Fallout 4 is the latest installment in Bethesda’s radiation infused, post-apocalyptic video game series. The game follows the story of either a male or female protagonist as they survive the onset of nuclear war, only to watch their spouse die and have their young child kidnapped. The male hero of the story is a decorated military veteran, given access to an underground fallout shelter outside of Boston, called a “vault,” based on his record of service. Because I played the game as a male, I can’t speak to the variations in the story line you may find in a female play-through.
Although the world you find yourself in while playing Fallout 4 is a veritable wasteland full of monsters and evil doers, a good portion of the game is also based on your ability to establish and maintain lasting relationships with a variety of good guy characters. The open world environment and method of play permits you to traverse the Boston area, laying waste to any who step between you and your lost child… or you can find a new girlfriend, settle down and start farming tomato plants. The variety of options, combined with the limiting characteristics of a world that feels familiar while simultaneously foreign, makes Fallout 4 the most realistic “veteran experience” simulator I’ve ever seen – and they seem to have done it by accident.
Fallout 4 opens with a character creation screen, where you get to meet your nuclear family (forgive my pun) in an environment your character is clearly comfortable in: your bathroom. You and your wife take turns in the mirror as you choose your appearance until you hear the baby cry and you both go to tend to him. This part of the game, though boring, represents the comfortable familiarity I recall while on active duty. I didn’t always like my job, but I was supremely confident in my ability to do it. My family life, while not perfect, felt easier in retrospect, when base housing meant no concerns about rent or utilities. Even the neighborhood the player starts in resembles my old house on Mesa Court in Twentynine Palms.
A few passing conversational exchanges between you and your wife reveal that you’re a veteran that got out of the military recently, before a man shows up at your door to offer you and your family a space in the local fallout shelter. The looming threat of nuclear war in the Fallout universe, you see, never subsided. Soon, air raid sirens begin to sound, leaving you and your family scrambling out of your house and toward an uncertain future: the Fallout equivalent of receiving your DD214.
Skipping over a few spoilers, you soon find yourself leaving the vault and entering into what’s left of the world after global nuclear war. Initially, you have very few tools or weapons at your disposal, your clothing is strange-looking by comparison to everyone you run into, and because so much time has gone by, you don’t understand the cultural cues employed by the people who make up the community you’ve come to find exists in the neighborhood you used to call home. Everything you saw in the beginning of the game is still there – your house, the neighbor’s grill and the bridge down the road – but it’s all older now, worn out, or broken.
When I got out of the Marines, I had to face a few harsh realities. First among them was that I didn’t have any clothes. I’d spent so long wearing my various uniforms (often seven a days a week) that my civilian wardrobe had dwindled down to free tee shirts I got for participating in sporting events, workout shorts, and a few matching polos. I walked around my old hometown dressed like I’d been sent there on TAD orders, with a clean haircut and my shirt tucked in, looking like an alien among the decidedly more casual way most Vermonters tend to dress. As I spoke to my old friends, I found that our ways of speaking, mannerisms and shared humor had drifted apart. I spoke quickly, with jutting knife hands and plenty of cursing while the world I found myself in was full of courteous people discussing the various models of Prius they were getting around in. My town was still there; it was just older now, worn out and often broken.
Once you get your bearings in the Fallout world, you’ve got a choice: you can go after your lost child in an effort to reclaim the last bit of your old life that might still be out there, clinging to the positive memories you have of a time that made more sense, or you can start anew and try to build a new life that suits the new world you find yourself in. Either path is ripe with obstacles, challenges and difficulties, and if you’re anything like me, you find yourself hedging your bets between the two options. I find myself pursuing missions that bring me closer to my old life from time to time, but I spend just as much time cultivating new in-game relationships that can lead to better equipment for my homestead or more money. Each option brings about change, and as you keep going, things for your character tend to get better.
It took a few months of being out of the Corps to realize that I wasn’t just on a prolonged bit of leave. Eventually though, I came to realize that the choice I needed to make as a new civilian was simple: I could chase after the bits of my pre-Marine Corps life I remembered, or I could settle down someplace new and start fresh. Again, I find myself hedging my bets. Some nights, I find myself pursuing an old, familiar life – having conversations on Facebook with high school buddies and thinking about taking a trip back home to see familiar faces. Other times, I work on cultivating new relationships that can lead to better professional opportunities that can improve my standard of living on this new path.
Regardless of the path you choose to pursue in Fallout, you’ll find the overwhelming tone of the game is consistent, but your perspective determines how you perceive it. My wife and I are nerds, but she has more in-game time than I think I may have time-in-service on my DD214. To her, the Fallout world is a funny one, full of excitement and opportunities to discover new things. In my mind, the game is rather dark; with constant reminders of a life you left behind and the struggles people face just to get by. We’re both right, and that’s what makes this game such a coincidentally strong representation of my own veteran experience.
We find ourselves returning home, only to learn that it’s changed in ways that aren’t always easy to put our fingers on. Relationships are built on shared experience, and we find ourselves lacking that with many of the people we reconnect with, making our friendships just as simultaneously familiar and foreign as the neighborhoods we grew up in. As veterans, we’re left with two options: to chase after our old lives, or start building new ones, and often, we try to do both at once.
But like Fallout, it’s our perspective that shapes that experience. I struggled to come to terms with being medically retired because I identified as a Marine first, an athlete second, and whatever else you might want to call me third. I received the call one fateful Thursday on the pistol range that told me my medical hold was over and that the Corps was sending me off to pasture. I left for terminal leave the following Monday. All at once, I felt as though I’d lost everything that defined who I was, and my perspective was skewed by that feeling.
In the years since, I’ve slowly become something more than the Alex that joined or the sergeant that left; and my mindset has shifted along with it. I now see more of the humor I used to ignore, because like my wife in the post-apocalyptic wasteland, I began looking for it instead of focusing on what I’d lost.
For veterans, that may be the most important lesson of all.
Fallout 4 is a great game, and if you like games, I recommend it, but from a larger perspective, Fallout 4’s plot feeling so much like a veteran returning home truly speaks to how human the veteran condition is. We aren’t different types of people than civilians, we’ve just been in our own kind of vault for a few years. If Fallout could teach me anything, it’s that no one expects you to come strolling back into the world with your shit together. It’s okay to hedge your bets. It’s okay to struggle to see the bright side.
Just keep going, and things always get better.
Image courtesy of Bethesda