Adaptation done right: “Fallout” (2024) sets standard for great video game serials

Madabuchi Okoro | Mercury Staff

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Blending the tragedy of war with zany retro-futuristic science fiction, “Fallout” (2024) captures the quirky satire of the games in all their absurdity. 

“Fallout” (2024) — a post-apocalyptic drama on Amazon Prime based on the eponymous video game series — has been making waves after its April release. With a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and glowing commendations from fan groups like IGN, it’s no wonder the series has been received so well — it is an extremely thoughtful adaptation that extends and improves upon the themes of the games. Like the other Fallout titles, the show is a grounded study of human nature; brutal depictions of mankind’s history of conflict for resources and the horror of war are juxtaposed against humanity’s incredible resilience and its tendency to form new cultures and societies. And all this emotional complexity is wrapped in the genius satire established by the games, striking the perfect balance between comedy and tragedy. For those not familiar with the source material, the series is a solid stand-alone watch, with efficient worldbuilding and strong, multidimensional characters. For those who are fans of the video games, “Fallout” is full of clever and funny references to its predecessors with a mouthwatering set design that perfectly immerses viewers in the world they know so well. 

When Vault Dwellers — people who took shelter in underground fallout shelters before the bombs dropped — return to the surface two centuries later, they are shocked to find a world different from the civil community they are used to, where violence has become commonplace. Just like in the games, the culture of Vault Dwellers is defined by ideals of democracy and meritocracy, even though the truth behind their lives is often more complicated and dark. This makes for a funny contrast when it becomes clear just how two-faced their society is. Outside the vaults, the paramilitary organization the Brotherhood of Steel is improved upon from the games, becoming more insular and peculiar than we’ve ever seen before and adding to the outrageous drama of the wasteland. The organization is depicted as monastic, with all the fun medieval-era tendencies that come with it: strange rituals, an obsession with fealty and authority and a mission statement that involves hoarding knowledge. The wasteland’s ghouls — irradiated, mutated humans with a vastly expanded lifespan — are as interesting and intelligent as they were in the games. The viewer can really believe that these people have the experience of three lifetimes, thanks to their seemingly superhuman skillsets. And, finally, the show delivers one of the most comedic parts of Fallout’s worldbuilding, the unaffiliated surface dwellers. The series is full of random encounters with the strangers who walk the wastes, and just like the games, they are crass, creepy, wacky and everything else you could imagine. 

It was the sharp contrast in tones that made the Fallout games so captivating — the brutality of wasteland combined with the vibrant pockets of humanity that remained — and the series improves upon this contrast with its visual humor and mastery of satirical tone. Like the games, the Fallout show bases its pre-war America on a caricature of our country during the Cold War; the United States becomes a deeply unequal and authoritarian dystopia as it pushes the military industrial complex to its furthest possible limits. And even in a dystopia, the series shows how the U.S. pushes its “land of the free” narrative with even more gusto.  

For those unable to get into a vault, the show teases viewers with Vault-Tec’s best preparation for nuclear war, an “econo-savings Plan B”— a bottle of cyanide pills for the whole family. Corporatism runs completely wild in the Fallout world, allowing cartoonishly evil companies to experiment on human lives and profit off death itself. In the show, this is shown with brutal clarity through gory violence: raiders murder farmers for food, bounty hunting is a booming industry and bandits set up organ harvesting factories — trading drugs for human beings. 

There are some minor shortcomings in the show’s theme, shared by the Bethesda Fallout titles, that fans of the games may not appreciate. Earlier installments of the franchise focus on the ability of people to rebuild and the astounding resilience of human beings; the first two games show the formation of new cultures and governments, improving technology and a return to a more stable way of life. But “Fallout” changes key plot details regarding the Los Angeles area, and like many Bethesda titles, at times ends up with a disappointingly bleak outlook on humanity’s future. 

Despite some shortcomings in theme, “Fallout” shows its strong writing through a trio of main characters that each have emotional depth and present a clear picture of their respective factions. Lucy is a vault dweller, honest and intensely principled. Unfortunately, she also has the naivete of everyone who grew up sheltered and regularly goes on spiels about morality that sound straight from a 1950s educational film. Maximus is a surface dweller and a member of the Brotherhood of Steel, and he is at times duplicitous, remorseless and cold. In the wasteland, those aren’t so much flaws as they are basic survival strategies, and the dynamic of his character with Lucy’s creates a stronger comedic contrast than many of the games’ protagonists. And then there is The Ghoul, who is wizened and a superhumanly good shot, thanks to more than 200 years of bounty hunting experience and actual military training. 

And, finally, the show’s breathtaking set design delivers a photorealistic take on the world of Fallout while reinforcing its theme of inequality better than the games ever did. The settlements formed by surface dwellers look ramshackle but at the same time steampunk, a realistic take on how people would build dwellings out of the ruins of the once-great U.S. The vaults are clean and picturesque, delivering the cookie cutter ’50s aesthetic that the games are well known for. 

“Fallout” (2024) doesn’t merely copy the games, it improves upon them. And, even if you aren’t familiar with the source material, it is a thrilling watch that will leave you just as entertained as you are bewildered. So, if you like science fiction, retro futurism, post-apocalyptic stories or all of the above, then strap in, pull up Amazon Prime Video and enjoy the wild, wild wasteland. 


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