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Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Revisiting the Post-Nuclear Horrors of the ‘Fallout’ Franchise

Fallout was my first M-rated game. While I was way too young at the time to truly appreciate Interplay’s satirical odyssey through a dystopic wasteland, I still remember opening that jewel case in awe of a title that was clearly meant for a more mature audience. Unfortunately, I was also really bad at the game, which led to an overwhelming sense of dread whenever I decided to boot up this strange world where everything was out to murder my woefully under-leveled Vault Dweller. Even the loading screens and ambient music gave me the heebie-jeebies, but I soldiered on anyway, eventually becoming a massive fan of the franchise.

I may not have gotten very far during those initial playthroughs (I only managed to finish the original two titles during my last year of High-School), but Fallout certainly left a lasting impression as a spooky post-apocalyptic simulator. Of course, nowadays I’m aware that the franchise is mostly known for its dark humor and satirical writing, using the retro-futuristic setting as an excuse to explore the sociological consequences of a nuclear holocaust while also satirizing real-world issues. Nevertheless, I’m still convinced that the more unnerving elements of this setting are a crucial part of the series’ massive success.

These games have come a long way since 1997, starting out as isometric adventures and eventually evolving into the FPS/RPG hybrids that we know today, but the heart of the franchise is still based on the same unsettling philosophies. It may be the wacky post-apocalyptic escapades that keep players coming back for more, but it’s the little moments of genuine nuclear terror that make this such an effective and immersive world. That’s why I think it’s worth revisiting some of the horrific influences behind this weird and wonderful Wasteland.

Even with the tongue-in-cheek approach to the nuclear holocaust, it’s no surprise that a setting inspired by the terrors of radioactive warfare has spawned its fair share of nightmare fuel. While there are obvious examples of terrifying abominations roaming the Fallout wastes, the original games actually relied a lot more on atmosphere and body horror rather than traditional atomic monsters. From the social isolation enforced by Vault-Tec (which was later revealed to be using the Vaults for their own unethical experiments) to cannibalistic raiders, and even the mere existence of Ghouls (zombie-like humans cursed with immortality after being ravaged by radiation), these games featured all sorts of disturbing content that would oftentimes be overshadowed by humor.

It’s enough to make David Cronenberg blush.

That’s not to say that players won’t be facing off against all manners of monstrous mutations while exploring the Wasteland, as the original games featured a veritable smorgasbord of now-iconic enemies. From the demonic-looking Deathclaws (somehow descended from genetically-enhanced chameleons) to the disgusting Floaters (mutated flatworms with a penchant for human flesh), the early Fallout games actually did a great job of conveying terror despite the crude visuals. One could even make the argument that the lack of visual clarity actually made these creatures more terrifying, as these pixelized depictions of radioactive atrocities would force players to fill in the blanks with their own imagination.

Many of these horrific designs would actually be physically sculpted before being scanned into the game, with media like Fred M. Wilcox’s Forbidden Planet and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (plus its adaptations) being cited as the inspiration for some of the mutated denizens of the Wasteland. Of course, some of the most disturbing material was inspired by real-life accounts of radiation poisoning, leading to the Ghouls’ exposed flesh and the iconic two-headed Brahmin. This just goes to show that fiction can rarely compete with the horrors of the real world.

Nevertheless, these serious elements were also accompanied by an unexpectedly entertaining amount of primitive gore effects. While the exaggerated bloodshed would often be more humorous than disturbing (the developers even included an optional “Bloody Mess” character trait/perk for players with a thirst for more ultra-violence), this penchant for schlock would become a staple of the franchise even as it transitioned into the third dimension.

While the highly-detailed models of later titles weren’t quite as grungy or off-putting as the isometric sprites of earlier games, there were still quite a few frightful creatures that successfully made players soil their pants while exploring the three-dimensional ruins of Bethesda’s (and Obsidian’s) Fallout games. One might even argue that the added detail actually made some of the designs even creepier, as we were now able to take a closer look at decrepit Ghouls and even the revolting Centaurs.

I still have nightmares about these guys in New Vegas’ Quarry Junction…

The cinematic flourishes of these big-budget sequels also allowed for some more direct inspiration from the horror genre. Fallout 3 featured obvious references to H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror (with one quest-line even involving a mysterious tome named Krivbeknih, inspired by the Necronomicon), and New Vegas boasted an entire DLC add-on (Dead Money) that felt like a post-apocalyptic heist designed by Jigsaw. Hell, even the terrifying Lake-Lurkers look an awful lot like a certain lagoon-based Universal Monster.

Benefiting from the New England setting, Fallout 4 would continue referencing Lovecraft, with one side-quest even serving as a loose adaptation of Pickman’s Model. The game would also add some more appropriately fishy monsters and locations with the foggy terrors of the Far Harbor DLC, though the main storyline focused on more traditional sci-fi conflicts.

More recently, Fallout 76 has been making a big deal out of incorporating irradiated versions of North-American cryptids into the game, featuring everything from Mothman cults to ravenous Wendigos and even the Flatwoods Monster. The multiplayer elements may have distanced the game even further from the horror genre, but it’s nice to see that the franchise is still paying homage to its scary roots.

Ultimately, Fallout is at its best when balancing the genuinely horrific nature of a nuclear apocalypse with darkly humorous writing and addictive role-playing mechanics. While the experience gets progressively less spooky as your character turns into a radioactive badass, the Wasteland never stops being a terrifying place, which makes your eventual conquering of it all the more satisfying. These horror elements might not be the explicit focus of these games, but the series definitely wouldn’t be as popular as it is today without that eerie touch that makes us hesitate before looting a giant mole-rat.

That’s why I think any future Fallout projects (including that recently-announced Amazon Studios adaptation) should try and remember these scary influences when trying to immerse fans in a new version of this iconic setting. After all, what’s scarier than the end of the world?



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3646022/editorial-revisiting-post-nuclear-horrors-fallout-franchise/

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