Bethesda NEVER understood Fallout. Yes, I know this is a really popular franchise and I’m risking furious nerd wrath by criticizing it, but I used up all my positivity in the last video. If you want to hear me love a game you could always go back and watch that one again.
See, the problem with Bethesda’s Fallout is that…
Hang on. I think we need to do a little refresher on this particular IP. I know a lot of people already know this, but if we don’t cover this now then the discussion will get hopelessly sidetracked. So to avoid confusion, let’s talk about how this crazy franchise got started.
In 1997, developer Interplay releases Fallout: A Post Nuclear Role Playing Game. It’s an open-world turn-based role-playing video game. This game is played on a hex grid with an isometric view. At this point, things take a turn. Some of the Interplay developers leave and start their own studio, Troika. Meanwhile, the company “Interplay” is actually two different things. There’s Interplay the publisher, and Interplay the developer. This is confusing, but luckily the studio part is re-branded Black Isle and the remaining team goes on to make Fallout 2 in 1998. Then the IP is handed off to a couple of other studios to make combat-focused spinoff games. These games are like the Star Wars Holiday Special. They’re weird, out of print, hard to find, and most fans are happy to pretend they don’t exist.
After this, the Black Isle studio closes. Publisher Interplay closes. Troika closes. Everyone closes. It’s the end of the golden age of PC roleplaying games.
The IP is in limbo until Bethesda buys it up and releases Fallout 3 in 2008, turning the franchise into a 3D shooter. Old-time Fallout fans disparagingly call it “Oblivion with Guns”, but it doesn’t matter. The idea of a 3D first-person Fallout game is a huge hit and the game goes on to be a massive blockbuster and a critical darling. Old Fallout fans like me are sore about it, but it doesn’t matter because we’re hopelessly outnumbered by the new fans. Bethesda literally doesn’t need us.
A funny thing happened while all of this was going on. Those folks from Black Isle went on to start their own studio, which they called Obsidian Entertainment. They are, arguably, the original creators of the franchise. Or some of them. So Bethesda loans them the license and in 2010 Obsidian releases Fallout: New Vegas. Then in 2015 Bethesda returns with Fallout 4. Then in 2018, they gave us Fallout 76, and then… you know what? We don’t have time to talk about Fallout 76. Nobody does. Let’s just move on.
So that’s the history of the franchise. The problem here is that I really want to bash Bethesda for misunderstanding the series, but from experience I know the first defense against my arguments will be that many of these same things were done by Black Isle / Obsidian. And who am I to disagree with the creators?
For the record, I’m not crazy about some of the creative decisions they made in Fallout 2, and while I liked New Vegas I’m not going to pretend it was a perfect game. Yes, some of my criticism can be applied to the non-Bethesda games, but I’m not going to make a big spreadsheet of creative sins and work out which studios or creative individuals should be blamed. Bethesda owns the property. They’re in charge of ensuring quality, brand recognition, and maintaining the tone and lore of the franchise. We can haggle over where the bad ideas came from, but ultimately blame has to end up in the lap of publisher and rights holder Bethesda.
Okay? Okay. Let’s commence with the bitching and moaning. My first gripe is that…
1. Fallout is Not About the 1950s
In Bethesda’s games, the idea seems to be that Fallout takes place in a world where the bombs fell in the 1950s. Or rather, in a world where the culture of the 1950s lasted an extra 120 years, and even endured through the apocalypse. That’s actually a backwards way of thinking about it. The first Fallout game was actually a really clever example of retrofuturism. To explain what I’m talking about, take a look at these images:
These are concept drawings made by artists in 1899, speculating on what the world of 2000 would look like. The time difference between these artists and the world they were imagining is almost as extreme as the time difference between the 1950s and the day the bombs fell on the world of Fallout.
As silly as they look now, to the people at the tail end of the Victorian period, these images of the year 2000 really did look like the future.
In 1979, when people saw the Buck Rogers television show, they saw the future. When we look at that same show today, we see 1979. When we see Blade Runner 2049, we see the future. When the people of 2049 watch that same movie, they’ll see 2017.
