Fallout Is a Brilliant Model for the Future of Video Game Adaptations

9 minute read

Humanity has become desperate, divided into factions. No one can be sure of who to trust. Regression has been marketed as progress as outdated modes of thinking return. People look to leaders for guidance but receive only empty platitudes. Resources are running scarce as greed runs rampant. This is the world of Prime Video’s Fallout, the new series from Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, based on Bethesda’s popular video game series which debuted in 1997. The show and the game take place in an alternate timeline in which nuclear power replaced fossil fuels, resulting in a retro-futuristic society, until said scarce resources lead to nuclear war. It’s a world that began as one similar to our own, caught in a cycle of war and corporate worship, but the trajectory of the world in Fallout is one we still have time to avoid in reality, at least as far as the series is concerned. While the series’ genre-bending narrative, infused with elements of science fiction, western, horror, and dark comedy, is something of a cautionary tale, the show itself is an invitation to peer through a bold new lens of video game adaptations. Welcome to the Wasteland.

If recent success stories in the world of film and television are any indication, it seems Hollywood has finally cracked the code, at least financially and sometimes artistically, for big- and small-screen video game adaptations. The road certainly hasn’t been easy, but the stigma of video game adaptations, resulting from embarrassing duds like Super Mario Bros., Double Dragon, Bloodrayne and Max Payne that pockmarked the ‘90s and ‘00s, has largely subsided. Over the last few years, we’ve seen Sonic the Hedgehog, The Super Mario Bros, and Five Nights at Freddy’s dominate the box office and satisfy fans, while more adult-oriented series like Halo, Twisted Metal, and the animated Castlevania have thrived on streaming services in terms of viewership and renewals (though fan reception has been far more mixed than those properties geared towards children). And then there’s HBO’s The Last of Us, an artistic cut above its ilk, which brought video game adaptations into the realm of prestige, with the character-driven series winning eight Emmys.

Fallout, quite cleverly, straddles the line between ultraviolent exploitation and prestige series. In the series and the games, some of humanity survived in underground bunkers, or Vaults, where they kept some semblance of their society and created new generations for over 200 years. On the surface, those who weren’t killed by the blasts were affected by the radiation, their children and grandchildren growing up in a violent world of starvation, addiction, and zombie-like human mutates known as Ghouls. It’s a show that feels keenly aware of the present moment in human history, as the specter of U.S. involvement in another war looms, and the disparities between classes feel increasingly pronounced. While there is no shortage of video game IPs that can be adapted, there’s an urgency to Fallout that exists between the bloodbaths and character quirks that arguably makes the series more culturally relevant and engaging to a wider audience than it might have been when an adaptation was originally explored during the more hopeful years of the Obama era.

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Key to the success of Fallout’s translation between mediums is that itfeels welcoming to both longtime fans of the game series, which consists of four main entries and several spin-offs, and newcomers who have no familiarity with the property. To achieve this, Nolan and Joy, along with showrunners Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Graham Wagner, take a unique approach to the show by situating it within the continuity of the video games, setting Fallout after the events of the video game’s most recent release, Fallout 4, from 2015. It’s not the first time an attempt to bridge the world of video games to film and television has been made. Star Wars has taken a similar approach with its most recent games, Star Wars Battlefront II, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, and Star Wars Jedi: Survivor. But while those games directly work within the context of Star Wars films and television, referencing specific events, characters, and locations, the films and television series have yet to make mention of the game's characters or events, making it somewhat of a one-way call. Additionally, Netflix’s short-lived Resident Evil series uses the games as canon, while existing in its own universe. But the production budget as well as aesthetic and tonal changes made that connection feel, at times, both tenuous and overly reliant on game knowledge to fully work.

While Hollywood studios began expressing interest in Fallout in 2008, following the release of the award-winning Fallout 3, none of the pitches felt like the right way forward for lead designer Todd Howard, who serves as an EP on the show. The challenge with Fallout is that it’s an open-world game, in which each entry takes place in a different city and features different characters. The history of the world, and many of the creatures and factions you encounter, are consistent from game to game but the narratives are unique. And not only are they unique, but they’re also different from player to player. You choose the gender and look of your character, choose which faction you want to join, and make choices via dialogue trees that significantly affect where the game leads you, and how other characters engage with you. And then there are hundreds of side missions and quests and secret things to uncover.

No one’s experience playing Fallout is the same, compared to the linear narrative of The Last of Us, in which all players encounter the same people and obstacles, and the game can only end one way. The strict adaptation of The Last of Us works great for that series, particularly because it's so driven by a specific theme and character motivations. But it’s become increasingly clear that there is no best way to bring video games to the screen, writ large; the best approach is to be highly specific to the game itself, to consider the type of game it is, and which method of adaptation is the best showcase for its characters, world, and themes. Not all video game adaptations are built equally, and while The Super Mario Bros. Movie can be a treasure trove of references to the video game series' long history and loose storytelling, sometimes, as the Fallout games showcase, a more precise tool is needed for a specific job. Any attempt to directly adapt a specific Fallout game would result in gamers feeling either frustrated that the adaptation strays too far from their play style or bored because it hews too close to it. And for non-gamers, their introduction to the world of Fallout would be limited in scope, with any stab at a story-based straightforward adaptation denying them a full understanding of all that the world of the game has to offer.

What might have been the greatest challenge in adapting Fallout ended up becoming the series' greatest strength. Rather than adapt a specific game title, Fallout adapts its broader world while taking us to Los Angeles, a city none of the prior Fallout games have explored before, and introducing new characters, who put both longtime fans and newcomers on equal footing. We follow Vault Dweller Lucy MacLean (Yellowjackets’ Ella Purnell) as she searches for her father and encounters a squire of the technocratic military organization, the Brotherhood, Maximus (Emancipation’s Aaron Moten), on his own quest for purpose and a home, all under threat of the series antagonist, The Ghoul (Walton Goggins of Justified and Righteous Gemstones fame), whose origins date back over 200 years before the war. Audiences get to know these characters and setting on equal footing regardless of prior knowledge and can be equally surprised by what’s revealed on their journey.

This method is almost akin to Hollywood’s approach to comic-book movies. While the characters and locations aren’t new, they are altered and placed into narratives that take inspiration from the source material but rarely ever directly adapt it, allowing fans and general audiences to both experience novelty. But unlike in the MCU, the few Easter eggs in Fallout are ultimately inconsequential. They may be fun nods to in-world products, but they don’t give any hints about where the narrative may be going. You won’t need anyone to fill you in on the soda brand Nuka-Cola in the same way you’d rely on someone to give you the history of Adam Warlock’s cocoon.

While Fallout is nowhere near the puzzle-box type of show Nolan and Joy’s Westworld was, it does dole out information deliberately. Even in moments where gamers may be familiar with a certain reference, the show never forgets to clarify them for the uninitiated before the season’s end, and does so in such a way that even longtime fans will be surprised by the context in which the information they believed they knew is delivered. While Bethesda is involved with the show, its game, Fallout 5, which will be released sometime in the 2030s, is too far out for the Prime Video series to be a genuine call-and-response between the mediums.

But the series is a best-case scenario to lead audiences to the games, not for a greater understanding of the show, but because the show makes the world feel larger, rather than smaller, and beckons with the opportunity to create your own story within it. Fallout approaches an RPG video game adaptation in a way that both works in the context of the games and serves as an invitation to explore. It avoids decisions that might repeat, alienate, or make anyone do homework. And it’s that open invitation, the respect given to both kinds of viewers and anyone in between, that feels like the future of Hollywood’s latest IP goldmine.

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