Atom Bomb, Baby: How Fallout 4 Did Not Adequately Prepare Me for the Apocalypse

Civilization (Bongo Bongo Bongo)

When you begin Fallout 4, you are standing in front of a mirror in a suburban house. You are a military veteran with your service behind you and your darling American family securely behind a white picket fence. You are safe and happy and loved – and when nuclear war breaks out on your living room television set, you have just enough time to get your family to a fallout shelter. You descend into the earth, your spouse next to you holding your son, as the sky turns orange.

You are assured that the bunker is safe. A doctor tells you to step into the decontamination pod so your new life can begin. There is a breath of cold air and you are cryogenically frozen without consent for the next 200 years.

When you wake up, you are confused and alone. You clamber out of your icy coffin across from your dead spouse and missing child. You surface to a wasteland leveled by nuclear blast and you set off to make your own destiny.

The last time I went to work was March 5, 2020. It would be another week before Boston shut down, but that day the office flooded. Ceiling tiles crashed down in streams of dirty water. I was one of two administrators for the office; we debated calling the fire department or 911 until the water started to pool at our feet. They told us that repairs would take a week. By the time the office was shored up, it wasn’t safe to breathe anymore. I went back months later to clean out my desk, blasting Kurt Vile from my desktop to a maze of empty cubicles. That chapter of my life snapped shut without preamble, just the drip drip drip that warned of an oncoming disaster.

One More Tomorrow

Time in a pandemic functions similarly to time in a video game, in that it doesn’t. Days are not measured in hours so much as in information. It doesn’t matter what day of the week it is: as long as you are completing your tasks, checking your email, planning your next trip out into the Wasteland. What matters is progression – your sub-lists culminating to an endpoint. You are missing key bits of information, necessary tools for navigating the tasks (chunks of memory, strong enough Wi-Fi, bullets, a quiet place to take a phone call) so you sit on your couch and grind out days of small accomplishments. You pass time.

Here is the problem with the apocalypse: it’s boring. And exhausting. And lonely. In the game you rarely rest, instead moving from task to task to cluttered base camp. In real life, resting is all your body does while your brain runs loops through search engines. Google: cytokine storm. Google: infection rates. Google: does my breastbone remember being on a respirator as an infant? Will my body remember how to breathe?

Fallout 4 did get a few things right about the apocalypse: namely, that is equipped with a deeply repetitive soundtrack. The general earworms are as follows: the death toll has risen to 380,000. There is no way to stop it. We are waiting for help that is not coming. There is nothing to be done.

Grandma Plays The Numbers

When they introduced “senior hours” in grocery stores, I thought about how college kids were aging themselves up with makeup under their facemasks to buy alcohol. I wondered if painting my face with some kind of war marks on the cheeks would make me feel less guilty for taking precautions. I wanted to scream “I’m at risk” to everyone, like the tech lady at my job who took her mask off in the room with me, saying “don’t worry, we’re safe!” My overly responsive immune system is always set to attack: I just wish I had weapons I could actually use.

Most people don’t survive to old age in the Wasteland. One of the only proper seniors you meet in the game is Mama Murphy, a maybe-psychic addicted to drugs with which you can ply her in exchange for advice about the future. Due to your 200 years on ice, you are technically the oldest person in the game. Although your body is young, you are allowed to be weary – after all, the world you know is long gone.

Crawl Out Through the Fallout

At the beginning of lockdown, going to the grocery store was the main event for the week. One of my roommates got his groceries delivered and another mostly lived on cereal and granola bars. My remaining roommate, my boyfriend, and I would go food shopping every two to three weeks. We took our car to avoid the trains, where two conductors had already died, and drove a few minutes each way to the big Star Market in Packard’s Corner. It was just enough for about a song and a half to play, but nothing felt appropriate for the deeply apocalyptic feel of risking our lives for oatmeal. We’d mask up and glove up, scan the parking lot, see if we’d sidestepped the rush by playing hooky from remote work on a weekday morning. Then we’d head in, fill our cart with beans and soups and frozen vegetables. I developed a very picky palate for pickles.

