Fallout and the Post-Modern Television Post-Apocalypse

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Fallout and the Post-Modern Television Post-Apocalypse

“Hollywood is the past. Forget Hollywood. The future, my friend, is products. You’re a product. I’m a product. The end of the world is a product.” – Matt Berry’s Sebastian Leslie in Episode 6, “The Trap.”

The Fallout TV series represents a culmination of iteration, revival, and corporate consolidation on a road leading nowhere good, whose story grows out of corporate executives, with a fiduciary responsibility to make the world worse, buying up anything they can squeeze for the sweet juice of profit.

Fallout is based on a game series that began in 1997 with Interplay’s successor to their 1988 game, Wasteland. The first four games were made by Interplay and Black Isle Studios; Bethesda bought the IP in 2007 for $5.75 million (or about a quarter of the average episode cost of the new television series), and produced the last four games. New Vegas was developed by Obsidian and a team led by writers and developers from Fallout 2. Wasteland was resurrected in the 2010s by another studio composed of old Interplay/Black Isle developers, inXile which, like both Bethesda and Obsidian, is now owned by software corporation Microsoft’s gaming division. The television series airs on the streaming service owned by Amazon, a company that sold textbooks in the 1990s and now owns MGM, part of the Lord of the Rings license, a substantial portion of the global web backend, and develops domestic surveillance technologies—they are a clearinghouse for products; it is incidental for good art to pass through the content machine. The corporate machine tends to compromise structural critiques and, while offering alternatives isn’t necessary to compellingly express society’s current quandaries, offering no alternative while undercutting every other option feels insidious.

We enter the era of the post-apocalyptic videogame television adaptation as the entertainment media ecosystem careens towards crises—streaming, the broken model of the disruptors, feels primed to collapse. Humans imagine post-apocalyptic civilizations because of innate fear of death; apocalypse is the metaphysical death of a society’s culture alongside the literal mass death of its inhabitants. Nuclear war, a threat hanging over our heads nearly as long as we’ve had television, exacerbates this mass death anxiety. Post-apocalypse is a useful setting for reorienting civilization around creators’ concerns about society. Make a tweak here, pull a pin there, what are you left with, who do we turn into?

Fallout is among three videogame series adapted as post-apocalyptic prestige television in the last two years following Twisted Metal and The Last of Us in 2023, as television and film studios seek more existing intellectual property to capitalize. Twisted Metal’s cultural footprint is less tied to its story than its iconography, so maybe people care less about canonicity (a PlayStation 2 Twisted Metal game even briefly appears in the premiere), but they seem more inspired by the later games with a post-apocalyptic setting than the earlier car arena battlers. The Last of Us met greater acclaim, with some important detractions, and likely more to come in Season 2.

Whatever your preferred Fallout studio, every iteration of their post-apocalypse has mainstays in its retrofuturism. The puffy-bubbly tech extrapolates American mid-century aesthetics in a society where vacuum tubes take the place of importance that transistors took in our world. Combine this with atomic energy and you get floating robots amid a longer Cold War that freezes American popular culture in an increasingly fascistic 1950s stretching late into the 21st century. Disaster hits in the form of nuclear strikes between the U.S. and China, some lucky people are preserved in Vault-Tec’s bunkers (designed to conduct psychological, social, and sometimes physical experiments on unwitting participants), and the games begin in the 22nd century, as individual vault dwellers wander into humanity’s new attempts at civilization.

Critics are generally fond of the show. Some of the online conversation in my corner of the culture commentariat on Twitter/X fixated—even before the release—on whether the Amazon streaming series would match the Interplay/Black Isle tone, or if it had been done-in by Bethesda’s dour emptiness, the cynical centrist condescension our culture is awash with. Whatever incoherence or inconsistency of aesthetic and theme resulted from The Elder Scrolls developers taking over, that’s what the game has been for almost 20 years. So, Todd Howard, as one of the show’s executive producers, is credited among its creators rather than the people who developed its concepts.

There are visual, soundtrack, and score references to Fallout 3 and New Vegas, and the line remains thin between Easter Eggs for nerds to congratulate themselves for noticing, and references to adapted material. The structure reflects that of an open world game down to a sarcastic “Golden Rule of the Wasteland” that “thou shalt get sidetracked by bullshit every god damned time.” Still, it’s less that we need to be married to corporate continuity (different audiences want different things; none of this is real; what matters is what you think of it, not what the suits decide counts in the story bible), and more that something can get lost in the project’s spirit when the show is locked into being its sequel while declaring that the story progress of the first two games didn’t pan out

A recurring claim by characters in Fallout is that the New California Republic and other post-nuclear war social projects failed because, like all hitherto societies, they wanted to save the world but their members disagreed on how. We see in flashbacks the Brotherhood of Steel (iconoclastic power-armor-wearing soldiers hoarding technology from before the nuclear war) is picking through the ruins of Shady Sands (the capital of the NCR established in the first game) and finds a child who thinks they’re heroes when they’re just looking for old technology to repurpose. We learn in the finale that the bomb came from a man who intended to maintain the remnant of the old hierarchy of a ubiquitous tech conglomerate—like the one that owns the game series or the one that produced the show. The plot which had followed some of the framework of Fallout 3 reverses the Megaton decision, taking it from the protagonist to their parent, and giving them more megalomaniacal reasons for it.

As the contradictions under capitalism heighten and sharpen, corporate art isn’t up to the task of speaking to the moment because at the core of 21st century liberal ideology is an ahistorical belief that this is just how things are—war, war never changes, and neither do people. The neoliberal, rules-based world order, for all the cracks it’s showing, is seen as the apex of civilization. If it collapses under its construction, we are prone to repeating mistakes. This perspective holds a cynical and nihilistic belief in a perpetual, genocidal cycle tendency present in human nature, perhaps an ideological construct necessary to and consequent from accepting the circumstances of mass death for others in exchange for one’s own comfort. 

Attempts at poignancy are a component of the marketing tactic of authenticity, but fall flat under a worldview where change is unimaginable. The other half of marketability is being comforting enough, even in cynicism, for wide consumption by a populace that is assumed to be incurious and so loses curiosity. The finale came centimeters short of being as cynical within its actual plotting, reflecting the meta cynicism of salesmanship instead. I thought it more-or-less stuck the landing narratively, but it remains a show that maximizes inescapable suffering while plotted to look, feel like, and sell a meandering RPG campaign.

Kevin Fox Jr. studies history, literature, videogames, film, TV, and sports. He dreams of liberation and is always seeking recommendations for his endless backlog and reading list. He can be found on Twitter @polycarbonfox or at PC Vulpes.

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