From the moment Albert Einstein's theories were turned into bombs, a nuclear holocaust seemed inevitable; atomic anxiety was almost immediately used to power pop culture. It manifested as Japanese kaiju monster movies like Godzilla, British sci-fi books like The Chrysalids and melodramatic TV movies like The Day After. And in the wake of 1983's WarGames — Ferris Bueller nearly starts World War III trying to play an online game called "Global Thermonuclear War" — the genre came to videogames with a ColecoVision adaptation.
But it was 1988's Wasteland for the Apple II computer that laid the groundwork for 2015's Fallout 4. Though Interplay's initial effort looks like cave drawings compared to Bethesda's latest post-apocalyptic open-world, the series' radioactive ingredients were already there. Boasting game mechanics derived from pen-and-paper roleplaying games and a then-innovative persistent world, the story was set in 2287, nearly 100 years after a nuclear war had turned America into the titular wasteland.
Interplay returned to these themes in 1997's spiritual successors Fallout and Fallout 2, both of which take place in the far future following the Great War of 2077. These non-linear, isometric computer RPGs introduced the series' trademark Pip-Boy wristband computer and the underground fallout shelters known as Vaults.
But what truly made the franchise stand out was its retro-futuristic aesthetic, a steampunk spinoff known as AtomPunk or Raygun Gothic. Though the games are set at various points in the post-apocalypse to come, they're all rooted in an alternate history that split off from our own timeline after WWII. This led to a future that combined mid-century Googie and Art Deco architecture and '50s pop culture with sci-fi tech like atomic-powered robots and mech suits, as well as outdated analogue technology like vacuum tubes and magnetic tape.
In the mid-21st century, this alt-world ran out of oil, sparking a series of Resource Wars as Europe invaded the Middle East and China picked a fight with the U.S. over Alaska even as the Soviet Union stayed together. Later, America invaded Mexico, annexed Canada and, eventually came full-blown Armageddon.
But by the time the games come into play, the world's a wasteland populated by mutants, ghouls and human survivors as well as organizations like the Enclave, run by remnants of the old government, and the Brotherhood of Steel, a post-war religious militia.
The company eventually sold off the rights to Bethesda, which put a wasteland meatsuit over an Elder Scrolls skeleton as the Washington, DC-set Fallout 3 in 2008. A non-numbered spinoff, Fallout: New Vegas, sent the series into the desert two years later.
This brings us to Fallout 4, which begins with a quotidian day in Boston at home with your wife, baby and robot butler. But then the mushroom clouds bloom and you descend into Vault 111 to be cryogenically frozen, emerging a couple hundred years later in 2287.
Though there's a motivating arc about tracking down your kidnapped infant, leading to a broader storyline we can't spoil, the focus is about exploring a living, barely breathing world. There are new Boston-specific bits like the Minutemen militia and the Institute, an apparently nefarious high-tech organization based out of the former M.I.T. Another addition is settlements, which you must develop, manage and protect, pushing the altruism of the usual helper side-quest missions even further.
Unlike earlier nuclear fiction, especially from the '70s and '80s, the subtext isn't really warning us to mend our ways. Perhaps because the real-world nuclear threat has receded, it's instead about trying to make a bad place better.
"It's got this different feeling of not everything is horrible and how are we ever going to make it? The idea is that this is now home for these people and the world that was is almost irrelevant to these folks," Bethesda's Pete Hines said in an Xbox interview. "Their reality is 'This is where I live, this is my life and we're going to make the best that we can of this,' so you get those little glimpses of colour and almost, I don't know if hopeful is the right word, but it's not quite as pessimistic and dark as you saw in Fallout 3."
The AtomPunk aesthetic, however buried under radioactive rubble, still injects an unlikely optimism into the post-apocalyptic game. With the positivity of Pip-Boy's smiling, winking thumbs up, the "World of Tomorrow" futurism — Walt Disney's Tomorrowland, the Jetsons — believed the atom could save civilization.
Fallout 4 may be a dystopia proving them wrong, but it's also one where you spend your time trying to bring at least some of their utopian promise back.