To acquire wisdom, one must observe

‘Fallout’ only knows one story, but it knows how to tell it

“Fallout” is a video game franchise that bravely asks “Isn’t retro-futurism cool? What if we built a universe around the aesthetics of 1950s gadgets, wouldn’t that be, like, super cool?” The best part of “Fallout” is that they’re absolutely right: it’s cool as hell. “Fallout” is a sort of alternate universe where society’s cultural development more or less froze in the 1950s, leaving us with permanent McCarthyism, cowboy movies and so on, although they notably did manage to solve racism and sexism by the time the world ends in 2077 (spoilers?). Technology continued developing, but hyper-focused on nuclear power as a fuel source and unevenly; most computers still use vacuum tubes, but soldiers fight in giant suits of power armor, giving them superhuman strength and endurance. 

In this world, the various superpowers eventually start fighting wars over resources, culminating in a massive conventional Sino-American War which rages for years before global thermonuclear war breaks out in 2077. A company called Vault-Tec capitalizes on the fear of nuclear war to build and sell spots in “vaults”, self-sufficient underground bunkers where those who can pay can survive the end of the world in relative comfort. The dark secret of these vaults is that almost all of them were secretly intended as sadistic social experiments to inform the secret cabal that would rebuild civilization after the bombs fell. Most of the protagonists of the “Fallout” universe are these “Vault-Dwellers,” the descendants of the people who bought places in the vaults.

The “Fallout” show is the story of three people – a vault-dweller and two surface-dwellers – navigating the wasteland of southern California in 2296. It’s hard to give much more information without spoiling the show, so let me take this opportunity to say you should watch it! I didn’t have high expectations but it was genuinely a joy to watch. You don’t need to have played any “Fallout” games to enjoy it, and I think it’ll be even more fun to be learning about this world along with the protagonists rather than going in knowing its central premise.

Without getting into the plot too much, the show follows its three very different protagonists making their way through the post-apocalyptic wasteland, eventually uniting with the goal of solving a mystery with the potential to change the world (or what’s left of it) forever. It’s a dramatic premise and there are high stakes, but for me the show shines where it’s less serious. It does feature pretty extreme violence, but a lot of it is almost cartoonish. It captures the feeling of a slightly surreal world, with characters trudging through barren deserts only for the next scene to be set in lush forest. It occasionally features landmarks that have survived the nukes and the centuries, but overall the geography makes no sense. It creates a sense of disorientation that helps some of the sillier plots work. In that way, it almost feels like playing a video game, where there’s a very serious main plot the player is supposed to be paying attention to, but they just want to play around and play with mechanics they find fun. In this vein, there’s a halfhearted attempt to stick to “Fallout’s” serious pacifist message, but it’s constantly undercut by the tone of the rest of the show. To be clear, this isn’t a complaint, I think it’s one of the best parts of the show, and effectively captures the feeling of playing the games. 

The first episode features a flashback showing the day the bombs fell, and while the viewer knows what’s inevitably going to happen, the moment it happens still hits incredibly hard. That was the moment I realized that this was going to be a good show. The pacing and timing maintain the show’s not-quite-real tone while still managing to be intensely suspenseful. I’d go more into detail, but I don’t think I can do it justice, all I can say is watch the show.

That said, I do have one big problem with the choices they made. (Skip this part if you don’t want any spoilers, although it’s not pivotal to the show) The NCR is a democratic republic modeled after the pre-war United States that several “Fallout” games have centered on. During their journey, our protagonists come across the ruins of Shady Sands, which was once the capital of the NCR. The dialogue explicitly tells us they failed, and the NCR was effectively destroyed. The Fallout series’ tagline (and the last line of the show) is “War… war never changes.” This is supposed to be a profound commentary on futility and human nature, but I think it shows us why the NCR couldn’t be allowed to exist. “Fallout” isn’t interested in telling a new story, they’re set on repeating the same set of tropes about the wasteland over and over. There are plenty of stories to tell featuring a surviving NCR; you could even emphasize that they’ve learned nothing by starting a new cold war with whatever successor state emerges in China or something along those lines. I can’t emphasize enough that despite how much I enjoyed the show, the plot isn’t that different from “Fallout 4.” Or “Fallout 3.” Or “Fallout 2.” Players might win the game, our protagonists might get a happy ending, but “Fallout” … “Fallout” never changes.

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