If you follow me on Twitter or Tumblr, you’ll recognize this as my avatar. If you’re a fan of the Fallout games, you’ll recognize it as Vault Boy (not Pip Boy). I use him as my avatar because I, too, am a huge fan of the Fallout games, but also for a more pertinent reason: Vault Boy is basically a symbol of privilege.
The lily white skin and Aryan hair wasn’t chosen lightly. There’s a lot of commentary about classism and mid-20th-century cultural conformity hidden under the surface of the game’s premise. The fact that the game’s designers recognized the connection between those social attitudes and the perpetual warfare state that America was becoming around the same time, which is ultimately what leads to the nuclear annihilation in the game’s universe, is heartwarming.
(A lot of the subtlety and subtext embedded in the Fallout lore was lost with Fallout 3, of course, but that’s what happens when you let Bethesda design your video games.)
The series’ retro-futurist aesthetic wasn’t chosen at random, after all. Retro-futurism in general has gotten a bit trite, in my opinion, and in fact this was true even when Fallout was released in 1997. But the visual design doesn’t stand alone – it’s an important component of the game’s thematic purpose, which is to take American society in the 1950s, with all its gaping ideological contradictions, xenophobia, and normalization of white suburban life, and extrapolate that straight into the 21st century, where it all gets vaporized by a global nuclear exchange.
The biggest tip-off that this is what the series is really about comes from the intro of Fallout 2, which is a tad bit less subtle than its predecessor. In the intro, an orientation video instructs survivors of the nuclear war to use the GECK to render the wasteland habitable again. This is the promise it makes:
It’s an amusing moment the first time you see it in the video; GECK stands for Garden of Eden Creation Kit (the name is goofy because it was originally a joke in the Fallout manual before it became a real thing in Fallout 2), so when it promises to revitalize the wasteland, you’re expecting images of lush vegetation and fertile oases. But as it turns out, in a twist that shouldn’t surprise you as much as it does, what the middle- and upper-class Americans watching the orientation video consider “habitable” is suburbia. The image of a post-nuclear suburbia is a lie, of course, but it’s the image the people want to see.
A lot of post-apocalyptic books and movies portray the apocalypse as a sort of reboot for the human race. The society that gets built on the other side of Armageddon may or may not be ideal, but it’s essentially a tabula rasa. The result could be anything, and there’s no telling if it’ll resemble the consumerist military state of post-WW2 America.
That’s something that would inevitably terrify the privileged classes of pre-apocalypse America. They don’t want a reboot – the status quo is working out just fine for them, thankyouverymuch. And those privileged people are the ones who can afford to go into the Vaults, so when you hand those people a GECK, saying, “This will fertilize the soil so you can farm!” isn’t going to come across as a great sales pitch. The only future they’re going to feel comfortable looking forward to is one where they can still live in their comfortable Leave It to Beaver fantasyland in which they get to pretend that they’re the hard workers of the world and the people outside their neighborhoods, the ones growing, delivering, and preparing their food, among other things, are a bunch of lazy bums.
This class anxiety isn’t confined to the intro videos. In fact, a lot of the violence that occurs in the world of Fallout is part of larger, ideological conflict regarding what kind of society the people of that world are trying to build for themselves. There are those who want to be capitalist overlords, those who want a purely egalitarian society, and a lot of people in between. And the thing that makes all this work in F1 and 2 (and the thing that’s missing from F3′s ridiculous caricatures of class conflict) is that the people involved don’t realize that that’s what they’re doing. They’re fighting one battle at a time, be it against corrupt casino magnates or armies of supermutants, and are largely unaware that they’re engaged in a battle of ideologies that will decide the future shape of society.
The irony, of course, is that the nuclear holocaust everyone was so afraid of during the Cold War would have been caused by our country’s destructive foreign policy, a policy designed specifically to sustain the very middle class that was so afraid of a post-nuclear world without cul-de-sacs and front yards. The military-industrial complex seems to believe that it can remain balanced on the razor’s edge of perpetual warfare. Fallout is a game about what happens when they fail.