“If you don't know what an atomic bomb is, then imagine the worst thing possible. Atomic bombs were worse than that.”
There is a fundamental problem with games and the power we give to players. In numerous worlds and stories, we strive to consolidate power, and we work to improve the way we destroy. This escalation is a fantasy, and when kept in that realm it works. However, when brought into the context of our real world it gives credence to power structures that oppress and harm. Violence can be a tool for powerful storytelling, and the way it is intimately entwined with how we interact with games’ systems and mechanics makes divorcing the two less than straightforward. Ending a life, no matter what that life is, is deeply rooted in the DNA of numerous games we play. Gun fetishization, violence against women and minorities, the problematic grandeur of armies, war, and colonization, these are all issues that games like to perpetuate. For this article, the issue at hand is when the consolidation of power becomes absolute and grounded in our reality, especially in the form of the most powerful weapon we currently know.
When we tell a story in games, there is good and there is evil; there are protagonists and antagonists. Lines are drawn in the sand to justify violence. Even when these lines blur there are consequences to actions. The consequences of a nuclear bomb, however, are absolute and unjustifiable. They are real weapons that we have and stockpile so that we never have to use them. There are horrors of war but nothing in our reality compares to that of the darkness of nuclear war. This isn’t a fight that can be won. It isn’t a fight that spares the just. It just is absolute destruction, and tying that into your games’ mechanics in a way that justifies its use betrays both the fiction that the series has created and also the reality we have lived in today.
I, of course, speak of Fallout 76; a game in a series where the nuclear holocaust has already happened. It is a world where, in the original entries primarily, it shows time and time again that the use of these weapons was unjustifiable and unrecoverable. In the original Fallout, The Glow is a reminder of the cost of nuclear weapons. Even the villain, a super-intelligent being known as the Master, looks down on the use of atom bombs. Some may point out that in certain cases, such as destroying the oil rig in Fallout 2, that is a justifiable nuclear explosion. These depictions aren’t the issue. The destruction of the oil rig itself has narrative value, as it is destroyed by a very similar thing that gave it significance. In addition, the rig wasn’t destroyed by a nuclear weapon, at least not in the way we think of nukes usually. Other depictions like the Mini-Nuke weapon in Fallout 3 and onward also has some flimsy defense, in the way that the Fallout series consistently points out fallacies in the society that came before. Of course, they would miniaturize the source of their own destruction.
When thinking of Megaton, the town built around an undetonated nuclear weapon similar to the one dropped on Nagasaki during World War 2, it has a justification, flimsy as it may be. Megaton gives a player a choice to perpetuate the destruction that brought the world to this place to begin with, or, to free it from its cycle. Detonating the nuke in Megaton also has consequences and removes the settlement and all of the characters and missions and places from the game permanently. This is of course very on the nose as a moral choice, but it has proper consequences. Fallout 76 instead tells you to nuke your friends so you can get better loot. That’s it.
Games have portrayed nuclear weapons in a variety of ways, both positive and negative. The scenes from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare or Metro: Last Light have you experience a nuclear explosion firsthand. This explosion isn’t a moment to give the player power, it instead does the opposite. Experiencing this raw destruction exists to humble the player, and this is the way nuclear weapons should be portrayed. In our modern society, we are fairly removed from the threat of nuclear war (though the way politics are headed now that fear is becoming much more real by the day). We are mostly out from the shadow of the Cold War and the arms race that fueled nuclear war fear. We are even slightly removed from nuclear accidents such as Three Mile or Chernobyl, though the meltdown in 2011 in Fukushima brought this specter back to haunt us. These are moments that once led us to fear the power we ourselves had created.
