Tech

Hungry for more Fallout? Binge the lore on YouTube

fallout TV posterImage: Amazon

Amazon’s Fallout TV series is pretty good, yeah? Not only is it some darn great television in its own right, this high-budget, high-profile show might just be the most faithful adaptation of a video game ever put to screens big or small. It’s so good that the Fallout video games, the most recent of which is almost seven years old, have been shooting back up the charts.

But if you’re new to the crumbling, irradiated world of Fallout, you might feel a little lost when the credits roll on the last episode. (By the way, you’ll be glad to hear that the TV show has been renewed for a second season.)

What’s this New Vegas place hinted at in the post-credits scene? Why did the pre-war flashbacks look like Marty McFly’s 1955, but have nuclear-powered robots? How did people invent Iron Man-style power armor if they can’t make a computer smaller than a bread box? What’s a New California Republic? How did some people survive the war as scarred, noseless ghouls that live for centuries? What the hell is a Mister Handy?

The Fallout TV show takes place within the world of the games, and for the most part, doesn’t conflict with the canon storyline that’s been ongoing since the original released waaaay back in 1997. But even if you’ve played some of the newer 3D games, there are deep pools of glowing green lore locked in those early games that even some of the biggest fans don’t know about.

Fallout 1 and 2 established a lot of the pivotal story seen in the later games (and as a result, the TV show), but they’re games from a very different world. The 2D graphics and top-down presentation are hard to sink your teeth into if you’ve never played a game off a floppy disk. And that’s a shame, because they have some incredible storytelling, quests, and voice-acting performances, much of which is directly relevant to the ongoing series in both game and show format.

Fortunately for us here in the futuristic wonderland of 2024, you don’t actually have to play hundreds of hours of games from decades ago to learn about the world you’re so interested in. There’s a wealth of information that’s been collated by fans and presented online in easy-to-digest chunks. You can spend hours going on a lore binge to find out what happened, why…and what might just happen next.

Here’s a small selection of info, and a few good places to start. Go on a deep dive for a little while, and you’ll be a Fallout lore expert worthy of a Brotherhood Scribe in no time. Some of the best sources that cover the Fallout series and its fascinating history are linked and embedded below, including Synonymous and The Templin Institute, and of course, the fan-maintained wiki.

The world before the bombs

Fallout‘s sci-fi story technically takes place in the future, but it’s also an example of alternate history, sharing a lot of 20th-century revisionism with series like Red Alert. The world that was destroyed is not the same one you remember, not even before the first game in 1997. As a general rule you can assume that the history in the world of Fallout is the same as the real world, up until the end of World War II and the start of the Cold War, just before 1950.

Bethesda

In Fallout, the Cold War basically never ended, and neither did America’s 1950s culture. Instead of a computer age, the world experienced an Atomic Age, where nuclear energy spread across the globe. Instead of fossil fuels, nuclear fission became the predominant means of powering pretty much everything from city-wide electrical grids to cars and even portable radios. That’s why even centuries after the bombs fell, you can still find a few electrical appliances and nuclear batteries (notably the fusion core that’s used in Power Armor and building-sized power generators) that are still working.

But there are a few key differences between the Cold War in Fallout and the real one. First of all, while the United States became a nuclear-armed superpower in both, its primary world rival was communist China instead of Russia. The Soviet Union still existed in Fallout’s pre-war world, but its power was greatly diminished, and the U.S. versus the CCP became the primary conflict that defined global relations.

It isn’t clear who fired the first shot in what becomes known as the Great War. (Not immediately, anyway…) But as seen in a lot of Cold War fiction, mutually assured destruction left the surface of the Earth bathed in radiation and a devastating nuclear winter. For a deeper dive into the history of the world before the end of the world — why is the U.S. using a 13-star flag, for example? — check out the videos above and below.

Frozen culture

Fallout’s pre-war world was an example of retro-futurist fiction. The bombs fell and irradiated the surface of the planet in 2077, 80 years in the future when the first game was released. But for most of the western world, the culture seems to have frozen in place around 1960 or so, with fashion, music, movies, and television, and a lot of ideas somehow not evolving for over a century.

That’s why you hear classic American standards, doo-wop, and country music like Nat King Cole, Johnny Cash, the Ink Spots, and the Andrews Sisters in the soundtrack. (And yes, the games are filled with the same kind of music.) Polygon has a deep dive into the music of Fallout, and an amusing take on how real music might have evolved in the wasteland, even though it didn’t.

