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The Dread of 'Fallout Shelter' Was Never Meant to Be This Palpable

Remember when this apocalyptic premise was cutely quaint?
All images courtesy Bethesda

Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.

The Steam user tags for Fallout Shelter tell a story. "Free to Play" is at the top, of course, and "post-apocalyptic" is there too. "Singleplayer" for the crowd who is interested, and "strategy" for those who like thinking about the long game of building rooms and staffing them with people. But there's also a run of others: "survival," "simulation," and "management." Tags generated from the world of game players are mostly created in relation to other games. After all, genres are just rough ways of grouping things that are more similar than dissimilar, and tags are just a way of proliferating genres so that people can find more games than they like.


It is odd to me, though, that Fallout Shelter would be a game that is about simulating and managing survival. That is, after all, what the tags suggest. Fallout Shelter is a way of negotiating living life after it becomes difficult to do so.

When Todd Howard announced Fallout Shelter onstage at E3 back in 2015, my reaction was muted. Pitched as a mobile and tablet game and leaning into the capabilities of those devices, it looked to me like yet another game in the lineage of Tiny Tower and Farmville. It looks like an interesting, fun thing where the primary mode of engagement would be waiting for things to happen. The core of the game is that you are a manager of a vault, a vast underground bunker. You are constantly making that vault bigger, adding more people (either through recruitment from the outside or through pregnancy), and trying to manage the amount of power, water, and food that you can provide your people.

All other mechanics in the game, from equipment creation to the intriguing quest system that has your people adventuring outside the vault, are dependent on those core ideas of growth through water, power, and food.

On a device with a touch screen, this game is meant to be played a couple minutes at a time. You pop your phone out of your pocket, click the resources you need to collect, and then forget about it for the next little while. Or, in my experience, you don't forget about it. On original release, Tiny Tower was my game of choice, and I constantly managed, clicked, and placed small residents into upgraded apartments. Invisible timers ran in my head all the time. Every five minutes, I was checking out how my apartment building was going. It was a problem.


The dread of anxiety and the thrill of reward. These are the two modes of the idle gathering game, and the movement between those modes is what pushes games like Fallout Shelter along.

It is only now, much later, with the game on Steam that I have finally put a few hours into Fallout Shelter. My play is much more deliberate. I'm taking time off from doing other tasks, going to Steam, opening the game, waiting for the incredibly long initialization, and then clicking all of the different elements of my vault that need to level up and be gathered. It's because of this very intentional relationship with the game that the simulation, management, and survival tags seem so strange and pressing. Being so deliberate about playing the game has changed how I relate to it.

What, I wonder while playing, is Fallout Shelter simulating? What thing in the world is this game taking, augmenting, and then presenting back to me in a gamified form? And what am I supposed to be surviving?

The top sellers in the survival tag give us a good sense of what those games tend to be. ARK: Survival Evolved, Rust, H1Z1, and PUBG round out the general experience, from crafting mechanics to looting-then-shooting. Survival seems to be about braving the risks of the world (say, dinosaurs) and the imminent threat of other people. You are meant to persevere and, eventually, rise about the dangers that surround you. You don't do this by idling or clicking on rooms in a tower. You go out into the world, scrounge around, make tactical decisions about which resources to privilege, and then defend yourself from those who would take those things from you. You make a little existence from yourself.


The tags for Fallout Shelter are reaching an unintended truth about the nature of the wait-and-click game genre. That deep fascination I had with Tiny Tower was about being anxious and then running head-first into confronting that anxiety. It's the build up and then release. Maybe Fallout Shelter and games like it are not simulators of survival, but truly survival games in that they give the player something, anything, that they can control.

There's something strange about playing this kind of game that generates micro-anxieties inside of the massive structure of anxiety that is the President of the United States implying that he's ready to deploy nuclear weapons against North Korea. I can do nothing about that, not a single thing, but I can generate this little world where my fears multiply and are then solved while numbers go up.

I don't mean this as "thankfully games can distract us from the bigger issues." Instead, I mean that Fallout Shelter is simulating something, and it is a game about survival, but neither that simulation nor that form of survival were intended by the development. What is being simulated in this game is not the management of a bunker, and what is being survived is not the apocalyptic wasteland. What's being simulated is a daily life that is bombarded by the omnipresent anxiety of nuclear catastrophe. What's being survived in the depressive and nihilistic effects of that anxiety.

And it's a bandage, maybe, instead of a cure-all solution. But it's a small, graspable thing, launchable with intention, and played to the exclusion of other things for the time you have with it.

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