When we got home, we walked dozens of bags worth of groceries up three flights of stairs to our apartment and tried to find spare nooks and crannies of the too-cramped kitchen to stash the cans and bags of rice out of reach of the dozen or so mice that lived under the dishwasher. The main pests in Fallout are “radroaches,” cockroaches swollen with radiation to the size of a small dog. They can be smashed with a rifle butt or shot through or, in a pinch when you have just woken from your cryosleep, beaten with a baton. They barely register as a danger in the game world, more of a nuisance to be cleared. We never brought anything as dangerous as the virus home from the supermarket, but we did kill a dozen mice over the course of five months of quarantine, mostly with an anagrammed baseball bat from Nationals Park.

Uranium Fever

While you wander the Wasteland, you come across a slew of companions who can accompany you on your quest. There’s Piper, the spitfire reporter from Diamond City, a thriving settlement tucked inside Fenway Park. There is Nick Valentine, a humanoid robot with memories of a noir detective. You can choose to travel with Deacon, a wise-cracking agent from the Synth Liberation underground who constantly changes his face, or Paladin Danse, a stuffy military recruit from the Brotherhood of Steel. They ensure that you are never actually alone in the Wasteland.

During the pandemic, some doctors recommending forming pods, small bubbles of friends who would only interact with each other. It was supposed to be a safe way of dealing with the loneliness. It made sense: even video games give you companions. Even virtual worlds can be too much to face alone.

Happy Times

What did you miss the most?

God, I missed bars. I missed arriving early to meet my boyfriend after work and finishing my first beer over a book before he even showed up. I missed the way the bite of night chill is lesser leaving the bar than it was on the way there. I missed showing up with a pack of friends who would not fit at one table and hunting around for unaffiliated chairs. I missed the chaos of a sticky table and a split check and the “table” fries only two of us eat.

In Diamond City, you can find The Dugout Inn and bar run by two brothers, Vadim and Yefim, at the home plate of Fenway Park. You can order drinks, sit on dilapidated couches, and listen to a woman named Scarlett sing into an old-fashioned mic. You can flirt with Scarlett, if you want. Or you can just sit with a beer and wait for something to find you. Sometimes, I settle my avatar onto one of those moldy couches and get myself a real beer from the fridge. I close my eyes and remember the bar I used to go to every Tuesday that played the theme from Sonic the Hedgehog after trivia. I let the music and the bubbles wash me away.

Atom Bomb Baby

The concept of Power Armor is terribly attractive. It is a full-body metal suit, a post-modern day knightly get-up that ups your carrying capacity and reduces the amount of damage you take from bullets and radiation. Forget the flimsy face masks that were available at every grocery store. I want protection I can climb into, the kind that fits to my hips like a lover. I retweet a picture of an ancient diving suit, nightmarish and dust-colored. “Summer fit,” I write, adding a bright orange hazard emoji.

I have often thought about owning a suit of Power Armor for walking alone at night. Walking has become the pandemic pastime of America, with hundreds of op-eds detailing the health benefits of a thirty-minute brisk trot to nowhere. I walk most days in the shade of the Boston cherry trees, and later along an Ohio river filled with geese. What myriad threats could it protect me from here? I am just under five feet tall, and a woman. I have been mugged at knife point by six larger men. In the game, the Boston Common, where I was mugged in the real world, houses a massive demon swan. I like to leave it be.

Lay That Pistol Down (Before You Go On and Hurt Someone)

When insurrectionists stormed the Capitol, I was trying out my new missile launcher. Unlike the game’s signature Fat Man gun, which shots miniature nuclear bombs, the missile launcher is slightly less expensive and shoots mildly less devastating mini-missiles. I love the missile launcher. I use it against Super Mutants in heavy armor and mirelurk insects that haunt the bog waters at the edges of the map. I love the multicolored explosion when it hits, blooming like a flower. After I succeeded in blowing up the inhabitants of an abandoned radio tower, I decided to go for a walk in the real world. I donned my mask, my hat and my gloves, and maneuvered my way six feet around anyone I encountered on the way to the trail. A few minutes later, I got a text from a human friend that said, “I’m sorry, protestors are storming the capital building??” Cool move, real world.

