“Fix my post-apocalypse”

The speculative horror of civilizational end in Fallout 76

Wallin cover image

Jason Wallin is an Associate Professor of Media and Youth Culture Studies in the Department of Secondary Education at the University of Alberta. He was raised by wolves in the hinterlands of British Columbia.

For Doug M.

Since its release in November of 2018, Bethesda’s Fallout 76 has garnered an abysmal PC metacritic rating of 2.6 (at the time of writing) and has inspired near unanimous condemnation from reviewers who have described it as an uninspired, insipid disaster. While criticism surrounding Fallout 76’s unpolished roll-out is likely familiar to fans of the glitchy Fallout series, this essay will argue that the indignation it has received articulates a problem irreducible to an issue of game design or mechanics. Against the condemnation that Fallout 76 constitutes a failed installment in the series, this essay aims to advance the proposition that what seems most worrying about Fallout 76 is not its failure to actualize or advance the Fallout blueprint, but rather, its inadvertent intensification of the game’s speculation on life after the apocalypse. While the Fallout universe has always aimed to imagine post-apocalyptic survival, it is the contention of this essay that Fallout 76 escalates the series’ speculation on the future by more radically decentering the human as a focal point of the game’s narrative, landscape, and quest for meaning.

This essay aims to demonstrate how the purported failures of Fallout 76 are commensurate with the intensified image of post-apocalyptic life it creates. To this end, I aim to consider how Fallout 76 acts as a speculative fiction on the post-future and why this particular fiction has incited such malcontent amongst critics and fans of the Fallout series. From its inception, the Fallout series has positioned the player as a human survivor emerging from their subterranean shelter and into the post-world. Signs of civilizational collapse abound throughout the Fallout universe. Beyond the proliferation of the raider hordes that signal the collapse of centralized political structures and the bottle cap currency that symptomatizes the collapse of present day economic systems, sites long abandoned by humans populate the in-game map, many of which, including schools, libraries, and government buildings, emblematize a civilization in ruin. Constituting an augury on the end of civilization,the Fallout series asks ‘what comes next’?  

This essay claims that the the question of ‘what comes next’ is answered in Fallout 76 through the introduction of a much bleaker image of the post-future in which the player-character encounters a world largely stripped of its human significance. I demonstrate how Fallout 76 decenters the human through the suspension of ‘grand narratives’ (Part I), by confronting the player with a world in which humans are largely missing (Part II), by short-circuiting the relationship between player action and its worldly impact (Part III), and finally (Part IV), how these speculative aspects of the game produce a horrifying posthuman image of the future in which human meaning, ambition, and dominion is cast into doubt (Thacker, 2011) .

Part I: Fallout 76’s world-without-us

In a general sense, the Fallout series might be thought of as a kind of speculative vehicle for surveying the end of civilization and as an experimental probe for thinking how we might live at the end of life ‘as we know it’. Fallout 76 constitutes an approach to imagining post-apocalyptic life that distinguishes it from other instalments in the Fallout series. Where Fallout is generally overflowing with meaning in the form of purposeful quests, rich human non-player character (NPC) backstories, and moral choices, Fallout 76 presents a darker revelation. That is, the future Fallout 76 fabulates is one without-us or rather, one that does not assume that the future will resemble the present world (Thacker, 2015). As myriad critics have lamented, Fallout 76 imagines a world withdrawn from human significance in that, unlike other installments of the series, it suspends the character’s immersion into a unifying narrative reflecting the centrality of human significance and action. Where Fallout: New Vegas (2010, Obsidian Entertainment) situated the player-character at the heart of a vast conspiracy and Fallout 3 (2008, Bethesda Game Studios) and Fallout 4 (2015, Bethesda Game Studios) revolved around familial melodrama, Fallout 76 removes the Ur-narrative or image of transcendence that would imbue the actions of its post-apocalyptic survivor with over-arching teleological purpose or consequence. In place of a world overflowing with or predestined to human meaning, Fallout 76 advances a more pessimistic view of post-catastrophe in which human significance is eroded. While humans continue to act in Fallout 76’s post-future, their actions no longer correlate to transcendent purpose, but only occur in response to the immanent events and challenges of the post-apocalyptic milieu. This shift is important in that it rethinks survival as less ‘what we do to the world’ than the more misanthropic question of ‘what the world does to us’.

