In a fallout shelter underneath the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia, someone in a large foam Vault Boy suit cavorts around a delegation of journalists and YouTubers. “I just love him,” Debbie Loudermilk, a retired park ranger and a tour guide at the fallout shelter, says, nodding at Vault Boy. “He’s so non-doomsday. That’s very cool.”
I traveled to West Virginia at Bethesda’s invitation—to be among the first people to play Fallout 76. I was nervous because I love the Fallout series and I was worried Bethesda was going to fuck it up. But I was also nervous to be underground in a fallout shelter Congress would have used in the event of a nuclear war. Fallout was changing in ways I didn’t like. In a first for the series, Fallout 76 is a multiplayer game, which allows players to nuke each other. To me, that sounded disrespectful of the terror my parents and their parents had lived through, when Americans thought that a nuclear attack from Russia was a real possibility.
Loudermilk remembered that era as well. She told me that she grew up doing duck and cover drills in school and lived in fear of the bomb. When she grew up, she became a park ranger. When she retired, she started giving tours of the Greenbrier’s fallout shelter. “I went from working outside all day to working in a bunker,” she said.
I ask her what she thinks about all this—a video game that makes nuclear war into entertainment. “I think it’s great,” she said. According to Loudermilk, there’s been an influx of kids coming to The Greenbrier to take the fallout shelter tour since Bethesda announced Fallout 76. They all want to know the history, they want to know why their favorite series is taking place in West Virginia.
It’s a good question. The Greenbrier Resort is a palatial retreat in the West Virginia mountains. It sits on 11,000 acres, contains a casino, a bowling alley, 15 different restaurants, and various stores and cafes. From 1962 to 1992, it also housed the Congressional fallout shelter—a secret bunker buried underneath the resort’s West Virginia Wing. If a nuclear weapon ever hit Washington DC, this was the evacuation point for Congress. There was room for all 535 members and one member of their staff.
We tour the bunker the day before sitting down to play Fallout 76, and it’s surreal. Vault Boy dances ahead of us, leading us down a tunnel of pipes and concrete. As we reach the end of a long tunnel, the vault door slams behind us. Everyone jumps. They ask us to give over our cell phones before proceeding, and we move through a narrow hallway, past decommissioned decontamination showers and into the complex itself. We learn the history of the shelter’s construction, and walk the halls Congress would have walked if the worst had happened.
Then we sit in the actual Congressional chambers and listen to Bethesda’s VP of Marketing, Pete Hines, give us the rules for the event, all delivered from the podium where Senators and Representatives would have stood and addressed Congress if the Cold War had ever ended in a nuclear disaster. I spent a lot of time at the Fallout 76 event learning about the history of nuclear war, fallout shelters, and The Greenbrier. After it all, I’m less worried Bethesda is going to fuck it up.
The original Fallout games were indictments of a world of excess that led to nuclear war. In Fallout's alternate history, America consumed too much, ignored the racism and xenophobia roiling under its surface, and got into a war with China. It’s the remnants of that world, and that kind of thinking the player picks through.
In Fallout 1, you have long conversations with the Brotherhood of Steel members about what they believe, play chess with a computer and discuss the nature of consciousness, and help—or hurt—a colony of peaceful ghouls. The moral choices are complicated. Early on you can help a law and order sheriff or a corrupt businessman. Siding with the sheriff feels good in the moment, but helping the businessman helps the town prosper long term. In Fallout 3, by contrast, you can either nuke megaton for a bunch of money or do the objectively morally right thing and disarm the bomb.
Fallout 76, I worried, would finally rid the series of thought-provoking stories about nuclear disasters and fully devolve into slapstick—a multiplayer game stripped of nuance where the horrors of nuclear war were distilled down to a churn of encounters players experienced to gain experience points, harvest loot, and move on to the next thing. I worried Fallout 76 would be a dead museum.
In particular, I worried that nuclear weapons were now tools the player could use to kill rival factions and begin what Bethesda called “the nuke loop.” Fallout 76’s end game is all predicated on using these nukes to initiate rare spawns and encounters. No nuclear blast, no end-game. “Bethesda takes series iconography and tosses it into a blender until all the context is lost,” Kotaku wrote when Bethesda announced players could play with nukes. It felt like a rejection of Fallout’s anti-nuclear past.
Bethesda ended its event with one of these blasts. The journalists and YouTubers I’d played with gathered outside of Vault 76—the game's starting location—and watched a mushroom cloud on the horizon. Some of us rushed the blast, our unprotected avatars crumbling as the radiation killed us. Fallout 76 seems to be, as I had worried, taking nukes to be kind of a joke. To my surprise, that wasn't necessarily a bad thing.
I kept thinking of Loudermilk, the tour guide. She grew up with the constant threat of nuclear war. She did the duck and cover drills and knew that, at any moment, politicians might push some buttons and end the world. We live in that world again. North Korea has nukes, America and Russia are reducing the number of warheads but modernizing their arsenals. A false alarm that a ballistic missile was about to hit Hawaii went off in January, and for a moment there I believed it—because it seemed like the kind of thing that could really happen. For the first time in my life, I understand the terror my parents and grandparents lived with in a way no game could ever adequately convey.
But you can only live with fear for so long. In the face of monumental terror, sometimes all you can do is laugh and trivialize what’s terrifying you. That’s what Fallout 76 means to me, right now. It’s a way to turn my fear into a theme park. A way for me to take one of the deadliest weapons in the world and turn it into a toy.