Some Thoughts on Fallout

The first time I experienced Fallout it was by proxy. I was at my friend's house and I watched over his shoulder as he showed me how you can hide bombs in people's pockets. At the time I had no way to play games like Fallout or Ultima 7, but I saw a lot of them, and just enough to be struck by the amount of possibility they seemed to contain. As you play more of a game, its constraints sink into your brain, but I think the magic of CRPGs is that their worlds seem larger than what's on the screen, you feel the possibility of roads not taken, decisions unmade. You can fill in the gaps that crude graphics and narrative by text afford, and you meet the work halfway. Broadly, I think some of the most powerful parts of the first Fallout are about becoming the kind of saviour who can't go back home. That you become too tainted by the wider world to return to the only community you've never known.

For better or worse, the Fallout TV series is interested in this question to the point where it puts the words on nearly every character's lips (where applicable) for the entire duration. We are told out loud and through the mechanics of the world that trust is an unsustainable strategy in the wastes and anybody who tries to make a situation better is inevitably missing context. This is initially played for laughs: Maximus breaks up a fight only to find that he was defending an alleged chicken-fucker. This continues to escalate, the consequences becoming increasingly fatal. Believing in anything, in Fallout's world, is a sucker's game. The show tells us that the wastes are so bad because too many people have too many competing visions.

In a way, I think this is appropriate! Ultimately, Fallout is about a large segment of human society being frozen in a kind of post-war American thought. Its broad understanding of fascism and communism both being results of "utopian social engineering", the attempt to create a new social subject regardless of environment, fits that period. It's strange, then, that it can't meaningfully grapple with some of the historical material it does talk about. McCarthyism is alive and well here, but there's a lack of interest in addressing it directly. In flashbacks, people are being consistently fired or gossiped about for their communist sympathies but there aren't any communists, just people who have some questions about the company that's planning to wipe out most of humanity.

I want to be clear that I don't want a better class of morality from this show! If anything, it feels like it's constantly moralizing for the duration of the season and then it gives up! We're taught to understand every confrontation as a referendum against trust, we're told the world is shitty because too many people want too many things too badly, then we're given a villain in the final act with the promise of an even greater evil later.

And to a certain extent, I expected this! I'm pretty tired of the Hobbesian war of all against all being a central point of post apocalyptic fiction and good counterexamples are fewer and further between. I really liked Station Eleven, for example, because it respected its characters' emotional investments, personal struggles, and grievances. It doesn't gesture towards the end of civilization and say "that's why people are like this". I like this about the broader Fallout setting too, that it's about people trying to scratch out an existence people build kingdoms, cults and communities fashioned out of long dead and distorted ideologies.

The show looks really nice! Costumes and props all work for me. It's initially a bit annoying to feel like the show is whispering "that's a Fallout thing" to you, but I think it hits a nice rhythm even if I find myself wearily shouting "WAR NEVER CHANGES" at the tv on cue. The nods to video game absurdism are inconsistent: I felt like my eyes were going to roll out of my head when Lucy was talking about her stats, but stimpack logic and the sheer variety of inhalers work for me.

Ultimately I think Fallout is pretty enjoyable when it isn't trying to explain itself, it just spends an awful lot of time explaining itself.