The survivor of Fallout 76 is condemned to scavenge the detritus of civilizational ruin for resources in order to navigate and survive in a more strikingly ambivalent Fallout world. Withdrawing the unifying narrative figured elsewhere in the centralizing significance of ‘family’ in Fallout 4, or the quest for “truth” in Fallout: New Vegas, Fallout 76 postulates a horrific image of post-nuclear existence in which humanity no longer shapes the world, but in a more basic ontological mode of survival, reacts to it. Here, Fallout 76 touches upon the horror of surviving in an increasingly alien and antagonistic world by remitting the image of human superiority and presenting instead an ambivalent and strikingly nihilistic reality. Herein, the world of Fallout 76 displaces the image of human exceptionalism and so too, the idea that the fall of civilization will catalyze the rise of a new human civilization, or what Colebrook (2013) calls the presupposition of the polis after-humans. Contrary to the idea that future will be a human one, Fallout 76 confronts the player with a posthuman after-future in which humans no longer figure as an ideological or causal center.

Part II: I’m not there: The world-without-us

The world without-us imagined in Fallout 76 is accelerated further by the absence of human NPCs throughout its post-nuclear landscape. This shift in the Fallout series is remarkable for both its commentary on the precarity of human existence in the post-future and for its withdrawal of the “human face” and the presumption that the world exists in anthropomorphic continuity with human desire (Colebrook, 2013). In place of the projection of a human face upon the world, Fallout 76 reveals more than other instalments in the series the alien ‘face’ or ‘faces’ of its irradiated dystopia. Fallout 76’s mutant fauna, robotic nomads, and ghoulish posthuman “scorched” (see fig. 1) proliferate as anathema to the idea that the world reflects in the ideals of humans. The mutation of the human face as a dominant imaginary referent in Fallout 76 creates a more radically deanthropocentrized image of the post-apocalyptic future than its predecessors, acting in this way as a portend on the extinction of the human as a conceptual standard for imagining a more thoroughly posthuman future.

Figure 1: Fallout 76’s Posthuman ‘Scorched’

Figure 1: Fallout 76’s Posthuman ‘Scorched’

The de-anthropocentric impulse of remitting the world’s predestination in the image of man is furthered through Fallout 76’s consideration of knowledge, in that the locus of worldly knowledge within the game is seen to shift from its possession and creation by human agents to inhuman ones. Where in Fallout 3, human knowledge constituted a master signifier for the preservation of the species, Fallout 76 imagines human knowledge as already passed on to the long surviving robots and computers of post-nuclear Earth. Herein, Fallout 76 imagines the intensification of a posthuman future in which knowledge and memory is given to humans by the inhuman that supersedes it as inheritors of the post-apocalyptic world (Colebrook, 2012, 2018; Marcato, 2016). Such succession is highlighted in how the game imagines human knowledge in ruin. In a striking index of human extinction, knowledge persists but in the form of deteriorating notes, books, and the ‘holotapes’ of the dead.

Part III: So, this is the (post)future?

The thrill of post-apocalyptic survival and reassertion of human dominion collapses in Fallout 76 with the effects of boredom, a state numerous reviewers have attributed to their experience of playing the game. In a chilling commentary on the post-apocalyptic future, Fallout 76 presents a world in which human activity falls into inconsequence and banality. This scenario is only accentuated by the Sisyphean character of Fallout 76 noted by critics. Akin to what might become a post-future reality for humans, Fallout 76 manifests the repetitive ‘grind’ of survival as a required ontological disposition and primary mode of existence. Where Fallout 3 and Fallout 4 imagined a post-apocalypse in which there was more to do and discover, Fallout 76 supplants such optimism with the pessimistic revelation that yes, this is all there is. Thwarting the ideals of progress and ascension, Fallout 76 dramatizes the horror of survival in which human life collapses with the repetitive ‘grind’ of basic survival gestures. Critics have lamented that the interminable toil of repurposing junk, dispatching the posthuman inheritors of post-apocalyptic Earth, and wandering the post-apocalyptic wasteland of West Virginia in hope of something more reveals the pessimistic realization that there is nothing else. Herein, Fallout 76 articulates the reality of civilizational end which has caused many players to question whether it would have been better to have not survived in the first place (Benatar, 2008).

