How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Wasteland

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Wasteland

Allen doesn't want to set the world on fire...

As I celebrated the 4th of July like many Americans, I took a moment from devouring hamburgers and hot dogs to think of the video games that have best portrayed the old U.S. of A. To my surprise, Fallout 3 quickly came to mind. Despite being set in a fictional 2277, Fallout 3’s world resembles a 1950s America, inviting an important question: why create a future that resembles our past?

In the world of Fallout 3, a nuclear holocaust destroyed most of humanity in 2077. Despite being set in the future, the science, technology, and culture of the Fallout series did not follow the evolution of our world. There are no smart phones, no self driving cars, none of the things you would expect from a video game set in the future. Instead, you discover a world trapped in time, both literally and metaphorically. Literally, civilization has stagnated for 200 years because of the nuclear holocaust. Metaphorically, the game’s setting feels like it’s pulled straight from a 1950s film, albeit with slight technological improvements including military robots, plasma beam weapons, and power armor suits.

For anyone who is familiar with American media from the 40s and 50s be it music, films, or books, you’ve no doubt noticed a pervasive sense of optimism. Spirits were high after the end of World War II, and the economy was booming. By choosing this period of time to emulate, the Fallout series created a near utopian future without all the real-world problems. In addition to copying the aesthetics of the 40s and 50s, Fallout 3 also used period music to reinforce the positivity of the era.

Several radio stations exist in Fallout 3, but the most well-known by far is Galaxy News Radio station which pumps out tunes from the 30s and 40s. Much like Guardians of the Galaxy, Fallout 3’s soundtrack helps to anchor players in this new world. Tracks like “Way Back Home” establish a tone of optimism and nostalgia with lyrics that read:

The food is the spreadiest, the wine is the headiest
The pals are the readiest, the gals are the steadiest
The love the liveliest, the life the loveliest
Way back, way back, way back home

That “home” is gone both in Fallout’s world and our own. I felt myself pining for a past that never existed while confronting a future that’s all too imaginable. By using real songs from the 30s and 40s, Fallout 3 creates an authentic feeling of loss and separation.

That sense of loss is only amplified as the player wanders the Wasteland seeing how far humanity has fallen. Cannibals, raiders, and Super Mutants attack the player at every opportunity, and the surviving remnants of the government, called the Enclave, have no interest in saving humanity. Instead, their goal is to wipe the slate (again) and start clean. Small pockets of civilization disrupt the desolate and unforgiving journey the player makes across the Wasteland. As someone who lives in the MD/DC area, the sight of familiar landmarks in ruins felt eerily real. Strangely enough, it felt easier to embrace this post-apocalyptic future than the shiny, hopeful one that was destroyed in 2077.

Fallout 3 Screenshot

Fallout 3 affected me deeply because it presented an idyllic future and then destroyed it. By modelling a future society after a past one, Fallout 3 tricked me into feeling a sense of nostalgia for a fictional society. Perhaps it's foolish to yearn for a time that never truly existed, but you can't blame me for trying to make my way back home.

Hailing from Baltimore, Maryland, Allen Brasch is an aspiring writer who loves good science fiction, fantasy, and horror. When Allen's not writing or gaming, he's talking about all things geeky on his podcast, Devil May Play.