By Noah Howard
I started “Fallout 4” to see the sky. At the game’s beginning, your character, the messianic Lone Survivor, steps blinking out into the sun 200 years after a nuclear apocalypse reduces Boston to a crumbled wasteland. The sad remnants of buildings litter the horizon, while a housekeeping robot bumbles among them waiting for an owner it never expects to return. Your character’s spouse has just been killed, their child kidnapped, and now the world they knew is broken beyond repair, but the first thing you are meant to notice when you first step out of your protective underground vault is the vast, perfectly blue sky, stretching infinitely into the distance.
And unlike my real life, in “Fallout 4” I can sprint into that endless pale expanse for as long as my character’s mediocre lung capacity allows. It’s a very different version of the apocalypse than the one we’re living through. There is freedom in the hopelessness — absent a clear objective or a society to whose rules you must bend, you’re suddenly able to be the powerful character you’ve always dreamed of. This isn’t an end-of-the-world scenario where you’re the victim of circumstances outside of your control, but where you’re instead liberated by the sudden collapse of everything around you.
You’re free to attack civilians, to steal everything that isn’t bolted down, to leap and jump through abandoned labs, crumbled homes and ghostly playgrounds. The premise of “Fallout 4” screams destitution and loss, but the game itself abounds with optimism. Even among the carnage people have carved out lives, their dirt-worn faces revealing their pride in stocking a small, stable family farm instead of succumbing to the temptations of raider anarchy. There’s a shining city built inside of an old baseball stadium, a quaint town to provide a safe haven for misfits and outcasts, and any number of factions that seek to redeem the wasteland and reawaken civilization within the Boston ruins.
You don’t have to save the wasteland. Download an extra content pack and you can become a pirate king, exploiting innocents and rebuilding society as a mob protectorate. Or, you can simply remain indifferent, enjoying the exploration and adventure at every turn, playing mercenary seeking payment for your joyful journey.
But I chose to save the wasteland anyway. At some point, the initial unexpected hopefulness that characterizes the spectacular introduction of “Fallout 4” begins to wear thin, and its world becomes progressively, and unintentionally, bleaker. I discover a skeleton in a bathroom stall, next to his ragged bones a single can of potato chips, yet to expire after 200 years. What the developers clearly intended as a joke hit me with unexpected force: I couldn’t help but imagine a life’s last moments spent sitting on the floor of a bathroom, munching on the final mediocre pleasure he’ll ever experience, patiently waiting for the end.
So I joined the Minutemen. Among the wasteland’s various factions, the Minutemen are the good guys, wholesome freedom fighters who paste the American flag on anything close enough to touch, and believe in cooperation and goodwill between those too mild-mannered to take what they want by force. When you find them, they’re a ragtag group suffering from infighting and underfunding. You step in as George Washington, their flawless revolutionary leader set to save, and liberate, civilization.
The Minutemen embody hope among the destruction. Every mission you’re sent on is directly meant to help someone, and each success is met with further loyalty toward the Minutemen from the grateful citizens you save. American persistence and cooperation amid the apocalypse — those were the good vibes I needed now more than ever.
It held up for a few meager hours. I took back a castle from a nest of giant aggressive crabs to form a glorious military base. I established a new town in the shadow of the dead suburb where my character lived before the bombs fell. I carefully hand-planted each fruit tree and vine so that my citizens could be sustained. I covered burn marks with pleasant paintings and set up nurseries with cribs and teddy bears. Within the green glowing borders of my settlements, life began to return to normalcy.
But then I stepped back out into the wasteland, my weapon instinctively raised by my side as I waited for an attack that could come from any direction. Every Minuteman objective I pursue is the same. “Some raiders stole our crops,” a farmer complained. I found the raiders, and I systematically killed every single one of them. By the time they realized what was going on they were forced to fight my upgraded arsenal of laser rifles and hand cannons with tire irons and guns made from wood. They never stood a chance. My Minuteman uniform fluttered in the wind as I ran back to tell the farmers the news that their problem has been solved. The farmers feel safe.
That evening my partner and I watched “Ralph Breaks the Internet,” a lighthearted Disney movie about two video game characters who explore a shockingly porn-free internet.
“Jesus, I sure hope that video game characters aren’t actually conscious,” I told her, “or I’m a mass-murdering monster.”
The Minutemen begin to remind me of more than just the American dream — they start to represent the more horrific parts of America’s history. Every problem is solved at the business end of a gun, any amount of brutal murder justified for the convenience of spreading colonies, er, settlements, across the wild wastes. It doesn’t matter how many human beings I kill, nor how many green mutants or wild animals. In the interest of making this world safe for democracy, I make it more dangerous for everyone else.
The Minutemen ignore all of my character’s flaws. I rob graves, I go out of my way to help the fascist militaristic Brotherhood of Steel lay claim to their ammunition stockpiles, I regularly use my charisma to talk desperate people into giving me ludicrous rewards for small actions — I shoot raiders in the back. But I’m their George Washington, their bold leader in exceptional and terrifying times, and I can do no wrong.
“Fallout 4” is intentionally morally dubious, but with all of the goofiness inherent in exploring its glitchy, ridiculous world (my travel companion is a robot noir detective named Nick Valentine), I doubt that its developers ever meant for it to feel so real, or for the player character to ever fall into a role with so many disturbing parallels to our current situation and the administration in charge of fixing it. According to the Minutemen, freedom of the individual is everything, but the lives of individuals are irrelevant.
After so many hours invested in the game, I can’t bear to leave the Minutemen. I’m forced to realize that, compared to the despotic Brotherhood of Steel, the dystopian Institute and the one-note Railroad, it might truly be the faction that leads to the least-terrible outcomes for this world. Maybe one day my character can pursue the ever-evasive “change from the inside,” and the Minutemen can become the force for good they claim to be.
But helping the Minutemen has begun to make me sick to my stomach. It’s still just a video game — but if I’m going to carve a path through this world leaving a trail of bodies in my wake, don’t give me an excuse to claim moral superiority over the hundreds of raiders whose corpses I strip so I can sell their clothes to the nearest merchant. The freedom of “Fallout 4” is intoxicating, and its glimmers of hope never fail to uplift and reenforce my optimism amid these trying times. But the fantasy of “Fallout 4” has begun to resemble uncomfortable, terrifying realities that are counterproductive to its simple escapism. By refusing to save the wasteland with and for the Minutemen, I may never see the curtain officially close on this ruined world. At least, amid the gunfire, the brutality and the jarring lack of self-awareness, I can still look up at the sky.
Contact Noah Howard at noah.howard ‘at’ stanford.edu.