Kathleen McClancy

Kathleen McClancy is an Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies in the Department of English at Texas State University. Her research focuses on the creation and manipulation of historical memory in popular culture, with particular emphasis on the influence of medial form on representation. She is currently working on a project considering Cold War nostalgia in the 21st century. She was the guest editor of the 2018 special issue of Feminist Media Histories on comics and graphic narratives and is the primary organizer of the Comics Arts Conference.

Contact information:
krm141 at txstate.edu

The Wasteland of the Real: Nostalgia and Simulacra in Fallout

by Kathleen McClancy


The post-September 11th period has seen a great deal of anxiety over technology even as nostalgia for the early Cold War period attempts to relieve that anxiety through a return to an optimistic appreciation of the potential of technological progress. Computers and computer technology in particular have been the locus for much of this debate, in the form of everything from internet fora to drones, with videogames often coming under specific scrutiny. The ubiquity of visual simulations, their self-referentiality, and their inescapability seem to be proving Baudrillard's warnings about the descent of postmodernity into the "desert of the real." This paper uses the framework of Baudrillard's theories of simulacra and simulation to examine the medial nature of videogames, putting Baudrillard in dialogue with videogame theorists who emphasize the importance of game rules for bringing videogames into the real, and puts both simulacra and rules in conversation with the messages implied by game narratives, to uncover how the medium of the videogame presents a possible way out of the mirror-maze of simulation. Using the Fallout franchise as a test case, this paper examines the workings of Cold War nostalgia within the hyperreal environment of the series, unearthing the cultural concerns that the games' retrofuturist simulacra mask. It then examines the way the games' rule-systems challenge those simulacra, undermining not only the nostalgia they support but the faith in technology they assume. Finally, it explains how the loose narratives of the games create a pervasive atmosphere of distrust of technology that leads players to see through both the embrace of simulacra and the control of rule-systems.

Keywords: Simulacra, Nostalgia, Cold War, War on Terror, Fallout, technology, Baudrillard


The 21st century has seen the dominance of the image, as visual computing becomes ubiquitous. This dominance corresponds in many ways to the predictions of Jean Baudrillard, who argued that society was moving into the realm of the hyperreal, even characterizing the collapse of the World Trade Center as image rather than real event (Baudrillard, 2002, pp. 28–29). At the same time, the 21st century has been marked by Cold War nostalgia, and images from the American 1950s seem to be everywhere in US popular culture. Perhaps no popular text engages as determinedly with Cold War nostalgia as does the Fallout franchise. The games present a totalizing projection of the future as imagined by the past, and are famous for their retrofuturistic gameworld. Meanwhile, their existence as simulation positions them as integral to the creation of the hyperreal. The franchise overtly mocks Cold War nostalgia; however, in the process, it positions itself as outside of that nostalgia, masking the ways in which US culture and politics are still characterized by Cold War ideology. As such, Fallout creates a simulacrum that justifies the policies of the Global War on Terror (GWOT), while at the same time seeming to embody the ways in which videogames contribute to the perpetuation of images. However, to define videogames as solely simulacra, or even as solely simulation, is to ignore the complex interactions of fictional worlds, game rules, and narratives with player interaction that constitute games, and which move videogames outside the orders of simulacra and into the realm of Baudrillard's lost real. In this article, I unpack the ways in which Fallout's rules and narrative undercut the pervasive simulacra of its fictional world, suggesting the potential for videogames to transform the dominance of simulation for a posthuman future.

Fallout's Retrofuture

The Fallout franchise is usually considered to include five major canonical titles [1]. Fallout: A Post Nuclear Role Playing Game (Interplay Entertainment, 1997) was released in 1997 by Interplay, which also published its sequel, Fallout 2, (Black Isle Studios, 1998) a year later. The rights to the title were then sold to Bethesda Softworks, which published Fallout 3 (Bethesda Game Studios, 2008) ten years later to great critical and economic success. Bethesda then released Fallout: New Vegas (Obsidian Entertainment, 2010) and Fallout 4 (Bethesda Game Studios, 2015) to similar praise [2]. While all five games can be considered varieties of roleplaying games, the first two use an isometric perspective as well as a turn-based combat system common to RPGs of their era, while the last three combine roleplaying elements with the graphic design and gameplay of the first-person shooter [3], and have the player look at the world through the avatar's eyes and experience combat in real time [4]. All the games are set in the same fictional universe, but none is an immediate, direct sequel to the previous; each game features a new protagonist, and each game is separated from the previous in the series by temporal or geographic distance (or both). As a result, the series as a whole does not tell one continuing story so much as it creates one coherent world, by introducing the player to that world from a variety of directions.

That world has been characterized, if not defined, from its inception by its Atomic Age stylings; in fact, contradicting Espen Aarseth's argument that a game's "representational layer is [. . .] inconsequential for the seasoned player," Matt Barton describes the first game's atomic aesthetic as its primary appeal (Aarseth, 2014, p. 188; Barton, 2008, pp. 339–340). The series is both what Karen Hellickson defines as an alternate history and what Raquel Maria Gonzales calls a speculative future (Hellekson, 2001, p. 4; Gonzales, 2010, p. 7). It is set in the future of an historical timeline that diverged from our history in the mid-1940s and that saw the realization of the futurist predictions of the 1950s ("Fallout World," n.d.). In Fallout, cars were powered by nuclear fusion, soldiers carried laser rifles and wore powered exoskeletons into battle, and every suburban household had its own domestic robot. Fallout thus becomes an overt example of the aesthetic of retrofuturism, a concept Rob Latham links to the 1984 Smithsonian exhibit "Yesterday's Tomorrows," focusing on displays of early twentieth-century projections of the future (Latham, 2009, p. 340). PaweĊ‚ Frelik defines the term: "[R]etrofuturism is thus a practice of referencing, framing, or inserting elements of older futuristic imaginary into contemporary narratives" (Frelik, 2013, p. 207). Multiple critics have examined the strangely Janus-like nature of the style; Sharon Sharp considers retrofuturism "a sense of nostalgia for imaginings of the future that never materialised," while Niklas Maak calls it "an aesthetic feedback loop recalling a lost belief in progress" (Sharp, 2011, p. 25; Maak, 2005, p. 118) In contrast, Scott Bukatman locates retrofuturism not in a lost future but in a future that is already here: "Our presence in the future has thus initiated an obsessive recycling of the past, a seemingly inexhaustible period of meganostalgia; a return to a period of (imaginary) mastery; and an attempt to answer the question 'How did I get here?' when cause and effect have vanished within the random intricacies of quantum reality. Even futures past are exhumed and aired, their quaint fantasies simultaneously mocked and yearned for" (Bukatman, 2003, p. 15). But perhaps Elizabeth Guffey puts it most succinctly: "A recent neologism, retro-futurism builds on the futurists' fevered visions of space colonies with flying cars, robotic servants, and interstellar travel but while futurists took the promise of progress for granted, retro-futurism emerged as a more skeptical reaction [. . .]. Put simply, retro-futurism is a half-nostalgic, half-sentimental memorializing of popular futurism" (Guffey, 2014, p. 254). The Fallout games revel in a retro-futurist aesthetic from the decor to the weaponry to the quests [5]. And yet, at the same time, in the Fallout universe the World of Tomorrow has become a thing of the past, as the games are set after a nuclear apocalypse has destroyed that retrofuture and transformed the landscape into a wasteland. The avatar wanders through this wasteland, encountering relics of this futuristic past. The games thus combine a retrofuturist aesthetic with a post-apocalyptic one, like a mashup of Disney's Tomorrowland and Mad Max, and essentially posit two imaginary histories: one in which the future of the Fifties came to pass, and one in which that future was destroyed [6].

