Fallout’s best vault elected to tell the series’ darkest story

Screenshot: Fallout: New Vegas (Nukapedia)
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This piece was originally published June 07, 2018 and is part of The A.V. Club’s favorite features of 2018

Fallout: New Vegas (2010)—“Democracy Inaction”

Let’s be honest: Fallout: New Vegas is the Fallout snob’s Fallout game. Created by Obsidian Entertainment—one of two studios to rise from the dissolution of Interplay’s legendary Black Isle Studios, creators of the original Fallout games and other classic RPGs—the Vegas-set spin-off is full of story nods and design decisions hearkening back to the series’ pre-Fallout 3 history. Buggy, fiddly, and occasionally too complicated for its own damn good, New Vegas also offered up some of Fallout’s best writing and storytelling, something exemplified by its best vault—and, thus, the best vault in the entire series—Vault 11.

There’s been a lot of Vault Talk on the internet of late, courtesy of Bethesda Softworks and the slowly growing hype push for its latest post-apocalyptic mystery project, Fallout 76. Although there’s been plenty of speculation about what FO76 might actually turn out to be—with rumors leaning toward some kind of online survival game in the style of DayZ or Rust, which, sure, fine, whatever, if that’s what brings you joy—the focus of the actual marketing has been on the vaults, one of the series’ most distinctive features.

That’s with good reason. Not only are these fortified bunkers—ostensibly designed to keep thousands of people alive during the nuclear war that set up the series’ post-apocalyptic setting—one of the most distinct elements of Fallout’s semi-satirical universe, but they’re also one of Bethesda’s best personal additions to the Fallout playbook. The studio didn’t invent the vaults; the original Fallout starts with the player having just been kicked out of one, and Fallout 2 establishes the all-important twist that the vast majority of them were designed, not as life-saving measures, but as sick psychological experiments of the scientific sadists at the Vault-Tec corporation. But Fallout 3, which saw the studio resurrect the series as a first-person phenomenon, is the game that established the modern vault template: Find a reason to lure the player into a dimly lit, decrepit cave of steel and glass, throw a few monsters in their way to liven things up, and then use the environment and the occasional audio log to tell a tight, tragic little story. But while Fallout 3—with its vaults full of homicidal musicians, mutation-generating viruses, and a whole lot of guys named Gary—set up the basic vault idea, it was up to another game and studio to take it to new heights.

But New Vegas is weirdly reticent about showing off its hidden masterpiece. Situated close to the center of the game’s map, the player will only ever be directed to Vault 11 as part of a late-stage quest from reclusive techno-fetishists the Brotherhood Of Steel. Even then, the item the Brotherhood needs can be snagged after exploring just around half of the bunker. At that point, there’s little keeping you in Vault 11 beyond its fundamental mystery, and designer Eric Fenstermaker is confident enough in the story that there’s nothing but curiosity dragging you to its end.

Things start on an ominous note: When you arrive—decades too late, as ever—the big metal vault door has been inexplicably left open and its interior exposed to the elements. The fact that the only enemies in the vault are wildlife, like giant praying mantises and rats, helps establish an eerie, abandoned feeling as you wander its halls; it also means the focus here is less on combat and more on navigation and teasing the story apart. The first weird touches, visible from the very first room, are campaign posters. They’re slathered on every surface, in the familiar red, white, and blue of the games’ typically uber-patriotic take on Americana. But there’s something weird about them, too.

It’s almost like nobody wants the job they’re campaigning for.

That unease quickly escalates when you check a computer sitting near the door leading deeper into the vault. Its sole contents are a voice recording of a conversation between five people, four of whom judge themselves to have been damned by whatever went on below, and who promptly take their own lives on-mic. (In a nice touch, you can find their skeletons and guns scattered around the room.) Descending into the vault itself, it’s clear some kind of violent conflict broke out; not only is there overturned furniture and bodies everywhere, but some of the posters have been very intentionally defaced, changing the already-weird “I hate Nate” into the even less explicable “I hate Kate.”

