So let’s take a quick look at some of the logical social experiments conducted in the non-Bethesda Vaults, starting with Fallout 1.
The starting point for all things Fallout, this is the Vault the player is kicked out of in the first game in order to search for a water purifier chip. The experiment here was prolonged isolation. The only reason it was unsealed is because the water chip broke; unintentionally, and their supply of chips was accidentally sent to Vault 8 instead.
(There’s minor conflicting info here from two different sources – Chris Avellone and Dick Richardson – who say it was a prolonged isolation experiment, or ‘was a Control Vault designed to stay sealed until it was needed’ respectively, but either way the basic premise is the same; it was meant to stay sealed.)
Designed intentionally so that the Vault door wouldn’t close properly in order to test effects of long-term radiation. Probably pretty important information when dealing with space where there’s a constant level of radiation and no natural shielding. This Vault became Necropolis, the city of ghouls, as a result.
It’s true that this one isn’t actually a social experiment. What it is instead is an important experiment in how radiation effects humans over extended periods of time, again with a random population sample. It’s in no way crazy science wackiness, plus I’m happy to accept a slightly different Vault in this instance because it leads to a really interesting story and decision for the player.
The idea here is that if the player (reader, viewer, whatever) trusts the writer and has fully accepted the world presented to them, then when the writer bends a rule or breaks consistency for a specific purpose, the reader (etc.) is willing to go along with it, because the writer built that trust in the first place.
Conversely, when a writer is so inept that they can’t build even a vaguely consistent world, the player, reader, whatever gets annoyed with them and when the writer bends already wonky rules, the player isn’t willing to go with it because everything else is already a massive mess.
(For more on this general idea, have a look at this video, it’s at the right timestamp for the important bit. Same basic principle to what I’ve just talked about here, the idea of being able to bend the rules a bit, but only if you’ve crafted a consistent world first. Incidentally, the whole video is well worth watching if you disliked Mass Effect 3’s ending.)
The effects of putting a multi-racial/multi-cultural populace into close confinement together. This one was a resounding success, with everyone basically getting along great. A cave-in forced the eventual evacuation of the Vault, followed by a schism… which went on to produce three of the nastiest raider gangs (Khans, Vipers, Jackals), plus the community of Shady Sands. Just goes to show.
Now Fallout 2.
This was a Control Vault, meaning no experiment. It was left to its own devices, had a set timetable (10 years, then open, though really it was meant to be 20, and this mistake left the population sterile, oops), and was a resounding success in that it became the large Vault City settlement. Of course, things did go downhill pretty quickly as they turned in on themselves and became kind of self-indulgent, elitist pricks. But hey, no one’s perfect.
More important is the fact they succeeded and prospered and are pretty much the most high-tech and self-reliant faction in Fallout 2’s world, an important achievement when one considers the challenges colonisers would face on other worlds. They just need to work on that whole authoritarian, massively elitist/bigoted/racist worldview, no biggie.
Next up, New Vegas.
Another Control Vault, and a resoundingly successful one in that it performed exactly as expected… right up until they opened the door and got themselves massacred by the fiends. Oops.
Morality under pressure, leadership, willing and/or noble sacrifice for the greater good, all things being tested in this experiment. Is a leader who willingly sacrifices him or herself for the greater good better or worse than a more self-centred individual? How do people react when forcibly put into a situation of having to sacrifice either themselves or others? Etc, etc.
This is an interesting Vault in that it bears a certain resemblance to Fallout 3’s wacky science experiments stupidity… but actually has a damn good reason for it. The Vault experiment itself was self-sustainability; expedited growth of plants in order to feed a population over potentially decades or even centuries. Again, remember above about bending rules? Yeah, this isn’t a social experiment, but I’ll run with it because I trust the writers.
So why does it look like the Island of Doctor Moreau? Simple: because of the insane scientists at Big Mountain. Everything went wrong not because of the experiment itself, but because Vault 22 was co-opted as one of Big Mountain’s ‘test cities’, same as the Sierra Madre. Absent their meddling, the Vault experiment likely would have had drastically different results.