While retrofuturist style is a persistent aspect of all the Fallout games, the first two games do not imagine these futures in nearly as encompassing a way as the games produced by Bethesda. The first two games in the series occasionally reference the universe's retrofuturist past, particularly in their opening credit sequences but also in their narratives; however, Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas, and Fallout 4 surround their players with this mid-century aesthetic, including it not only in the heads-up display, the game manual, the music and the set elements, but also in the design of every object in the game. Furthermore, while both Fallout and Fallout 2 were produced in an earlier era of computing power, and as a result are not able to provide high levels of graphic detail, the newer games take advantage of advances in both computer graphics and consoles to create much more photorealistic worlds. David Chandler points out how these changes to the gameplay transform the player's experience: "This change in camera perspective makes what had been a static, purely tactical perspective into a cinematic experience more akin to Atomic Age science fiction film. The advancements in video game technology allow for more complex gameplay systems, further transforming a rudimentary combat system into a more nuanced mixture of real-time movement and turn-based play" (Chandler, 2015, p. 55). As these later three games largely feature a close perspective and a highly detailed, nearly infinitely explorable landscape rather than a distancing isometric view and defined and limited locations, they allow a much closer examination of the Fallout world than the first two games could produce, and the objects of that world are meticulously crafted to surround the player with the ashes of the Atomic Age's fantasies of tomorrow.

Cold War Nostalgia

Fallout is not the only recent cultural product to feature a return to the iconography of the 1950s. The post-September 11th period has been defined to a large extent by a resurgence of nostalgia for the early Cold War period and the long 1950s, or what Christine Sprengler, following Fredric Jameson, calls the Fifties, to distinguish "the mythic, nostalgic construct" from "the actual historical period" (Sprengler, 2009, p. 39; Jameson, 1995a, p. 281). A number of recent texts have engaged with this nostalgia, from AMC's Mad Men (2007–15) to Amy Winehouse's Back in Black (2006) to Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island (2010) to 2K Games' Bioshock (2007). It should come as no surprise that a period defined by instability, confusion, terror, and threat should look back to the period that Jameson has called "the privileged lost object of desire," marked by "the stability and prosperity of a pax Americana'" (Jameson, 1995b, p. 19). The Fifties have for some time been a sign of a more innocent, safer, happier time for Americans. Sprengler locates the origins of Fifties nostalgia in a reaction to the tribulations of the 1970s, and goes so far as to argue that nostalgia for the Fifties has come to stand in for nostalgia generally (Sprengler, 2009, p. 39). Daniel Marcus further points out that the Fifties have been positioned as particularly reassuring for conservatives since the Reagan Era (Marcus, 2004, p. 9).

In general, the Fifties that exists within the nostalgic imaginary is usually a domestic, suburban, middle-class, white, and heteronormative one: what Sprengler calls the "Populuxe Fifties" after Thomas Hine's seminal analysis of the design of the period as evoking luxury for all (Sprengler, 2009, p. 42; Hine, 1986) [7]. For Americans who are uncomfortable with the rapid social changes of the last several decades, that image stands in for a period when social codes were both simpler and less hotly debated, and the future they imagined was a peaceful one both on the national and on the domestic front. Hine writes:

The Populuxe era confidently projected the American family—Mom, Dad, Junior and Sis—unchanged, centuries into the future, spinning through the galaxies in starbound station wagons. And today, Mom and Dad are divorced, the factory where Dad worked has moved to Taiwan, Sis is a corporate vice president, Junior is gay and Mom's a Moonie. The American Way of Life has shattered into a bewildering array of "lifestyles," which offer greater freedom but not the security that one is doing the normal thing. (Hine, 1986, p. 177)

The Fifties, and the future they imagined, are reassuring to Americans for whom transformations in the social fabric seem overwhelming; and as Cara Greenberg points out, the decor and design of the period itself has become reassuring through association: "Those starburst chandeliers, atom clocks, and boomerang tables have become beloved symbols of a simpler, more straightforward time, when options were fewer, sex roles clear cut, atomic energy still a positive idea, and anxiety not so pervasive" (Greenberg, 1995, pp. 9, 12). Because mid-century modern design is so instantly recognizable and so inextricably located in a particular time and place, when these nostalgic cultural products faithfully recreate the aesthetics of the Fifties, they also automatically evoke the period's ideology. An Eames sofa next to a Noguchi coffee table is not just a marker of a particular style of industrial design; it evokes a specific world view that in hindsight can seem both touchingly naïve and significantly less complicated.

After the trauma of the September 11th attacks, during the instability of the Global War on Terror, the Fifties seem an almost idyllic lost paradise. As Adrian Franklin writes in her examination of the history of retro design revivals: "At a time when anxiety, risk and uncertainty are omnipresent spoilers of our happiness, the giddy aspirations, unlimited imagination, and carefree hedonism of the mid–twentieth century are like a tonic" (Franklin, 2011, p. 7). The Fifties harken back to a time before the terrorist threat, when Americans were enthusiastic for the future rather than afraid of it. At the same time, the period can work as a reassuring parallel to the post-September 11th era: both times see the United States facing an existential threat based in an ideology defined as antithetical to American ideals. The hindsight that makes an American victory in the Cold War seem inevitable suggests the inevitability of a similar victory in the GWOT. In his examination of retrofuturism after September 11th, Henry Jenkins explains how the mode is used "as a means of healing wounds and restoring a world—and a world view—that was shattered when the Twin Towers fell" (Jenkins, 2007). The Fifties saw the beginning of American ideological and political dominance worldwide; at a time when that dominance is regularly and violently questioned, a return to that past decade is naturally reassuring to American audiences.

The use of Fifties nostalgia and retrofuturism in the first two games, both of which were published before the September 11th attacks, seems to be an instance of what Constandina A. Titus has identified as the use of atomic kitsch. Titus argues that atomic imagery, the mushroom cloud in particular, was used by the American government during the early Cold War as a symbol of American power and rapidly became a marketing emblem signifying both Americanness and excitement (Titus, 2004, p. 107). The imagery dropped out of use in the mid-to-late 1960s, when atomic testing went underground, only to resurface in the 1990s when the end of the Cold War made the prospect of nuclear war seem highly unlikely. She writes: "Coupled with a moratorium on nuclear weapons testing and nuclear arms reduction agreements, the demise of the Soviet Union allowed the U.S. citizenry to issue a collective sigh of relief. As the likelihood of actually needing to use the bomb became more remote, the tendency to view it benignly in retrospect became more acceptable" (Titus, 2004, p. 111). The first two Fallout games seem to use their retrofuturist design elements predominantly as kitsch: as a way of distinguishing these games from the more common fantasy-based, swords-and-sorcerers RPG that may bring a nostalgic smile to players' faces, but that in the end is not particularly integral to the gameplay. In the Bethesda games, in contrast, atomic imagery is much more elaborate and pervasive in the games' design. The games feature radio stations that play songs that specifically reference atom bombs; Red Rocket gas stations not only litter the landscape but provide bases for settlements; quests involve both shooting rockets into space and activating weapons of mass destruction; and the most powerful weapon in the games is a portable nuclear bomb launcher called the "Fat Man" named for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. At the same time, as Titus points out, atomic and nuclear imagery has become significantly less reassuring, less unthreateningly kitschy, in the age of the Global War on Terror even as the GWOT period has seen a rise in Cold War nostalgia: "After September 11, 2001, peace was shattered, and fear was reinstated as the prevailing national emotion. Laughing at ourselves and our picturesque atomic past no longer seemed appropriate. Terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden's possible development of nuclear weapons, together with the India-Pakistan nuclear standoff, suddenly made the bomb real again" (Titus, 2004, pp. 119–120). So even as the latter Fallout games are more determinedly rooted in atomic culture and retrofuturism, that atomic culture itself has become more threatening.

