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  • Fantasizing about the ApocalypseA Review of Fallout 4
  • Megan Condis (bio)

War . . . War never changes . . .

These are the words that open every installment in the postapocalyptic video game franchise Fallout. Set in the aftermath of a nuclear war between the United States and China, the games pit players against rival factions of survivors as well as the poisonous landscape and the super-mutants and irradiated ghouls that it spawned.1

The most recent entry in the series, Fallout 4, has the player choose between four possible sets of allies to guide the future of the Wasteland: the Institute, who use their futuristic technology to hide underground and who have developed (and enslaved) a robot army to do their bidding in the world above; the Railroad, a ragtag group of spies dedicated to freeing synthetic humans from the clutches of the Institute; the Minutemen, an alliance of small settlements providing safe haven and protection for residents of the area; and the Brotherhood of Steel, a militaristic group who are obsessed with gathering up and hoarding all the weaponry from the world that was. To complete the game, the player must choose a faction to align with and become its leader, working to fulfill its chosen mission, all while seeking the whereabouts of your kidnapped son.

So with all these important, high-stakes paths available, why is it that Fallout 4 players spend so much time screwing around in the Wasteland, collecting Bobblehead figurines, hacking computers, decorating their houses, and searching for UFO crash sites?

The answer, of course, is “because it’s fun.” Nearly everyone I know [End Page 185] who has played Fallout 4 spent some time actively avoiding progressing through the game so that they could buy themselves more time to play around in the game’s open world. And the release of extra downloadable content like the Wasteland Workshop and the Contraptions Workshop, as well as player-created mods that extend the game’s replayability, allow for even more mucking about, building, and testing Rube Goldberg machines like teddy bear catapults and paintball guns.2 In other words, the multitude of silly pleasures the game offers to the player are seemingly at odds with the player character’s very serious objectives as communicated by the game’s storyline.

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Fig. 1.

Welcome to the Wasteland. In the old world, it used to be known as “Boston.” Screenshot by Mikell Wooten.

There is a name for this kind of mismatch between game mechanics and story: ludonarrative dissonance. According to Clint Hocking, who coined the term in 2007, ludonarrative dissonance is “the leveraging of the game’s narrative structure against its ludic structure,” and it “all but destroys the player’s ability to feel connected to either.”3 In the case of Fallout 4, the ludonarrative dissonance exists in the massive tonal shift between a postapocalyptic fight for the soul of the Wasteland and the temptation to abandon your narratively imposed obligations and play around. In essence the game has two different, mutually exclusive incentive structures. The narrative structure rewards forward progress [End Page 186] through the game’s story with a cinematic ending describing the fate of the Wasteland. But in a way, this reward is also a punishment in that it forecloses the game experience and marks an end to the freeform style of play that emphasizes exploration and experimentation.

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Fig. 2.

The Crater of Atom is lit by a radioactive aura visible for miles. It can only be safely explored from within the protective embrace of a suit of Power Armor. Screenshot by Mikell Wooten.

But are the contradictory reward mechanisms of Fallout 4 really an example of ludonarrative dissonance? Or are they an apt expression of the competing pleasures of apocalyptic narratives more generally? In addition to the typical heroic stories about saving the oppressed and healing the world, stories of the apocalypse also offer escapist fantasies about what it would be like to be entirely free of responsibility for each other, for society, for the planet. After all, in a postapocalyptic story, the ultimate consequence has already been imposed on humanity...


Additional Information

pp. 185-190
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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