the moment

Fallout is good – but there’s no escaping Hollywood’s epidemic of ‘gamer brain’

The plague of terrible, unfaithful video-game adaptations is a thing of the past, writes Louis Chilton. Now, though, we have a new problem: a genre hell-bent on pandering to gamers through fidelity and familiarity at all costs

Tuesday 16 April 2024 12:18 BST
Vaulting ambition: Ella Purnell as the underground-dwelling Lucy in ‘Fallout’
Vaulting ambition: Ella Purnell as the underground-dwelling Lucy in ‘Fallout’ (Prime Video)

Haven’t you heard? Video-game adaptations are good now, actually! That’s the party line, chanted ad nauseum into a consensus so absolute that to point it out is to say nothing at all. But it is, broadly speaking, true: after decades of Hollywood clumsily mis-adapting everything from Street Fighter to Tomb Raider, it seems they’ve finally cracked the formula. Films such as The Super Mario Bros Movie and Sonic the Hedgehog have broken box-office records, while HBO’s The Last of Us won eight Emmys (from 24 nominations) and became the most streamed series on HBO’s platform Max. Now, in this same vein, we have Fallout.

Adapted from Bethesda’s popular game franchise of the same name, Fallout is set in an alternative future, in a world that has been decimated by nuclear armageddon. The series takes place within the chronology and canon of the video games, though focuses on a new set of characters. Lucy (Ella Purnell) is the sheltered hero, who leaves the underground vault in which she’s lived her whole life to try and save her kidnapped father (Kyle MacLachlan). Maximus (Aaron Moten) is a member of a cult-like community of militarised technology-worshippers. The Ghoul (Walton Goggins) is a centuries-old noseless mutant with a penchant for gunfire. Prime Video is onto a winner. The show has been widely watched, much discussed on social media and very well reviewed, with The Independent’s Nick Hilton praising the show’s “sheer cyberpunk chutzpah”. Those unfamiliar with the source material have praised it; perhaps more significantly, it’s also gone down well with diehard fans of the games. But therein lies the problem.

A series like Fallout would have been inconceivable even two decades ago: a mainstream, big-budget production that cares deeply about fidelity to the nerd-intensive lore of a video-game universe. Every piece of production design, from the food being eaten, to the weapons being discharged and the music being played, is seemingly plucked from some crevice of the game series – a satisfying wink towards those in the know. The plot points, too, hark back loosely to the games. Even the physics of the world follow the rules of a game. Episode one begins with Lucy talking some of her elders through her skill set – spelling out, in effect, the stats that players must select for their character at the start of a Fallout game (strength, intelligence, endurance, and so on). Later in the episode, she is stabbed near-fatally, but manages to treat herself instantaneously with a “stimpak” – what would be in the game a health-giving pickup item. The issue is that these little nods don’t actually offer any greater depth of meaning or emotional resonance. They’re just empty exophora; semantic dead ends.

Fallout is at least not alone in this affliction. This pathological compulsion towards fan service – what you might call “gamer brain” – can be seen in nearly all modern game adaptations. The Last of Us was faithful to a fault, recreating much of its source material scene-for-scene, and in parts even shot-for-shot. The Super Mario Bros Movie was, in many ways, an absolute mess of a story, with gossamer-thin worldbuilding. But there were references aplenty – subtle visual or musical gestures to obscure Mario games and characters. On some level, it gamifies the very act of TV viewing: narrative storytelling reduced to “spot the thing”. It’s impossible, too, not to view this as a reaction to Hollywood’s historical mishandling of video-game adaptations – a lurch back in the other direction, from oblivious disregard to pious homage.

It would be harsh to dismiss Fallout entirely because of this. There are things about the series to admire, including strong turns from its three leads, and a mordant sense of humour that genuinely tends to land. But there’s no avoiding the spectre of the games, the naked desire to win the favour of the Fallout subreddit. At a certain point, it becomes immaterial whether or not Fallout is a great video-game adaptation. What matters is whether it’s great television.

‘Fallout’ is streaming now on Prime Video

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