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Pushing Buttons: The Fallout series doesn’t just look right – it feels like it was made by gamers, too

<span>Ella Purnell, the vault-leaving protagonist of the TV series.</span><span>Photograph: Courtesy of Prime Video</span>
Ella Purnell, the vault-leaving protagonist of the TV series.Photograph: Courtesy of Prime Video

I am a few episodes from the end of the series Fallout on Prime Video. It’s funny and gory, at times sentimental and at other times ridiculous. In other words, it’s just like the games, which veer between quiet, tragic moments exploring the vestiges of America, and being chased down a hill by irradiated scorpions because you’ve run out of ammo.

Fallout’s ensemble cast – with Walton Goggins almost-immortal ghoul and Ella Purnell’s wide-eyed vault-dweller the standouts – lets it cleverly compartmentalise the different aspects of the games’ personality. As its director Jonathan Nolan pointed out, when I interviewed him last week alongside Bethesda’s Todd Howard (the director of the games), this is a common device in TV storytelling but rare in games. Grand Theft Auto V does it successfully: each of the three protagonists represented a different part of GTA’s DNA (Trevor the violent chaos, Michael the prestige crime drama, Franklin the Compton realism). But in most games we play one character, and we know them intimately by the end – or we get to shape them, and they become unique to us.

It makes adapting games for the screen hard. But instead of trying to communicate the experience of playing the games, Fallout steps back to make the broken yet oddly optimistic world of Fallout the star, and each of its characters shows a different side of it.

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“Even if we had said let’s adapt Fallout 3, whose Fallout 3 are we talking about? Because the way you played that game might have been very different from the way I played that game,” Nolan told me “That’s the beauty of the kind of game [Bethesda] makes … I’m drawn to the kinds of games where you take full advantage of the medium and decide who your character is going to be within that world. Obviously that doesn’t translate to a series directly.”

I was curious: how did Nolan play Fallout 3? “I always play as a boy scout first because I imagine my parents are watching,” he said. “So I make virtuous decisions, and then I go back through and the second time and I try to play it as a total heel. But then I get weirded out and squeamish and end up in the morally compromised middle area. It’s a bit pathetic.”

I can relate. I’m a chaotic good kind of player in most games that allow for it: I’ll make a mess everywhere I go and happily align myself against any character or faction in authority, but I’ll never do anything that would hurt people. I know that games are supposed to be consequence-free places where you can experiment with morality, but I cannot bring myself to play the villain. This contrasts with a lot of players I know, who will immediately set about causing chaos in a game world just to see what will happen. The kind of person who shoots horses in Red Dead Redemption.

“Every time you get a game and you test it, you’re immediately like, what will this game let me do? No matter what we do, every time, we’ll hand a player a weapon, they will shoot the first person they see,” Todd Howard says with a laugh. “It could be their mother. They will shoot whoever it is. And then they’ll be like, oh well, I’ll just reload.”

It must be a nightmare trying to design a choice-based game around players’ random whims, but Howard and Bethesda have decades of experience with that. When I’ve interviewed him over the years, he has often spoken eloquently about how players and systems interact to create emergent stories, and how games can uniquely make you feel as if what you’re doing within them is real and meaningful. TV and film can’t do that. But as the Fallout show proves, if they’re made by people who really get it, they can tell a story of their own that still communicates what it is about the games that people love.

The reason Fallout is good – and this applies to the other successful game-to-screen adaptations in recent years, too – is not that it looks right, that the sets are perfect, or that they’ve nailed the retro-futurist nostalgic aesthetic of the games. It’s that Nolan and writers Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Graham Wagner actually played and understood Fallout, and felt the power of its storytelling for themselves. Instead of trying to awkwardly adapt a game story into a TV script, they’ve written brilliant, extremely high-budget extended fan-fiction of the games. I’m all for this approach. Now that we have a generation of TV and filmmakers who’ve grown up with games and truly understand them, I’m hopeful we’ll see more of it.

What to play

This is a game about being an influencer and a satire of influencer culture. Content Warning has been popping up all over the place, partly because it was given away for free on 1 April. As a group of four, you descend into the horror-movie underworld beneath the ground, look for scary things to film, and return to the surface (or, more often, not, because you have perished) to upload your footage for views, likes and money on SpöökTube. It’s too silly to be that scary, encouraging players to ham things up for the camera, and naturally it’s well-suited to streaming – a game without much substance, but with enough unique fun in its premise to last at least a few rounds.

Available on: Windows
Estimated playtime:
A few hours, with friends

What to read

  • The Bafta games awards were last week, and Baldur’s Gate 3 (above) was the biggest winner with five awards including best game. Scottish indie game Viewfinder won two Baftas, as did Alan Wake 2; Dave the Diver won game design and Venba won debut game. It was a fitting celebration of one of gaming’s best-ever years.

  • In a stunning temper tantrum, game studio Possibility Space was shut down last week after its head received a list of questions from a Kotaku reporter. The studio had never shipped a game, and the statement sent to employees blames “internal leaks” for the sudden cancellation of its project. The article in question still hasn’t even been published.

  • The superbly unsettling horror fishing game Dredge – one of my faves of last year – is the latest game to announce a film adaptation. In other game movie news, Keanu Reeves is apparently going to be Shadow the Hedgehog in the next Sonic movie (?!).

What to click

Question Block

This week Liam asks:

“My wife loves chill sim games such as Animal Crossing and Dreamlight Valley. However after 100+ hours in each she is tiring of the gameplay loop and struggling to pick them back up. Can you recommend any similar experiences she may enjoy? Thanks in advance and love the newsletter – that tea game was the most fun I’ve had at my work desk in months!”

Naturally the daddy of all chill life sim games is, well, The Sims, which is now so sprawling that you can have your little computer people manage their own farm if they want. I’m assuming that your wife has played The Sims already, though (and Stardew Valley), so here are a few cosy life sims that fellow Animal Crossing fans have enjoyed: Little Witch in the Woods, a pixel art game whose title tells you all you need to know; Dragon Quest Builders 2 is a little monster-slaying and Minecraft-esque block building appeal alongside the life sim elements; and Hello Kitty Island Adventure on Apple Arcade.

If you’ve got a question for Question Block – or anything else to say about the newsletter – hit reply or email us on pushingbuttons@theguardian.com.