[!] Note: The following will contain minor spoilers for Bethesda Softworks’ Fallout 4. Consider yourself warned.
Last August I wrote an article exploring the masterful worldbuilding within George Miller’s post-apocalyptic thriller, Mad Max: Fury Road. [You can read it here.] It was easily my favorite film of 2015. There was a lot to love, both subtlety and nuance was scattered throughout the movie despite the fact that it was a two-hour action-packed car chase through a wasteland.
Well, this last fall the post-apocalyptic gods smiled on us twofold with the release of Fallout 4, Bethesda’s latest post-apocalyptic role-playing game. I’ve long been a fan of the series ever since I played the first Fallout on my PC as a kid. So I was excited. Heck, I even went out and bought a PS4 specifically to check it out. Now, before I start nitpicking, I need to preface that Fallout 4 is not a bad game. It’s a game I have been enjoying. It’s a game I would recommend. But, I think just like films, music, books, and art we can cast a critical eye at specific elements of a video game while still enjoying the game as a whole.
I was initially going to entitle this piece Fallout 4 and the Failures of Worldbuilding, but I retracted a bit. Mainly because that is both overly dramatic and clickbait garbage. Also, because in a lot of ways and in many places Fallout 4 has great worldbuilding, it’s just inconsistent. As a result, Fallout 4 continually pulls me out of the moment. Despite wanting you to engage with the world on a personal level, it doesn’t allow us to suspend our disbelief long enough to lose ourselves in its world. This makes it feel manufactured—it’s a post-apocalyptic Disneyland that is trying to be something more. A lot of that is because it falls short in one of the most important and fundamental principles of worldbuilding: it tells you one thing and then shows you something else.
First, some backstory: Fallout 4 takes place in an alternate reality two-hundred years after a thermonuclear war nearly wipes out humanity, your character—a survivor who awakened from a state of suspended animation in an underground vault—is thrust into an unforgiving and often violent world in the search for a kidnapped child. Now, missing child aside, remember that established time frame: two-hundred years. It’s important.
The discrepancy between that origin story and the world I was playing in first hit me ten minutes into the game. Up until then, I assumed maybe forty to fifty years had passed. The world certainly seemed like it was emerging from disaster, but when your Mr. Handy unit, Codsworth, introduced the timespan a lot of the following worldbuilding began to fall apart.
“A bit over 210 actually, sir. Give or take a little for the Earth’s rotation and some minor dings to the ole’ chronometer.”
When the player first emerges from the Vault, you come across the remnants of people who didn’t survive. Piles of skeletons lay outside the gate to the Vault, skeletons still wearing the clothes they died in, which didn’t make much sense. Here they are exposed to the elements, and a corpse’s dress is still recognizable as a dress? This is seen in other things as well. Many structures still stand despite little or no maintenance. Some still have power. Often these sorts of niggling details are explained away using Ragnarok-Proofing, the concept that objects in the world (buildings, robots, heck, even clothes) are just made better. So metal doesn’t rust in the same way, clothing doesn’t wear regularly, and power sources last much longer, etc. And, some of that exists, the nuclear cells powering the Commonwealth’s robots are a good example, and if that was all I’d accept it and move on. But that isn’t all, it cascades from there.
Two-hundred years is a long time. Two-hundred years ago my home city, Seattle, didn’t exist. My state, Washington, hadn’t even been conceived. Most of America lived on the East Coast and had no idea that in fifty years they were going to be in the midst of the Civil War. Yet, in Fallout 4’s world that two-hundred years doesn’t seem to have changed much of anything. If fact, it barely looks like any time has passed. Most of the world remains a burnt husk. Nothing “new” feels permanent. Most settlements are hastily constructed shantytowns, cobbled together from the remnants. What civilization does exist, happens to be a loose collection of scraped-together tribes with little or no regard for one another. Compare this to Mad Max: Fury Road, in the first ten minutes of the movie we saw societies, hierarchies, and civilization, we saw cities, small and large, and even trade routes.
We’ve been told it’s two-hundred years after a terrible event but we’re not shown that, or what we’re shown doesn’t line up to support that. Not in any conceivable fashion. These sort of inconsistencies with the details continue to appear throughout the game. We read terminal entries about daily struggles of survival, only to be shown the corpses of those who entered the logs were sitting on an arsenal. For whatever reason the citizens of Goodneighbor have the means to make custom and complex neon signs, but asking them to clean up two-hundred years worth of rubble around their residences is below their pay grade. We meet a girl with a strangely thick Irish accent, and together we stumbled across the remains of people who apparently died together during the middle of their twelve-step meeting despite being in a protected shelter. We read concerns over a raider’s kidnapped sister and an antagonistic raider band, but we never get to explore that narrative. Instead, we get to fight the raiders. The results of this action? Slightly different terminal entries and a [Cleared] tag. These sort of scenes happens frequently, and as I kept playing, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was such unrealized potential. Minor discrepancies are noticeable, and because of this, the world of Fallout 4 often falls flat, it lacks the heart and soul that would make it feel alive.
It’s a disappointment because there are times where the world is rich. There are plenty of engaging characters (Valentine), and some fascinating locations (Salem, Covenant), and some interesting factions (The Railroad). Many times there are places where the game does shine. But those pieces are few and far between, and often they don’t seem to connect. Fallout 4 feels like it’s more concerned about being a first-person shooter than it is about fulfilling its pedigree of being a deep and multifaceted role-playing game. It’s more interested in creating small vignettes than a fully realized world. It wants you to strive for that next perk instead of that moment in its stories where you feel an emotional tug. It’s an amusement park ride that, while fun, still feels just like a ride.”
“…out-of-place accents, odd and contradictory vignettes, and bizarre behaviors all detract from the plausible post-apocalyptic world world Fallout 4 is wanting to create.”
These moments introduce questions in the world’s consistency. After all, consistent worlds are largely more believable worlds. In some cases, Fallout 4 is an improvement on its predecessor, Fallout 3. [See the Shandification of Fallout video.] It answers some of those big questions (What do they eat?) that were never answered in previous games. But strange out-of-place accents, odd and contradictory vignettes, and bizarre behaviors all detract from the plausible post-apocalyptic world Fallout 4 is wanting to create. They’re not asking open-ended questions that leave us wondering. Instead, they’re introducing concepts that pull us out of the moment.
Both Fallout and Mad Max are near and dear to me, and both have been influences in my own post-apocalyptic worldbuilding. Like both, my world of the Territories also takes place generations after an epic disaster. In fact, similar to Fallout 4, it has been so long since the apocalypse that the return of the Great Old Ones has faded into historical myth.
Within The Bell Forging Cycle civilizations have come and gone. Societies, religions, and nations have risen, expanded, and sometimes fallen. The scars of the disaster are there, and they’re clear and apparent to the people that inhabit the planet, but as Roland Deschain often says in The Dark Tower series, “the world has moved on.” Change has occurred, consistent change. There are certainly nods to post-apocalyptic tropes, in some places technology’s growth has been stymied, and people still use and seek out technology from the past. That’s part of the fun. Exploring the ideas inherent in survival after a catastrophe is one of the reasons why we read post-apocalyptic fiction. But, life hasn’t frozen. People have found other ways to solve their problems; nothing has remained static. Regression can only exist for so long; life is tenacious and robust, and when it comes to post-apocalyptic worlds (or any world for that matter), that’s a good thing for creators to remember.