The Nukes of 'Fallout 76' Are Where Power Fantasies Hit a Breaking Point
Unless there's a fundamental restructuring of how we understand, build and consume AAA games, the ability to nuke your friends is a terrible idea.
All images courtesy Bethesda
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
The nuclear blast has cast a long shadow over the 20th century. When the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, annihilating somewhere in the range 200,000 human beings in the blast and the aftermath, the new era was inaugurated. That era was defined by the fact that a single bomb dropped from a plane or delivered via an intercontinental ballistic missile could destroy an entire city, poison the land, and assure that target of the nuclear attack was harmed on a fundamental level. They were a way of projecting that a nuclear power like the United States or the Soviet Union would be able to wound an enemy so profoundly that the enemy could never recover. They were the ultimate existential threat.
I say “were” because I am talking historically, but they remain a viable political option. This is perhaps why the recently-deleted tweet from Gamespot was so strange and troubling. It said this: “This is what a nuke looks like going off in Fallout 76, and it’s pretty @#%$^@ epic!” At the base, I have sympathy for what the Gamespot team are trying to communicate here. After all, Fallout 76 has fully gamified nuclear weapons, and the response that we are supposed to have to this gameplay mechanic is not “oh my god, the horror” but instead “wow, what a neat thing that’s happening.” Gamespot’s ill-phrased tweet is ultimately downstream from the logic that Bethesda is encouraging with its game mechanic of nuclear devastation in Fallout 76.
I am not surprised that nuclear devastation is being pitched as a gameplay feature in a video game. I don’t see it as being substantially different from all of the other horrors that we have made fun through the interactive power of video games. Our main mode of engaging with beings in video games remains killing them with blades, guns, and the protagonist’s own hands. I am not morally outraged by this. Instead, the frivolity of it, its “epic” implementation, just makes me feel so tired.
When the detonation of a nuclear weapon is made into a game mechanic and declared “pretty @#%$^@ epic,” I see this simply as a symptom of how insulated games are from the world at large. While films have all the same ways of depicting violence that games have, I have a hard time thinking of a non-satirical film that revels in the absolute annihilation of nuclear war. Dr. Strangelove points out how inept the leaders of the Cold War were, but it obviously does not see the detonation of a nuclear weapon as a fun or optimal output.
Our biggest video games have made executions, stabbings, headshots, and eviscerations completely ordinary. A year without any of those things would be a shocking anomaly, a true blow to the entertainment economy, and it would mean that most of our most profitable game franchises did not release an entry. And now nuclear weapons have been absorbed into this system that sees everything as a potential mechanic and a way of entertaining and maintaining players. In Fallout 76, detonating a nuclear device is just a way to generate more gameplay. From what we’ve seen of the game so far, it is robbed of any significance beyond its mechanical function.
The only piece I’ve seen about this so far has been Heather Alexandra’s excellent analysis of Fallout 76’s position on nuclear weapons. In her piece, she notes that there has been a shift between how nukes are rhetorically position on the original Fallout games versus how Bethesda have depicted them in their past couple of games. For her, nuclear weapons were once critical tools for talking about American society, and now they are just spectacle and an excuse to create a wasteland for cool gameplay romps. However, I think this argument could be taken further. Fallout 76 doesn’t seem to have a goal of consistency or coherence with the previous games in the franchise. It doesn’t seem to have ideas it wants to hold onto. It just wants to be fun.
All of our blockbuster games tend toward making the player feel powerful. They want to be fun, to embrace the player, to allow them to feel like they have agency in relation to the world around them. As far as I can tell, there is nothing than will not be sacrificed or compromised in the drive to accomplish that goal. Our biggest games, like the Fallout games, are simply after their players feeling strong. Anything that keeps players from feeling strong must be minimized.
You cannot have a world in which nuclear weapons are real and significant that also embraces the absolute power of the player. That’s because nuclear weapons are the ultimate distillation of the argument that individual humans do not matter. The classical fear of the nuclear attack is the fear that the President or both houses of Congress would be destroyed in a single sweep that decapitates the country. “We’re moving the President underground” is a phrase spoken across hundreds of apocalyptic films, and it is animated by the fear that one strike, one tactical ICBM, could tear apart the thing fabric that holds all of this together.
No matter who you are, no matter how powerful you think you are, the reality is that nuclear war will either destroy you or make your life unlivable in its current shape. This reality is fundamentally at odds with how the design of blockbuster video games work. That means that taking nuclear weapons seriously in a blockbuster game is impossible.
Think about 1983’s The Day After. It is a fearmongering, hellish t.v. movie starring Steve Guttenberg and John Lithgow that efficiently distills nuclear fear down into an elixir that’s easy to swallow. It depicts both a nuclear attack against the American heartland and the immediate aftermath, and in doing so, demonstrates the horror that we are all equal in being subject to nuclear violence. The montage of the nuclear strike and the film that follows makes the reality of things clear: No matter your ability, your race, your gender, your material wealth, your species, or your sheer will to live in the face of nuclear fire and fallout, you will die. No matter your skill, your knowledge, your thoughts, your feelings, your uniqueness, your love, you will be killed. It will probably be painful.
No matter your skill, your knowledge, your thoughts, your feelings, your uniqueness, your love, you will be killed. It will probably be painful.
The vast majority of blockbuster video games cannot think in this way. This conception of the absolute smallness of the individual in the face of nuclear fire does not fit into the way that those games understand players or want players to understand themselves. If nuclear weapons appear in a game with mass appeal, they have to serve the fantasy that a player is powerful. They have to make the world more fun. In the same way that headshots have been made hilarious and “epic” with video games, nuclear weapons must therefore follow. If they are introduced into the equation, their ability to truly affect players in a serious way must be minimized.
The problem with video games and nuclear weapons doesn’t have anything to do with nuclear weapons themselves. They are simply a human evil, the ultimate symbol of what kind of nightmare we are willing to bring to bear on one another in our quest for dominance and violence. The problem in the relationship between video games and nuclear weapons is video games.
Unlike our friends over at Motherboard, there is not a part of me that finds joy in the adoption of nuclear weapons as yet another thing that is horribly violent and played for laughs in a game. It is impossible for me to think about nuclear weapons without thinking about the shadows blasted into stone at Hiroshima. I think about the rotting flesh of The Day After. I think about the unfathomable human cost of nuclear weapons, which includes the cancers grown under the aegis of environmental drift of radioactive particles.
And I wonder what I would do if I were in a room where this was pitched as fun, as epic, as the coolest shit that you could do in a video game. I think about what kind of emotion that would produce in me. The production of a mechanic that wipes the world clean, allows for better gear drops, and ultimately means nothing, reflects nothing, other than how great a player might be for surviving through it and playing just a little bit more of a video game.
In a room, thinking about designing a game, working through the gamified nature of the most destructive thing humans can do to each other. I imagine that it would make me feel a little defeated. It would make me so tired.