The Fallout series is a sequel to the games

…and I kinda wish it wasn’t.

I’m deeply divided on the Fallout TV show, because I love it as an adaptation, but I don’t love it as a continuation.

Unmarked spoilers for the TV show and probably every game in the series follow. You have been warned.

How to do an adaptation right

I’ve talked at length about how the Halo show at best squanders and at worst butchers its source material. By contrast, the Fallout show does almost everything right.

The storyline is all new, but it has some familiar beats, some very strong echoes of the first and third games. It’s a good story that fits the world of Fallout, with themes and plot elements you’d expect to see, but stands on its own well enough for anyone who hasn’t played the games.

The production design is all tight and high-budget, and everything looks and sounds like you’d expect coming in from the games. This is kind of to be expected, but there are other shows that managed to spend a ton of money and still get it all wrong.

They absolutely nail the tone you’d expect, not taking itself too seriously yet hitting serious themes in a very darkly humorous way. Okay, it’s not exactly Bethesda’s over-the-top camp, nor is it the dark-and-dry-yet-tongue-in-cheek of the earlier games, but it’s a compromise that ought to make fans of both happy and works great in and of itself. Between the tone of the writing and the style of the visuals, I cannot stress how much it feels like Fallout. It’s got lots of treats for fans of the games, big and small, too.

It’s just fun, too. The humour is genuinely funny, and the characters are entertaining with great chemistry. It’s an adventure that stays interesting with great pacing and it has dramatic weight without taking itself too seriously.

The only two issues I have of any significance are that the Lucy/Maximus romance feels forced, and that while the dark humour keeps it fun for now, I think I’m eventually going to get burned out by the bleakness of the series. Both of these are down to personal preference to an extent, and aren’t specific to this show being based on a video game at all.

As an adaptation or a reimagining of Fallout for the television screen, it’s pretty damn close to being everything we could have asked for. I don’t really do ratings anymore, but two thumbs up.

A subtle distinction

The only problem is that it’s not. It’s stated to be fully canon, and it’s set after the current lineup of games. In other words, it’s a sequel, not a reboot.

This isn’t my main point, but I think that does invite a degree of scrutiny that wouldn’t be the case otherwise. From the perspective of an adaptation, it’s pretty true to the source material, but as part of the same canon it plays pretty fast and loose with it. Although, to be fair, so do the games at times. It also reuses some old plot points which would feel like a cool reference in a separate continuity, but it’s just rehashing old plot points here.  

I’m not the only one unhappy about the show in the context of the games, but I’m going to try to focus on my own feelings and why the show doesn’t sit well for me rather than make any sweeping generalizations. We’re really going to start getting to the highly subjective, personal opinion from this point forward.

Kicking over the sandcastle

Yeah, it’s the nuking of Shady Sands and the fall of the NCR that really gets under my skin.

It’s not just that the NCR is gone. It feels more like a reset button, return to status quo rather than exploring something new. This isn’t exploring the chaotic remains of a failed state that had collapsed under its own weight, shooting it out with raider gangs and dubious provisional governments in ruined postwar cities. This is a return to a sparse, brutal wasteland that looks like the bombs just fell, where the Vaults are a big deal, prewar legacies are the focus, and the Brotherhood of Steel is the main postwar faction.

As an aside, I hear “retcon” being thrown around a lot and I don’t think that’s quite accurate, although there may have been an unintentional retcon involved.

It’s pretty clear to me that in the show, Shady Sands was supposed to have been nuked in 2277. You can skirt around it, but it’s honestly a lot of mental gymnastics that raise even more questions and ignore the intent of the scene. However, I don’t think this was anything more than a simple mistake. Someone botched the math, and when fans pointed it out (and pointed out that it decanonizes the long-time favourite that is New Vegas), now they’re scrambling to work around it.

What the show is, however, a dramatic shift in direction of the West Coast world from where we last left it. New Vegas clearly laid out how things were. The NCR wasn’t doing so great, but it was hobbling along as a functional if flawed state. The Enclave was reduced to small pockets, some of them literally geriatrics. The Brotherhood was all but irrelevant after one disastrous last gasp.

To be clear, at the end of the day this is just something that bothers me. The showrunners made a creative choice I don’t like. Although I don’t personally like it, and I think the argument could be made that it’s questionable, it’s also a gross exaggeration to say it’s some grave sin against the core tenets of the franchise.

As you can probably tell, I’m not onboard with the conspiracy theories about Todd Howard personally smiting the NCR because he hates that fans prefer New Vegas, but if you are in that camp, a guy from Vault-Tec coming out of nowhere and nuking Shady Sands has quite the subtext to it. At the end of the day, whatever the reasoning might have been, it just feels spiteful.

