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Waiting for the End of the World: ‘Fallout’ and the Lure of the Apocalypse

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Editor’s note: This post was originally published in March 2015. We’ve selected it as one of the posts we’re republishing for our 10th anniversary celebrations in May 2017.

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been obsessed with the Fallout series of video games. This isn’t an unusual development in and of itself — I have the sort of personality that dictates that if I like a book or a film or a game, I want to immerse myself in it 24/7 and read everything about it. And the Fallout games are great. They’re prime examples of why video games can be compelling art, four consecutive masterpieces of storytelling and world-building. But the strange thing is this: I’ve found myself starting to look forward to my forays into the Fallout world, not just to advance the plot or increase my character’s level or something, but as a sort of alternative world into which I can escape from this one.

This isn’t unusual as far as video games go, I guess. Much has been made over the last few decades about the potential of video games to be addictive, especially since the advent of MMORPGs in the mid-2000s. There are the extreme cases, like the unfortunate South Korean man who died after playing Starcraft for days on end. These are the sort of things that the media loves to cover, and they play into an age-old narrative about entertainment that revolves around the idea that slipping into the role of someone else is inherently unhealthy.

The thing is, though, that the world of Fallout isn’t a particularly pleasant one. The overarching mythos behind the series is that after the Second World War, America progressed rapidly in a technological sense, but stayed stuck in the ’50s culturally, eventually getting into a conflict with China that ended, circa 2077, in mutual nuclear destruction. The games are set in the post-apocalyptic remains of America, starting with the first emergence of survivors from mass fallout shelters called vaults and tracing the evolution of a society on which someone has effectively pushed the “reset” button. The games are tightly plotted and well scripted, and they present a pretty compelling portrait of a world that’s being rebuilt from scratch, doing an especially good job of depicting the tension between the desire to recreate what was lost and caution not to repeat past mistakes.

As much as anything, then, the games tell a good story, and I look forward to them the same way I look forward to getting back to a novel that I’m enthralled by. But it also feels like there’s something deeper going on — that the idea of a world that’s endured nuclear catastrophe is somehow inherently appealing, in a way that’s as perverse as it is fascinating. In fairness, the Fallout world isn’t quite The Road, which is surely the bleakest depiction of a post-apocalyptic world Western culture has to offer, but it’s still a place where every day might end in your character being eaten by a giant mutant cockroach or sold into slavery by a bunch of drugged-up lunatics.

I’ve thought a lot about why this post-apocalyptic world is one that’s resonated so much with me. There’s a facile sort of argument to be made that, hey, the world is so terrible these days that even a blasted nuclear wasteland looks inviting by comparison. Still, for a reasonably comfortable man in a developed country, the world is just fine, really — I like my job, I have a beautiful girlfriend and a stupid cat, I get paid to write essays like this. I have no great need to escape 2015. If I lived in many other parts of the world, perhaps I might find the idea of blasting everything to pieces and starting again appealing for perfectly rational reasons. But it seems to me that apocalyptic fascination is a first-world conceit.

Because, when you think about it, there’s a certain seductiveness to the idea of the apocalypse. Or, perhaps more accurately, there’s a seductiveness to the idea of the world we’re in coming to some sort of conclusion — not necessarily one that involves a fiery holocaust of mutually assured destruction, but one that provides an exit from a world where all you have to look forward to is decades of more of the same, your eyes fixed on some distant, ever-receding mirage of retirement. I’m clearly not the only one who feels this way. Look at the interest in Mars One; getting shipped to a barren planet where you’re constantly bombarded by cosmic radiation, from which there is most likely no return and where you’re assured of dying cold, lonely, and in the company of 23 other misanthropes, is an objectively terrible idea. And yet, doesn’t it seem just the littlest bit… romantic? Exciting? Hey, it’s not just you: 78,000 people have signed up on the vague hope of leaving this world behind for good.

I think that when we really examine these feelings, part of what we’re dealing with is plain old escapism. This is not an exclusively modern phenomenon — I’m sure if you were a slave in Ancient Egypt or a chimney sweep in Victorian England, you had escapist fantasies too. But the first world today is notable for being a place where, unless you’re unlucky or extremely underprivileged, survival is a given. You might be stuck in minimum-wage drudgery as you’re slowly killed by your sedentary lifestyle and processed diet, but you’re not going to starve to death, or freeze to death, or get eaten by a bear.