Fallout 3, New Vegas, and Fallout 4 share this increasing anxiety about the re-emergence of a nuclear threat through their continual reminders of the dark side of the retrofuturist dream: that the society that imagined this technological paradise of a future came very close to having no future at all. After all, in these games the fantasy has become a nightmare—a nuclear war has destroyed these Populuxe dreams, and the scattered artefacts of retrofuturism are inextricably linked with the nuclear threat that pervaded the Cold War era. Even as the games revel in an aesthetic that celebrated the possibilities of atomic technology, the continual reminders of the destruction that technology created undermine that aesthetic. As Rowan Derrick argues: "This portrayal of technology in the wasteland contains inherent tension between the glorified possibilities of technology and the fact that the nuclear wasteland was brought about by those same technological advances" (Derrick, 2012). This contradiction essentially creates the atmosphere of the games: both nostalgic and ironic, both celebrating and critiquing the past. Sarah Grey describes this atmosphere as creating a kind of dialectical dissonance: "Moments of hectic performance are balanced with the profound sadness of desolate landscapes and destroyed lives. The player is constantly bombarded by moments of dissonance, for example, hearing a 1950s jazz standard while looking out over a demolished city" (Grey, 2009, p. 1).These games thus critique this recent nostalgic turn to the Cold War: as the US looks back to a clearer, less threatening time, and as Cold War narratives are increasingly employed to mediate the threat of the GWOT, Fallout emphasizes that these nostalgic narratives bring with them their own dangers and their own anxieties that can no longer be safely relegated to the past.

Furthermore, the naivete that allowed for a vision of a consumer-based, individualistic Jetsons future is presented as instrumental in the destruction of the world that produced this vision. In these games, the same kind of familiarity and acceptance of atomica which led to such novelties as the atomic cocktail and the bikini swimsuit is a necessary precursor for the use of atomic weaponry in war—only familiarity can breed that kind of contempt for the power of the atom bomb. As the first two games are less engaged in an encompassing presentation of this Populuxe fantasy, the implication of threat from this technological fantasy is less intense; in Fallout 3, 4, and New Vegas, however, every object in the gameworld reinforces this idea, from the Nuka-Cola Quantum, with its addition of irradiating isotopic strontium, that can be found in soda machines across the landscape, to the undetonated atomic bomb that forms the centre of the settlement of Megaton in Fallout 3. The games thus become heavily ironic, emphasizing "the incongruence between the post-apocalyptic present and the simultaneously naïve and jingoistic optimism of leftover billboards, advertisements, manuals etc." (Domsch, 2015, p. 407). Guffey has identified this ironic stance as being a marker of retro style, which always mixes nostalgia with detachment (Guffey, 2006, p. 20); in Fallout, that irony is used particularly to challenge Fifties ideology as well as the present-day nostalgia for that ideology. Both Sara Mosberg Iversen and Marcus Schulzke point out that Fallout critiques Fifties propaganda and ideology specifically by juxtaposing the optimism of that atomic powered future with the reality of atomic apocalypse (Iversen, 2012; Schulzke, 2013, p. 266). In the process, Fallout reminds players that the Fifties was not, in fact, a safer, more secure era, but was characterized by just as much anxiety as today. Furthermore, as Joseph A. November argues, Fallout's ironizing of the Fifties vision of the future—from the heavily nationalist war propaganda to the secret government experiments the player uncovers—also emphasizes the totalitarian nature of that future (November, 2013, p. 309). In the end, rather than participating in the Fifties nostalgia that has become such a feature of 21st century American culture, Fallout undermines that nostalgia and its ideological uses. Fallout's retrofuturism, rather than being an uncomplicated celebration of either the Fifties or the future it imagined, specifically refutes Fifties nostalgia by refusing to take it seriously. As Marcus Schulzke notes: "Fallout addresses these [Cold War] topics from a critical distance; its derisive, cynical humor persistently challenges these fears and makes them seem unbelievable" (Schulzke, 2013, p. 267).

In particular, the latter three games each attack a particular facet of American mythology implicated in the creation of the Fifties mystique. Fallout 3, set in the Washington, D.C. area, visually challenges the celebration of American democracy that the monuments of that city reify. As Craig Johnson and Rowan Tulloch point out: "The identity of Washington, DC has not been erased by nuclear disaster, indeed [sic] its history underpins and informs the experience of Fallout 3. The game mobilizes an image of the past 'greatness' of this city to contrast with its nightmarish present. The specific neo-Roman architectural features of DC have been transformed into ironic markers of what has been lost" (Johnson & Tulloch, 2017, p. 249). Evan Watts further points out the ways in which these "iconic structures" have been "repurposed in ways that are often deliberately antithetical to the common social meanings associated with them—for example, the Lincoln monument is now home to a group of slavers" (Watts, 2011, p. 257). New Vegas, set in the American west, echoes the myth of the Frontier that has been defined as foundational to American-ness since at least Frederick Jackson Turner's address to the World's Columbian Exhibition in 1893, in the process challenging the glamorization of individualism central to that myth; New Vegas thus furthers the commentary Johnson and Tulloch identify in Fallout 3, showing "the risks of ideologies promoting individual freedom above all else" (Johnson & Tulloch, 2017, p. 250). Its conflicts between local tribes and expanding nations seem to refight the American Indian Wars. And finally, Fallout 4, while perhaps less overtly ironic than the previous two games, uses its Boston setting to challenge the Puritan iconography of the nation that gave birth to American Exceptionalism, while at the same time reminding players of the role of slavery in the creation of the nation. All three of these later games thus intentionally call into question foundational Fifties articles of faith through their inversion and destruction of American iconography [8].

Fictional Worlds as Simulacra

Of course, the Fifties the Fallout games posit as the origin for the fantasies of the future it brings to life also never truly existed in the first place. Instead, the Fifties is a nostalgic construct, stripping the early Cold War period of its complications and contradictions. Jameson points out that even when we include the "oppositional" Fifties in our imagining of the period (the Fifties of Elvis, the Beats, the Civil Rights Movement), still our "nostalgia-tinted spectacles" encourage us to confuse that opposition with the mainstream, in the process neutralizing its challenge and creating one monolithic and unthreatening image of the period (Jameson, 1995a, p. 290). Guffey further notes that the various retro revivals of the period have tended to ignore the anxieties of the period in favour of its optimism, "easily interpreted as 'innocence'" (Guffey, 2006, p. 126). In fact, the image of the Fifties we have today is largely based on image: on television and magazine representations of the period which intentionally left out any conflicts, instead depicting an imaginary America where everyone was white, middle-class, suburban, and happy, as Stephanie Coontz has documented in The Way We Never Were (Coontz, 1992). Paul Boyer notes that these images themselves stemmed from the tradition of World War II propaganda: "The images of America's postwar consumer culture—the preternaturally cheerful families of the T.V. sitcoms and the magazine ads for refrigerators, washing machines, and other appliances—were in a direct line of descent from the inspiring or comforting wartime images" (Boyer, 2001, p. 44). That propagandistic image of the Fifties has since been held up as a Golden Age for the United States: a time when America was great, and a perfection from which we have fallen in direct proportion to the increasing complexity of our lives. The historical reality of the early Cold War period has been effaced by this "vast collection of images, a multitudinous photographic simulacrum" (Jameson, 1995b, p. 18). The Fifties thus become an ideal to which we can aspire but can never reach—an impossibly perfect image of optimism and technological potential. In fact, Marcus argues that the power of Fifties iconography stems directly from its imaginary nature: "Because the Fifties always operated at an imaginary level, their norms have been able to maintain a hold on America's fantasy life, to be resuscitated in conservative discourse and popular culture" (Marcus, 2004, p. 2). Even as Fallout critiques this image of the Fifties, pointing out its totalitarian features, it also adds to the image's reality through the admitted imaginary of the game's reflection of that image [9].

