The door slowly slides open, gears grinding as the first hint of natural light enters the sprawling underground vault. Centuries have passed since the end of the world as we knew it, enough time so that the once irradiated surface could be built on once again.
What greets the vault dweller? Ruins. The remains of society are scattered across the land, crumbling and filthy. Bandits and scavengers. Man has given into its base instincts, fighting, killing and struggling to survive. Desolation. Car wrecks line streets, and the useless detritus of a dead civilisation covers the environment.
The Wasteland of Fallout is in stasis. Barely anything has changed in the centuries since the nuclear holocaust. The countless humans and mutants that eke out a meager existence are exhibits in a museum of the apocalypse. At best it’s purgatory; at worst, a continuation of the apocalypse, not post-apocalyptic at all.
How does one measure the length of an apocalypse? When does it become post-apocalyptic, with survivors moving on and starting anew? It’s hard to find an answer, since a modern apocalypse is a hypothetical crisis. It could be argued that the fall of the Roman Empire was an apocalypse of sorts. The end of that civilisation saw great destruction and changes that swept through Europe and the Near East. But new powers and governments took its place and civilisation continued.
This rarely happens in the post-apocalyptic worlds created by game developers.
Fallout presents a world still reeling from the nuclear cataclysm, centuries later. There are scientists, armies, even the occasional government, yet there seems to be an absence of builders, cleaners, plumbers and electricians. The past surrounds the denizens of the various wastelands, and yet outside of a few instances, America has been knocked back to a pre-industrial era. All these broken down cars and working computers, and the best mode of transportation they could come up with was mutant cows.
Post-apocalyptic games, from Fallout to The Last of Us or Metro 2033, play to expectations. When one hears “post-apocalyptic,” the word conjures up images of half-destroyed tower blocks, highways filled with empty, rusting cars, basically the remains of the now dead civilization. But those images are more apocalyptic, really. The post-apocalypse what happens after the reset button has been pressed. Unfortunately, a great number of games that use the setting give the uniform answer of “not much at all.”
The problem is that the standard post-apocalyptic setting has become very, very tired. There’s not much it can say any more, and it’s a rather horrible form of escapism. You don’t have to look very far in the world right now to see the poverty, savagery and struggles displayed in Fallout. What’s unexplored is what happens when people start to rebuild.
The setting offers a tabula rasa from which writers and developers can explore how society would progress after everything has broken down. The idea that it wouldn’t really progress at all – the central conceit of Fallout – might be valid, but it’s not particularly interesting. Even during the early medieval era, the colloquially named Dark Ages, society progressed. While a lot of the knowledge from the civilisations of antiquity was lost or forbidden, civilisation kept on inventing and experimenting.
The bleak, dangerous worlds presented in most post-apocalyptic games also limit the type of characters players can expect to control. They take on the role of scavenger and, more often than not, killer, and most of the struggles they go through exist solely because the world is utterly fucked. And it feels hopeless. If, after all this time, the world is still so badly damaged, what motivates the player to be better? It’s strange playing Fallout as a genuinely good person because there never seems to be room in that downtrodden world for anyone other than pragmatists and villains.
It is strange that State of Decay, found in the over-saturated zombie survival genre, would be one of the titles that bucks this trend. Strictly speaking, it’s not post-apocalyptic, as it kicks off right at the start of a zombie outbreak; yet it manages to convey the sense of a new beginning in a way that its aftermath cousins have failed to do.
The survivors in State of Decay band together, coming from different places and background. Sometimes they fight, sometimes they work together, but there’s always progress being made. Safehouses become fortified homes, the region gets mapped out and explored, supply networks even develop. It’s filled with agency, with survivors making choices that have a tangible impact on the world around them.
Fallout also has agency. It’s filled with choices about where to go, who to side with and if you should destroy entire towns. But these moments often feel hollow. Destroy Megaton in Fallout 3 and what happens? Well, Megaton isn’t there anymore and you get a nice apartment. Ultimately, everything continues along the same path. A snapshot of what it looks like when the world ends.
New social structures, fresh forms of governments, new roles for individuals — the post-apocalypse could be entirely different from the world as we know it. Fallout isn’t. Oppressive leaders, armies fighting over energy, criminals extorting the vulnerable — it’s rooted in old ways. “War. War never changes,” says Ron Perlman. But it does. All the time. As do the after effects. Wars have flung nations into technological and social revolutions, pushing science, medicine and ethics. War is an undoubtedly unfortunate obsession that we, as a species, have, but it can also be a force for great change, even if that change exists as opposition to more war.
Fallout doesn’t need to change. It’s got a very specific thing going with its retro future apocalypse, and while the next installment in the series could stand to give people houses that aren’t 200 year old wrecks, greater change might threaten the IP. This isn’t a call for Bethesda to scrap the venerable series. Rather, it’s a call for developers to, more generally, eschew the exhausted trappings of what makes a traditional post-apocalyptic setting. It’s not war that never changes, Ron, it’s the post-apocalypse, and maybe it would be better if we fixed that.