Getting back to those images of the year 2000. Imagine if someone drew these pictures today. In fact, imagine if we made a game out of these images. A world where law enforcement chases down smugglers with helicopter backpacks and city blocks migrate around with the help of massive steam engines while the mail is delivered by postmen zooming around on birdlike flying machines. If we made that game here in the world of 2020, then it would be an example of retrofuturism. We’re remembering the future of the past.
And that’s what the world of Fallout is. It’s not the 1950s. It’s the year 2077 as the people of the 1950s would have imagined it.
But wait! It’s actually more complicated than that. It’s actually the world of 2077 as the people of 1997 imagined the people of 1950 would have imagined it. Actually, it’s even more subtle. It’s that world, but then that world was nuked into rubble, and spent 84 years trying to claw its way back towards civilization.
The world of 2077 was a vacuum-tube powered extrapolation of the future, and that world was obliterated by nuclear holocaust. The opening of the first game drives this point home. We start out watching advertisements for the products of 2077 on a black and white television, but then the camera pulls back and we can see that the old world is ruined. The bombs fell on this chrome-plated retro-future, and the world of Mad Max emerged from the rubble. The shocking contrast between these two cultures is core to the feel of the world.
You roam all over the place in Fallout 1, and you meet a lot of strange people. But nowhere in that voyage do you meet comical throwbacks to the old world. You don’t meet any greaser gangs. There aren’t any old-timey prohibition-era gangsters with tommy guns. No pinstripe suits, no letterman jackets, no horn-rim glasses, no pompadour haircuts or beehive hairdos, no baseball players, no sundresses, no neckties, no newsies, and not a single gumshoe. There aren’t any wacky DJs playing 200 year old doo-wop songs. The game is not subtle about this. The old world is fucking gone. Like, that’s the point.
But then Bethesda got their hands on the Fallout license and they somehow thought it was about a 1950s-flavored apocalypse. That’s multiple layers of wrong. They took the 50s thing way too literally and too far, and then they brought it into the post-war ruins where it makes absolutely no senseThey also pulled some of the post-apocalyptic stuff into the pre-war history. They retconned it so that Jet was a pre-war invention, which was not originally the case. In a setting designed to create a stark contrast between pre/post nuclear war, you should not blend the two together!. I don’t know if Bethesda did this because they don’t understand the setting, or if they thought it would be funny.
Which brings me to the next thing Bethesda doesn’t understand…
2. The Humor
Fallout 1 was a game infused with dark humor, like movies by the Coen Brothers. The humor mostly comes from seeing simple misunderstandings or dim-wittedness spiral into shocking danger and violence. Bethesda never really got that, and so their humorous characters are more like wacky goofballs from a Naked Gun movie.
Just to drive this point home, I want to contrast two examples that revolve around the use of sports equipment in the post-apocalypse. In Fallout 4, we meet this guy.
He sounds like a baseball player. He’s dressed like a baseball player. He’s obsessed with his misunderstood version of baseball that he thinks people played before the war. He makes and sells baseball bats. He’s goofy and absurd. How can this guy ever sell enough baseball bats to feed himself? He makes no sense. Fallout 4 takes place in Boston, real-world Bostonians are stereotypically baseball fans, therefore we get this guy. A one-note joke character. A wacky goofball.
Contrast that with the way the legion uses old-world sports equipment in Fallout New Vegas. You can find Legion soldiers running around in football gear, but they’re not treated as joke characters. They don’t see themselves as football players. They don’t talk in football idioms or act like a football team. They don’t know about old-world football and they don’t care what the gear was originally used for. They just found some sports equipment and realized it would make for good armor. The humor comes from the absurdity of seeing these harmless and mundane objects adopted unironically by an army of vicious murderers and slavemasters. Again, this fits with the theme that the old world died and Mad Max rose out of the ashes.