The Fallout games thus embody the concept Jean Baudrillard identified as the simulacrum: the image that has no reference to the real, but is only ever "exchanged for itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference" (Baudrillard, 1994, p. 6). For Baudrillard, simulacra are produced in a society that increasingly looks to visual media for its reality; an image in such a society moves through four phases:

it is the reflection of a profound reality;
it masks and denatures a profound reality;
it masks the absence of a profound reality;
it has no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum. (Baudrillard, 1994, p. 6)

Videogames in general, and RPGs in particular, are fourth-order images; as Zach Waggoner notes: "they offer virtual copies of worlds that have no real-world equivalents" (Waggoner, 2009, p. 39). As a simulation of a fantasy future produced by a fantasy past, Fallout is overtly removed from a relationship with any real history, even as it, like most mass-market videogames, strives for a determinedly realistic aesthetic (Götz, 2007, p. 136; Vuillemin, 2007, p. 61). Fallout is thus a detailed and exact representation of what was already nothing more than an image to begin with. After all, the "reality" it depicts in such detail is not a reality at all, but an imaginary alternate future, both in its post-apocalyptic and in its retrofuturistic modes. The future of the Fifties, with its utopian order and promise of technology, has for some time seemed impossibly naïve; as Jameson wrote in attempting to imagine the future in 1982: "[W]e no longer entertain such visions of wonder-working, properly 'S-F' futures of technological automation. These visions are themselves now historical and dated—streamlined cities of the future on peeling murals—while our lived experience of our greatest metropolises is one of urban decay and blight" (Jameson, 1982, p. 151). Fallout's retrofuture is thus not only an image of a world that never existed, it is a simulacrum of a world that directly contrasts with the images we have of both today's present and its future. The fact that this future has already been destroyed in the game helps make that future seem real, and although the player spends very little time in the Fallout universe prior to the nuclear war, that retrofuture seems as real and complete as the wasteland through which the avatar travels [10].

However, players are not so taken in by Fallout's simulation as to believe in its reality. We have not yet reached the technological level of Star Trek's holodeck, and players are certainly able to distinguish between the physical world inhabited by their bodies and the virtual world depicted by their games; in fact, Aarseth argues that it is the distinction between "spatial representation and real space" that makes gameplay possible (Aarseth, 2007a, p. 45). Fallout's nature as simulation is clearly marked. And yet, the obvious falseness of Fallout's simulacra is in part what allow the games to operate as examples of Baudrillard's third-order image: one that "masks the absence of a profound reality." Baudrillard puts forward Disneyland as an example, intended to mask the absence of the real world outside of Disneyland (Baudrillard, 1994, p. 12). For Baudrillard, Los Angeles and America as a whole are as mediated, as much constructed images as is Disneyland, and it is Disneyland's obvious falseness that allows for the pretence that America is somehow more true: "Disneyland exists in order to hide that it is the 'real' country, all of 'real' America that is Disneyland" (Baudrillard, 1994, p. 12). He goes on to point to the Watergate scandal as another example, concealing the absence of scandal (Baudrillard, 1994, pp. 14–15). The contained simulation of childishness in Disneyland works to hide the pervasive childishness in the rest of America, just as the localized corruption in Watergate works to maintain the illusion that politics are ever moral in the first place. So, if Fallout also masks the absence of a profound reality, that absent reality would be located in the simulacra Fallout so determinedly simulates: the post-apocalyptic retrofuture.

If Fallout works to hide the absence of a profound reality, then perhaps its retrofuturist dreams work to hide the fact that the future of the Fifties did come true—that our present is as much a continuation of the Cold War as the nuclear wasteland. After all, the irony of the games hinges on the distinction between the naïve embrace of atomic technology that destroyed the world in the game's simulacra, and the skeptical, critical, post-Cold War and late capitalist United States of the player. Jenkins describes retrofuturism as a séance "where ghosts of the past come out to speak to our present concerns reassuring us that we may never get the tomorrow of our dreams but we also never face the future of our fears" (Jenkins, 2004). We may not have flying cars or jetpacks, but we also no longer duck and cover under our desks, and the atomic apocalypse that seemed almost inevitable in the Fifties never came to pass. Fallout, by creating this post-nuclear wasteland, reassures us that the real world is not a post-nuclear wasteland, and that the threat of nuclear war is not only safely in the past but turned out not to be a real threat after all. However, Baudrillard argues that nuclear war was never a real threat, and only ever served to institute systems of surveillance and control (Baudrillard, 1994, p. 33). Fallout's apocalypse, then, becomes not a mask for a nuclear war that did happen, but a mask that nuclear war never threatened to happen in the first place, and that the systems of control instituted by deterrence policy are still operating today. Fallout's post-apocalyptic wasteland and retrofuturist world that allowed such an apocalypse to take place are equally presented as fictional, as are the totalitarian aspects of that world; they thus mask that the player's America is itself totalitarian, as well as just as likely to allow similar destruction.

In the post-September 11th era of the security state, Cold War foreign and domestic policies have resurfaced; Fallout's simulacrum potentially masks their danger. Despite the obvious differences between the natures of the GWOT and the Cold War, US administrations seem determined to apply the same strategies, supported by the same ideologies. Doug Davis compares foreign policy documents from both periods, noting the similarities: "The revolution in foreign policy ascribed to the Bush doctrine proves to be more a literary revision of the cold-war narrative of strategic defense than a revolutionary departure from it" (Davis, 2006, p. 23). And Robert Ricigliano and Mike Allen emphasize that these policies stem from the same worldviews, in part because they have been enacted by the same people: "The current the [sic] war on terrorism [. . .] bears a striking resemblance to the ideology that underpinned the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union. The parallels are understandable, given that many of the actors in the George W. Bush administration (Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, John Ashcroft, etc.) were participants in that struggle" (Ricigliano & Allen, 2006, p. 85). Furthermore, this conflation is not limited to politicians, and James Castonguay, among others, points out the similarities between the cultural anxieties of the post-September-11th period and the Fifties, comparing the Bush years to the McCarthy era (Castonguay, 2006, p. 151). Thus the American player of Fallout finds herself living in a period with significantly more similarities to the early Cold War period than the ironic stance of the games might suggest, and the absurdity of Fallout's simulation masks that the US government continues to pursue the same imperialist policies abroad backed by paranoid propaganda at home.