See how New Vegas and FO2 put the Vaults into a fairly background role? Because civilisation has moved on, developed, stopped caring much about the Vaults or the pre-war world.
This is pretty much the whole theme of New Vegas, and was really brought to the fore in Dead Money: Begin again, or let go? Let go of the old world’s mistakes and build something new (essentially the Yes Man route)? Or return to old world values and begin again, like the NCR, House, and Legion endings?
Bethesda themselves unintentionally answer this question in both Fallout 3 and 4; they’re unable to let go, clinging to the old world, clinging to the ideas of the previous games, incapable of thinking up anything truly original or interesting themselves. Unable to simply let go and make something new.
Now… we get to Fallout 3. And oh deary me… still, at least Bethesda did manage to get a couple of them basically right, or… well, partly right? Maybe? They created a couple of Vaults that were basically sensible, at least.
There are all manner of depths you can plumb when it comes to social experiments of this nature, adding in the likes of radiation experimentation on the side if we’re talking about sending people into space for extended periods of time, though those should always be very rare compared to the real meat of the matter; the social aspects of the project. Warning, incoming list:
Command ability; how well people take orders; teamwork; solo work; segregation; forced inclusion; racial diversity, homogenisation; putting people of radically different cultural backgrounds together; paranoia; superstition; extreme positivity; extreme negativity; extreme apathy; taking away all control and responsibility; overworking people; underworking people; selecting people with congenital diseases; designing a Vault with no crematorium facilities, introducing the issue of ‘disposal’…
Food shortages; food overabundance; having all women; having all men; having all women and only one man; the reverse of the last one; solitude; constantly being surrounded by people; populating both male and female genders with nothing but gay/lesbian people; keeping men and women firmly apart except for purposes of breeding more people; intentionally faulty equipment designed to test ingenuity under pressure; hardware designed to break after x years, forcing Vault to open early.
And on and on and on. A lot of those I just listed off the top of my head have been explored in one way or another across the games (mostly outside of Fallout 3), but there are still many left to explore and a variety of ways you could change things up by combining them or looking at them from slightly different angles.
So… that said, let’s see what Fallout 3’s writers came up with for this incredibly costly and time-consuming government/Enclave experiment…
Super soldiers as a result of white noise? Um, okay? This one would’ve been a fine experiment if it had literally just been filling the Vault with nothing but musicians and artists while simultaneously failing to have any physically capable labourers or cooks or cleaners or similar.
How do these people fare when faced with the reality of actually having to work instead of pursuing their creative muse? Do they get along? Do they attempt to delegate to lesser musicians they consider beneath their own ability? Do the pianists gang up on the violinists? But no. Super soldiers, because Bethesda.
Prolonged isolation. Sound familiar? It should, because – like most of this game’s entire plot – it’s basically just a rehash of events or places or things from the previous two games made by infinitely more capable developers. Basically this is Vault 13 except without the water chip… oh wait, water comprises the whole main quest line, doesn’t it, and returning to Vault 101 later you find an unmarked quest involving… a water chip.
To be fair to Beth they did at least mix things up a little bit by having this be an extended isolation experiment with an overseer who effectively ran a dictatorship the moment he got into power. It’s therefore not exactly identical to Vault 13 and potentially provides wildly different data. So yeah… a silver star to Bethesda for effort there. Doesn’t change all the other things they recycled more or less verbatim from Fallout 1 and 2, however.
Psychoactive drugs released into the atmosphere for lulz. How exactly is this a social experiment? And how does the data retrieved from this wacky science hijinks benefit the project in any way? Admittedly, this is apparently something Beth took from the Fallout Bible – a work that isn’t exactly canon – but eh, even the original creators aren’t perfect and can come up with some strange ideas.
Now, if they’d instead given the Vault populace a massive cache of drugs with an open policy on indulging at will, that would’ve fit the experiment to a tee, as you’re then allowing the people themselves to decide how things go; that’s the whole point.
