Ruminations on Fallout
Content warning for discussion of suicidal ideation.
Fallout, that venerable classic RPG that has since blown up into one of the biggest franchises around, came out 25 years ago today. Where was I, on October 10, 1997? At the tender age of 14, I was probably in a school I hated, surrounded by peers who bullied me relentlessly, only to spend hours waiting to go home because my mother, a teacher there, was a perfectionist who would spend all weekend working on her curriculum for the next week.
My teen years were not great. After spending all day being pushed around by my bullies (who operated under the unspoken sanction of the school itself because they were on the basketball team) I would go home and be confronted with my father, another bully. My mother would do her best to protect me from him — going so far as to divorce him earlier that year — but she was a paranoid religious fundamentalist weirdo who exerted tight control over me and the kind of media I was permitted to consume. I was under constant tremendous pressure to perform, I was coercively diagnosed with ADD and fed disgusting medications that made me feel like a zombie, and I wasn’t allowed to have a lot of the things other kids did because they offended my mother’s delicate religious sensibilities.
I didn’t play Fallout when it was released. At the time, I had no money whatsoever, and of course mom kept an eye on what I brought home. But in summer of 2000, my mom, fed up with the problems of not one, but two successive eMachines computers, went out and bought a Gateway. Presented with a computer that could actually play modern-ish games, and having a summer job working for my grandfather, I bought three games: Duke Nukem 3D Atomic Edition, Half-Life (and later its expansion, Opposing Force) and, of course, Fallout. (Given the loose connective theme of nuclear energy, for a while I called these games my “nuclear trifecta.”)
2000 was one of the worst years of my life. My Aunt Pat had died the previous Christmas, firmly bringing home to me how nobody in my close family was safe. My grandparents on my dad’s side were long dead and I had never known them, but I had always known my mother’s parents, and my parents’ various siblings, all of whom had been a part of my life on some level. When Aunt Pat died it was something of a sudden shock to me, because I had just gotten to see her on Christmas Eve, the night before. (And if I had relented in an argument with my dad about whether I could come and visit for the evening as I usually did, I wouldn’t have gotten the chance.) The bullying at school was non-stop, to the point where the school found itself in a tight spot where they couldn’t continue to not protect me but didn’t want to actually do the job, so I was sent to the library for half the day to keep me out of reach of my bullies. (To be honest, I probably got a better education farting around on furry chatrooms than I ever did in a regular classroom setting in that place, so it worked out.) Someone had broken into the house over Christmas and the landlord blamed my mother and told us to vacate the premises by the end of the following year. And my mom was under tremendous pressure and taking it out on me. I was friendless and alone, and even in the online circles I hung out with, I was a target for bullying. (I found out years later that the bullying that went on in that crowd was instigated by two particular extremely abusive individuals, one of whom would go on to be an artist at Archie Comics for a time.)
It took me a good 10 years to realize just how bad off I was at the time. Friendless, abused, and about to lose my home, I kinda wandered through life in a daze, unable to feel any emotion other than anger. For almost the entirety of the 90s I would wake up every day thinking to myself “I hate school;” it was reflexive to the point where I automatically thought it even during summer vacation. I wanted so badly to be left alone, to disappear, to not be perceived, to have never existed. On some level, I think I may have just wanted to die so I wouldn’t have to put up with being mistreated anymore.
I don’t know how close I got to seriously considering attempting suicide back then. Maybe I was never in danger; I was so beaten down that I had become passive, just a doll for people to unleash their frustrations on, and functionally unable to even take the steps for myself to actually do anything drastic. Or maybe all I needed was one more bad thing happening and I’d be seriously considering my options. I don’t know. To be frank, I don’t want to know.
What I do know is, those three games I had bought over the summer saved me. Fallout in particular was a revelation; I wasn’t terribly into RPGs, never having had much exposure to them due to my mother’s insistence I avoid anything with magic in it (this did not stop me from getting Final Fantasy VII for Christmas ’97 alongside my PlayStation, I just never told mom what was in it. My mother had inadvertently taught me that if I wanted to have any control over my life I would have to lie through my teeth constantly.) But Fallout was compelling; its gritty aesthetic and surprisingly simple combat mechanics kept me hooked.
I don’t really remember what my character was like that first playthrough, just that it was a male character and very poorly designed. I do remember that one of the traits I picked was “Night Person” because I too was a night person — silly me. By some miracle I was able to complete the game. I remember my mom came in when I was talking to the Lieutenant and she demanded to know why I had something so “demonic” on screen. I dunno, everything was demonic to her. But I was just enthralled by the game; it had as much of an impact on me as Deus Ex did a couple years later. It saw me through the move, it saw me through the nightmarish first few weeks of school. And as bad as things got, I could just keep playing Fallout, and Duke Nukem, and Half-Life, and it’d be fine. I credit these games with saving my life, over and over again.
To this day I’ve become a major defender of the series. All Fallout games are good. Yes, even that one. Yes, even that other one you don’t like. Yes, even the bad one. All Fallout games are good, did I fucking stutter? And it all boils down to the first game coming out at an important time in my life. I went through a period where I didn’t really think much about it — I was disappointed by Fallout 2, mostly, and infatuated with other things — but when Fallout 3 came out, once I actually got the god damn thing working I’ve never looked back. I’ve been a cheerleader for Fallout 3 for over a decade; Fallout 76 was in many ways what I had always wanted (at least until the Wastelanders update.) I will fight tooth and nail for these games against people who think that every Fallout game that isn’t by Obsidian is Objectively The Worst, because those people are just fucking boring. If Fallout 3/4/76/whatever is the worst game you’ve ever played then you’ve lived a charmed life. I haven’t, and this series, as a whole, means an incredible lot to me that has less to do with nostalgia (after all, why would I want to relive those years?) and more to do with how it has repeatedly come back to get me through rough times in my life. Fallout 1 saved me from suicide as a teenager. Fallout 3 got me through the rough last couple years of college. Fallout 76 helped me come to terms with my mother’s death. You’re allowed to not like any of those games for whatever reason, but I don’t want to hear it.
Looking back on it, all I remember about my teen years was just how thoroughly miserable I was, and it hits me that I’ve never really been able to escape those feelings for long. I worry sometimes that I’ll never truly be happy, that I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop and my life to crumble around me all over again. But in the meantime, at least I have Fallout. Happy anniversary.