Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, creators of HBO’s hit Westworld, have announced they are collaborating with Amazon Prime to create a TV series around the Fallout video game franchise. According to Nolan and Joy, they intend to craft a show that showcases “[T]he harshness of the wasteland set against the previous generation’s utopian idea of a better world through nuclear energy.”
On the plus side, Westworld has racked up a lot of awards and acclaim. On the downside, there’s the depressing question of whether Bethesda understands what Fallout’s biggest fans loved about the series in the first place, and that quote doesn’t exactly fill me with hope.
Yes, the quote above describes Fallout, but only in its most superficial aspects. The first two games in the series leaned on a 50s-inspired retro-futurism, but they mostly used it for window dressing. The later games emphasized this aspect of Fallout culture far more, to the point that FO1 and FO2 feel like they take place in vastly different universes compared with FO3, FNV, and FO4.
Fallout, as a series, is about the unchanging nature of human conflict, memorably summarized as: “War. War never changes.” If you spend any time whatsoever digging through the games’ backstories via terminals and holotapes, it quickly becomes clear that the pre-War world of Fallout was no paradise. Resource wars were tearing the planet apart and consumer safety standards were so lax, Nuka-Cola (aka Coke) deliberately introduces a soft drink laced with enough strontium-90 to make urine glow. For flavor.
By 2077, the United States has taken over both Mexico and Canada and stripped national park protection from the Grand Canyon to mine it for uranium. The world’s recoverable oil reserves were all but exhausted. Resource wars had devastated every continent. The nuclear vehicles so iconic to Fallout? They weren’t produced until 2070, and only in limited numbers. That bright nuclear future was still struggling to emerge in alt-2077.
TV shows make changes to the source material all the time, so what does it matter if the TV Fallout rewrites the pre-War history?
It matters because it changes the fundamental message of the stories themselves. Every Fallout game makes it clear, in its own way, that the bright, shiny polish of the Old World was a millimeter deep, with nothing but rot beneath. The great system of underground vaults, supposedly intended to save mankind, are actually long-term medical experimentation chambers built in cooperation with the US government. The elites of the world have a plan to save themselves and confidently expect to rule what’s left of the United States. Absurd jingoism is the order of the day.
The “utopian idea of a better world through nuclear energy,” is not the point of Fallout. Even in the places where that world existed, it existed only for a privileged few. Fallout games often allow the player to either repeat the actions of their ancestor — thereby proving the central thesis and literal first words of the first game — or to seek a different and potentially better path.
Retro-futuristic techno-optimism is a part of Fallout, yes, but it’s not actually a very positive part, and it’s not what Fallout uses to balance the harshness and brutality of the wasteland. In Fallout, it’s the player themselves who exemplifies either the best or the worst of what the wasteland has to offer. Do you save Megaton or destroy it? Do you divert the power of the HELIOS One array into a devastating weapon or do you use it to provide power to people in New Vegas? Are you Bear, Bull, or something altogether different?I might be a bit less alarmed if I felt like Bethesda had any kind of idea what made Fallout great in the first place. I want to acknowledge that the Wastelanders update is broadly viewed as improving game quite a bit, but FO76 was a terrible game at launch and Fallout 4, in my opinion, was an awful RPG. I genuinely don’t think Bethesda has matched the quality of FO3, much less FNV, and I’m not optimistic they’ll do things better here.
And that’s deeply unfortunate. At their best, the Fallout games have offered a thoughtful reflection on the follies of mankind. The 50s kitsch is not the point. It’s the window-dressing meant to make the point easier to see, by juxtaposing the horrors of nuclear war with the 50s-style pastiche of the supposedly perfect American family. The player is invited to work to make the world a better place, if they choose to do so — but not without being reminded that the Old World was an ethical and moral disaster, and the post-War isn’t much better. Because war?
War never changes.
As for the TV show, Nolan and Joy are in pre-production on the thriller series The Peripheral, based on the William Gibson novel. Presumably, we’ll see Fallout sometime after.