In fact, playing Fallout would be impossible without the Cold War, even as playing Fallout would be impossible in the game's simulation. The technology required to play these games—even the isometric early games, and even the off-shoot mobile game Fallout Shelter (Bethesda, 2015)—does not even exist in the futurist fantasy they depict; in the Fallout universe, personal computers never progressed much past the desktop terminals common in the late 1970s, and interacting with these text-based, black-and-green monsters in-game can only emphasize the impressiveness of, for instance, the player's PlayStation 4 [11]. In Fallout, there is no color TV, much less the microprocessors Bobby Schweizer defines as the "foundation of any computing system" (Schweizer, 2014, p. 43) [12]. The all-encompassing environment these games create would have been unimaginable for the citizens of Fallout's Populuxe future. And yet the absence of significant computing power in Fallout's simulacrum, while accurate to the lack of computers in the 1950s, obscures the fact that the technology the player uses to play Fallout is itself grounded in the Cold War. Patrick Crogan outlines the entanglement of computer simulations and Cold War policies in Gameplay Mode, concluding that games inherently reproduce a Cold War mentality (Crogan, 2011, p. 105). Deterrence policy itself was built on the simulation of nuclear war, as Derrick points out (Derrick, 2012, para. 12). So perhaps the atomic apocalypse in Fallout came to be specifically because that retrofuture was not based in simulation. However, the 1950s of the player's world are defined by simulation, and for Baudrillard are the origins of the present-day hyperreal. Crogan specifically links the original simulations that would become computer games to the simulations of Baudrillard:

[T]hinking contemporary culture since the 1950 to 1960s is to think about a "computational" culture, one in which the flow of simulation into everyday life was led by the computerized implementation of the military–industrial complex. One cannot think about simulational cultural phenomena "in general" without thinking about the rise of computer-based simulation technics from the Cold War onward [. . .]. It is only in "forgetting" this that the relevance of Baudrillard's reflections on the "cultural phenomenon" of simulation could be relegated to the nonspecific ground on which computer simulation rests as a specific, "computational" form. (Crogan, 2007, p. 407)

And Nick Dyer-Witheford and Greig de Peuter have traced the ways in which videogames are implicated in the construction and maintenance of Empire, starting with their origins in the US military-industrial complex during the Cold War (Dyer-Witheford & de Peuter, 2009, pp. xxix–xxx). Thus the games' lack of computer simulations masks the ways in which the technology of such simulations has perpetuated Cold War ideology and systems of control into the GWOT era.

Finally, by creating a world that has been destroyed by the naïve celebration of the promise of atomic science, Fallout lauds the sophistication of our own attitude towards technology. It makes real a 21st century skepticism towards the increasing power of technology in our everyday life; the ironic distance it provides through its affectionate mockery of a Fifties innocent belief in better living through physics insulates the player from concerns about her own relationship to technology. For instance, even as the player may have her avatar drink Nuka-Cola Quantums in the game, in real life, she would never be so trusting as to drink a soda whose claim to fame was its radioactivity; the ironic amusement the presence of Quantums in the simulation provokes reassures her of the reality of her own technological skepticism. However, in fact Fallout masks the absence of technological skepticism of the player: the games hide the extent to which the player allows an uncritical acceptance of technology to control her actions in her everyday life, as computerized technology has become ubiquitous, and specifically in her playing of Fallout itself. Any videogame, FPS or strategy, on a console or a computer, requires the player to make physical movements to play; a game like Fallout, which employs a relatively complicated interface system that requires a fairly rapid reaction time from the player, rewards players who make those physical movements without conscious thought—what David Myers calls habituation of response (Myers, 2009, p. 50). The game has essentially brainwashed the player through the controller interface; the technology is controlling the movement of the player's fingers. Thus the game is enforcing systems of total control by training the player's body to respond to its instructions. Gordon Calleja considers this kind of "internalization of controls" integral to the immersion he calls incorporation (Calleja, 2007, p. 241). Seth Giddings and Helen W. Kennedy, discussing John Romero's skill at Pac-Man, have defined this habituation as mastery: "Romero could play Pac-Man with his eyes closed because the game had thoroughly and completely mastered him, it had taught his fingers the precise micromovements needed to fulfill its intentions (continued play), and it had imprinted on his brain cognitive analogues of its virtually mapped game world. The player is mastered by the machine" (Giddings & Kennedy, 2008, p. 19). And this kind of programming does not stop at the physical level; all games also reward the player for learning how to play them, in essence training the player in the particular needs of the game. As Jesper Juul points out: "This is, I think, a quite overlooked aspect of playing games, that a game changes the player that plays it" (Juul, 2005, p. 96). Thus the simulation of Fallout presents a simulacra in which dangerous technology is accepted, even lauded, to mask the player's unthinking acceptance of the role of computer technology in her own life; Fallout's simulacra presents a world where simulations do not exist, lulling the player into forgetting the power of those very simulations, and hiding the ways in which, as Crogan postulates, the "world outside of computer games [is] an ensemble of predesigned, interactive experiences regulated by operational objectives and challenges devoid of authentic stakes or significance" (Crogan, 2007, p. 411).

Rules as the Real

However, videogames are more than just their fictional worlds, and while Fallout may be a third-order simulacrum, there is more to any game than just its visuals. In his formative work Half-Real, Juul points out how videogames straddle the divide between the real and the imaginary: "[V]ideo games are two different things at the same time: videogames are real in that they consist of real rules with which players actually interact, and in that winning or losing a game is a real event. However, when winning a game by slaying a dragon, the dragon is not a real dragon but a fictional one. To play a video game is therefore to interact with real rules while imagining a fictional world, and a video game is a set of rules as well as a fictional world" (Juul, 2005, p. 1). Aarseth challenges Juul's definition of fiction, but agrees that outside of the simulations involved in videogames, players really win or lose (Aarseth, 2007b, p. 39). Ian Bogost locates the power of videogames particularly in their procedural nature (Bogost, 2007, p. ix). And Sebastian Domsch goes so far as to categorize games as "first of all a set of rules, or a system of rules. In fact, most games can be defined as rule systems" (Domsch, 2015, p. 395). Videogames may create and employ elaborate simulated worlds that, like Baudrillard's simulacra, echo endlessly their lack of reality; however, they also consist of systems of rules that define the parameters of the game. Unlike film, television, or any other site of simulacra, videogames cannot be entirely isolated from the world of the player and still be games. Janet H. Murray's vision of the ultimate venue for simulated narrative may be the holodeck, but as Adam Ruch notes, such a perfect simulation does not make for a very good game (Ruch, 2010, p. 6). Gerry Coulter brings this distinction between rules and simulacra back to Baudrillard: "Unlike reality, which incessantly demands we believe in it, the illusion of the game (which the gamer never really believes in) does not hold such a requirement. For Baudrillard, it is precisely because the gamer does not believe in the game that he or she enters into a more necessary relationship with the rules of the game" (Coulter, 2007, p. 360). And while the simulacrum of Fallout might hide the persistence of Cold War Empire in US society, its rules actively work against the acceptance of that simulacrum.

The Fallout games work very hard at sustaining a nearly impermeable simulacrum by incorporating as many rules as possible into the world of the game. Kristine Jørgenson considers this disguising of interface a trend in many game genres: "This ideal of a transparent medium is connected to the thought that games are more involving and more intuitive if they appear to be unmediated and as if they communicate through similar audiovisual means as the natural world" (Jørgensen, 2013, pp. 7–8). Fallout has a fairly complicated menu system, incorporating a roleplaying attribute system, an inventory menu, a quest list, and a character status display, among other elements. The Bethesda games also have a detailed heads-up display, which as Ruch notes has the primary function of indicating to the player what in the gameworld allows for interaction (Ruch, 2010, p. 5). Both of these functions could easily break the illusion of a coherent gameworld; however, the Fallout games instead make these functions a part of their simulacrum by tying them to the avatar's "Pip-Boy," a wrist-mounted computer. Neither the heads-up display nor the menus are available to the player until the avatar receives his Pip-Boy; once they are available, they mimic the 1970s computing style of the rest of the terminals in the game, with a default text colour of green, a pixilated and blocky text style, and (for the menus) a frame that resembles the boxy Pip-Boy itself. When the player opens a menu, the screen displays an animation of the avatar raising his arm until the Pip-Boy's screen fills the player's screen. In contrast, controls that have to do solely with the rules of the game, and not at all with its simulacrum—saving, play options, or what Iversen calls the games' "non-diegetic functions"—are accessed from a different menu that makes no pretence of belonging to the gameworld: "This way, elements that function both at gameplay and story level are further separated from those that only work in relation to the first. In this way the game seeks to keep me inside its universe, rather than fluctuating between the game's expressive sections and mainly mechanistically oriented elements" (Iversen, 2012). Since the game auto-saves regularly, it is possible for a player to go some time without opening this non-diegetic menu system, remaining in the game's simulacrum for extended periods.

