“My goal for the next few years is to try and end the war and thus use the engineers to clear swamps and fallout so that farming may resume. I want to rebuild the world. But I’m not sure how. If any of you old Civ II players have any advice, I’m listening.”
Games have a monopoly on the apocalypse. Sure, it shows up in other media; how could it not, when nuclear reckoning was the fear that sustained us throughout the Cold War, sent us both flying under desks at school and trapped us in a thousand little Alamos in southeast Asia? But those haunting bleak Cold War campfire tales stop with the flash, the last gasp, the automated house whirring along in tribute to its vaporized occupants. Dr. Strangelove only speculates at the apocalypse it brings on, joking about fertility ratios and a century spent in caves. It’s treatment of the end times stops with people thinking about entering a vault. Fallout begins with the Vaults opening.
There have been other explorations of the wasteland, of what it means to live when we have done everything to wipe life out. But there are limitations to the world that can be built for an afternoon, and to the stories it can tell. The Fallout series, which spans four core games and has a few spin-offs, is entirely about exploring that world. Apart from the constant opening refrain of “War Never Changes,” the game is not a commentary on life now but is instead an imagining of how humans reorient themselves post collapse. Players are born into a world (literally, in Fallout 3) aware of the past, but with artifacts and ruins as their main touchstone. In this world, players will encounter bandits and raiders and small towns struggling to hold on, as well as violent new nations trying to impose order through chaingun fire and powersuited warriors. It’s a world of beginnings, where relics from a more resource-rich era hold value while scavenged tools from the present day are the domain solely of the poor and desperate.
Fallout takes place in the margins, starting in deserts that were deserts before the war began and escaped the worst of the nuclear onslaught. It is a setting where governments collapsed instantly, making a new beginning possible. Lycerius relates a darkly different tale.
Playing the same game in Civilization II for ten years, Lycerius has guided his people from the humblest of beginning as a small tribe to the pinnacle of civilization and back again, fighting through multiple nuclear wars while the polar caps melt and fallout renders land uninhabitable. It’s a nightmare scenario, three great powers locked in constant war while their people starve and all resources are devoted to holding the front lines. Lycerius has plotted out the twin nightmares of the Cold War, both Orwellian and Apocalyptic. The only reason given for this grim pursuit is a morbid curiosity in seeing the simulation through to it’s end.
It’s that narrative, that fascinating pull through terrible consequences as viewed in a harmless media, as fleshed out through rigorous calculations and well-designed opponents, that makes games an ideal tool for seeing and plotting a way to, through, and out of the end times.
Update: If you want to try your hand at solving this forever war, Lycerius has uploaded the save game for anyone to download.
Update II: Crowdsourcing victory. Once the save game was released into the wild, it took a day for someone to end the forever war.