Which brings me to my next problem, which is that Bethesda’s world suffers from a horrible case of…
3. Cultural Stagnation
Their entire world is ridiculously stagnant. To show you what I’m talking about, check out the above image of Shady Sands from the original Fallout. This is likely the first major location the player will visit. You can see that the inhabitants have built things. They have a well for fresh drinking water and irrigation. They have both crops and livestock. They’ve built post-war tools. They have beds to sleep in, houses to shelter them from the elements, and they have walls around the city for defense. They’ve even made a latrine.
The village doesn’t get many visitors. It’s on the edge of the playable gameworld and there’s little reason for anyone to pass this way. That makes it kind of insular and the inhabitants are naturally guarded.
You can look at this place and understand everything you need to know about Shady Sands. This is the society that people had managed to build for themselves in the 80 or so years since the bombs fell. It’s a throwback to small pre-industrial village life, with a few pre-war tools and ideas mixed in. You’ll notice that the ground isn’t piled high with rubble and the inhabitants aren’t ankle-deep in garbage. Which makes sense, since people, you know, live here.
Now let’s consider the Drumlin Diner in Fallout 4, which takes place 130 years later. That’s 210 years after the bombs fell. The world of Fallout 4 is as far from the war as we are from Napoleon. The diner is run by Trudy. She runs it as a sort of general store. She lives out here, all by herself. Well, I guess she has a son. Who owns a letterman jacket because, again, Bethesda thinks this game is about the 1950s even though that makes no sense whatsoever.
Anyway, her building offers no privacy or protection from the elements. She doesn’t have a bed to sleep in. She has no way to obtain food except through trade, which is inexplicable since she shouldn’t have any. She produces no goods so she shouldn’t have anything to offer in trade.
The floor is littered with trash. There’s a prewar skeleton in one of the booths. That would make sense if this was an untouched ruin, but this woman lives here. It’s been 210 years since the bombs fell, and nobody ever swept the floor or cleared out the skeleton? There’s a broom in the corner of the room that evidently hasn’t been touched in two centuries. Nobody ever boarded up the windows? Built a fence? Dug a latrine? Planted a garden? Created a path for fetching water from the nearby stream?
In the world of Fallout 4, it looks like people crawled out of the rubble after the bombs fell and then spent the next 200 years shooting each other from behind heaps of rubble and wading through ankle-deep trash everywhere. People have supposedly been living in these places for over two centuries, but they look identical to the untouched ruins.
This was supposed to be a series about the wild world that emerged from the ashes of nuclear fire, but Bethesda thought the series was about the ashes themselves. The first Fallout was very interested in worldbuilding and speculating about the kind of society that might emerge after the apocalypse. When you looked around the world, you could understand how it worked. The problem with Bethesda’s worldbuilding is that they didn’t actually build anything. Bethesda just wants to make rubble-themed shooting galleries.
On top of the stagnation within the world, Bethesda’s games also suffer from…
4. Creative Stagnation
The first Fallout game took place in Southern California. It featured radscorpions, deathclaws, super mutants, and a small cult of technology fetishists called the Brotherhood of Steel. The locals used bottlecaps as an ad-hoc currency.
Then the second game came out, with the same lineup. At the time, I accepted this as a necessity of the short development cycle. The games were exactly a year apart, so I guess some asset reuse was inevitable. And it was understandable within the world. Fallout 2 still took place in California. Scorpions aren’t too much of a stretch. Perhaps the deathclaws and Brotherhood of Steel migrated? And yeah, the events of Fallout 1 killed the source of the supermutants, but maybe there were still some stragglers left over. I saw it as a missed opportunity to do something different, but fine.
But then Bethesda got the license. They set the next game 2,500 miles away in Washington DC, and the next one even further away, in Boston. Despite this, they brought the same collection of radscorpions, deathclaws, supermutants, and even the Brotherhood of Steel. This makes a lot less sense. I mean, scorpions don’t live within a thousand miles of the northeast. They even kept the idea of using bottlecaps as currency. It would make much more sense – and be much more interesting – if all of the various isolated regions would each come up with different things to use as currency. But Bethesda was just reflexively copying all of the superficial elements without thinking about how the world works.
