Fallout and The Spectacle

fallout 1 - Fallout and The Spectacle

This is going to be a long rant about philosophy, critical theory and game design. You have ben warned.


In the last few days I tried to nail down what exactly I don’t like about Fallout 76 and I think it finally came to me: the Fallout series became the spectacle of itself. Now, don’t close the tab yet, I do not mean Fallout 76 is a mockery of the pure Fallout vision of the ancients, I mean it in the same way Debord intended when he wrote his famous book “The Society Of The Spectacle”: It became a pure representation of the original.

Fallout 1 was the tale of a society that became prey of what today we call hyper-normalization. An hyper-normalized society is a dysfunctional society, one that is a step from collapse, but its culture and ideology are so powerful and ingrained that none can really imagine a different world. Lacking an alternative to the status quo, politicians and citizens alike are resigned to maintaining the pretense of a functioning society. The fakeness is accepted as real, and therefore its consequences become real.

This I think is the origin of the famous “dark humor” of the first Fallouts. It was not a way to lighten the bleakness of the world, it was not to mock the paranoia of the real life society on which Fallout was built on, it was the legacy of a society that could not imagine anything else than what already happened, a society that was no longer capable of seeing reality for what it was and elevated its own distorted representation of reality over it.

Yet it was exactly this ubiquitous sensation of impending collapse that in the end condemned them, a self-fulfilling prophecy that did not allow any kind of different result if not the complete destruction of pre-war America. The incredibly paranoid yet completely apathetic pre-war Fallout society believed it could not be saved, ad so it was.

What we meet in Fallout 1 then is a society that is slowly waking up from a nightmare, and realized it was still alive, somehow. It is a society that is slowly realizing it can change, and must if it wants to survive. This is what drives the master, the idea that another kind of society is possible; it is also what breaks him, the moment the Vault Dweller tells him of the flaws in his plans: the fact that his supermutants are not perfect is not really an insurmountable problem, hell in Fallout 2 Marcus hints those flaws may not even exist, what really breaks him is the realization that while he was busy solving the flaws of the last society, he was creating the flaws that would break the next one (which we see in full in Fallout 2 and New Vegas, where the mutants are just as divided and unable to imagine a different world as the humans are).

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So it seems on the surface, Fallout 76 could be a great Fallout title, it could show us humanity going through its self-inflicted nightmare, how it came to realize there was a future, and that it had to work for it. It technically has everything: nukes, dramatic stories, the folly of the old world, the feebleness of the new, ruins, mutants and ghouls… yet it does not feel the same game, or even the same universe.


Let me quote Debord directly.

Things that were once directly lived are now lived by proxy. <…> the spectacular is developed to the detriment of the real. It becomes a substitute for experience.

Fallout 76 is not a game about a broken society, it is a spectacle in which the player has no other role than to spectate. For example, in Fallout 1, the nuke is almost a mythological beast, a god from the old world that destroyed a society that became too proud; the nuclear war is felt and experienced by the player and the survivors constantly, in fact it never let them rest, it haunts them constantly; in Fallout 76 the nuke is a neutered, sterilized event, a representation of what was the mystical force of the atom in previous Fallouts, it cannot modify the world because it cannot be allowed to modify the world. It is an experience that is lived by proxy, that is spectated for the allotted time, to be spectated again the next time.

The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images

What is the story of Fallout 76? The collection of audio logs and environmental storytelling scattered around the game. The only interactions we have in the game are controlled, limited, mediated by objects on which we do not have control. There are so many stories in Fallout 76 that are well written, well voice acted, well designed, yet they all lose their impact as soon as their relevant quest is finished or their relevant location is cleared. We do not experience stories in Fallout 76, we spectate them.

The spectacle in general <…> is the autonomous movement of the non-living.

Is this not the most perfect description of Fallout 76? What is the player character’s agency in the game world? Which place to loot first? The only thing that is allowed to leave an impact on the world of Fallout 76 is not the player character, it is the random loot drops, the random enemy spawns who shape and mold the player character’s decisions and actions. Explore-loot-fight-craft leaves the player with little to do but to obey the imperative of accumulating stuff for the sake of accumulating stuff, as if he was not the subject of the game, but the object upon which the non-living exert their authority. The player character exists to collect stuff, move stuff, kill stuff, but he has no control over the stuff he moves, kills, collects, in fact it is the stuff itself that determines what he must kill, collect, move around.


So, yeah… I don’t like Fallout 76 because it is not a game, it is the spectacle of a game.

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