The year was 1997. The Cold War had been over for almost six years. Fear of nuclear annihilation took a backseat in the public’s mind. Post-nuclear fiction disappeared almost overnight. 1995 saw a brief resurgence with the Judge Dredd film (a critical disaster) and the release of the I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream computer game. For a brief moment, it seemed that tales of the apocalypse might die out.
Then, like a messiah emerging from the wastes came Fallout. The game reenergized the genre, primarily by solidifying the post-post-apocalyptic genre, normalizing sentient mutants, and developing a tone and motif between Mad Max and A Boy and His Dog that would engage fans of those respective intellectual properties.
There’s a glaring empty space in nuclear holocaust fiction from 1990-1995
The vast majority of post-nuclear fiction before Fallout focused on the hours and days immediately after WWIII. Films like The Day After and The Road Warrior show glimpses of the terrifying times after the immediate collapse of society.
Fallout took this a step further, setting the game 80 years after the war and establishing peaceful villages and trading hubs. Even after the end of the world, people continue on as they always have. Cleverly, there’s even an explanation for standardized currency.
Many Fallout games have a secondary theme of building a life for yourself in the wasteland, not surviving or scavenging, but really living. This theme manifests itself in the formation of NCR, the quest to save Arroyo (and later rebuild it), civilizing the mid-west, purifying radioactive waters, deciding the future of the west coast, and building settlements.
In some sense, every Fallout game has the protagonist turning the Wasteland into a place where settlers can thrive. Inevitably, this meant constructing new civilizations around the culture of the old. Many settlements in the Fallout franchise are parodies or social commentary: Cultists who are kept in the dark about their own religion, a society where martial arts rules supreme, tribal nomads becoming a caricature of 50s swing.
These commentaries and interesting factions were only possible because Fallout had made the movement from post-apocalyptic to post-post-apocalyptic.
Deformed mutants have always been a staple of the genre. In lower budget films (such as She Wolves of the Wasteland or Warriors of the Apocalypse) these were primarily feral creatures that killed everything in their way or were merely humans with burned faces. During these times, every mutant had a different deformity (see Judge Dredd).
Fallout changed that by introducing sentient mutant races (ghouls and super mutants), in the same manner as Tolkien introduced a world of elves and orcs. In many ways, the world of Fallout is like a mixture between Dune and a Tolkienesque fantasy. It has multiple races at odds with each other and who spawn from designated homelands, but it brings a heavy sci-fi influence that allows nearly anything to happen. As Clarke’s third law says: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Utilizing its sci-fi elements, Fallout created a unique style of its own while invoking the familiar feelings of Mad Max and A Boy and His Dog. Endless flat desert, underground refuges full of survivors, tribal communities, and murderous slavers. Fallout’s sequels built upon its own IP while still anchoring itself to the genre with Mad Max references.
Notice how every Fallout game has a Dogmeat or a dog surrogate. This links Fallout back to A Boy and His Dog and The Road Warrior, giving the audience a sense of comfort and companionship, encouraging immersion. Like Tolkien borrowing and building upon elements of folk lore, Fallout borrowed and built upon post-apocalyptic tropes, then molded them into a livable world where characters do not live in constant fear of bandit or mutant attacks.
Fallout is deeply anchored in the culture of Mad Max
By establishing the post-post-apocalyptic genre, Fallout carved a niche for itself. The Mad Max times have already happened. Fallout moved away from tales of survival, instead focusing on themes of either saving or destroying new civilizations.
Because of Fallout, writers have moved away from the immediate post-apocalyptic chaos and have instead shifted focus toward tribes and civilizations that parody and critique modern culture. Effectively, the Fallout franchise shifted post-apocalyptic fiction from anxiety of nuclear annihilation to social commentary.