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20 Years On – ‘Fallout 2’: Dreaming of a Dead World



Fallout opens to the scratch of a needle on vinyl. Strained static chirps and mellow twangs.

Some old recordings, you can hear the callouses on the guitarist’s fingers. This one’s been cleaned up just to be made dirty again.

Did you know Louis Armstrong used to remove his own lip blisters with a razor blade?

Fallout 2‘s twinkling keys lead in like a playful sigh. Once more with all the feeling a dying world can muster. The modern Fallout games are drenched in this stuff, but there’s only the one oldie here alongside the creeping ambient noise that scores the majority of the wasteland circa 1998. Louis must have poured those points into strength to shoulder all that weight. Satchmo moonlights as Atlas. One song to sum up all the sweetness in every sleeping head, dreaming of a dead world.

There’s enough jolly melancholia here to drown out the weary way these instruments creak when they flex. Ever wondered how it feels to be a timeless classic? Wouldn’t eternal life be just as exhausting for a song?

Unable are the loved to die, wrote Emily Dickinson.

I wonder if they’d be willing though, given the option?

Armstrong opens his mouth and a sky cracks deep in his throat. Cigarette smoke and mushroom clouds. Treacle tones cut with artificial sweetener from Fancy Lad Snack Cakes.

“Give me a kiss to build a dream on”

Of all the possessions you could carry with you through the apocalypse, I imagine you could count on the memory of a kiss to not fizzle out when the circuit breakers give.

Industry has gifted the world packaged foods you could pass down as heirlooms a few generations before they lost their fluffy touch and creamy centers. Does nostalgia have a sell-by date?

Tragedy brings out the Elysian in the everyday. We can’t photograph paradise, but we can find it in photos we took afterward.

“my imagination will feed my hungry heart”

Louis croons lament through a rusted tannoy. A tin voice box, grate heated and cooled and reshaped by warning klaxons and safety announcements. A warm voice through cold steel. A love strong enough to survive scorched earth.

“When I’m alone with my fancies, I’ll be with you, weaving romances”

Even Louis’ softest utterances crackle like piercing plosives under the blanket of synthesized grit. The dirt from under the clock hands’ fingernails, scattered over the symphony like grave sod. It’s easy to forget quite how much Fallout‘s iconography asks of us upon first encountering it. To imagine longing for a time we never knew from a place we hope to never see. Works though, doesn’t it?

“My imagination will make that moment live”

Results May Vary, instructs the Garden of Eden Creation Kit advert. Even so, its vision of heaven is clear. A shrink-wrapped suburbia. From the portholes of the post-apocalypse, the aspirational becomes the vital.

What’s more iconic than a white picket fence?

Only a black-and-white picket fence, of course.

“Give me, give me just a moment”

The later Bethesda games would pump sweet music from nowhere over cartoonish gore for the dissociative lulz. Fallout 2′s jaundiced jaunt masks something I want to call existential terror until I decide that existential terror requires at least some level of reflection. And there are no mirrors in Fallout, only projectors.

“Give me a kiss to build a dream on”

Remember the way the vault suit hangs limply from ropes, bathed in light?

Sweaty, malleable, the bluest blue there is against an ocean of grey; covered in all the living dust of the red desert, hoisted up and worshiped by the lazy tribal pastiches that populate Arroyo. It’s the reverence of the thing as an artifact, though, that strikes me as Fallout 2 in microcosm.


Outside time.

Not time.

Old Time.

Old Time-y.

It’s strange to think you could whittle down the crowning achievements of an era to a few status symbols.

The Arroyo worship mutant cows with two heads. 

Or, the Arroyo worship sacred two-headed cows immune to mutation.


“Give me, give me just a moment”

You know that iconic image of Vault Boy, right?

It’s been suggested he isn’t actually giving you the thumbs up.

He’s not winking at you either.


Supposedly, this was taught as standard procedure when the bombs dropped. Close one eye, hold out your thumb. If your thumb covers the blast, you’re good to go. Also see: Whether or not you’re melting, I guess.

But you didn’t need to know that, because if you think Vault Boy is winking at you, then he’s winking at you. And If you think he’s giving you the thumbs up, then he’s giving you the thumbs up.

Maybe it’s both.

A wry, defiant wink in the face of nuclear annihilation.

Extended thumb as an existential middle finger.

“My imagination will make that moment live”

Once more with all the feeling a dying world can muster.

One song to sum up all the sweetness in every sleeping head, dreaming of a dead world.