So often, shining revelatory moments come with a healthy dose of hindsight, like the moment at the end of every good detective story when all the clues link up into this beautiful latticework leading to the real killer. The culprit usually seems, in retrospect, obvious.
My revelation about Fallout 4 came pretty deep into my playthrough, around the 20 hour mark. Preston Garvey, a man as blandly kind as a church bake sale, was offering me the next quest in his sack, a mission to retake a fortress referred to as “The Castle.” What happened to the Castle, I ask? He shrugs and tells me: some giant monster rose of out the ocean a few years ago and drove everyone out.
It was at that precise instant that all the pieces clicked into place for me. Oh, sure, I had been fooled by the theatrical backdrops of bombed out cities, all the skeletons in fancy clothes, how freaking dirty everyone is, but those were just red herrings. Fallout 4 is science fiction, certainly. Maybe even something less common—future-fantasy, we could say. But this game isn’t post-apocalyptic.
Now, I’m not trying to make the case here that Bethesda is hiding the true origins of the Wasteland from us or anything. I’ll accept that the world of Fallout 4 is set after a nuclear war, which certainly qualifies as an apocalyptic event, and so by strictly nominal definition, it concerns a post-apocalyptic world. But it’s a paper-thin cover. Aside from that piece of background info, Fallout 4 is missing every other hallmark of post-apocalyptic fiction—one good example being scarcity.
It’s hard to find a story where scarcity is more central than Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The world it depicts is barren and stripped of resource by either armageddon or the people who remained afterwards. So when the unnamed protagonist and his son find an unopened can of Coca Cola tucked inside a broken vending machine, it seems like a miracle. The boy, who has never had soda before, drinks it reverently while his father looks on. It’s a poignant scene, beautiful and pitiful all at the same time.
In Fallout 4, the latest chapter in Bethesda’s wasteland exploration game, there are four different flavors of Nuka Cola, the world’s Coke analog. My vault dweller is currently carrying around two six-packs in case he ever gets thirsty. If anything, Nuka Cola is more available now than it ever was in the before-times; all the machines are broken, so I don’t even need to put in any quarters to get my drink on.
And that’s just soda. For a world that’s been nuked to hell, there’s a surprising amount of stuff left lying around the Massaschusetts Commonwealth. In The Road, the protagonist carves false bullets from wood and uses ash, the only abundant resource, to darken their tips. Max Rockatansky in The Road Warrior uses a similar bluff; ammunition for his double-barreled shotgun is so rare, he uses it more as a negotiating tool than an actual weapon. By level twenty in Fallout 4, I was carrying several thousand rounds of ammunition and at least five guns, two of which shot laser beams instead of bullets.
Even the detritus that lines the Commonwealth seems put there by some benevolent deific force. The aluminum in TV dinner trays can be hammered down into plating for armor; finding a desk fan is like striking gold, since they’re loaded down with the surprisingly hard-to-find screws that you need in order to strap extra scopes and other doohickeys onto your guns.
The game’s new junk conversion system takes with it a lot of the series’ claim to the post-apocalypticgenre. In Fallout 3 the spread of junk approached commentary; all that remained of the civilizations that had scorched themselves off the face of the earth was piles of garbage, now-useless items from the period of excess that had led to the whole problem in the first place (it’s implied that the Great War that put the fallout in Fallout was started over basic resources). Fallout 3 was in communication with its past; by giving all that junk a thrifty usefulness, the developers at Bethesda turned Fallout 4 into an episode of MacGuyver with a blander color palette.
Which actually gets at maybe the biggest reason I’m making this admittedly punctilious argument: aside from some perfunctory moments before the big murder party that is the future of the Massachusetts Commonwealth, Fallout 4 has barely any connection to the world that came before it. You can’t have post-apocalypse without some relationship to the pre-apocalypse. That’s what the scarcity is there for in the first place: seeing the boy drink that can of Coca-Cola wouldn’t feel so alien and precious if it weren’t a vestige from a world that now only lives in the mind of the father.
The Walking Dead, which has the highest total viewership of any cable series in history, uses a different framing device to draw a distinction between the world before and the world after: rather than a hardship of resources, Rick and his band face a dearth of morality. The decisions made by the characters of The Walking Dead would have been morally unthinkable only a short amount of time ago. Like the father in The Road, they wrestle with the notion of suicide, or the execution of dangerous but unarmed survivors. They struggle to see hope in the future.
In Mad Max: Fury Road, perhaps the piece of post-apocalyptic media the Fallout universe shares the most with for its zany carnival-esque villains, Max describes himself as “reduced to one instinct: survive.” But the essence of Fallout 4 is not survival, but total dominance. You do not crawl through the wasteland, but imperiously stomp through it, clad in power armor and listening to “Ride of the Valkyries” play on the radio.
So let’s call a spade a spade. Fallout 4 takes inspiration from great pieces of science fiction like Blade Runner, and from the shadow-drenched noir films of the 40s and 50s. There’s a healthy dose of western, and enough monster-stomping, knights and swords to see the fantasy roots. Fallout 4 is, in many ways, a great game. But aside from the window-dressing, post-apocalyptic it is not.
Roy Graham is a writer whose work has appeared in Kill Screen, Indiewire and upcoming short story collections. He lives in Brooklyn and thinks about fight scenes. Follow him on Twitter @Grayhaem
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