Many fans of Fallout 4 are notably still confused by the state of the world around them. The post-apocalyptic landscape is easily explained, but what exactly happened that lead up to it? This post will attempt to explain the major plot points to you.
**NOTE … SPOILERS AHEAD**.
It goes without saying that explaining the back-story of the game will give away a lot of details of previous games, so please do NOT read this if you want to avoid spoilers about the overall Fallout universe!
Divergence: Where it all went sideways
Fallout’s world is not exceptionally different from ours, up to the point of the end of the Second World War. Prior to this point in history, everything essentially went exactly as it did in our world, so the parallels are easy to draw. Sometime around the late 40’s and early 50’s, things in the Fallout world dramatically changed, and the rest, as the say, is history.
First and foremost, computers and many other electronic technology evolved much more slowly in most – though not all – categories when compared to our world. The transistor and micro-processor were both inventions that didn’t come to the Fallout world until decades later than they were discovered and put into mass production in ours. This has lead to televisions, radios, and desktop screens for computers still using vacuum tubes; and large-scale computers continuing to take up entire rooms or even larger spaces. While the overall level of technology is on par – or even ahead – of our own, it is not miniaturized, and therefore still takes up massive amounts of space.
While computer and audio-visual technology remained very large, other tech did get much smaller. Most notably, nuclear technology and the objects that use it. Portable fusion batteries (impossible in our current technological terms) are common, and power everything from televisions to laser weaponry. Micro-fission cells can power many other items (whereas in our world fission can only take place on a useful level in giant reactor chambers. Plasma weaponry is also somewhat common, meaning the Fallout world scientists managed to tame that beast and make it hand-held.
Nuclear science evolved as a massively faster pace than in our timeline overall. Cars, planes, appliances, and other equipment can all use tiny portable reactors to gain power – reactors that are still going strong 200+ years after they were last serviced and recharged. There’s a very good reason nuclear energy advanced so fast, and that reason is:
The Resource Wars
Some decades prior to the Great War, the world’s supply of fossil fuels began to dwindle. Horrific wars were fought over the last remaining oil fields – including those located in Alaska and the Middle East. While the USA fought off China for the Alaska oil fields with only conventional warfare, European nations and terrorist groups in the Middle East did engage in limited nuclear exchanges, destroying large swaths of the world outside the US. Additionally, the US annexed Canada to capture more resources and secure a land-route to Alaska directly to continue to defend the last remaining oil fields found there.
As these Resource Wars continued, industries once reliant on plastics (which require petroleum products to be made) switched instead to glass and metal. This, combined with an asthetic shift back to the styles of the 1950’s, gave the whole society the look and feel of the 50’s, but with highly advanced technologies only available to those in our timeline in our dreams. Think of it as a scene out of a 1950’s sci-fi novel or movie, and you’ll get the visual idea.
Eventually, the Resource Wars ended as there were nearly no more resources to fight over, but world tensions were still strained to the breaking point. As the USSR had not fully collapsed (how much of it became independent states is not clearly spelled out, but the USSR itself is still a world power); the US, USSR, China, and European Commonwealth were the dominant forces of the world, and on the brink of total destruction. The tensions grew and grew, until 2077, when the simmering tensions boiled over into nuclear annihilation.
And so, our story begins:
When Fallout 4 starts, you play as either a former soldier in the Alaskan Front, or the wife of the same, with a newborn son living in an idyllic suburban paradise. Your robot butler attends to the day-to-day running of the modest two-bedroom house (robotics and AI having become so common everyone could afford them) and you are beginning an average day – late October, 2077. As you go about your daily routine, a news alert is broadcast, and the visibly shaken reporter announces confirmed nuclear detonations in Washington DC and Philidelphia. You and the family immediately head to the Vault-Tec Vault 111 – an underground shelter capable of keeping 1000 people safe from the attacks going on in the outside world, ready to re-form society in about 80 years when the fallout falls to livable levels once more. Or so you’re told…
What happened just before this point:
As you and your family descend into the underground vault, none of you have any idea about the massive and intricate plan that has been going on around you – and that you’ve now become an unwitting player in.