When I got back to my apartment, my boyfriend and I watched live footage from Washington. It might have felt like the world was ending, if it wasn’t already. I automatically checked to see if the armed insurrectionists were wearing masks. All my priorities felt wrong.

In said real world, I am scared of guns. I grew up shooting a .22 rifle that could maybe kill a bird, annoy a cougar, or cost a human some stitches. It fired one bullet at a time before you had to reload, and the power of that in my hand was more than enough for me.

My mother used to sit at my desk with the rifle cocked through the window, shooting egg-stealing crows out of the air to protect our hens. My dad sometimes aimed for groundhogs that tore up his garden, firing warning shots as they dove down deep. This is what I picture when someone talks about defending their home—my father, a strict pacifist by faith, missing groundhogs by inches.

I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire

In “6 Ways of Looking at Crip Time,” Ellen Samuels writes, “For crip time is broken time. It requires us to break in our bodies and minds to new rhythms, new patterns of thinking and feeling and moving through the world. It forces us to take breaks, even when we don’t want to, even when we want to keep going, to move ahead.” In the years before the pandemic, I had been operating on corporate America’s time. I had snuck off to locked computer rooms to take naps in secret in the middle of the workday, dosed myself with sugar and caffeine, collapsed into bed at 6 pm to grab an hour of sleep before dinner. In the evening, I had the energy for nothing but video games, not even to read the books I loved or write the stories I wanted. I played Fallout 4 until my mandated bedtime, eight hours before I needed to wake for work.

Then came working from home, when crip time became plague time, the broken schedule that my broken body had always craved. I took cat naps on my own couch, prepped better food for myself with my Zoom camera off. I felt, in some ways, better than I ever had, and with that came guilt, and also fear: what if I was never supposed to try and be normal? I started to live the way my avatar did in the game: whenever I was low on energy, I would pick a bed and rest, for however long I needed. Time passed in an instant and I woke up ready to face the wasteland. It was magical.

Plague time brought my days into focus. Maybe I do, in fact, want to set the world to a slow-burning flame.

Worry, Worry, Worry

This is a strange time to have anxiety disorder, I tell Twitter, my stand-in for therapy between free appointments with my grad school supervisee. Anxiety tells me that the world is ending constantly, leaving me feeling oddly prepared when things do ultimately go to shit. It feels more like things coming into balance: finally, the world reflects the warnings my brain has been shouting. The neuro-typical, generally unbothered, normal people (who I have never met but am promised exist through television) are finally clawing their way up to the levels of alarm I have operated at for the past decade. Welcome, friends. The view is shit, but now you’re here.

Here’s another thing about anxiety: I am excellent in a crisis. When I am spending half of my energy batting down my brain’s alarm signals and instead just allowing them to ring, I can use my full focus to problem solve. When a person or animal is injured, I am often the first to take charge, to assess and clean and determine the next moves. I exist in a moment of pure, bright purpose. And once they are tended to, stitched or bandaged or iced, I remember that I may not have paid a bill from last month.

Fallout 4 thrusts you into a hostile wasteland and tells you only to survive. The game doesn’t give your character a happiness meter, only rates the populations of various settlements on how well they are living: is there enough food planted and people assigned to tend it? Are there defenses and those willing to arm them? Are there enough rough-shod beds for everyone to lie down somewhere, sometime? As I play, the game’s simple rating system sparks something in me akin to jealousy – the idea that maybe in a crisis-bound world, I would not only be ok, but better. In a nuclear wasteland, would I still panic over the way my body bulges or a curt word from a stranger? If my problems could be solved by finding shelter, growing food, and staying alive, could I be cured?

Anything Goes

When you wake up in the Commonwealth, the world around you has already been destroyed. The Big Thing has happened, and you still exist. The work ahead of you is to pick up the pieces, to rebuild, to heal. It is a massive undertaking, but it is a clear one. There are no pundits asking if the potential for nuclear detonation would be THAT damaging. There are no temporary restrictions until the dust settles that slowly become permanent. The Big Thing has happened, and nobody can deny it. Scorched earth all around you breathes the truth in your radiation-scarred face—there was something here, and now it is gone. But you have already survived the worst thing. So what now?

Thy God Loki

If Loki’s worth is inherent, then perhaps ours is, too.