Exactly why nothing new seems to have been made after the fictional boomer generation was born isn’t clear. But the real-world explanation is that the producers of both the games and the TV show are deliberately evoking the culture of the Cold War, to harken back to an older time while having the flexibility to tell a sci-fi story. Think The Jetsons…with more swearing and dismemberment.

There are a couple of key cultural differences to keep in mind, though. The upheaval of the Civil Rights Movement doesn’t seem to have happened in Fallout, as racism, sexism, homophobia, and similar problems aren’t obviously present in the pre-war world (at least not to the same degree as the real world). Instead the cultural divide deepens along class and ideological lines, with the real-world Red Scare of anti-communism becoming a much deeper and even more bitter fight. One of the most important conflicts before the Great War is an invasion of Alaska by communist China.

Capitalism and nationalism become indelibly intertwined in the United States. As hyperinflation spreads and small wars over resources begin, class divides deepen and the issues that the country has failed to address for a hundred years begin to fracture society. Mega-corporations like Amazon Vault-Tec are essentially ruling the United States.

In Fallout, that is, not the real world. Of course. Did I mention that the game series comes with a healthy and enjoyable dose of tongue-in-cheek cultural criticism?

Retro-Futurist tech

Technology is in a weird place in Fallout, both before and after the war. The abundance of nuclear energy and the diminished reliance on fossil fuels means that energy is in abundance pretty much everywhere, and that seems to have stymied the development of some technology while boosting others.

For example, computers seem to be on about the level that we saw in the real world during the 1970s and early 1980s, with huge rooms required for the most powerful mainframes, and personal devices limited to text-driven interfaces storing information on reel-to-reel magnetic tape. The iconic Pip-Boy “wearable” is about as small as a computer gets, with televisions and radios still working off vacuum tubes.

All that being said, robots are much more advanced in Fallout than in the real world, operating with incredible dexterity and capability, and some even appear to have rudimentary artificial intelligence with their own personalities. These resemble and are directly inspired by the robots seen in classic sci-fi television and movies, like Robby the Robot from The Forbidden Planet and B-9 from Lost in Space. The corporations in Fallout building super-advanced robots using computers that seem to be less powerful than a modern calculator is deliberately anachronistic.

Weapons technology is also in a strange place. In addition to handheld guns that resemble pistols, rifles, and shotguns in the real world, Fallout has rudimentary laser and plasma weapons — pew pew instead of bang bang. The games even have small “mini-nukes” that can be launched from a bazooka-sized sling.

The U.S. and China have both developed large, bulky suits of armor that run on their own internal nuclear power, Power Armor, that gives one person the offensive and defensive power of a real-world tank. These suits are basically Tony Stark’s first Iron Man armor in the movie, and are heavily influenced by the Space Marines in the Warhammer 40,000 series.

A considerable number of nuclear-powered robots, suits of Power Armor, and mountains of both conventional and laser/plasma weapons have survived into the post-war future. Other technology seems to have survived as well, from personal PCs resembling classic real computers from Tandy and Commodore, to some radio and television equipment. Naturally, the places with the most surviving technology are the Vault-Tec Vaults, which were protected from the initial nuclear blasts. Speaking of which…

The Vaults

One of the biggest companies in the world in Fallout’s 2077 is Vault-Tec, and its primary product is Vaults. These are underground shelters meant to let humans survive nuclear blasts. But unlike the personal backyard bunkers in the real-world Cold War, these are designed to house hundreds of people (with incredibly expensive paid reservation slots, of course). Internal power and self-sustaining systems let these isolated communities of Vault Dwellers survive for centuries until the surface is fit for human habitation again.

Or at least, that’s the vision that Vault-Tec sells to Americans. While a few Vaults are indeed functional societies-in-a-bottle hoping to repopulate the United States at some point, most of them have a far more sinister application. In reality, Vaults are meant to house humans as test subjects for any number of experiments, both social and scientific.

This is one of the core revelations made early in the Fallout series. Each Vault is a tiny microcosm waiting for the player to discover what its original purpose was, how its Vault Dwellers reacted to the experiment, and usually, how it all went wrong in the decades and centuries since they were locked away.

There are over a hundred known Vaults in the Fallout series. The original Vault from the first game is Vault 13, filled with humans who were kept as an isolated population meant to be used as future test subjects. Fallout 4‘s Vault 111 was meant to test the viability of cryogenic hibernation, a la Futurama. Vault 108 is designed to experiment with human cloning.

In Vault 11, one person would be “sacrificed” every year or the entire population would be killed. Vault 15’s population was specifically chosen to house people with radically different cultures and ideologies, to see if they could form a functional society. Vault 29 was initially filled with children no older than 15, in a sort of sci-fi take on Lord of the Flies. Vault 68 housed 999 men and only one woman, while Vault 69 had the opposite.