We also have depictions of nuclear weapons in tactical scenarios, the two most well known being Civilization and DEFCON. The Civilization series takes a half-step in justifying nuclear weapons. When nuclear weapons are used against an opponent, this violent act hurts your diplomatic relationships with every nation. They also damage the environment and make the spaces around the city that were bombed incapable of providing resources. However, for gameplay reasons, the game never really acknowledges the widespread consequences that actually occur. Players never really have to face nuclear retaliation on the scale that we would today, and the weapons are a power fantasy for the player as the pros always outweigh the cons. DEFCON, on the other hand, weighs its victory by fewest deaths. The game presents a system where nuclear war is inevitable and the only way to win is by suffering the least amount of loss. While DEFCON still falls slightly short as there has to be a winner, it attempts, through presentation and mechanics, to speak to the cost of nuclear war.
Heather Alexandra at Kotaku drew the aptest comparison in the Fallout franchise when speaking on Fallout 76’s depiction of nukes and the cost of the nuclear war in the franchise. She spoke to how the “old world” was just as flawed as the Wasteland, perhaps more so in some ways. “Fallout used to ask a question: was the Old World, with all of its excess, any worse than the Wasteland? Pre-War times, as communicated in games like the original Fallout and occasionally Fallout 3, were understood as an indulgent period in human history.” In the original games, the nuclear war was a clear point in history that separated the old world and the new. In Fallout 4, and in certain parts of 3, and now continuing in Fallout 76, the game no longer seems to hold that idea that the Old World was as harmful as it was once depicted, instead leaning into American values and iconography as a way to reclaim spaces once valued before the fall of the nukes. As Heather puts it, “What better tool for establishing our dominance and might than the nukes that brought us down in the first place?”
“This isn’t a fight that can be won. It isn’t a fight that spares the just. It just is absolute destruction, and tying that into your games’ mechanics in a way that justifies its use betrays both the fiction that the series has created and also the reality we have lived in today.”
The Fallout franchise has changed in many ways over the years under the creative stewardship of Bethesda. In many ways, under this new leadership, the game has expanded and explored many interesting narratives and gameplay threads. Especially when you consider my personal favorite entry in the series, Obsidian’s Fallout: New Vegas. The depiction of nuclear weapons is just one touch-point however in measuring how far the series has come, and how far it has strayed from the original ideas from Interplay and Black Isle Studios. I opened this article with a quote from the Fallout 2 manual, lines from the Vault Dweller, the protagonist of the original Fallout. They are words to heed and also words to remember as we consider what the original series was commenting on, and trying to draw attention towards. Problems of American jingoism and unchecked patriotism, as well as dwindling natural resources and an over-reliance on outdated technologies. This over-reliance mirrors our own reliance on things like coal, which we have just been told needs to end to save our planet from unrecoverable environmental disaster.
We land now on our own question, one also explored by fellow writer Cameron Kunzelman over at Waypoint. What role, if any, do nuclear weapons have in AAA games, or in any games we create? Cameron posits this idea, “The vast majority of blockbuster video games cannot think in this way. This conception of the absolute smallness of the individual in the face of nuclear fire does not fit into the way that those games understand players or want players to understand themselves.” I would be inclined to agree. The sheer power and terror capable of nuclear weapons run against the idea of a player’s power fantasies. We have seen nuclear weapons used narratively in a way that understands their destructive nature, but as a gameplay device, there is much more to consider. The use of Nuclear weapons should accurately explore not only the, as many other games journalists have unfortunately put it, “awesome” destructive nature of the nuclear weapons, but also the potential fallout.
Growing up in a small town, going to school for graphic and web design and finally moving to Toronto, Colin began to look for a new project and landed on Third Person. He has always had a passion for video games and finally decided to do something about it. Inspired by websites like Giant Bomb, Polygon, and Waypoint, Colin has founded Third Person with the intent of covering games using a mix of the old and the new.
Colin loves to dive into RPGs of all kinds, exploring their worlds and developing his character. Well-crafted stories draw him in too, and he is always on the lookout for a new adventure.
When he's not spending a billion years in a game's character creator, he can be found behind his camera, reading comic books or probably sleeping.
Some of his favorite games: Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen, Alpha Protocol, Mass Effect, Overwatch, Life is Strange, Persona 4