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

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 world of Fallout 3
The world of Fallout 3

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.

Fallout 2
Fallout 2

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.

Thomas Cole, “The Arcadian or Pastoral State,” 1834

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.