Remembering the Bomb

The Paleogamer

There was a time when I knew how the world would end.

I grew up in a time when our elementary school would hold nuclear attack drills with the same regularity as they did fire or tornado drills. Regular PSAs on television and radio would remind us to “Duck and Cover!” in the event of a nuclear strike. In college we were dutifully shown the location of our dorm’s fallout shelter and told how to get to it when the seemingly inevitable occurred.

In the 1960s and ’70s we knew with a certainty that is hard to describe or even understand now that the world was going to end, and that it would end in fire.

I was thinking about this because I’ve been playing through the various DLC for Fallout: New Vegas. The Fallout series of course is set in the aftermath of a global thermonuclear exchange between the US and China. But in the game the war was long ago; 200 years ago in the case of New Vegas. Much of the world is a wasteland but civilization is slowly recovering. (More slowly than I think it should be, but that’s a quibble for a different post.)

In New Vegas life in the Mojave Wasteland is tough, but life is going on. In fact, it seems to be a great, exciting place for adventure. The horror that brought this world into existence is almost an afterthought.

Almost. Then I started playing Honest Hearts.

First nuke hit SLC inside a minute. I was looking South – Lucky Man! Flash behind me so bright world looked on fire. Old couple from the Chryslus starts screaming they can’t see.

Didn’t watch you die, Char. Saved my eyes. Counted 12 more flashes next 7 minutes. Ground shook each time, 18 seconds later.

When nothing hit for half an hour, took a look. Globe of fire where you and Alex died. Didn’t kid myself.

The Honest Hearts is set north of the Mojave Wasteland, in what used to be Zion National Park. The plot there has to do with whether you help a tribe escape from a larger, hostile tribe or if you help them attack and defeat them. A standard enough quest for an RPG. That plot was OK, if nothing exciting or exceptional (another topic for another post), but what brought the DLC home for me was something that almost seems as if it was included as an afterthought.

If you talk to the tribals in the Zion Wasteland you will learn that they have a legend of an old man who lived in the caves and helped their tribe over a century ago when it first came to this area. Then, as you explore the area, you find a series of caves hidden in various caverns. The game doesn’t point you to them and even if you do stumble across them it’s possible to just go in, grab the weapons and other loot in them and leave. Only if you take the time to read the logs on the computers you find there do you get another piece of the Fallout story. What happened 200 years ago when the bombs fell.

Want to believe it was fast, a flash, both of you vaporized. Lies to make me feel better. I’ll never know. Which part of city got hit first? Northeast and you both died in a blink. Farther away and you burned alive screaming or the blast broken glass and bits of brick and wood splinters shredding you like hamburger. Look at it coward and listen don’t turn away face it. If you’d been brave lucky man you would’ve found a spot and blown your brains out.

When I read the logs (and I went out of my way to find all of them) I started seeing other parts of the game world differently. At one point in the plot you have to collect a number of lunch boxes. The best source of those turns out to be a broken school bus lying at the bottom of a ravine beneath a destroyed bridge. They’re there, mixed in with a number of small skeletons and teddy bears.

There is no computer log here. No text to tell you what happened. None is needed, really. Were they on a school field trip to the Park? Were they on their way or were they going home? Who knows. All we can know is that they were there when there was a flash and the sky turned to fire and the land to ash.

Most players probably just went in, picked up the items they needed to advance the quest and left. They didn’t stop to think about the story being told by the silent wreckage.

They didn’t stop to think about the way we once knew that the world would end.

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