However, regardless of the games' attempts to employ the menu system to further the illusion of a coherent gameworld, and regardless of the detail with which the games render the Pip-Boy screen, the need to spend so much time within the games' menu system cannot help but detract from the perfection of their simulacrum. Both Myers and Juul have noted that the more players play a game, the less attention they play to the game's imaginary world and the more attention they play to the rules of gameplay, regardless of their setting (Myers qtd. in Mäyrä, 2008, p. 16; Juul, 2005, p. 139). Furthermore, Jørgensen persuasively argues that the integration of the interface into the gameworld is much less important than having a clear and efficient interface in the first place (Jørgensen, 2013, p. 8). Fallout's game rules make it inevitable that any player will spend a great deal of her playing time in the Pip-Boy interface. All three later games scatter a great deal of useful items throughout their gameworlds while also limiting how much weight the avatar can carry; as a result, players spend a large amount of time in their inventory menu, deciding what items to drop. While the details of the Pip-Boy might strike a player the first or second time she opens a menu, by the time she's cleaning out her inventory for the fifteenth time, she is likely to be more aware of the time she's spent solely engaged in item management than she is of the totalizing gameworld. This tendency is particularly noticeable in Fallout 4, which contains a crafting system that makes every item in the game potentially useful. As Patricia Hernandez writes for Kotaku: "It's making the game feel like an inventory management sim, and that's not very fun at all. I don't want to be a hoarder, but Fallout 4's design really encourages me to be one. It's driving me up a wall. I'm spending way too much time staring at a menu, when I should be exploring the wasteland!" (Hernandez, 2015). Even within the game's simulacrum, the idea that the avatar would spend so much of his time staring at his wrist-computer strains belief. Outside of the simulation, it is obviously arbitrary that a player would somehow be able to control what's in her avatar's bag through a CRT screen mounted on his wrist. And in the end, the gameplay becomes frustratingly wrapped up in maintenance rather than play. The game rules thus work as a challenge to the Fifties ideals of consumerism and acquisitiveness, punishing players for accumulating material objects with the boring and rote business of sorting gear.

The games' karma and reputation systems are also meant to further the player's attachment to the games' simulacrum by attaching in-game consequences to player actions. In all of the games, player choices affect how non-player characters will treat the avatar. For instance, a player who chooses to have her avatar blow up a town with an atomic bomb may find that avatar attacked by the town's former citizens. The methods by which the games keep track of player choices are known as the karma and reputation systems; karma is a measure generally of how good or evil an avatar is, while reputation is a measure of which wasteland groups approve or disapprove of the character, and different entries in the franchise use one, the other, or both. One's karma and reputation level can affect not only how NPCs act towards the avatar, but will also occasionally determine whether those NPCs will even give the avatar quests at all. Thus the games' simulations maintain internal consistency to their simulacra; an NPC is not going to tell a known slaver the location of a hideout of escaped slaves. A player who was concerned with maintaining the illusion of the gameworld would invent a character who behaved consistently, as Matthias Kemmer notes: "If interested in a consistent subjectivity, in a self that acts on principles rather than randomly, in short, in an actual identity, the player has to consider how the avatar shall be thought of and remembered by NPCs. One could also say that the player has to consider the biography others will write about the avatar, and is thus induced to behave consistently" (Kemmer, 2014, p. 105). However, consistent role play makes it impossible to play the complete game: a consistent character would befriend the innocent townsfolk, or the raiders, but not both, and as a result would miss out on the quests given by one or the other faction. It is thus much more likely that a player will maintain an inconsistent character, navigating one quest tree as far as possible without alienating the other faction, and then changing allegiances [13]. For instance, in New Vegas, the two major opposing factions, the New California Republic (NCR) and Caesar's Legion, will remember if a character attacks one of their members up until the avatar enters the settlement of New Vegas, at which point any negative reputation is wiped away by the game rules. It is thus possible for a player to pursue several quests against one or the other faction prior to entering New Vegas, knowing that she will be able to undertake the other faction's quests later, and despite the fact that the factions' quests are ideologically mutually exclusive—it is highly unlikely that a character that would be willing to aid the Legion, based on slavery and oppression, would also be eager to help the quasi-democratic NCR gain a larger footprint in the region [14]. Thus the nature of the gameplay undermines the player's commitment to upholding the simulacra, reminding the player of the real consequences of her roleplay for her own enjoyment of the game itself. At the same time, this kind of pragmatic gameplay echoes the realpolitik style of the Cold War, reminding players that despite propagandistic portrayals, foreign policy both during the Cold War and during the GWOT was and is never a matter of good versus evil.

But perhaps the most obvious breaking of the games' totalizing simulacra is their V.A.T.S. system. Not present in the first two games, V.A.T.S. is essentially a nod to those games' style of turn-based combat. By pressing a button, the player enters the V.A.T.S. interface, which pauses (in Fallout 3 and New Vegas) or dramatically slows down (in Fallout 4) time in the gameworld and allows the player to predetermine a series of attacks on specific body parts, replicating an option from the isometric games. The interface displays the percentage likelihood of a successful attack, allowing the player to choose, for instance, a torso attack rather than a more difficult head shot, as well as allowing the player to make armed enemies drop their weapons by aiming at their arms, or make fast enemies lame by aiming at their legs. Once the player has chosen their attacks, they leave the interface, and the game's camera switches from a first-person view to a rapid montage of different shots: first-person, third-person of the avatar, third-person of the target and bullet-tracking, all in slow motion, while the chosen attacks play out. The narrative justification for V.A.T.S. is that it is an artefact of the Pip-Boy; the Pip-Boy includes a targeting system to help survivors of the nuclear apocalypse navigate the post-apocalyptic wasteland. However, that justification is thin at best, and most explanations of the system resort to the game rules rather than its fiction, a tendency Juul notes suggests a weakness or inconsistency in the gameworld's logic (Juul, 2005, p. 130). In fact, the effect of V.A.T.S. is to throw the player out of the simulacrum. The rapidly switching and disorienting camera angles that comprise the V.A.T.S. montages are radically different from the consistent view of the rest of the game, putting the player into a position where she is alienated from the avatar, and foregrounding the algorithms of the simulation rather than the role-play of the simulacrum. When we are divorced from the avatar we are forced to remember ourselves as the player, who exists outside of the simulacrum of the game, and not the character who is enmeshed in the gameworld. In fact, the game does the same thing when an avatar dies, reverting to a third person view and kicking the player out of the gameworld, where the avatar is no more, and back into the real world, where the player can simply reload a previous save game of the avatar to continue. However, when an avatar dies, the player essentially must separate herself; obviously, she lives on. V.A.T.S. forces the same separation in the middle of combat, pushing the player out of the game and breaking the illusion of the gameworld's totality.

