Even by the bizarre standard set by other fandoms, the fandom surrounding the Fallout video game series is weird. Where your typical human would rather spend a Friday night doing strange things like “hang out with friends” and “go out,” your average Fallout fan is likely spending his or her night asking “Could super mutants exist?” or debating the ethical merits of Fallout 4’s factions. In the spirit of this tradition, we wanted to ask: how realistic are Fallout’s cities?
It’s worth first asking, does the Fallout universe even have cities? On the one hand, what we call “cities” in Fallout are quite small. In terms of actual visible inhabitants, even the largest of the Fallout cities—the urban area of New Vegas—has fewer than 150 known residents. Other large communities like Megaton, Rivet City, and Diamond City have approximately 50 residents each. The settlements that dot Fallout 4’s Commonwealth all have maximum populations of 21. Even the earliest known cities—take for example, Jericho—had estimated populations ranging from 2,000 to 3,000 in 9,000 BCE.
There are two possible responses to this: First, we could be generous and look at Fallout concept art. After all, what we see in the virtual world of Fallout may fall short of the game designers’ vision of each city. Renditions of Megaton, Diamond City, and Rivet City depict cities with populations likely in the hundreds. In the case of New Vegas, concept art depicts a large city potentially supporting thousands of residents. Each is still smaller than even the earliest cities, but they are hardly the villages we experience in the games.
Second, we could set aside population as an issue altogether. In The Urban Revolution, archaeologist V. Gordon Childe sets out 10 general metrics for urban cities. We won’t go through them here, but you can find a full list of the criteria in the above link. Suffice it to say that nearly all of Fallout’s cities and Fallout 4’s large settlements meet most of these criteria: all of Fallout’s urban communities exhibit above-average population densities, specialization and trade, a system of writing, and some form of governance.
All that is to say, the post-apocalyptic urbanism of Fallout generally comports with what we know about early human urbanization. But the devil is in the details.
Megaton, Sacred Site
When the Lone Wanderer emerges from Vault 101 at the beginning of the Fallout 3, he or she encounters a rural landscape that is meaningless, violent, and impoverished. The player soon discovers Megaton, a city that for all its grit and grime is the opposite—a beacon of optimism, refuge, and improvement among the Capital Wasteland.
In his accessible survey on urbanization, The City: A Global History, demographer Joel Kotkin sets out the three essential components of cities: First, they host sacred spaces, or the monumental structures and places which give residents a broader sense of meaning. Second, they provide security from the “marauding nomads” and great beasts of the countryside. Third, they enable market exchange, providing a space in which local artisans, regional farmers, and traveling merchants can trade in goods and ideas.
Here’s what we know about the history of Megaton: Shortly after the bombs fell, a group of refugees attempted to gain entry into the sealed Vault 101. Failing to do so, they took shelter from dust storms in the crater that would become Megaton. After the chaos immediately following the Great War settled down, the settlers of Megaton built the city into a trading hub for the region. Given that the crater was created by an undetonated megaton bomb (hence the city’s name), the city soon attracted members of a cult known as the Children of Atom. Members of the religious order played a major role in constructing the city that we see today and are the reason the megaton bomb has not been relocated from the city’s center.
Sacred sites—whether in the form of a shrine or a megaton bomb—play an essential role in early human urbanization, both in Fallout 3 and the real world. As the historian Lewis Mumford points out in The City in History, the dead are the first humans to take up stationary residence. Spiritual rituals growing out of remembering the dead likely played an important role in guiding humans into building shrines and early settlements at specific sites. Both for early hunter-gatherers and members of the Children of Atom, sacred sites provide order and meaning for residents of a strange and scary world. This may be why religious orders—both in cities like Megaton and early cities like Ur—play such a dominant role in the public life of early cities. The fortune-teller Mama Murphy plays a similar role in Fallout 4’s main settlement Sanctuary, giving the settlement and its maintenance spiritual significance.
