Fallout Shelter: fascism for a happier future.

I've been playing this game for a week or so and I'm wrestling a little with the morality that it embraces. It's based on the world created for the Fallout universe. Fallout's timeline diverges from ours with the advent of nuclear power, which becomes the staple global power source driving everything from the energy grid to automobiles. Fallout's world never really progresses beyond the 1950s, except that technology in general revolves around fission. To cut a long story short, dwindling global resources triggers a global nuclear war, and war… war never changes.

Some of the population survive in vast underground bunker complexes called "Vaults", and while other games in the Fallout series see you play a survivor cast out from your vault, Fallout Shelter pits you as the Vault's leader — the Overseer — with absolute power and responsibility for those in your care. It doesn't really gel with the existing games in the series, it's more of an extremely well-themed homage with gameplay familiar to fans of Sim City, The Sims and X-Com among other titles. You build a vault and care for the primary needs of it's inhabitants.

The Vaults are not the safe, altruistic institutions that you might be expecting. The Fallout world lore establishes many of them as cruel social and scientific experiments. The most successful, safest, and most pleasant Vaults — those with no other nasty surprise — are essentially administered under the totalitarian rule of the Overseer.

That's me!

The dwellers (that is, "Vault Dwellers" — the franchise's affectionate name for it's original hero and by extension anyone who resides, or used to reside, in a Vault) have no agency or personality and so the game makes it very easy to exploit the tiny little two-dimensional people whom depend on you. Populating your vault with more workers can be done by attracting in individuals from the wasteland or by procreation and this second option presents an interesting dilemma: You can mix some people together and see what shakes out, or…

… and I'm hesistant to explain…

You can round a bunch of female dwellers up, essentially lock them in a room, and simply rotate one poor chap after another through the chamber as quickly as the inhabitants can produce a litter. It's actually kind of horrifying. What really, honestly, disturbs me about my little fascist forced breeding programme is that it actually makes the women dwellers joyously happy. You assign people their vocations at a whim. You drive them through mass physical training facilities. Dictatorial regimes the world over could learn a few things from you. Equip your entire population with weapons and draft them into combat at the first sign of trouble — if filing them with combat drugs doesn't keep them alive they're easily replaced.

Of course efficiency is necessary for survival under these circumstances, but I can't help the feeling that these poor little two-dimensional dwellers have given up their souls to secure their ongoing existence. Reproductive rights and self expression were the lasting casualties of the apocalypse. It's not a bad thing for the game to address these kinds of themes. As I said above this really is part of the game world. Many of the communities that you discover in the series have meaningful real-world historical counterparts. The vault's themselves show their dark side quite subtly; in the original Fallout game you are eventually cast out from the Vault that was your home your entire life and it's easy, against the real sense of personal loss, to miss the fact that you're exiled to make sure that you dont bring any new ideas back to the Vault from the outside world that might loosen the iron fist of the Overseer.

The issue with Fallout Shelter is that while it, perhaps without real intent, embraces these themes it does so without embracing the satire that the earlier games employ to add meaning and context. Humour has always been one of the greatest tools we have for examining the darker parts of our history but Fallout Shelter has only a happy, saccharine gloss under which your little minions take boundless pleasure from your control over their lives. It's an extremely fun game but it's hollow. There is no counterbalance for the manner in which you treat the dwellers, who are utterly dependent on you. Their happiness is based entirely on the mechanics of production and in the name of that production you can use them as slaves without consequence. They'll be happy about it. Really, super happy. It's creepy.

It's easy to say that the game wasn't designed with this much thought, it's a simple, mechanical, board-game-like, resource management puzzle and not a simulation. But we're still dealing with little people, and as completely devoid of thought and agency as they are, you as their wholly responsible party should on some level be accountable for how humanely you treat them. It doesn't require much thought; it should be in our nature and acknowledging it should come naturally. Building it in should be obvious. It' shouldn't require much thought to include the possibility for two little dweller women to run behind the wall together to do the happy, but it never happens. It shouldn't require 'much thought' to avoid erasing people from existence, however simplistic your representation of humanity is.

Don't misunderstand; you should download and play Fallout Shelter immediately. It's a lot of fun and it can probably be forgiven for not making a bold statement about the dark side of human nature. It is a simple and addictive game, it's just jarring to realise that in effect the more flagrant and terrible my abuses of human rights get the happier and more productive my vault becomes.

Women in the Games Industry