Amazon’s Fallout and the limits of video game adaptations

Amazon’s Fallout and the limits of video game adaptations

Amazon’s Fallout has been met with high critical praise but also shows just how authentic an adaptation of an RPG driven by player choice can be.

Adaptations of video game stories and characters are nothing new. From classic examples such as the fantastic 90’s Street Fighter anime features to the maligned theatrical works of the notorious Uwe Boll, video game adaptations have historically been cast on a broad spectrum of quality. In recent years, however, the quality control has tightened up when it comes to adapting stories and settings found in recognizable gaming media. 

Amazon’s Fallout – World of Fallout Featurette

Paramount’s Sonic The Hedgehog movies, Illumination’s record-breaking Super Mario Bros. Movie and now Amazon’s Fallout series are arguably the best examples one could point to on how to strike the right note with the gaming audiences they hail from. It’s easy to see why at a glance. Fan favorite characters, iconic weapons and items along with nods to deep lore events and set pieces feel rewarding to see for franchise die-hards. Paired alongside accessible stories that don’t require a controller or dexterity to engage with, it seems like the perfect formula to get everyone on the same page about the biggest names in the gaming space.

Looking at Amazon’s Fallout as solely a television series, one can’t help but shower it with praise. It nails the retro-future aesthetics of the iconic Vault-Tech Vaults and the tools and robots within. It also perfectly captures the fear and overwhelming excitement that the atmosphere of the franchise’s iconic wasteland evokes upon first sight. It’s got plenty of over-the-top violence, off-the-wall characters, villainous plots and tracks by The Ink Spots to sweep the casual Fallout fan or franchise newcomer off their feet and into its fanciful irradiated landscapes. For fans who may have felt burned by the lackluster release of Fallout 76 and checked out, this series may be just what you’re looking for. Newcomers to the franchise will likewise find the show a great kicking off point to the overall vibe of Fallout.


Vault Dweller Lucy McLean mingles with surface-dwelling Wastelanders of Filly

However, the show is unique in a number of ways. First and foremost it being an adaptation of a game whose main form of storytelling completely revolves around the player and how their actions affect their surroundings. Unlike Mario, Sonic or even classic high-quality adaptations such as Final Fantasy 7: Advent Children, Fallout and its stories don’t revolve around one central figure or party of figures. They revolve around you, the player, and the actions that you take.

The absence of this feeling in the show is palpable from the beginning. In one of the most unique introductions that the franchise has ever seen, protagonist and Vault Dweller Lucy McLean is betrothed to be married via arranged marriage in a citizen exchange program with another Vault. As the daughter of the Overseer, she is skilled in a well-rounded set of traits befitting of what could be considered a common type of player character and is even noticeably lacking in certain areas, her social awkwardness being reflective of someone who perhaps doesn’t particularly value Speech or Charisma as desirable traits to begin with. It’s a compelling setup whose proceeding tragedy is befitting of Fallout’s pedigree of starting the players’ adventures off with a bang. It makes it feel all the worse that a fan isn’t able to play through this event themselves.

Lucy McLean

That’s just the beginning. For everything the show gets right, that one looming shadow of a problem can never be shaken off. It douses the authenticity the show is trying to provide. Namely, I took no part in any of these incredibly meaningful events to the franchise canon and had no opportunities to build my own relationships with these characters. Every major story beat, every piece of new fiction and history, every new face introduced came and went with an air of uneasiness because I couldn’t help but think with every choice Lucy made what other options would be available if a player was in control. 

How would myself, or someone else react to learning about the fate of Shady Sands after the events of New Vegas? The power of Cold Fusion tech or the secret of Vault 31 and the “H. R. Breakthroughs” it holds? How would players have gone about acting upon these new revelations after trudging through the wasteland, being stalked by notorious bounty hunter Cooper Howard and Brotherhood of Steel knights alike? What options would have Bethesda given us and how would those choices echo throughout the wasteland? Finally, how would we have gone about confronting our Father and series antagonist Moldaver if it were us and not Lucy? More importantly of all, what would the conversation around these decisions become after the fans had experienced it all for themselves?

Nearly every event that occurs in the show deals with the events of the games that preceded it in a setting that brings the franchise back to its roots in ways that legacy fans would appreciate. This makes the series all the more of a bittersweet experience for those of us who wanted to explore these outcomes for ourselves. Those of us who dealt with the NCR back on our Xbox 360s in New Vegas, or our PCs back in the days of Fallout 2 are robbed of very meaningful and unique role-playing opportunities that many fans have been waiting over a decade or longer to resolve ourselves in our own ways. It steals away a personal sense of closure to their own decades-long journeys they took as Fallout protagonists.

The NCR Clashes with the Brotherhood of Steel

While Amazon’s Fallout is an action-packed thrill ride and certainly a good time, it misses the point of the franchise. The aesthetics, characters and even the lore are all secondary to the player’s reactions to the revelations that change the blasted world around them. Each game may have a “canon” ending that pushes the franchise forward, but that story isn’t told until the next game comes out and until that time the story of every Fallout game is your own. Until now, that is.

The bigger story that Fallout’s television debut tells is one of the limits of video game adaptations. The player and their interactions with the world and its machinations are what makes each installment of the world-renown post-apocalyptic RPG memorable, not the characters and set pieces themselves. Names such as “Mr. House,””The Boneyard,” and the “Capital Wasteland” wouldn’t mean anything if they didn’t fit into the stories created by those who played the games. Combine it with the unshakeable urge that rises up in the mind of any Fallout fan to question Lucy’s course of action and assess her options for yourself at every turn and you have a show with the familiar feeling of the franchise but without any of what makes the franchise special. The finale of the series suffers the most from this, as the episode re contextualizes the original 2077 incident that starts the series as a generic evil boardroom decision reminiscent of the finale of Obsidian’s 2019 Fallout-esque RPG, “The Outer Worlds.”

The enigmatic Ghoul bounty hunter, Cooper Howard

For the moment, Amazon’s Fallout is running its victory lap. It’s a well-deserved achievement. The performances, writing, special effects and action all look great on screen and are lovingly detailed with every little adornment a fan could ask for. Unfortunately, the Hollywood treatment of gaming’s most infamous post-apocalyptic RPG means the end of your story in the wasteland and the beginning of another one that you can listen to but not participate in.

Amazon’s Fallout Season 1 is now available to watch on Amazon Prime Video.

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