Finding out exactly what happened in each Vault is one of the biggest draws of the Fallout series. It doesn’t hurt that Vaults make perfect video game dungeons, usually with a bunch of non-irradiated loot and materials inside. The TV show explores three interconnected Vaults, 31, 32, and 33, and how they interact with each other. You can find omnibus videos briefly covering every Vault in Fallout, and deep dives into individual Vaults, both of which are pretty entertaining.

The world after the end of the world

Much to the surprise of the people locked inside the Vaults, the world outside didn’t disappear after the bombs fell. While some parts of the post-nuclear surface are indeed still smoking craters, accessible only to the most horribly mutated people and animals or with huge amounts of radiation protection, the remnants of humanity have created a new world. And of course, there are factions vying for power and control over the ashes. War never changes, after all.

There are tons of powers big and small in the world of Fallout, but here are the ones that are relevant to the TV show.

The Enclave

The Enclave is what’s left over from the government of the United States before the bombs fell. While it’s a tiny group of people, its still-functioning organization considers itself the legitimate ruling body of post-war North America. For example, the Enclave still has a “President,” and still has access to some of the most powerful and sophisticated technology around.

The Enclave’s primary bases are isolated parts of the Pacific coast, like oil rigs. In the TV show, scientist Siggi Wilzig (played by Lost’s Michael Emmerson) runs away from the Enclave and into the remains of California for reasons of his own.

The Brotherhood of Steel

Stomping around in Power Armor and floating above the wasteland in artillery-laden airships, the Brotherhood of Steel is possibly the most iconic group of the Fallout series. The Brotherhood is a military organization with quasi-religious overtones, and its mission is to collect technology from the pre-war world…and keep anyone else from getting it. One of its driving motivations is to secure and maintain military technology like Power Armor and Vertibirds (Fallout’s version of helicopters) to expand its power and control.

The Brotherhood is fanatical and obsessive, raising its members to be utterly devoted to its cause and harshly punishing any kind of dissent or desertion. It’s also one of the more overtly bigoted factions in the post-war world, with a hatred of ghouls, mutants, and anything that diverts from standard humanity. The Brotherhood of Steel has no problem murdering anyone who gets in the way of its goals.

The New California Republic

Usually shortened to the NCR, the New California Republic is an attempt to make a functioning society with surface dwellers in the new irradiated world. Its flag is almost identical to the state flag of the real California…with the notable addition of a mutated two-headed bear. The NCR was formed in 2186, about a century after the bombs fell, with its capital in Shady Sands, somewhere near the bombed-out remains of real-world Los Angeles.

The NCR attempts to work more or less like a functional modern country, with members both good and bad, but it often comes into conflict with other powers in the wasteland. The Brotherhood of Steel, the Enclave, and various factions in and around New Vegas all oppose the NCR at some point, and even some of the remaining Vault Dwellers have reasons to dislike them in the Amazon series.

New Vegas

2010’s Fallout: New Vegas video game takes players to the remains of real-world Las Vegas, the gambling and entertainment oasis in the Nevada desert. In Fallout’s world, Las Vegas avoided any direct nuclear strikes, and is a thriving city filled with gambling and commerce.

The restyled New Vegas is ruled over by Robert House, a titan of industry who survived the war (somehow) and is still in control of the remains of the RobCo corporation. You can see Robert House (voiced by Deep Space Nine’s René Auberjonois in the games, played by Rafi Silver in 2024) in a brief flashback in the TV show. My favorite exploration of Robert House is this little diddy by The Stupendium.

House’s home base and the functional capitol building of New Vegas is the Lucky 38 Casino, filled with a huge amount of technology and defended by still-operating RobCo military robots. New Vegas makes a brief appearance in the TV show, but saying anything else might be a bit of a spoiler.

Other powers are in play in the Mojave desert around New Vegas, including the NCR, the local chapter of the Brotherhood of Steel, and Caesar’s Legion, a group of violent nuclear survivors styling itself after the Roman Empire.

The people and creatures of Fallout

You can broadly separate the survivors of Fallout into two groups: humans (people who survived in the Vaults and those who are still living on the surface) and everyone else. Vault Dwellers are pretty much the same as modern real-world humans, at least the ones that aren’t horribly scarred and traumatized by the experiments going on in the Vaults. The humans of the outside world are surviving in the remains, dealing with struggles like radiation sickness, finding food and water, faction power struggles, and the terrifying wildlife that emerged after the bombs fell.

