Written as a follow-up to Part I, found here.
Fallout 3, for as little as dedicated fans of the series liked all of its changes, managed to capture the beautiful bleakness of the post-apocalyptic United States. Vast, stretching miles of terrain are genuinely gorgeous, both up close and far away, and getting to spend tens to hundreds of hours surrounded on all sides by horrific beauty is something that Fallout and Fallout 2 could never really translate with their isometric perspective. They’re genuinely spirited games, and they touch on amazing things through clever use of dialog and aesthetic design, but they’re inherently hard to reach games; artful, but a little abstract.
As discussed last May, they’re also oddly joyful. The genuine energy that’s packed into the game, even if it usually results in gory sidewalks and facades, is hard not to admire for just how lively the dusty atmosphere can be. Hidden in the folds of the grime is a jubilance waiting to be unleashed, carrying with it explosions and art, creating a beautiful bleakness.
So much so that as a child, it can be hard to really get the horrors of the scenery. The cities are cobbled together with rusted sheet metal, old corrugated steel, brick, clay, and crumbling hope. The gates and walls of any town with prosperity are flanked from multiple angles with guards in leather armor, with sawn-off shotguns, and just enough ammo to ruin any interloper’s day. Every glance a promise to not just wreck bones, but instill in any onlookers a lasting message: regret. But not enough power to ride with enough force to make the precaution unnecessary. Towns are merely safe-ish, never actually able to build from prosperity. The women, more than should be, sell their bodies on street corners because it’s the only thing they can afford to use or lose. Beside them are men and women willing to trade literally anything for just one more hit of drugs, alcohol, or both. The children are dirty, tread the gravel and splintered concrete barefoot. Without thinking about it, the constant crush of glass under boot never really gains the sinister edge it should. Tribal humans are treated as (or literally are) slaves. Those without the intelligence to hack it out in the wastes are treated much the same way, given laborious or deadly jobs by anyone with a healthier opinion of profit than people.
Caps are king, people are product, tranquility is transient, and safety is illusory.
From the perspective of a player, one who can drop in and out at leisure, the Fallout universe is a grand sandbox that’s just one quickload away from repeatability, where every idea is equally wonderful, because the only consequence that exists for literally any action is getting to see how a world already wobbling responds to a man-made earthquake.
From the perspective of a child in the streets, arms cast into the air, the world needs imagination to be palatable. In order to survive every day’s bleakness, childish games are made and perpetrated repeatedly in order to keep ahead of the lingering depression that’s corroding the towns just as much as rust is corroding the buildings.
Although the kids will never really know it, it’s probably all the adults can see. Children lancing across fields of weeds, junk, and jagged terrain, laughing at games of their own creation, unaware that these simple games are the difference between being functional and being unfeeling. Depression is a genuine threat, the grim reality offers little more than short term survival, and almost no long term progress. Today is only survivable because tomorrow has the barest hope of being a little better, but not without a soul-crushing amount of work and effort, and almost no progress to show for it. Tomorrow is never a bright day. Just with enough work, maybe a little less bleak. Maybe.
But all the work in the world only makes fractionally small improvements. In all reality, the strides made forward in weeks can be undone in hours, and the only thing stopping that is a little bit of hope, a lot of hard work, and a roll of the dice from uncaring, apathetic fates.
That reality is the true future of Fallout. Hours and hours of trial, tribulation, effort, and elbow grease, for a few seconds of satisfaction. The grand machinations of the rich, powerful, capable, or shrewd will do more than any one person could ever hope to, and often at the expense of everyone else. Tomorrow will bring another day’s work, and hopefully those many days of work will lead somewhere other than more ruin, but probably not.
Children, at play, aren’t consciously aware that the satisfaction they get from their play is just a few seconds respite from the unhappy reality of the world. They aren’t conscious of any of the tragedy of barely improved tomorrows, hard won todays, or catastrophically busy next weeks. They’re free to yell, shout, toss rocks at weird strangers with the sort of unmalicious meanness that kids develop somewhere north of authority but south of consequence. They’re free to be kids, to develop sandboxes of their own making, and free from some of the worst parts of reality, including the awareness that without hard work today, tomorrow could very well be worse. To a child, Fallout is a game. To an adult, Fallout is an expectation. The awareness that the worst can still follow isn’t for children.
Although I’ve never been a parent, being an adult has made me look at these children’s games as the same kind of flighty escapism that I made of Fallout in general. I feel for these children because I know that all of the adulting they’re going to do years after my part in their lives is past will make their own retrospective on their games, imagined rules, and silly toys seem impossibly idyllic. That the hard fought and hard won tomorrows are going to be the only way to see the world from that point on. It’s a weird feeling to feel like I could teach a child a life lesson that I somehow learned since playing different shades of the same game myself. But, I’m no teacher, no guardian, no parent. Just a child a handful of years later.
The tragedy of that perspective is as an adult, parent or no, I wish I could make an eternal sandbox for these kids. Wish that they could grow up still playing games, laughing, and making up rules to imagined parameters without the fear that tomorrow could crush them if they didn’t work too hard today. But, hard won tomorrows aren’t for kids. I’d prefer they have their sandboxes for as long as they can, even though I know I’ll never see them the same again.
Was to be written for Critical Distance‘s Blogs of the Round Table under the “Parenthood” theme. If this piece was up your alley, go give the other pieces a read.
Taylor Hidalgo is a freelance writer, editor, and perpetual child. You can find his works scattered across the internet, and his musings on Twitter.