Would the Vault even survive if half the population are off their faces every day? Would they self-limit their use? Go wild with reckless abandon? Ration the drugs, thereby potentially creating a black market economy? Would a more relaxed (via drug use) population result in less friction? Or would withdrawal symptoms create tension and conflict? Would this result in the eventual birth of Mama Murphy?
All kinds of interesting ideas and possibilities arise as a result of an experiment like this. All it takes is a bunch of random people, a basement full of drugs, and some time.
This is actually an excellent example, at least initially, of a Vault experiment done right, bravo whichever writer at Beth came up with it. Having everyone there be afflicted with some form of congenital disease leads to the interesting scenario of social order in the face of utterly inevitable and early death.
How does this affect life in the Vault? Do the people with least life expectancy end up with the most dangerous jobs? Are the Vault’s resources diverted to trying to find cures? Do they think up crazy and implausible ideas in their futile attempts to stave off the inevitable? Or simply accept it and enjoy what life they do have? (There’s that ‘let go’ theme again…)
The introduction of a cloning facility kind of ruins things a bit, but it does at least leave the answers up to the people of the Vault itself, thereby avoiding false data resulting from outside interference. The Gary situation seems more like Bethesda being Bethesda and going for the ‘hilarious’ option instead of exploring something weightier, but the ingredients are certainly there for a well-thought-out Vault experiment.
Vault 87 I’ll cover in-depth when I get to factions since it’s important for the Muties… but just know that I’ll be retconning the ever living shit out of that place. By which I mean it won’t be a Vault any more.
Beyond that, again it’s not a social experiment, it’s ‘hilarious’ hijinks and Bethesda’s broken idea of SCIENCE! Effectively it’s only there to shoehorn in the Super Mutants regardless of how much sense that makes (protip: it makes no sense at all as the mutants and FEV itself were meant to be constrained to the west coast).
After being side-tracked by Bethesda’s general inability to grasp the purpose of the Vault experiment, it’s time to talk briefly about Vault 101 as a settlement. I have minimal beef with the place beyond it being boring as hell (a cardinal sin for a Fallout game).
Looking at each game, so far three of the five mainline titles have begun in a Vault, and the first game sidestepped the issue by actually having you begin outside the Vault; the overseer talking head simply tells you the water chip’s busted and you’re being sent to find a new one, at which point you’re dumped at the entrance to Vault 13 and expected to head out.
No tedious growing up section, no rose-tinted pre-war section, just you, your character, a simple objective, and a world to explore. And let’s be honest here, Fallout gets away with it simply because it’s the first game in the franchise and was therefore original and interesting by default.
Yes, the Vaults are important to the setting. But they’re not all there is, and should serve to inform and provide flavour, not be the primary focal point. Having the player start in relatively near vicinity to an abandoned Vault – something similar to Vault 15, for example – with some terminals and journals providing lore and backstory on the Vaults themselves would give the influx of new players a way to acclimate to part of the franchise’s lore while not forcefully stuffing it down their throats.
As they explore, they might find another one, potentially even the demonstration Vault in DC’s ruins, at which point the scope of the Vault project is revealed to be greater than the player might have imagined. You know, letting them learn about this aspect of the world at the same time as their character does? Yeah, that.
I get why Beth went with the Vault 101 start, of course, as I spoke about in the Vault 101 part not so long ago. It’s easy, it introduces the player to the Vaults, it shows how an operational Vault looks in readiness for showing the player the rusted, decaying carcass of a failed (uh, technically successful if we’re talking raw data) Vault later.
It provides a situation where the player’s avatar in the game world has as little idea about the world outside as the player will have. There are arguments to be made for both routes, but in this particular instance I’m actually on-board with Bethesda’s choice.
It makes the most sense when taking an old property and giving it a fresh coat of paint for a new audience, so fair dues there. Fallout 4, on the other hand… nope, I see zero reason to continue the trend of making the player a Vault dweller.
I was going to add a little section at the end here on the G.E.C.K., and how Bethesda managed to get that wrong as well, but since this post is already pushing nearly 2,500 words, I’ve split that section out for the next post, which will go up today as well.