So I'm wandering through Fallout 4 [official site], and I come across this old diner, sitting there, neon still lit, almost jaunty in a destroyed land. There's a guy outside called Wolfgang, a leathered drug dealer, who explains that a mother and son have set up a shop in this diner, and that he wants paying for goods he's sold to the son.
I go inside, aiming to resolve the problem between the dealer and the son, and get into conversation with the mother. But, looking down, I notice that, despite trading from this place, she hasn't thought to remove a skeleton from one of the booths. Because why would you remove a skeleton from your shop? Or any of the filth that’s accumulated on the floor?
It’s just one of the weird little things about the world of Fallout 4 that I find confusing and alienating. Little things that nudge me out out my suspension of disbelief that this is a place. Instead of enveloping myself in all its detail, it just gets me wondering, absently, is this how it would be?
The neglected skeleton reminded me of the time I visited Fallout 3’s Three Dog. He’d presumably been broadcasting his radio station from his bunker for a good while, having apparently established it in 2272, five years beforehand, but for some reason his rooms were filled with rubbish and broken filing cabinets. Why wouldn’t he have cleaned up a little? He tapes his broadcasts; the guy had time.
And yet the wasteland is home to all kinds of weird personal touches. What’s this? Some raiders have taken care to put glasses on a teddy bear, prop a newspaper in its lap and perch it on a toilet seat in their base. But not also clear rooms of skeletons and filing cabinets? Are they just that anarchic?
Back to the skeleton in that diner, judging by the rolled-up pre-war newspaper in front of it, it’s a casualty of the Great War. If we’re in 2287 and it all kicked off in 2077, there it's been sprawled, half on the seat, half off, for 210 years. 210 years ago from now is 1805. The year Napoleon claimed the crown of Italy, and the start of Thomas Jefferson’s second term as US president. While we’re at it, that neon sign works? The vinyl on the booth’s seats is weathered but still bright red, the window frames are only dusted with rust. Elsewhere, terminals chatter and glow, lights burn, radios buzz, and floors are scattered with paper.
Fallout seems quite resolute in its lack of care that this stuff makes no sense. Its wastelands’ tangles of buildings, sometimes weirdly intact and sometimes frozen in deterioration, are pretty much about two moments: the emotional impact of the point the bombs hit and the point you happily wander through the wreckage, possibly accompanied by a Shakespeare-quoting super mutant, perhaps brandishing a Fat Man and wearing novelty glasses, and about to stumble on a bar that references Cheers.
And that’s mostly OK – I think? Because open-world, because videogames, and because Fallout’s visual identity is so strong. It’s great to walk beneath towering suspended highways and through deserted city streets. That sharp prick of discovery when you see a can of pre-war Cram sitting on a picnic bench is a delight, and aren’t you _really_ playing a modern Fallout just to get to pick through detritus for loot?
But 210 years? It’s like someone made a typo during the writing of Fallout’s canonical timeline. Because while I appreciate that it doesn’t really matter and I should pretend otherwise, I spend far too much time wandering and wondering, ‘Would it really look like that?’ and just perplexed that so much effort has been put into making something that holds together so uneasily. And then the world starts threatening to devolve into sets of generic assets folded together in manifold configurations across tens of square miles of terrain. Not being much of a Matrix fan, I don’t really want that. I want to believe, right?
At the same time, it also makes me ask, what should Boston look like? So I read around how buildings deteriorate, and the truth is that we don’t really know. Modern steel cities haven’t had that much time to rot, and they tend to get maintained or simply razed anyway. But the fundamentals are pretty obvious. Water ingress leeches glue away from seals, allowing mould to grow and plants to take seed, their roots breaking up walls and floors. Wet and dry rot settles into wood and iron rusts, causing the reinforced steel in concrete to expand and crack it open, while its exterior is eaten away by weak carbolic acid in rainwater.