Poking around the vault’s still-glowing computer terminals, we get a few more clues: a series of campaign messages from the various “candidates,” each promising to do a worse job than the one before if elected vault overseer; a note, announcing that elections have been postponed; and an order from 11’s latest leader, Katherine Stone (who shares a last name with one of the listed candidates, Nathaniel—a.k.a. “Nate”). Kate’s message is the strangest: Citing her power as vault overseer, she’s declared that elections have now been abolished, and that selection of the next overseer will now be done entirely by random assignment.

By this point, players with even a passing familiarity of The Twilight Zone or O. Henry will be pretty sure we’ve wandered into Shirley Jackson territory. Vault 11 doesn’t spend a lot of time pretending the overseer job everyone is fighting to avoid is anything other than some kind of death sentence. The brilliance, then, is in the specificity and the pacing. The story—which the game categorizes under the quest name “Democracy Inaction”—isn’t some generic, “Ha ha, politics sure are screwed up!” comedy. Rather, it’s a very specific tale about the consolidation and abuse of power, about the way ethical lines erode when survival is on the line, and, in its own way, about the dangers of unchecked optimism from people who don’t have to pay the costs when it ultimately turns out they’re wrong.

We get our next piece of the puzzle when we descend into the vault’s living quarters: a conversation between two men, one of whom is the head of the Justice Bloc, the largest collection of voters in Vault 11’s fractured constituency. That mattered, back when enough votes was all it took to send a man or woman to their still poorly defined death. Now that Overseer Kate has abolished elections in favor of a true lottery, that power, and the safety it brought, has suddenly evaporated. The conversation ends with the pair plotting armed revolt. We’ve already seen the result of the campaign, in the morgue full of vault-dweller bodies and the booby-trapped mines and grenades strewn throughout 11’s bullet-pocked halls.

A trip to the security offices on the next floor down fills in even more details, containing as it does the transcript of the murder trial of one Katherine Stone, future overseer of Vault 11. Her husband, Nate, got a little too lucky at poker night, you see, and that was all it took for the leaders of the Justice Bloc to put his name up as their next “endorsement,” complete with enough votes to send him to his death—unless Kate was willing to “intervene.” Hoping to save her husband from the dark side of democracy, Kate took the Bloc’s exploitative deal, only to be stunned when, a month later, they put Nate’s name up anyway. Pushed to the edge by an unfair system run by disgusting men, she decided to murder members of the Justice Bloc in an attempt to erase its majority and save her husband.

The most chilling part of Kate’s testimony comes when she admits she wanted to be caught for the killings. That way, she notes, everyone in the vault would vote her to be the next overseer as punishment. (“They have to pick someone and live with their reasons,” she resignedly remarks, one of the first real hints at Vault 11’s satirical push.) By this point, we already know how her term in office played out, flipping the situation on the Justice Bloc, breaking its power, and leaving the vault’s fate entirely to chance and anarchy. That’s only emphasized when we fight our way through all the bugs, vermin, traps, and flooded passageways to reach the atrium, where the final piece of the puzzle seemingly locks into place: a speech from the vault’s ombudsman, Gus Olson, revealing what most players probably already guessed.

There’s still power in the bluntness with which the game lays out what it’s been coyly talking around for the last hour, as Gus recites lines like, “The last overseer has finished his term and walked to his death in the chamber beneath his office,” and, “We want it to make sense. To understand why the vault’s mainframe will kill us if we do not offer one of our own as a yearly sacrifice.” And he tells the story of the vault’s first overseer, the only person to enter vault 11 already knowing the death sentence its inhabitants would live under, and who was shocked when his citizens forced him to be the first sacrifice on the block, fusing together the practice of “leader” and “martyr” for years to come.

