These tiny paper dolls in jumpsuits won’t stop smiling.
Their former homes are ash and rubble. Television sets and martini glasses and children’s teddy bears.
Record players and lawn mowers and novelty gyrating hula girl lamps.
I bet the man of the house loved that lamp. Picture it.
It’s his birthday. He arrives home from the office, steak dinner already laid out on the table, wisps of steam from the baked potatoes dance playfully above the plate. After dinner, he drifts off and dreams of his wife emerging from the en-suite wearing a reed miniskirt and half coconut shells concealing her breasts and that’s just swell, he thinks, just like the lamp.Then the bombs come. Half the flesh from his face sloughs off from radiation and now she can’t even look him in the eye.
Maybe. I wouldn’t know. These tiny paper dolls in jumpsuits don’t have stories, just smiles.
Their new home is a suffocating bunker buried deep underground. They twist cranks and pull levers in constant, tireless motion. They need food, but I never see them eat, or drink, or sleep.
The game calls these people ‘dwellers’; a label suggesting an unceasing half-life somewhere between home ownership and vagrancy, turkey dinners and trashcan scavenging, rump steaks and rat haunch. Before they enter the vault – before I agree to let them in – I can access a sickly green-tinted checklist that provides an itemized breakdown of their worthiness.
In previous Fallout games, tinkering with the S.P.E.C.I.A.L system was a method of self expression. Here, it provides a minor opportunity for cold optimization. Personalities, the game is telling me, are superfluous detail. What I should be most interested in, as a player, is aptitude. I am encouraged to maximize productivity. To leave those who aren’t quite S.P.E.C.I.A.L enough waiting outside the vault.
The Hobbesian rush for superiority and competition that saw the old world burn in a lake of fire? All gravy, Fallout Shelter is telling me. Just keep those spirits dancing on the graves of what came before, and we’ll all have a grand old time fighting for scraps in the dust.
These tiny paper dolls in jumpsuits won’t stop smiling. When I pinch their suits and lift them from the ground, they go limp. I drop them. They continue to smile.
The irradiated soil of the wasteland prevents me from providing my dwellers with Levittown lawns. These freshly pressed and laundered blue and yellow jumpsuits, though? Tons of them. Residents of Iowa, according to one report, spend around $70,000,000 a year on professional lawn maintenance.
“I enjoy the the wide expanse of fresh green grass,” one resident told the survey, “and I don’t apologize for that at all.”
Does the avarice and fierce tribalism under the guise of civility and good taste that characterized mid-century western consumerism, does it just plain dig the uniformity of it all?
I’m not asking for a lot, Fallout: Shelter. It’s just these tiny paper dolls won’t stop smiling, and I want to know why.
What’s clever is, even in absence of anything recognizably human, Fallout Shelter still engenders a facsimile of empathy. The things that my dwellers need as people – food, water, power – happen to be the very same things I need to progress. My goals align with theirs, so in the most plastic-coated, utilitarian sense of the phrase, I cannot help but feel for them.
Here’s the rub though: If Fallout Shelter lies to me constantly about my dweller’s agency, the only other lie comparable is the one it tells me about my own.
In my role as overseer, at least, there is some small scope for role-play. My only defined character traits are that I posses a disembodied eye and a disembodied mouse arrow and, presumably, enough parts of my brain kept alive in a vat that my reward centers still function. The rest is mine to fill in.
My dwellers gather resources of their own volition. I make the decision when to click the icon, and add them to my reserves. I use the resources to build more rooms so I can squeeze more dwellers into my underground rat factory. When I have enough dwellers, more rooms unlock for me to build. This gradual schedule of progress and possibility eliminates both creativity and strategy. I can learn an optimal way to make progress but I am otherwise superfluous to proceedings.
Is Fallout Shelter telling me that there is no ‘best way’ to live in post-apocalyptica? That the slow march of survival for its own sake should be motivation enough?
Is Fallout Shelter saying anything?
As a franchise, Fallout seems very much to have fallen victim to what critic Heather Alexandra has called “uncritical excavation of American iconography and “golly gee” wistfulness” — and a pale aesthetic veneer of what theorist Jean Baudrillard called ‘sign value’. The true irony here is that it is exactly this mistaking of lake-surface star reflections for stars themselves that the original Fallout parodied so well.
It depicted a society clinging to the empty symbols of affluence and domestic bliss despite having no way of returning to the nostalgic comfort these items evokes. A brand new color television with no signal. Putting on your best suit to go scavenge for Fancy Lad snack cakes. This iconography was, as Fallout itself appears to have become, a copy with no reference to its original. A reflection without a source. A dead language shouted across the wasteland by everyone, and understood by no-one.
I hate Fallout Shelter. I hate it not only for its transparent cynicism, but for how it wallows in that transparency under the mushroom cloud sized smokescreen of an empty aesthetic that once stood as allegory, but now exists only as brand recognition. It is the manipulative monetized clicker game equivalent of re-branding boring clothes as ‘normcore’ to gesture at self-aware irony while altering nothing of substance.
And yet, none of this would be a problem if the game was simply failed art, but Fallout Shelter is both much more, and much less than that. The game not only drains its own predecessors of meaning like a vampire breaking their teeth on the neck of a memorial statue, but also drains its players of meatspace revenue. It is not simply valueless – it has negative value.
Shelter employs the same skinner box technology as the legion of mobile games before it. I can log in right now and spend money on tiny armour suits and digital bottle caps.
The counter argument, I’m aware, goes something like this:
Fallout Shelter is free. The monetization needs to exist to pay for the game. The monetization needs to exist so the game can exist.
In response, I feel I need to ask a question that we, as critics, sometimes forget to ask in our hurry to define whether a game reaches its own potential as art, entertainment, or even consumer product.
Why does the game need to exist, then?
Why, in a world of underpaid labour and dwindling resources, do we need another product which exists only to transfer wealth from individual to corporate shareholder, which fails utterly as art, whose only justification for its own damaging existence is to further extend that damaging existence, like a parasitical bloatfly attached to the underbelly of a grazing brahmin?
And if it’s just for escapism, then why not just escape to somewhere beautiful instead?
These tiny paper dolls in jumpsuits don’t seem to mind, at least. At the time of writing, they continue to smile.