Furthermore, V.A.T.S. does not just remove a player from the games' simulacrum; it also removes her control. One of the most basic pleasures of the videogame is its interactivity; what makes a videogame different from a film or a television show is that the player has the illusion of influencing it. In fact, Calleja specifically locates player engagement and pleasure in "having one's specific location and presence within a virtual world acknowledged by the system itself" (Calleja, 2014, p. 226). V.A.T.S. literally takes control of the avatar away from the player, forcing the player to watch as the computer runs a simulation of the avatar's attack. Of course, V.A.T.S. is operating on the player's orders; while the player may not be controlling the avatar in real time as the V.A.T.S. animation plays out, that animation is still a reflection of the player's choices. However, once the player has given V.A.T.S. her orders, she has no more influence over how those orders are executed, and it can be infuriating to watch V.A.T.S. continue to shoot at an enemy who has hidden behind a wall or behind an ally [15]. This failure of the simulation to respond to changing conditions can be particularly frustrating given the usefulness of V.A.T.S.: because of its automated nature, V.A.T.S. can compensate both for a lack of player skill and for an overabundance of enemies, and the system is particularly useful when the avatar is mobbed by enemies in close quarters. V.A.T.S. can be so useful, in fact, that it trains players to rely on its technology; when that technology fails, that failure seems nothing short of betrayal.

This removal of agency from the player is disturbing enough; the fact that it is related to weaponry increases the damage V.A.T.S. does to the player's sensation of control. Hartmut Gieselmann argues that weapons are particularly attractive in gameworlds: "They give power and control to the gamer. In real life, the player, most of the time, is not able to control and manipulate his environment which makes him feel like he is at the mercy of some greater power (e.g. the state, laws, the economy, or even terrorists)" (Gieselmann, 2007). V.A.T.S. specifically removes control over weaponry from the player, leaving the player at the mercy of the game's algorithms. This position becomes particularly frustrating when the player discovers that V.A.T.S. can be significantly less accurate than the player herself, seeing as its calculations of the odds of hitting any particular target do not take into account the player's own skill at the game [16]. V.A.T.S. makes its calculations by weighing the game's statistics: the avatar's skill levels, the weapon's damage percentages and accuracy, the target's dodge chance. Those statistics, naturally, also affect real-time gameplay, and a player controlling an avatar with a low perception skill will find that guns miss more often, regardless of how carefully she centers the targeting reticule over a raider's forehead. However, those effects are not usually on display, allowing players in real-time combat to attribute their success or failures to individual agency. The emphasis on the simulation's computations in V.A.T.S. foregrounds how little control the player has within the simulation. V.A.T.S. thus reminds the player of the unreliability of the game's technology while also giving the lie to the Cold War celebration of individual agency, demonstrating the ways in which our control has been co-opted by simulations.

In fact, in both Fallout 3 and New Vegas, the games' weapons themselves continually challenge the reliability of technology. The games contain a panoply of weapons, many of which are drawn specifically from the utopian future of the Fifties; Fallout 3 includes an alien blaster and a plasma rifle, while New Vegas adds a Gauss rifle and a Tesla cannon to its armory. Indeed, like many FPSs, these games abound in technologically advanced, extremely destructive guns, of which the Fat Man is only the most obvious example. However, unlike many other FPSs, none of these weapons lasts forever; each and every gun in the game degrades with each and every use, damaging their efficiency and eventually leaving them non-functional. Hence the unwary player may find herself weaponless in the midst of combat, when her technological crutch disintgrates in her avatar's hands. While weapon degredation is not unknown in the world of FPSs, and may almost be considered common in RPGs, the Fallout franchise adds a twist to this phenomenon: to fix a weapon, it is not enough to be skilled in repair, or to have repair tools—a player must either search for a NPC who repairs weapons, or repair the item herself using another identical item. Hence, to repair a broken Fat Man, or even to restore it to its original effectiveness, a player must find and consume another Fat Man. In the Capital and Mojave Wastelands, where resources are extremely limited, finding any kind of weapon is difficult enough, but the more technologically advanced the weapon, the harder it is to find—finding two of the same weapon amounts to a quest in itself. Furthermore, weapons are not the only resource that is limited in these wastelands: ammunition is somewhat rare as well, especially for more advanced weaponry and in the earlier levels. Hence the repair and ammuition systems encourage the player not to rely on the most advanced technology available, in the process suggesting that technology itself is unreliable and that sometimes the best option is a big stick. As Derrick points out: "Since the game comes out of a culture filled with rapid technological development and increasingly sophisticated technologies, the portrayal in the game of technology as old and broken begins to reveal an anxiety surrounding the ready availability of technological items" (Derrick, 2012, para. 16).

But perhaps the biggest challenge Fallout's game rules present to the franchise's simulacra comes when those rules fail. All of these games are designed to be run on the most powerful of consumer computer technology; to play these games requires a dedicated gaming console or a computer with a very powerful graphics card. Accordingly, these games represent the height of video gaming technology, which easily translates to the height of simulation technology. If simulations produce simulacra that not only cannot be distinguished from the real world but effectively replace the real world with the hyperreal, then the computer crash, and the corresponding failure of the simulation, is possibly the most determined revenge of the real on the simulacrum, reminding the player of the falseness of the simulated world: the real world does not freeze. But the world of Fallout does, and often—these games crash, and crash, and crash again. Frame rates stutter and slow; graphics clip; characters fall through textures. As Michael Nitsche notes, players do not look at the code of a game—at the rules of the simulation—until the game crashes; in Jørgensen's terms: "It is only when the tool does not work as it should that we start reflecting on its presence—or, rather, on its unexpected absence or failure (Jørgensen, 2013, p. 31). It is hard to believe in a simulacrum that continually marks its distance from the real; it is hard to take the technology that creates it seriously when it proves to be frustratingly incompetent, and every time one of these games crashes, it destroys the authority of the gaming system a little bit more. Chandler notes the resonnances between the glitchiness of the games themselves and the ruin of the retrofuture they model: "The broken machinery and ruinous locales become reminders that the game, as a piece of media, is just as unfixed and fractured as the post-apocalyptic world on display" (Chandler, 2015, p. 52). With each crash, these games remind their players of the fragility of the advanced technology of their gaming systems and the simulacra they create, and encourage players both not to rely on those systems and to return to the real from the simulacrum—to save early and often.

Narratives as Critique

If the game rules not only call attention to themselves as artefacts of the real but also question the technology that creates the gameworld's simulacra, Fallout's narratives further question the implication of computer technology in distancing us from our humanity, and continually reveal the dangers of technology that the simulacra mask. These games are what Juul defines as hybrid progressive/ emergent games, containing on the one hand a narrative that leads players from one quest to the next while on the other an unregulated world that allows the player to ignore the main quests in favour of open-ended exploration (Juul, 2005, p. 82). While the games' worlds as a whole work to create their simulacra largely through elements that are not related to quests—it is the random detail that fleshes out this fantasy, not the plot—those worlds also exist in part to provide a background to the narratives created by the quests. If the simulacrum of the gameworld works to hide the player's reliance on Cold War technology, and the game rules undermine the player's faith in that technology, the quests emphasize the potential dangers that technology presents in the real world by exploring the damage it causes within the simulacrum.

All of the games are concerned with the ability of technology to transform humankind, but the Bethesda games are particularly overt in their focus on the merging of the human with the machine. Fallout 3's main antagonist is the Enclave, the remnants of the pre-war United States government; towards the end of the game, the player discovers that the Enclave is headed by a sentient computer calling itself President John Henry Eden. This artificial intelligence wants to eliminate from the region anyone who has undergone genetic mutation, which, given the levels of background radiation, would essentially kill everyone who is not a member of the Enclave. Fallout: New Vegas features a post-nuclear Las Vegas run by Mr. House, a businessman who predicted the nuclear war and to protect himself permanently wired his body into a computer system; House asks the player to side with him against the other game factions both to allow Vegas's continuing independence and to cement House's dictatorial control. Fallout 4 takes the player to Boston, where the remnants of MIT faculty have created the Institute, a group hidden under the rubble of the university buildings who have been constructing synthetic humans and replacing Boston's inhabitants with these synths as an experiment. The Institute is prepared to wait for the above-ground population to die out before repopulating the area, using their synths as slave labour. The games' expansion packs also tend to focus on the boundary between machine and human, including New Vegas's Old World Blues, which features several scientists who have downloaded themselves into robots, and 4's Far Harbor, where one of the main characters is a synth who has erased his own memories. While all of the games leave open whether the player will side with or against these post-human factions, and none of the games presents an obvious "right" choice in that decision, the very focus of these games on the questions of human-computer interface foreground the player's own experience in playing the game, in being changed through interaction with the game technology.

