.

In Fallout one often succeeds by the thinnest of margins. Victory conditions are often fluid (in Fallout New Vegas one can choose to support one of two major factions or instead to work to one’s own end) and even when you “win” the game you’re still, ultimately, living in a world that killed itself nearly 200 years before you even started. Everything from interface choices to art and storyline, to inventory, to how food and drink work, even ammunition and weapon conditions all emphasize this ultimate truth. You live in the bones of a dead world, it says, all you have done is to choose what got scavenged.

Part of the real genius of Fallout is how it embraces this. Part of what makes it such compelling play is how it highlights it in ways both great and small. From the doctor with two trained mercenary guards, one of whom complains about not having been paid and the other who confides in you his doubts as to her actual medical accreditation while standing in the shadow of a old dinosaur tourist attraction to the gigantic mutant grandmother in the bright yellow wig this is a world where the stakes are high and sometimes treasure is an old tin of radioactive mac and cheese. Fallout makes the mire and offal of the dead past seem a fitting reward.

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