You can nuke your friends and enemies in Bethesda’s upcoming Fallout 76, and people aren’t happy about it. Video games have always trivialized violence, but some fans and critics feel that the inclusion of a nuclear war mechanic is a step too far. Waypoint’s excellent article about this subject pointed out that nuclear war is fundamentally horrifying and shouldn’t become another tool in video game’s power fantasy kit.
Experts on nuclear war tend to agree. “It’s very sanitized,” Jeffrey Lewis—a nuclear expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey—told me in an email. “I find it a little off-putting.”
“ICBMs are not fun. Or funny,” Tom Nichols, professor at the US Navy War College and the author of No Use: Nuclear Weapons and US National Security, said via email.
“Nuclear war wouldn’t be fun and that doesn’t sell well," Martin Pfeiffer, a PhD candidate at the University of New Mexico who studies the way we talk about nuclear war, told me over Twitter.
In what the developers call “the nuke loop,” Fallout 76 players can hunt down nuclear codes and launch ICBMs at the map. Fallout 76 gives players many incentives to do this—it’s a great way to wipe out a pack of annoying players and it also generates some end game content. Lands irradiated by a fresh nuclear missile will spawn enemies, gear, and plants that don’t otherwise appear in Fallout 76’s version of West Virginia.
Bethesda ended its recent gameplay reveal of Fallout 76 by nuking an area while a crowd of journalists and YouTubers watched. I was there, and most of us oohed and awed at the stunning power of this digital atom. We rushed down the hill and into the blast zone, our avatar’s bodies liquifying in the nuclear heat. Most of us smiled and laughed. We collected our footage and posted it online the following week.
I think about nuclear war a lot, and found the moment unsettling at first. But thought about it and embraced wacky ICBM launches as a way to deal with the existential horror of nuclear war. But some fans and critics were horrified by “the nuke loop” and I understand why. With a newly weaponized North Korea, and a belligerent American president, the post-apocalyptic setting of the Fallout franchise looks less like a fun place to visit and more like an inappropriate vision of a possible future.
“I have always been somewhat ambivalent about Fallout,” Pfeiffer said. “I would argue that a focus on the aesthetics of nuclear warfare rather than the human toll descends into spectacular #NukePorn…navigating a post-nuclear wasteland for fun, well. That line between satire and an aestheticized and fun post-apocalypse can get awful thin.”
That doesn’t mean Pfeiffer is against nuclear warfare in video games, generally, just that he wants it to be thoughtful. “I think it’s difficult to do nukes in a game format that doesn’t incorporate or allow for meanings that, from certain perspectives, are problematic,” he said. “It’s all about context and form and the audience.”
Pfeiffer pointed to DEFCON: Everybody Dies and the Civilization series as games that handle nuclear war well. In DEFCON, players control a superpower during a nuclear exchange. The goal is to kill as many of the opponents citizens while keeping your own alive. Most games end in a stalemate or pyrrhic victory. In Civilization, nuclear weapons cause massive penalties to diplomacy and ruin the territory they’re used in.
Nichols, a longtime Fallout fan, pointed out that using nuclear weapons isn’t a first for the Fallout series. “In one, you can destroy a town, in another you destroy a huge chunk of Boston. And there is a weapon in the game called a ‘Fatman’ which is a personal, shoulder held mini-nuke,” he said. But he wasn’t happy after watching footage of the missiles launches from Fallout 76. “It's one more reason I won't be playing the game,” he said. “ICBMs are not fun…they created the hellish world your player is in. Launching them for laughs is a complete violation of the sense of the game.”
For Nichols, and many critics, this new gameplay loop destroys the core of the Fallout franchise. “I think if you really want to zing Bethesda, give them hell for taking one of the most literate, well-written franchises in gaming history and turning it into just another way that teenage griefers can go around nuking each other,” he said.