Ghouls

The only major non-human sentient species featured in the Fallout TV series are ghouls. Ghouls are humans who have been exposed to huge amounts of radiation, giving them long life but scarring their flesh. Soft tissues (most notably noses) and hair usually fall off, and they speak with gruff voices from damaged vocal chords. But aside from a generally unpleasant appearance, ghouls are still thinking, feeling people, and can be good, bad, and everything in between.

Amazon

Ghouls can be killed, but they don’t appear to ever age or die from natural causes. Some ghouls were created in the initial nuclear bombardment, and have survived on the surface for over 200 years, like Walton Goggins’ character in the TV show. Some are “younger” ghouls, transitioning from human form sometime after that. Ghouls can be created from new nuclear detonations, surviving while other humans are killed by radiation poisoning. It isn’t clear why some humans become ghouls while others perish.

Ghouls are often treated with fear and loathing by normal humans, both because of their appearance and because of feral ghouls. At some point, some ghouls lose their sentience, becoming violent and animalistic, “going feral” and becoming Fallout’s version of unthinking zombies. Exactly how and why some ghouls go feral is explored in the TV series.

Super Mutants

The other major sentient species in Fallout is one of the few parts of the lore that isn’t touched on by the TV series. Super Mutants are humans who have been mutated by an experimental virus. But unlike ghouls, Super Mutants become huge, hulking, green-skinned brutes. While they remain intelligent enough to communicate and form basic social groups, Super Mutants are notably aggressive and dim-witted. Their violent nature makes them a threat to humans and anything else they come across.

Super Mutants lack the intelligence to form any kind of large organization, but their huge size, incredible strength, and resistance to radiation mean that they’re a force to be reckoned with in the wasteland. The history and creation of Super Mutants is a big part of the game series, especially in the original game, with some fascinating lore behind it. Perhaps we’ll see more in the second season of the TV show.

Extremely wild wildlife

The surface world of Fallout is filled with terrifying creatures, most of which are radiation-mutated forms of existing animals, but some of which are the result of horrible experiments both before and after the bombs fell. The most iconic critter, the Deathclaw, is only briefly seen as a skull in the TV show. It’s a gigantic mutated chameleon that was developed with genetic engineering, escaping laboratories after the war and thriving on the irradiated surface.

Perhaps because it was focused on conflicts between humans, the TV show didn’t feature too many of the game series’ most notable creatures. In one scene the characters face off against a Yau Guai, a mutated black bear given a name by Chinese Americans held in internment camps before the war (in a fictional mirror of the United States’ real-world internment of Japanese Americans in WWII).

In another they face an aquatic Gulper, a gigantic mutated salamander. We get a brief look at a Brahmin, a two-headed species of cattle that becomes a beast of burden and staple food in the wasteland. And at various points they have to deal with the surviving insects in the world of Fallout, all of which seem to have become enormous and deadly due to mutation.

Thanks to over 25 years of history, pretty much every creature that players encounter in the Fallout games, from scorpions to mole rats to the actual Mothman, has a lot of lore behind it. Like the rest of the series, you can go down the rabbit hole for each of these on YouTube and fan wikis.

Ready to play?

The Fallout game series is nearly 30 years old, and all of the entries are beloved by fans to a greater or lesser extent. The first two games made before the series was acquired by Bethesda are great, filled with chunky lore…but are kind of hard to get into for some modern players.

But if you’re ready to make the plunge, it’s not hard to actually get your hands on it. All of the canon games (Fallout 1, 2, 3, and 4, plus Fallout: New Vegas and Fallout 76) are available on PC stores like GoG and Steam. Steam’s Fallout bundle is currently on sale with a 20 percent discount, giving you every major RPG in the series, plus the DLC add-ons, the non-canon Fallout Tactics strategy game, and Fallout 4 VR.

Personally, I recommend starting with Fallout 4 from 2015. While the story isn’t the best-regarded in the series, the mechanics will be familiar to anyone who’s played Bethesda’s extremely popular Skyrim RPG, and it’s a lot more forgiving for modern players than any of the earlier games. It also has a brief prologue before the war, something that other games in the series (like the much-loved New Vegas) are lacking.

Michael is a former graphic designer who’s been building and tweaking desktop computers for longer than he cares to admit. His interests include folk music, football, science fiction, and salsa verde, in no particular order.

Recent stories by Michael Crider:

Sony surrenders: Helldivers 2 won’t require PlayStation login on PCHelldivers 2 now mandates PlayStation accounts and PC gamers are MADThirsty modders put Baldur’s Gate III romance in Stardew Valley

Leave a Response