Existentialism at the End of the World

Fallout Shelter, Walking Dead, and the failed absurdism of postapocalyptic fiction

For about a week last summer – and I mean like a week straight – I was obsessed with the mobile game Fallout Shelter. I was aware of the Fallout series of games but hadn’t actually played any of them, and only learned of this one when its iOS release made news by dethroning Candy Crush Saga from its inexplicable place at the top of the app store charts.

It turned out to be a Vault Simulator, in which you play the role of the Overseer who’s in control of one of the many underground Vault-Tec Fallout Shelters that a certain number of lucky (or “lucky”) individuals were chosen to inhabit so as to survive and ride out the nuclear apocalypse that ravaged Earth’s surface in 2077. Two hundred-ish years later, their descendants are still there, doing all the stuff they need to survive, which mostly consists of producing food, water, and power, fighting off the odd radroach infestation or Raider attack, and reproducing with any member of the opposite sex with whom the Overseer happens to pair them.


Like a lot of these mobile games, Fallout Shelter is infuriatingly compelling. It reminded me a lot of those six months I lost to The Sims 2 back in 2004. And much like The Sims, in Fallout Shelter you need to keep your little survivors happy as well as productive. You do this mostly by keeping them fed, making sure that they’re working at the job for which they’re best suited, and – if they need a quick mood booster – getting them laid. My vault dwellers were very happy, which was evident not only from the little happiness monitor icon, but from their own statements. They’d say things like, “I’m just so happy I could burst! But don’t worry…I won’t,” and, “Life just couldn’t get any better.”

To my surprise, though, their happiness made me feel…kind of sad, actually. Their lives were so small. They spent all day working at the Water Purification Plant or the Nuclear Reactor or whatever, at higher levels they might work out in the Weight Room or relax in the Garden, but ultimately their whole lives were lived within this single underground bunker, with all the same people, the only goal of their existence merely maintaining their existence.

In Fallout 4, which I did eventually play (and for a lot longer than a week, that’s for sure), there’s a much wider world than just the Vaults – kind of a ridiculously wide world, actually – but despite the fact that a number of characters you meet express genuine hope for the future, and you can spend your time building up some pretty impressive settlements and making close friends, to me it felt like all of that was mostly a distraction from the reality of the world. The water is radioactive. Raiders, feral ghouls, and Super Mutants roam the streets. And any seemingly ordinary human you meet may actually be an android who could flip out and murder everyone in sight at any moment.


In the larger world of pop culture, this same sort of thing is embodied most clearly by The Walking Dead. The entire world’s infrastructure and all of civilization has been utterly destroyed by the appearance of zombies. Every settlement we see, every attempt at rebuilding some kind of normal world, is inevitably, tragically, temporary. Not only that, but despite the occasional sentiments of some of the characters, there isn’t really any possible hope for returning the world to the way it was before. Seemingly everyone in the world has been infected by the wildfire virus, meaning that you don’t have to be bitten by a zombie to become a zombie: everybody becomes a zombie when they die, meaning that the zombie plague is permanent and irreversible, especially since there aren’t any scientific or medical institutions remaining to work on a cure for the virus. This is simply the new normal. The zombies aren’t even the biggest threat on a day-to-day basis, with scarcity of food and other humans themselves trying to survive at all costs being at least as dangerous as the undead.

Which all raises the question: why doesn’t Rick Grimes just kill himself? Which really means, in a world like Fallout or Walking Dead, why doesn’t everybody kill themselves? How are there still people alive? Life in these properties seems meaningless and pointless to an excessive degree. In both Fallout 4 and Walking Dead the real motivation for continued existence on the protagonists’ part is family, fighting on for the sake of protecting, in these cases, the protagonists’ children. But does that actually make sense? Is it even ethical? Sure, in our own modern, western, heteronormative society, murder-suicides are generally frowned upon; but when you’re living after the apocalypse, killing your loved ones and then yourself begins to seem like a pretty rational course of action, doesn’t it? They’re all pretty much as good as dead already. Of course, plenty of people in these worlds did just that – Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman is on record as saying that if the zombie apocalypse happened he would immediately hang himself – but not everybody. Apparently not even most people.

Put the gun down, Rick. Or don't. I'm not really sure.

Put the gun down, Rick. Or don’t. I’m not really sure.

The fact is that while earlier postapocalyptic fiction was primarily driven by anxieties over contemporary issues like nuclear war, environmental disaster, or social collapse caused by things like class warfare and so on, most contemporary apocalypses (even the ones that use war or disease or whatever as the catalyst for their world’s destruction) are much more about the existential conundrum of just being. Why are we going through all this trouble, anyway?  It seems like such a hassle – working, suffering. What for?

Woah, this is all getting pretty dark. Here’s a sleepy kitty.

So sleepy

So sleepy

What it comes down to – the message that I think Fallout Shelter was trying to convey to me, and that most if not all contemporary postapocalyptic fiction has as its central problematic – is the apparently fundamental absurdity of existence. The Walking Dead and Mad Max and all that stuff are just playing out what Albert Camus described in The Myth of Sisyphus in 1942.