Both Josh Call and David Owen have specifically defined gamers as cyborgs, existing both within and outside of the game, and incorporating technology into their concepts of themselves (Call, 2012, p. 140; Owen, 2014, p. 206). Call writes: "This makes the act of playing games a political move, in the sense that it requires conscious action on choice, and construction of the player-avatar according to a design. This is rooted in an interaction and immersion that are reciprocal between game and player, and allows the avatar to exist as a cyborg body—a digital and mechanical extension of the player" (Call, 2012, p. 139). On the one hand, this transformation into the posthuman can be threatening, suggesting the dominance of technology. However, on the other hand, it can be liberating, as humanity transcends the boundaries of its physical—perhaps even real—nature. Fallout's ambivalence towards technology reflects the complicated nature of our interactions with simulations. The games' narratives refuse easy answers to the questions of how to incorporate technology into our lives. At the same time, they are consistently sympathetic to the posthuman, in the form of ghouls, synths, and, occasionally, even super mutants. In the end, Fallout's nature as games refuses the inevitability of technological dominance over humanity, even in the era of pervasive simulation, because of their essential need for players. As James Newman argues: "The game is nothing without a player" (Newman, 2002). Games are not simulations that run on their own, and Miguel Sicart reminds us that "the meaning of a game cannot be reduced to its rules, nor to the behaviors derived from the rules, since play will be a process of appropriation of those rules, a dialogue between the system and the player" (Sicart, 2011). Without a human player, all the advanced technology of Fallout is nothing more than a shiny coaster.

In the end, the Fallout series provides a model for the ways in which the three elements of videogames—gameworlds, rules, and narratives—interact with one another to challenge the dominance of technology over our lives. Present society is increasingly reliant on computers, in everything from cars to phones to children's stuffed animals; these computers further the reach of Baudrillard's hyperreal, threatening to transform the whole world into artifice. At the same time, the GWOT has encouraged dependency on computers in the form of drones, surveillance cameras, and social media while at the same time masking the potential dangers of this dependency behind a nostalgia for the technological optimism of the simulated Fifties as well as ignoring the very real suffering and death of very real people throughout this period, both in the battlefields of the War on Terror and in the resource conflicts the demand for these technologies have produced. Because videogames are a hybridization of narrative, image, and rules—of simulation, simulacra, and real—they are able to counterbalance the dominance of any one framework. In effect, videogames provide an oasis in the desert of the real, a simulation system that does not inevitably result in the production of more simulacra but which truly allows for the modelling of both possible presents and potential futures.



[1] While other titles, including Fallout Tactics and Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel, were originally considered part of the series, when the rights to the series were transferred to Bethesda Softworks those titles were redefined as non-canonical—that is, not an official part of the Fallout universe—and so I will not discuss them here.

[2] The franchise also includes the mobile simulation game Fallout Shelter (Bethesda Game Studios, 2015), introduced in part to increase anticipation for the release of Fallout 4. However, the game is generally positioned as outside the main thrust of the games' development, and given the differences in gameplay and hardware involved, I have left it out of this argument. That said, the aesthetics of the game very much participate in the retrofuturism I discuss below.

[3] The Bethesda games also allow players to easily switch to a third-person, over-the-shoulder perspective—an option that can be particularly useful for seeing around corners—but they are predominantly marketed as first-person games, and judging from YouTube gameplay videos, most players stay in the first-person perspective.

[4] The exception here is Fallout's V.A.T.S. system, discussed below.

[5] While retrofuturism is many things, one thing that it is not is technostalgia, defined by Tim van der Heijden as "the reminiscence of past media technologies in contemporary memory practices" (van der Heijden, 2015). Retrofuturism does not look back to previous technologies, but rather embraces the future technologies that never came into existence: it is a celebration of ray-guns rather than record players.

[6] Christian Thorne points out that Fredric Jameson sees these two aesthetics as the two faces of postmodernism (Christian Thorne, "The Revolutionary Energy of the Outmoded," October 104 (2003), 105).

[7] This style of both décor and architecture, also known as Googie (Hess, 2004, p. 68), has itself seen a determined revival recently in the embrace of mid-century modern everything.

[8] All three games also continually reference American history and historical figures, from Abraham Lincoln to Bonnie and Clyde to Paul Revere, through NPCs; still, as centuries have passed since the apocalypse, these NPCs often get their history scrambled in humorous ways. However, as Gonzales notes: "While players may laugh, the moment allows us to question how much of our own historical knowledge is misinterpretation or elaboration of what truly happened then taken as authority" (Gonzales, 2010, p. 62). These scrambled histories thus themselves call into question the legitimacy of teleological narratives of American progress as well as the accuracy of history as filtered through nostalgic frames.

[9] One of the odder elements in the fictional world of the game is that while Fallout technology has moved past a 1950s level, Fallout culture has not: both Watts and Sebastian Domsch note that the design, décor, advertising, and music of Fallout's world are from the 1950s, not the imaginary 2070s of the nuclear war, and certainly not the game's post-apocalyptic present (Watts, 2011, p. 257; Domsch, 2015, p. 407). In particular, the music played on the radio stations in the three later games is popular music of the Populuxe period: from the Ink Spots, Billie Holliday, and Bing Crosby, for example. It seems the United States of Fallout was too focused on scientific advances to bother to write a new song for a hundred and twenty years.

[10] Occasionally the avatar is transported back to the world before the war, most thoroughly in the opening of Fallout 4, where the avatar is introduced in the morning of the day the bombs fell; however, most of these instances turn out to be hallucinations, and all of them are exceedingly brief, given the amount of hours of wasteland gameplay the games involve.

[11] The Bethesda games do include a few mini-games that the player can play on her Pip-Boy; these games are based on late 1970s–early 1980s arcade games, including Donkey Kong (Nintendo, 1981) and Space Invaders (Taito, 1978), and represent a much less advanced era of computing power even as they engage in the technostalgia for early game systems that is pervasive in gaming culture.

[12] Bethesda released a trailer at E3 2018 for the newest game in the franchise, the upcoming survival multiplayer Fallout 76, that seems to feature color televisions; however, no game released to date has featured such technology (Bethesda Softworks, 2018).

[13] All the later games at some point force the player to choose between narrative lines, encouraging the player to play through the game more than once to experience it completely. However, on a more minor level it is possible to navigate between factions, assuming the player is not committed to consistent roleplay, and many internet walkthroughs will assist the player in this goal, indicating which quests to do in what order.

[14] Fallout 4, like 3 and New Vegas, presents several different factions the player must choose between to finish the main quest; however, a bug actually allows careful players to avoid alienating one of those factions, making it possible to finish the game in the good graces of three of the four factions.

[15] Fallout 4 does allow the player to cancel V.A.T.S. commands, but the image montage is so confusing that it can be difficult to determine if and when to do so.

[16] V.A.T.S. was also the center of a game-breaking bug in Fallout 4; reaching a certain level of trust with an NPC follower automatically increased the chance of a successful headshot to 95 percent in V.A.T.S., regardless of the distance involved, making all players instantly into world-class snipers and dramatically decreasing the game's difficulty. This bug was fixed in a later patch.



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