Does it matter?

It matters to me.

It’s not some vague notion of disrespecting lore that bugs me. It’s that I personally liked the post-post apocalyptic world, I liked seeing things move forward (even if past mistakes keep getting repeated), and I liked the NCR as a faction. Violently wiping that all away feels like it invalidates the earlier games, it makes them feel pointless, it makes my choices as a player feel pointless. It’s a Happy Ending Override that sours the whole experience thus far.

For me, a sequel can retroactively make its predecessor(s) better or worse to come back to.

Halo 5 was a divisive entry in the series, but it had some interesting ideas in it, and I think really started to hit its stride in the last act. It ends on a cliffhanger that never really got picked up, with Halo Infinite resolving the central conflict offscreen. Because of that, I’ve been a lot less inclined to come back to 5 after Infinite came out, even though I’ve had a soft spot for the game. One of these days I ought to do a piece on the Reclaimer Trilogy Saga, but I have touched on this in my video on Halo Infinite.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Mass Effect Andromeda, which by its very existence makes Mass Effect 3’s questionable ending tolerable. No matter how bad things got in the Milky Way, there were a few survivors clinging to life in a new galaxy. Interestingly, it’s also an example of something set up for a sequel it never got, which has a whole dynamic of its own.

There are people who are comfortable with creating their own canon in their minds, or who just don’t dwell on what later installments mean for earlier ones. I wish I was one of them. In this case, because the powers that be have stated it’s canon, I’m never going to not be able to think of it as canon, and I’m always going to think about it when going back to earlier games.

Some perspective

I’m going to editorialize a bit and say that yes, it was a mistake to make the show canon. I’m more on the fence about leaning on Bethesda’s post-apocalypse over Black Isle/Obsidian’s post-post-apocalypse. And I also don’t think it matters, in the grand scheme of things.

I get why the show leans into a certain interpretation of Fallout. Brutal post-apocalyptic wasteland, Vault-Tec, Brotherhood of Steel, weird mutants and zeerust retrofuturism is synonymous with Fallout, because the later games lean heavily into it and those are what the popular image of the franchise largely comes from. Though some fans prefer a different Fallout, I think this is a smart choice to keep the appeal broad, and it makes for great TV.

What bugs me, what I keep coming back to, is that they could have had their cake and eat it too. If the show wasn’t canon to the games or even was left ambiguous, we could consider it an alternate timeline and move on.  If it was set in a different time or a different place, that would take it outside the context of the games and we could move on. They could do the exact same story, and it would play just as well to viewers who are coming in cold while not raising the same issues to existing players.

As it stands, it’s inevitably going to step on some toes. Despite assurances to the contrary, I don’t see how it’s going to avoid canonizing specific endings of past games. It may have done this already- we’ve seen the Prydwen, which only survives Fallout 4 if certain choices are made.

The Fallout show is a great show on its own merits, but for a small segment of the fanbase- of which I fall into- it will forever be a frustrating one because of how it’s positioned in respect to the games.

Here’s the thing, though: it’s a small segment of the fanbase. It’s only people who have played the games that are going to take issue with it, only those with a certain view of canon in general, and only those who liked and disliked certain things. That’s a very small, if quite vocal, group. The show is going to sink or swim with or without that group- and, from what we’ve seen so far, it’s swimming very well.

Begin again, let go

Where can we go
When will we find that we know
To let go
Begin, begin again tonight

One of the central themes of Fallout New Vegas was the need to let go of the past and move forward.

This doesn’t seem to be a common interpretation, but to me it always felt like there was a metatext to it, a message to the player about the series itself. The Core Region, the classic Fallout, Black Isle and Obsidian had their day. It’s Bethesda’s show now. Rather than dwell on what was and could have been, it’s time to put that aside and look forward to what is and will be. For some, that means walking away in disgust, and that’s okay. And for others, that means the new Fallout will be all they’ll ever know, and that’s okay too. This was true in 2010 when Obsidian wrote their swan song, and it’s true today.

While we’re on the topic of New Vegas, I think there’s something a lot of people are thinking about on some level, but nobody seems to be voicing. I don’t personally think a spiritual successor to New Vegas is likely anyway, but by trashing the Core Region and setting a new show there, it kinda puts a nail in the coffin of getting another Obsidian-made, set-in-the-West, calling-back-to-the-originals game.

I wish the Fallout show had been firmly positioned as a soft-rebooted adaptation rather than a firmly-canon sequel. But either way, it’s a great show, a shining example of how to translate a video game to the television screen, and I’ll definitely be back for Season 2.