People usually respond to this criticism by trying to invent explanations for how all of this is possible. Maybe scorpions migrated. Maybe the changing climate and mutations make it so that scorpions can live this far north. And it’s not impossible for the Brotherhood to migrate this far east. Same goes for deathclaws. And Bethesda created a new way to create super mutants to explain why they’re still around.
And fine. Come up with all the excuses you like. My problem isn’t that you can’t justify this in the lore, it’s that it massively limits the setting. If it’s radscorpions, deathclaws, bottlecaps, and Brotherhood on the west coast, and if all that same crap exists on the east coast, then that sort of suggests that this stuff is everywhere. Fallout 1 made it seem like we were just exploring one tiny corner of a vast unknown wasteland, but now Fallout 3 tells us that the wasteland is incredibly homogenous and predictable. Yes, they added Mirelurks and a couple of other new monsters, but we still have the same major elements at the center of the world.
I want to stress that this isn’t just about giving us new monsters to shoot. This is part of telling a story. You don’t just create a quest like, “Hey, this monster sucks please go kill it for me.” You introduce a problem, question, or mystery and you let the player follow the plot points until they discover the answer. And then they shoot the monster. This is the pattern that the first game followed. Super mutants and deathclaws weren’t just creatures to shoot for experience points. The deathclaw was a red herring in the mystery of what was happening to the trade caravans. The super mutants were one of many clues along the trail to the ultimate villain of the first game. But now these creatures are two hundred years old and everyone knows about them. When one of them appears it isn’t a story, it’s a cameo. Bethesda should make up new freaks so we can have new stories.
In the pilot of Star Trek, the crew has a run-in with these giant forehead aliens called the Talosians. The captain gets himself into trouble, but the crew works it out and everyone makes it back to the ship. They run into the forehead gang a second time a few episodes later and have another adventure, but the Talosians aren’t the stars of the show.
But imagine if these guys were the whole show. The second episode, they go to a planet and meet the foreheadians again. The third episode, they beam down to a new planet and meet more foreheads. Fourth episode: New planet, same old foreheads. To the audience, it would feel like the whole galaxy was just these forehead guys, and we’d be a lot less curious about what we were going to discover on the next away mission. It would be a much less interesting show than the one we got.
Back in the silver age of comic books, we used to have anthology comics that were short stories of science fiction or fantasy. Maybe these things are still around. I don’t know. I haven’t been to the comic shop in a long time. Anyway, these books didn’t feature the same monsters month after month. Instead, each issue was a new situation with a new mystery. A new monster and a new surprise. I wasn’t born until 1971 so most of these were a little before my time, but I’ve read a few. They’re actually similar to the Star Trek “planet of the week” approach to storytelling. Show us something new and fun and maybe a bit scary, and have a protagonist figure out how to deal with it. The original Fallout deliberately referenced these comics in its loading screens.
That’s key to the appeal of crawling out of a vault to discover an untamed wasteland: You have no idea what sort of horrors you’re going to find. Or at least, you shouldn’t.
In fact, Bethesda even referenced these anthology comics within Fallout 4. Around the world you can find these comic book covers and you can collect them to boost your stats. The thing is, these covers are really interesting! Bethesda should have taken the creativity that went into these covers and put it into the game itself. Far too often I find myself saying, “Yup. Looks like it’s Deathclaw-O’clock again.” It would be a lot more exciting if I found myself saying, “Wow. What is THAT thing? I don’t know how it works and I’m not sure I want to pick a fight with it.” Since the art assets get re-made every time, there’s no advantage to creating an endless string of games with ever higher resolution versions of the same dang monsters.
Bethesda took the suspense and trepidation of exploring an unknown wasteland and turned it into a theme park of references and callbacks. I’m not mad that they retconned ways for super mutants to exist on the east coast, I’m disappointed that we’re meeting more super mutants instead of something new and different. It’s not like the original Fallout used up all the good ideas for post-apocalyptic monsters and cults. There are an endless number of wild stories you could tell with the setup of exiting a vault and discovering a savage wasteland full of mutated creatures. Bethesda found themselves with the keys to this franchise of endless possibility, and they decided to go with a plan that was simultaneously the least interesting and most nonsensical.
