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The following is an archived copy of J.E. Sawyer's interview for the Guardian, released around Fallout: New Vegas' release.

The original can be found here.


First, the obvious question: what do you think it is about apocalyptic fiction that fascinates us?

I think it's a fantasy to see the world and societies we know in ruins. It's a trend that runs through disaster fiction as well. It's a different form of escapism, an examination of what remains of humanity after we've been brought to the brink of total destruction and all order collapses. Surviving in these broken places challenges human capabilities as well as human social values, and I think that's what's intriguing.

What do you think have been the key apocalyptic influences behind the Fallout series?

There are a huge number of influences, but some of the most obvious are the Mad Max series (especially Max's sawn-off shotgun, iconic leather outfit, and Blue Heeler companion), A Boy and His Dog, The Omega Man/I am Legend, and documentary summaries of the Cold War era like The Atomic Café. It's the naïve optimism of the pro-nuclear cold war era that influences a lot of the dark humour of the Fallout series, especially with regard to the underground vault communities where many people in the series tried to wait out the world's collapse.

The series' art style is also heavily influenced by a unique brand of 1950s retro-futurism that was established in the original Fallout. There are science fiction ray guns, big-finned atomic-powered cars, and of course the iconic Monopoly-style vault boy cartoon figure that's found everywhere. In Fallout: New Vegas, our lead artist, Joe Sanabria, pulled heavily from the Googie style which was very popular in the art and architecture of late 1950s Vegas.

Are there any apocalyptic games that you've really admired? What was it about their vision that you appreciated?

Wasteland was the original inspiration for Fallout. I grew up on Interplay and SSI role-playing games. They were light on graphics and left a lot to the player's imagination. They managed to do a lot with very little.

I also really like the S.T.A.L.K.E.R series. The games can be unforgiving and the setting is sort of a micro-apocalypse, but they have fantastic atmosphere and really make the world feel dangerous. It's also interesting to see an apocalyptic setting that isn't American.

Is there a political or moral dimension to the post-apocalyptic landscape in Fallout? Are you looking to make any points about how the events in the game came about? Is Fallout, in any way, a warning to us?

There are heavy moral aspects to all of the Fallout games, though the political aspects have been emphasised differently in each game. The Fallout world is usually brutal and merciless and the start of the series was pretty notable in its time for allowing the player to be just as brutal as the other monsters of the wasteland. We emphasise player choice heavily, which means giving them the option to lay waste to everything around them.

Politically, the series usually presents the player with dysfunction. Very few communities of any size manage to get by without developing serious shortcomings. In Fallout: New Vegas, the New California Republic is the closest thing the wasteland has to a modern-style republic, but much like modern republics, it is fraught with bureaucratic inefficiency, corruption, and imperialist tendencies. Caesar's Legion is highly ethical, efficient, and disciplined, but in practice is misogynistic, brutal, and allows no room for individuals to have any voice. Caught in the middle is Mr House, the de facto ruler of the Strip, a sort of laissez-faire dictator who is ultimately only interested in maintaining independent control, no matter what the cost may be.

All of these forces show serious flaws because ultimately they are all run by human beings with the same laundry list of shortcomings we have always had. The repeated refrain of the Fallout universe is "War. War never changes." Whether the individual's goals are noble or depraved, ultimately Fallout's humanity finds itself drawn into the same sorts of conflicts that almost resulted in their destruction in 2077.

What do you think are the key elements of any post-apocalyptic story?

The physical world in ruin is an absolute must. Even if there are pristine pockets, the world we know has to be broken apart. This can be reflected in nature: blasted trees, mutated plants, cracked earth, bizarre weather. It can most strikingly be shown through the destruction of everything humanity has created: cities in ruin, highways of empty cars, skyscrapers with every window blasted out.

That ruin also has to extend to human society. Fallout: New Vegas shows post-2077 society at its most structured and ordered, but the Mojave Wasteland is still engulfed in chaos and warfare. Without order and under duress, human nature quickly turns very bleak. It's that grim search for light in the darkness that I think many people find compelling.

Do you think the Fallout vision of the post-apocalyptic environment has evolved over the series?