Enter the Enclave:
Leading up to the Great War, the upper echelon of US (and possibly worldwide) leadership realized that some form of mass extinction event was going to happen in their lifetimes. Debates raged about if it wold be a massive climate shift, nuclear war, or something else, but every projection showed the utter destruction of humanity in the none-to-distant future. Planning for the worst, they formed the Enclave – a secretive group who would rebuild society based on a set of criteria known only to them. Race and social status didn’t seem to come into their calculations, as those chosen for the Vaults (a.k.a. Project Safehouse) came from every societal strata and ethnic background. These select few (about 1/1000th of the population at best) were lured into signing up for space in vast underground vaults created by a shadowy company named Vault-Tec. VT was less a for-profit corporation and more an arm of the Enclave government, and the vaults were far from what they appeared.
Each vault – with few exceptions – was actually designed to run a complex and long-running study of societal and psychological experimentation. The results of these experiments would allow the Enclave (safe in their functioning-as-expected vaults) and some control vaults to then take the lessons learned and best re-build the human race. The entire project would be monitored and controlled by Vault-Tec scientists sealed away in relative comfort and watching everything through dedicated video and audio links – as well as the personal reports from select vault controllers locked away along-side their subjects.
Some known experiments:
– Multiple generations locked within a vault with no chance of leaving and ruled by a tyrannical Overseer.
– The greatest musical geniuses of a generation slowly driven mad by psychoactive substances in the air supply
– A vault with only male residents except for one female
– A vault with only female residents except for one male
– Forced elections for “Overseer” in which the chosen candidate would server a one year term, then be killed.
– A lottery where each vault resident might be chosen to be executed
– Cloning experiments that went horribly wrong after multiple generations of clones
– Fanatical anarchists locked up with a massive supply of weapons
– Vault doors which would not function correctly, letting a precise amount of radiation leak into the vault against all efforts by the residents
– Purposely faulty equipment that would not seriously endanger the vault dwellers, but caused a continual stream of stress
– Inclusion of only very upper-class residents, but an inept Overseer and working-class support staff that all had absolute authority over them.
– Cryogenic suspension of all residents except for a very small staff to manage them for the first 180 days
The list goes on and on, with 113 known vaults, and possibly dozens more not yet reveled through the games to date. Each of these experiments were meant to allow the Enclave to observe how humanity adapted (or in most cases, horribly failed to adapt) to the pressures the experiments put them under. This allowed them to formulate the best way to handle rebuilding society when the so called “control vaults” which had no experiments going on in them opened, and the resulting humans walked out to rebuild anew.
What went wrong:
As is evident in all the games, the experiments all failed massively in different ways. Vaults with tyrannical Overseers ended up in total revolt and anarchy. Psychological experiments warped and twisted the minds of the vault dwellers, rendering them savages or sending them all into murderous rages. Societal experiments failed when no one would actually adapt to new paradigms and either forced their way out of the vault, or were driven into murderous rages (that’s a theme repeated quite often). Only a very few vaults had success:
– Vault 21 in Las Vegas was populated with compulsive gamblers, gambling equipement, and the rule that ALL arguments and disputes must be solved by gambling. While the compulsive gamblers bred successive generations of compulsive gamblers, the conflict resolution method work insanely well.
– Vault 31 where committed anarchists and xenophobes were given unlimited weapons and ammunition. Surprisingly they did not destroy each other, but went on to found a xenophobic community generations later when the vault was opened. They’re most definitely not welcoming to outsiders, but otherwise they’re doing very well.
– Vault City, where a vault opened on time, and the residents used the Garden of Eden Creation Kit (GECK) – a device used to supply food, water, power, etc. – to create a new city and are still living happily in it a century later.
– Necropolis, where the experiment to allow radiation into the vault resulted in horrible mutations, but otherwise the residents all survived and lived on (see Gouls in an upcoming post).
– Several control vaults which eventually opened to allow their dwellers to leave.
Aside from those exceptions, the Project Safehouse vaults were all horrific failures, but the Enclave still learned valuable lessons from them. As for the Enclave themselves, secret and perfectly functional vaults kept them alive and well until the background radiation fell enough for them to go out into the world and try to rebuild it.
Next time in this series, we’ll talk about what happened to everything outside the vaults after the bombs fell. Stay tuned!