I don’t think it was intentional, but you can see the change in creative priorities by looking at the box covers. In the titles made by old-school development teams, the cover shows a character against a background that represents the setting. In Bethesda’s games, it’s just power armor. Note also how the Bethesda covers are all monochrome, while the old-school games have a colorful and contrasting background. The old-school games were speculative fiction that focused on worldbuilding, while the new games don’t give a damn about worldbuilding and just want to create a fun playground for shooting shit.
I’m not saying that the Bethesda games are terrible because they don’t have pictures of buildings on the cover. I’m just saying it’s interesting how the covers reflect the creative sensibilities of the different teams.
So now you’re going to ask…
Why am I Complaining About This?
I know I’ve been dumping all over a couple of popular games. I want to make it clear that I don’t think the Bethesda games are complete trash. In fact I really enjoyed Fallout 4. You don’t play a game for over 1,000 hours because you hate it. I think that collecting power armor was really a really fun activity. Diamond City doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it looks brilliant. The idea of allowing the player to name a weapon, customize it, and upgrade it over time was fantastic. Despite my earlier griping, I think Detective Nick Valentine was a cool character. I loved collecting comics, and that sort of became the main quest for me when I realized the story was drivel. The base building was an underbaked idea at launch, but with a few mods and a bit of DLC it’s great. The glowing sea was a little toothless in terms of radiation threat, but visually it was wonderfully ominous. This haunted hellscape felt like an idea that would have been right at home in the old Fallout games. The new deathclaw design is completely brilliant.
So if I like the games so much, why am I complaining? Well, here’s the thing…
Imagine if the Dark Souls series was sold to a new developer, and imagine they changed the game. Instead of playing as a doomed nobody, you’re playing as a Chosen One hero. Instead of methodical punishing combat, the gameplay is fast paced and empowering. Instead of ending on a melancholy note, the game ends when you triumphantly push back the darkness and return the lands to peace and prosperity. Maybe throw in a love interest, a wacky comedy sidekick, and a few minigames.
Now, none of those ideas are inherently terrible. In fact, this sounds like a pretty standard template for a AAA blockbuster. You could even argue that a happy fun version Dark Souls would sell better than the original because it appeals to more mainstream sensibilities. But no matter how good Happy Souls might be, it would be a bad Souls game because it runs counter to everything the original was designed to accomplish.
That’s the problem with Bethesda’s Fallout games. The original had incredible worldbuilding, an interesting story, a streak of clever gallows humor, and a unique tone. Bethesda’s Fallout has a lot going for it, but it’s missing everything that made the original so special.
It’s tragic, but this seems to happen a lot. One writer comes along and builds a fascinating and complex world, and then the property gets handed off to a new writer that only has the most superficial understanding of the source material. The new writer can’t come up with new stuff that fits with the old, so the franchise spirals into incoherency or self-reference. It happened to Mass Effect. It happened to Game of Thrones. It happened to Deus Ex. It happened to Dragon Age. And it happened to Fallout. Heck, it even happened to Star Wars, even though New Hope and Phantom Menace had the same writer! I don’t know. Maybe I shouldn’t bring up Star Wars. It’s a crazy cultural aberration that breaks all the rules.
At any rate, I’m sad that Fallout has become the Brotherhood vs. Supermutants comedy hour, and I’m even more sad that developers and publishers don’t value writing the way they used to. Bethesda could be making games that are just as fun to play, but are also more interesting to inhabit and think about.
Or maybe they can’t. Either way, it bugs me and I wish they’d do better.
 They also pulled some of the post-apocalyptic stuff into the pre-war history. They retconned it so that Jet was a pre-war invention, which was not originally the case. In a setting designed to create a stark contrast between pre/post nuclear war, you should not blend the two together!
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