While the world of Fallout 76 is rich in detail and beauty, it does not exist to serve human purposes. Unlike other instantiations of Fallout where the world itself correlated to the actions of the player-character, Fallout 76 withdraws from the ambit of human significance, herein breaking from the conceit that the world is as we think it (Thacker, 2011). While Fallout 76 bears aesthetic and design similarities to other instalments in the series, it breaks from their particular mode of ‘worlding’ in which the game’s events are influenced by the decisions and actions of its post-apocalyptic survivor. In a much darker commentary on the future, Fallout 76 disconnects human action from control and mastery over the world, fabulating an image of post-apocalyptic existence in which post-nuclear survivors are continually submitted to outside, inhuman forces. Here again, Fallout 76 composes an image of the post-future in which the world – once hermeneutically fashioned and correlated to our will – is given over to misanthropy, and perhaps more strikingly, to a world that has gone on without us.

Part IV: ‘Welcome to the Desert of the Real’

The future posited by Fallout 76 is akin to what Žižek (2002), in borrowing from Morpheus in The Matrix, has dubbed ‘the desert of the Real’. The game’s post-future articulates the disintegration of “all-too-human” purpose and rejoins with the pessimistic realization that human life is no longer the fashion (Cioran, 2012). The horror of Fallout 76 – and so too the disdain projected upon it – seems to intersect with a growing realization that ‘the human’ is already being eroded by the encroaching realities of both conceptual and material extinction. Here, Fallout 76 transpires an image of post-apocalyptic life barren of meta-significance, where no Ur-narrative exists to correlate the grind of survival to its significance for-us. While the condemnation of Fallout 76 largely pivots on its non-resemblance to other instantiations of the Fallout universe, what seems most condemnable for many players and critics is the diminished place of the ‘human’ within its world. The anxiety over Fallout 76’s de-anthropocentric world is articulated across innumerable critical and player commentaries which insist that Fallout 76’s post-apocalypse ought to be remedied. Beyond the rectification of gameplay issues however, this popular appeal appears transfixed on rehabilitating an image of human-after-human, or rather, a post-apocalyptic image of life in which the will of human continues to constitute a primary motor of reality.

There is little doubt that forthcoming content patches will allay critic and player concerns by more fully centering the game around the actions of its human survivors, but doing so will omit Fallout 76’s pessimistic image of a future not given to humanity. Moreover, the points of this essay might be subverted by locating Fallout 76 as the alternative antecedent to the series as a whole. From such a vantage, the de-anthropocentric character of Fallout 76 becomes ‘sensible’ and purged of its threat given the re-ascendance of human civilization subsequently articulated in the series. Taken as an artistic commentary on post-future existence however, Fallout 76 might more generously be read as relaunching the very question of what might become of life at the end of civilization. In distinction to the optimistic image of humanity’s post-apocalyptic transcendence plied in Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas, and Fallout 4, Fallout 76 commences its speculation on the future in a manner that suspends the automatic correlation of the future with ‘all-too-human’ will and desire. While horrifying, such an approach seems more germane to the contemporary moment and the worries of a civilization in the throes of extinction, geopolitical precarity, and climatological change. Perhaps this is the true horror of Fallout 76, which today seems proximal to the encroaching end of life as we know it.

References

Benatar, D. (2008). Better never to have been: The harm of coming into existence. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Cioran, E.M. (2012). A Short History of Decay. (R. Howard., Trans.). New York: Arcade Publishing.

Colebrook, C. (2013). The death of the posthuman: Essays on extinction, Vol. 1. Ann Arbor, MI: Open Humanities Press.

Colebrook, C. (2018). Lives worth living: Extinction, personals, disability. In R. Grusin (Ed.), After Extinction (pp. 151-171). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Marcato, L. (2016). Human and posthuman – Videogames and the Future of the Human (PDF).

Thacker, E. (2011). In the dust of this planet: Horror and philosophy (Volume 1). New York: Zero Books.

Thacker, E. (2015). Starry speculative corpse: Horror and philosophy (Volume 2). New York: Zero Books.

Zizek, S. (2002). Welcome to the desert of the real. New York: Verso.