The model is Pripyat, the city that was evacuated in April 1986, 29 years ago, as a result of the Chernobyl disaster. Its level of decay seems very similar to Fallout 4’s Boston. Its concrete tower blocks still stand, paint peels from walls, and the plastic of Pripyat amusement park's iconic ferris wheel seats retains its colour. But in Pripyat, vegetation has taken over, in contrast to the barrenness of Fallout’s wastelands. It’s a major point where Fallout’s universe diverges from our own; in reality, radiation can cause trees to grow slower, but in Fallout they never grew back.
That Fallout’s still stand is perhaps more credible. Chernobyl’s trees don’t decay normally because the radiation has affected decomposers like insects, microbes and fungi. For up to 20 years after the incident, the trees of the Red Forest, named for the colour they turned, hadn’t rotted away. On the flip side, the lack of rotting dramatically increases the risk of fire raging through the dry wood and litter, taking buildings with it.
And then there’s flooding. The Fallout universe’s reliance on nuclear energy has probably prevented sea levels from rising like ours, but Boston was hit by 49 tropical cyclones during the twentieth century. The worst was 1938’s Great New England Hurricane, its storm tide reaching 19.01 feet. Here’s a map of the effect of five-foot and 7.5-foot floods hitting central Boston today.
Boston is also built on soft clay, gravel and sand, entirely unsuited to skyscrapers. Its buildings are built on concrete piles which effectively float on this mushy ground, and when a building’s piles start to disintegrate, the building subsides.
So Boston would have burned, flooded and sunk. And probably be less than fun to explore. The familiar logic of Fallout 4’s semi-recognisable Boston makes it far more pleasurable and practical to pick through and fight than the chaos of half-submerged rubble that it would really have turned into over two centuries. And it also provides the powerful attraction of ruins, which seems most potent when they hit that sweet-spot between being recognisable, harbouring the ghost of what they were, and distance, allowing you to romantically imagine what happened in them.
Fallout, like The Walking Dead and countless other apocalypse fantasies, knows the thrill of exploring ruins and in imagining all we know scattered to the winds. They know the emotional resonance of realising what we have and what we stand to lose, and of feeling a hint of schadenfreude, too, in getting to witness terrible mistakes that that we’ve - so far - avoided. In this idea lies the binding point of what Fallout really is: a world of patchwork parables and allusions. Race relations, power politics and corruption, technological supremacy and ideological inflexibility: all are lampooned, and their victims lie all around you.
The backbone of all this is a transplantation of the brave American frontier, with which the wasteland resonates surprisingly harmoniously. Just as the wasteland is hardly an unpopulated wilderness, nor was America prior to European colonisation. Books like Charles Mann’s vivid 1491 describe it as a land strongly moulded by its indigenous peoples (here’s an article which outlines his thesis), but by the time Europeans actually started exploring widely, it was ravaged by European diseases like smallpox and typhus, which travelled faster than the colonists themselves, killing both people and their livestock. A 1792 survey of Puget Sound in British Columbia, for example, found human remains "promiscuously scattered about the beach, in great numbers”.
Incidentally, maybe there’s another echo with Fallout’s grab-all nature in the modern understanding that the colonists of the Mayflower survived their first winter by ransacking the houses of local native Americans and robbing their graves. Happy belated Thanksgiving!
All this allusion, whether to American history, foreign policy or to ‘50s sci-fi, sure means Fallout lacks a culture of its own. Instead, we’re forever forced to look back at the moment those bombs fell in that ancient war. It’s Fallout’s brute emotional core: the source of your motivations and understanding of this world. Without it, nothing would make sense at all, from Pip-Boy to the mountains of ephemera that we constantly search through.
Yet you never quite believe that people really live in its world, because they seem to be just plonked there. It lacks the sweep of all the time that’s passed. Other than through lending you the chance to make your own settlements, there’s no sense that something new has begun to grow from between the cracks of its cracked paving. When everything has to do the heavy lifting of referencing, Fallout’s own imagination seems to get crowded out.