In some lesser draft of Vault 11, this is the end of the story. It’s everything you’d expect from a Fallout vault: a horrible psychological experiment, human frailty, a lot of dead bodies to step over, a nasty twist, a hero or two, and some loot. Now that we’ve gotten the catharsis of discovery, it should be time to trek back to the door and find some place to plop down all your latest scavenger swag.

Except… there’s still that recording from the entrance, the one where the burned-up residents shot themselves. And the locked terminal in the overseer’s office, presumably leading down to the sacrificial chamber. And the password to open it, hidden at the end of Gus’ speech. Walking into a death chamber—as so many Vault 11 overseers did before you—is an objectively bad idea. There’s no in-game reason to do it; no extra weaponry, no important quest item locked away down there. That’s how you know New Vegas’ designers understand the power of the vaults as storytelling tools. They know you’re going to go down there, not because of some extrinsic reward, but because at this point, you’ve simply got to know.

What lays beneath the overseer’s office is some of Fallout’s finest dark comedy, as well as one of its nastiest, most gut-slugging twists. As you walk down a solemn metal corridor, a soothing voice encourages you to “walk into the light” (cue blinding spotlights). On the other side is a ratty chair, a projector, and a vase full of “calming” flowers. Once you sit down, a video plays, pitched at that sort of folksy ’50s insincerity that Fallout does so well. The newly minted martyr is invited to think back on the best moments of their life. Playing catch with dad. Doing well at school. Kissing a cutie. “These are just examples,” it cheerfully notes. Then, in that same smarmy tone, the video asks the viewer to contemplate what comes next. “Close your eyes now, and imagine what joys await you in the next life—in the afterlife. Can you see them? Good.” And that’s when the walls open up, and the killer robots start spraying you with lasers and lead.

Even if you’re expecting it (and how could you not be, at this point?), this fight can be a sudden shock to the system, but you can survive, and there’s far worse still to come. Beyond the walls the robots emerged from, there’s a door into the vault’s mainframe. On it are two messages, recorded many years ago. One is from the final five survivors of the community’s bloody infighting, telling the system they’re finally, after years of elections and consequence-free murder, refusing to give in to its whims and send another sacrifice into the waiting maw. The second is the system’s auto-reply, congratulating the residents for successfully completing the intended experimental goals by doing the decent thing and refusing to sacrifice one of their own:

Despite what you were led to believe, the population of Vault 11 is not going to be exterminated for its disobedience. Instead, the mechanism to open the main vault door has now been enabled, and you can come and go at your leisure. But not so fast! Be sure to check with your overseer to find out if it’s safe to leave. Here at Vault-Tec, your safety is our number one priority.

Now that they’ve passed the test, the residents are free of the artificial demands; hell, the computer even unlocks the door so they can spread their message of thoughtful nonconformity to the rest of the wastes.

Fallout is often labeled a cynical series. This is, after all, a world where humanity jammed a gun against its own head and pulled the trigger, where the few survivors were kept alive largely by the foresight of insane scientists drooling at the thought of helpless batches of test subjects locked in sterile metal tombs. And yet Vault 11’s shaggy dog story is worse, in its way, because its creators had hope. They had hope that humanity could be better when it came together, that people in their aggregate could find a nobility and courage that the individual might lack. They failed to understand that the vaults carried a label of their own—“CONTENTS UNDER PRESSURE”—and that people can and will do terrible things to survive, especially if you’ve got a process in place, like, say, an election, to diffuse and absolve them of their guilt.

On your way back up and out of the vault, past all the bodies, the posters, the self-interest, the death, you walk by the computer with that first message on it, with the five voices arguing out their fates. It’s worth playing again, just as a refresher. “‘A shining example.’ That’s what it called us,” one voice hollowly notes. Another dissents, “Anybody would have done what we did!” “You ask me,” a third replies, “that’s exactly the problem. Now let’s get on with this.” There are four gunshots. The last man drops his gun and runs. War’s not the only thing that never changes.