In the original Fallout and in Fallout 3, the world was socially and physically in shambles. People lived in small communities and there were very few organisations of any significant size in the wasteland. Many of the vaults had not yet opened, so it was very much in a state somewhere between The Road Warrior and Beyond Thunderdome.

Fallout 2 showed the American south-west rebuilding. There were many more communities, those communities were more organised, and there was even a defined nation, the New California Republic. Despite this increased stability, the NCR was shown as having many problems with corruption and underhanded imperialist tendencies.

Fallout: New Vegas is, in some ways, a post-post-apocalyptic story. Fallout's American southwest has been built up tremendously over time. They've moved beyond simply living in the ruins of the old world and have started to strike out and build new empires. Three large forces are locked in a conflict that is military, political, and ideological in nature. As such, the issues in many cases move beyond the individual - or stomp on the individual in the process. Even the smaller organisations of the universe, such as the education-oriented Followers of the Apocalypse, are ultimately bit players compared to the big movers and shakers.

It's interesting that you've set New Vegas in a city famed for gambling and hedonism - George Romero's apocalyptic zombie movies were always about consumerism and consumption gone mad - are you making similar points with this game?

I do think we try to point out the absurdity of a gambling oasis in the post-apocalyptic wasteland. Some of the more aware characters in the game will pointedly comment on it. Specifically, the idea that citizens of the New California Republic who were scrambling for security a few generations ago would be so cavalier about frittering their money away on gambling vacations is ridiculous. But it's a sort of absurd behaviour that we see in the real world all the time.

The fact is that casino games are mathematically against the player; probability and basic logic show that in the long run, the player is almost certainly going to lose. Even with this knowledge being seemingly obvious and widespread, it doesn't stop people from gambling, whether it's at casinos or elsewhere. Possibility and fantasy overpower probability and rationality. You only have to examine the recent process by which American, British, and other world real-estate markets have collapsed to see that this is a general constant in human behaviour. We ignore risks, forget the sacrifices and careful practices of our forebears, and throw caution to the wind in pursuit of the possible but improbable.

How do you see the Fallout series developing after New Vegas in terms of your post-apocalyptic vision? Do you see a future in which the society devolves even further? Do you have new environments you'd like to explore?

Given that so far the Fallout series has been pretty specific to certain parts of America, I think there are a lot of different ways to go with future titles. Despite featuring the New California Republic, Fallout 2 dealt with the idea of a human society that had gone naturalistic and tribal in an isolated area, much like the children in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. There could also be an examination of an even more advanced society, or a story set in a different part of the world. Many of Fallout's core values are particularly American, so certain settings could be hard, but I personally think it could be interesting to see some other locations.

What do you think the dominant themes will be in post-apocalyptic films and games will be going forward? In the fifties and eighties it was all nuclear devastation and more recently, movies have dealt with climate change. Do you see any new trends in apocalyptic thinking on the way?

If I have to guess, I'd say resource shortages. Peak oil, water consumption, and the viability of alternative energy sources are all hot topics right now, and I can only see them becoming more pronounced over time. Interestingly enough, it's what was cited in The Road Warrior as the cause of the war. This was mirrored in the opening of the original Fallout. Ideologies aside, the resources at stake were what made people desperate. It was still a hot topic in 1981 due to the 1973 oil crisis. We forgot about it for about 20 years, but unsurprisingly it's become a political issue and artistic theme again.

I think Daybreakers was one of the more interesting films to come out recently, in part because it's about a vampire apocalypse brought about by exhaustion of a vital resource. Human blood consumption reaches a rate where the vampire population, which dominates the planet, can no longer sustain itself. Vampire society degenerates and collapses upon itself. It's a fantasy scenario, but viewers don't have to stretch their brains much to see the parallels to our own habits of consumption.

Because environmental issues and resource consumption are intrinsically linked in a lot of ways, I wouldn't be surprised to see a transition from fictional "what-ifs" about climate change to fictional "what-ifs" about resource scarcity and the resulting industrial, financial, and social collapse it can create. Instead of asking, "What happens if we blow each other up?", we may be asking, "What happens if you pull the wheels off of 21st century consumer societies?"