Even when this wasn’t the case, humans were prone to pondering on what it all means. Our gift of self-awareness also means that we question our own existence. These questions don’t bother the family cat. But in the 21st century, questioning our own existence is all we’re left to do. The world we live in is characterized by alienation — not only the classic Marxist alienation of product and labor, but on a more fundamental level, the difference between what we do and what we’re equipped to do. Functionally, we’re the same as our cavemen ancestors, except that some of us can digest lactose. We’re built to survive. We’re not built to sit in front of computer screens for eight hours a day, pondering the digital marketing strategy for various products about which we couldn’t care less, or swiping consumer items through a checkout, or driving a UPS van from place to place as a terrifying computer monitors our every move.

As denizens of a first-world “democracy,” we’re pretty much assured that unless we get hit by a bus or drink ourselves to death or are stricken by a lethal illness, we’ll survive. We’ll be fine. And what do we do? We dream of escape. And though escapist fantasies are nothing new, it’s worth noting that futurism is a relatively recent construct. Prior to the 20th century, escapism was very much bound up in pastoralism, with its imagery of a lost golden age and a return to a more simple way of life. For millennia, culture has been shot through with myths of some sort of antediluvian paradise, a world we once had, one that we’d lost and desperately wanted to reclaim.

The idea of looking forward instead of back seems to have arrived with the first uptick of the dramatic technological progress that would characterize the world from the 18th century onward. And it’s fascinating to trace the way futurism mirrors technological progress. Circa the industrial revolution, the way art treated technology was largely negative (see William Blake’s famous image of “dark Satanic mills” blighting the English countryside, for instance). This makes sense: technological advances first manifested on a large scale, as giant, terrifying steam engines or machines in factories that suddenly meant you were out of a job. As technology entered people’s personal lives, though, the vision changed, and so too did visions of the future.

Suddenly, the future was a place where wonders awaited. It was a place of boundless possibility, a place where technological advances promised to make everyone’s lives easier. This optimism peaked in the 1950s and early 1960s, when the future was a place of clean skies and flying cars, a place where you could press a button and be served a delicious, piping-hot meal, a place where the travails of everyday life had been swept aside, a place where Jane Jetson could happily be a stay-at-home mother with two children, her personal robot handling most of the onerous tasks she might once have had to deal with herself.

As history would have it, this coincided with a time when the actual apocalypse seemed a distinct possibility. The Second World War ended and the Cold War began, leading to what must have been a seemingly endless standoff between two powers who each held the other’s destruction in its hands. The end seems like it could have come at any moment. (And, dear god, it nearly did.) It’s easy for modern readers to underestimate how fraught this time must have been. My generation is far too young to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, for instance — we weren’t even a twinkle in our parents’ collective eyes in 1962 — but living through it must have been genuinely terrifying. It’s perhaps no surprise that at a moment when the future looked so uncertain, American cultural mythology presented an alternative version, a place where American culture had triumphed through know-how and hard work, and the entire world reaped the benefits.

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It’s also no accident, I think, that Fallout is also grounded in the iconography of 1950s. The game brings these competing visions of the future — nuclear wasteland and utopian technoparadise — together, and presents a world where the latter has burned in the fires of the former. The surviving imagery of prewar America is all smiling children and rocket ships and friendly tin-man robots, and is best exemplified by the Vault Boy (above), a sort of series mascot who represents the idealized prewar American.

This is all rather creepy, given that you see these images on pockmarked road signs and fading posters on the walls of burned-out buildings. In many respects, Fallout‘s world is a eulogy for American utopian futurism, and a surprisingly dark one — all the games contain allusions to the fact that prewar America, and by extension the real-life 1950s, had a pretty nasty underbelly. (As the series goes on, for instance, it becomes clear that the vaults into which fortunate Americans crammed themselves to avoid the holocaust were used as the venue for MK Ultra-ish experiments with highly questionable ethics.)

Because, as we all know, the 1950s vision of the future never did come to pass — instead of flying cars, we’ve had another five decades of plain old ground-bound motoring, mainly because it kept the oil companies in business. Instead of easy access to magic pills that tell you what’s wrong with you, we have a system whereby George Jetson would probably pay through the nose for health insurance and still get screwed on the deductible. And so on.