The Stationary Bandits of New Vegas
When we think of the sacred, Las Vegas is probably the last thing to come to mind. But having been spared much of the devastation of the Great War, the glimmering towers and neon signs of New Vegas still have the power to inspire awe. Within the New Vegas Strip—officially called the Free Economic Zone of New Vegas—a distinctly modern form of security and governance has taken root. Thanks in part to pre-war planning, the ubiquitous Mr. House maintains a kind of proprietary governance over the Strip: rather than a public body, Mr. House sets the rules that residents must follow, maintains security both among residents and from outside aggressors, and profits based on whether outsiders want to come and spend their money. For a modern example of this, think Disney World: a privately owned and managed area that provides public and private goods like safety, infrastructure, and thrills, and profits accordingly. Needless to say this probably wasn’t a common arrangement after the Great War, but given that Mr. House—spoiler alert—is a pre-war casino proprietor, it’s not surprising that he would run the New Vegas Strip this way.
While a post-apocalyptic Disney World managed by robot police may sound scary, the area surrounding the Strip is worse. The area immediately outside of the New Vegas Strip is inhabited by settlers under the rule of a resident raider gang called the Kings. Here in Freeside, we find a more likely form of early urban governance in the “stationary bandit.” As Mumford and other urban thinkers have theorized, it’s likely that early states came into being as hunting groups voluntarily protecting their villages from roving bandits and great beasts transitioned into occupying war bands demanding protection money—what we might now call taxes—and oaths of fealty from docile farmers.
While such an arrangement is pretty rough in its early stages, illustrated by the filth and violence of Freeside as compared to the Strip, there is still hope for this kind of urban community. As the economist Mancur Olson points out in his discussion of stationary bandits, such rulers have an incentive to discover and provide the infrastructure and institutions that create a prosperous city in the long term. Cities like Megaton and Diamond City may have also been ruled by resident raider gangs, until improvements in security infrastructure and the wealth of residents reduced their power. The settlements of Fallout 4 are, however, in a much more precarious position; in early human society, the line between benevolent defenders and authoritarian occupiers is thin. As happened in the events leading up to Fallout 4, the death of a morally upright leader—in this case, the Sole Survivor—opens the possibility of even the Minutemen descending into banditry.
Fallout 4 Settlements and the “Propensity to Truck, Barter, and Exchange”
For all the interesting elements built into cities like Megaton and New Vegas, the settlements of Fallout 4 might be the most accurate representation of early urban development. Two features in particular stand out: First, many take the form of a handful of families engaged in agriculture. Second, they are dependent on the trade networks the Sole Survivor builds through the game. Where cities like Megaton and Diamond City are conspicuously lacking in large scale food production (notably, this is not the case in New Vegas), the settlements illustrate the importance of agricultural surplus and trade in allowing for urbanization. While some settlements are engaged in sustenance farming, many settlements produce food far outstripping local needs while other settlements largely import their food.
While other cities appear to be engaged in some trade, the system of managing settlements in Fallout 4 illustrates the unique importance of specialization and trade for urbanization. Before supply lines are established, many settlements lack the supplies needed to make even basic improvements while others lack the food to sustain growing populations. Building out such trade networks not only increases the happiness of settlements; it also allows individual settlements to specialize in the production of certain goods and services—food, water, and commerce, for example—in order to improve the resources of the entire network. As science writer Matt Ridley has pointed out, this mix of urbanization and trade also facilitates the innovation and discovery that is essential for advancing human well-being. While the modest settlements of Fallout 4 may not be as impressive as the fortress cities like Rivet City and Diamond City, in many ways they share a lot more in common with great modern trading cities like Hong Kong, New York City, and London.
Why have the Fallout games inspired so much serious commentary? One possibility is that we’re intoxicated by the game’s invitation to think seriously about human nature as we shoot radroaches and scour abandoned grocery stories for caps and ammo. The game primes us with its iconic meditation at the start of every game: “War. War never changes.” Perhaps the same could be said for cities. No matter how many bombs we drop, we as a species have needs and impulses that urban life offers in spades: purpose, security, and the potential to, as Adam Smith would put it, “truck, barter, and exchange.”
This piece is the result of a few in-depth Fallout discussions with my colleague Olivia Gonzalez.
Share your thoughts with me on Twitter at @mnolangray.