Camus (who is totes > Sartre btw) likens the experience of life in what for all appearances is an indifferent, senseless, and incoherent universe to the Ancient Greek story of Sisyphus: Sisyphus was a king who arrogantly believed that he could outsmart the gods themselves, and in punishment for his hubris he was condemned to roll a boulder up an enormous hill for eternity – whenever he got it to the top, it would immediately roll down the other side and he had to start all over again. For Camus, this served as a metaphor of life in general, i.e. basically dumb and futile and above all ceaselessly monotonous. With this understanding, Camus asserts that “there is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.” In other words, given that life is meaningless, the only question really worth asking is whether or not it’s still worth living. This is meant to be a rational decision – whether or not to kill oneself – in contrast to going on living out of either habit or fear. If we’re going to live, it has to be because we’ve chosen to, and there needs to be a good reason for it.

Camus describes the work of absurdist art as offering a pure description of the experience of existence in this meaningless world without contradicting its premises by allowing for any possible admission of hope. In particular he talks about the works of Dostoyevsky as illustrative of the absurdity of life, but in the end dismisses D. as letting his characters off the hook by giving them room for faith. Kafka, he says, perhaps comes closest to true absurdist art, but even he doesn’t quite extinguish absolutely every last ember of hope, and therefore fails.

The fact that life is meaningless and boring, though, actually doesn’t make Camus advocate for suicide. As a matter of fact, he claims that the acknowledgement and acceptance of that meaninglessness constitutes a kind of revolt against it – an ineffectual revolt, but a revolt nonetheless. Camus envisions Sisyphus right after the boulder has rolled down the hill for the gajillionth time, following it down on his way to start rolling it back up again, and in that short reprieve from the task itself, in his contemplation of his reality, Camus insists, “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

That guy looks pretty happy

That guy looks pretty happy

So in this way, Fallout Shelter, and to a lesser extent the rest of the Fallout series and the various incarnations of The Walking Dead, seem to succeed as works of absurd art. They certainly portray the world as tragic and generally meaningless. And yet, upon closer inspection, all of these also fail according to Camus’ precise description – and this, I think, is where they are at their most interesting. Because it isn’t that these works aspire to the peak of absurdity only to have their object escape them over and over. On the contrary, they all (most clearly and especially Fallout Shelter), strive to follow Camus’ formula as closely as possible, only to deliberately subvert it at precisely the point that would make Camus bang his fists on the table and go, “No! You were so close!

The larger Fallout universe and Walking Dead don’t precisely line up with the picture that Camus is drawing; they don’t show quite explicitly enough how they subvert the analogy with Sisyphus. There are two main reasons for this: in naturalistic narrative media like these, the variety of action and the inevitability of death are always present (unlike in Sisyphus, where the same thing just keeps happening literally forever). Fallout Shelter, though, because of the kind of game it is, seems to make Camus’ point most clearly, which is why its subversion is so provocative.

It’s true that Fallout Shelter presents us with a finite number of possible tasks, a potentially infinite timescale for repetition, a complete absence of hope for escape, and a space for the existence of happiness within the futility. But that happiness doesn’t emerge from the recognition of life’s absurdity. On the contrary, what the game offers us (and its characters) is the opportunity to participate in progress. What makes the Vault Dwellers happy, above all, is being in a situation where they can most efficiently contribute to the overall well-being of the Vault, and to a perceptible state of its continual improvement. It’s possible to train Dwellers to be better at their jobs, and gaining stats not only allows them to be happier based on their increased capacity for production, but self-improvement itself gives them a huge boost. Camus would consider this game design choice to be a failure, but in contrast to the happiness of Sisyphus, which is characterized primarily in its function as a rebellion against reality (even inasmuch as it is, paradoxically, a submission to reality), the Dwellers’ happiness has the flavor of authenticity, because it emerges from their sense of harmony with themselves and one another, despite their inescapable situation.

And yes, this does mean that Bethesda is our generation’s Dostoyevsky.


3 Comments on “Existentialism at the End of the World”

  1. Richard #

    You might then be possibly interested in the “Rebuild” series of flash-based games (I’ve played the first two at Armor Games; I understand there’s a Rebuild 3 available). In them, the idea that the motivation for individual survival is to benefit the collective good is much more explicit. You’re the leader of a small band of survivors after the Zombie Apocalypse. Your mission is to expand the borders of the “safe zone” block by block, scavenging useful materials and attracting other survivors until you build a stable, functioning community. That’s symbolized by including a Town Hall in your “safe zone”.


  2. Jamie #

    I think the fact that it’s the new normal answers the question. We raise the question because we are outside of the situation, but if one is inside it, the self-preservation instinct kicks in. Allowing for a substantial number of suicides that probably took place (and are alluded to in the fluff of Fallout) once you go past the first generation, the impetus to suicide drops off significantly. After all, we tend to see it as our main goal as members of society to make things better for the next generation. Once the past generation fails so spectacularly, the job becomes significantly easier for the subsequent ones.


  3. jmasoncooper #

    So does a game like Bejeweled on Zen or Infinite mode fit the bill? The game will never end and the work of matching jewels is meaningless. It does not have a narrative so there is no Sisyphus-like character. I can quit playing when ever I want. I am not forced to play bejeweled forever. Does the the game need a narrative or character that is seemingly trapped in order to fulfill the Myth of Sisyphus?


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