That’s not to say that the last five decades haven’t seen remarkable technological progress, nor that that progress hasn’t had profound impacts on society. But it hasn’t changed the fundamental nature of society, which remains as grounded in capitalism and its inherent inequities as ever. If anything, the gap between the haves and have-nots has gotten larger. The idea of techno-utopia lives on in the PowerPoint slides of endless Silicon Valley startups, but for the rest of us, all the wonderful things that allegedly make our lives easier don’t change the fact that we still have to get up in the morning and slog to work on the subway. Full-time work is still full-time work. Your phone means you’re reachable at all times. The paperless office produces more paper than ever. The rent is too damn high.

So here we are in the future, a place that’s very much like the past. I wrote here last year about the way contemporary films like Her anticipate a version of the future that’s the opposite of the extravagant visions that our culture used to dream up — in Her, the future is very much like the present. If the 1950s view of the future predicted a radical change through new technology, the 2010s view is more like an uninspiring processor upgrade for a device you already own — a bit faster, a bit fancier, and a step toward planned obsolescence for the version you’ve got. There are no more surprises. And even if there are, we’re savvy enough to know that their potential benefit, or lack thereof, depends as much on their commercial potential as it does on their social utility. Is it any wonder we dream of a place where we can begin again?

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In his book Present Shock, cultural theorist Douglas Rushkoff talks about apocalyptic fantasies as an escape hatch for modern life: “The collapse of civilization dude to nuclear accident, peak oil or SARS epidemic finally ends the ever-present barrage of media, tax forms, toxic spills, and mortgage payments, opening the way to a simpler life of farming, shelter and defending one’s family.”

Rushkoff presents this as an antidote to the book’s titular “present shock”: the idea that the world we have built for ourselves is one that we have to mold our lives to fit, rather than it being something we adapt to our needs. I think this search for meaning ties into what Rushkoff calls “the death of narrative”: the idea of the grand narratives of 20th century politics being replaced by an unending stream of events, a world where everything really does happen so much. The idea of “a simpler life of farming, shelter and defending one’s family” is so attractive because it provides a sense of purpose. It’s a sort of post-millennial neo-pastoralism, although it’s not so much returning to a golden age as it is recreating an age that, if not golden, at least makes some sort of sense.

It’s worth noting here that the idea of starting with a blank slate is also not a new one — it’s one that was dominant in the age of colonialism, where the Western powers, having spent most of the last millennium squabbling over Europe, were encouraged by new technology to strike out in search of new lands to conquer explore. These places were presented as empty vessels into which Western civilization could be poured, with the unfortunate natives who lived there being considered a sort of minor inconvenience, if they were considered at all. (The British, for instance, declared my home country of Australia to be terra nullius — empty land — despite the presence of Aboriginal people who had very clearly lived there for some time.)

The idea of striking out into the wild is also an integral part of American cultural mythology: look at the way that Westerns present the frontier as a world of possibility, a vast, untamed emptiness where a man might stake out his acre of land and build a life for himself. These days, though, what’s left? All we have are what Donald Rumsfeld might have called “known unknowns.” There are no blank spaces on the map, no more gaps left to fill. If we set aside the unexplored depths of the ocean, where no one is settling any time soon, then we have two ways out: the end of this world or the start of a new world entirely. They’re not so different, really — Mars is exactly what one might imagine when one imagines a post-apocalyptic landscape: barren, infertile, a place where you can’t venture outside without a protective suit, a giant dust bowl whose days of beauty are long since behind it.

And the apocalypse here on Earth? Happily, in 2015, the chance of a large-scale nuclear war has diminished to the point that it feels like a specter of years past. We can dream again of what it might be like living after such an event without being forced to confront the possibility of it actually happening. The irony of all this, though, is that the world is facing an existential threat, one that may well return us all to a place where survival is an impetus rather than something we take for granted. I’m speaking, of course, of climate change. It’s the opposite of the spectacular apocalypse of the Fallout universe — the world isn’t changed in the instantaneous, calamitous detonation of a nuclear bomb, but steadily, stealthily, over the course of decades.

We can see it happening, but the process is subtle enough for us to stick our hands over our ears and pretend that it isn’t. Perhaps in a generation’s time, when the oil runs out and the seas have risen and we’re all eking out a living as agrarian farmers as the rich glare out at us from their gated compounds, the Fallout world will look charmingly naïve. For now, though, it’s a place that fulfills one of humanity’s oldest urges: a place to start again, and maybe do it better.