Playing the end of the world – underground survival, bunker-space, and the Fallout series

Authors: Emma Fraser*, University of Manchester
Topics: Cultural Geography, Geographic Theory, Social Theory
Keywords: Bunkers, video games, heterotopia, space, undergrounds
Session Type: Paper


Bunker-like forms have often been deployed in mainstream gaming franchises to support play in repetitive and restricted game spaces (Bennett). Influenced by the pop-culture image of the bunker as a site of post-catastrophe survival, games like Fallout depict hyper-technological and futuristic fallout shelters (or “vaults”) as key sites of gameplay – these have been a feature of the franchise since its inception.. Related games like the Borderlands series also deploy the “vault” architecture as a means to structure space within the game (especially in early iterations), but also as plausible spaces in which end-of-the-world survival narratives can develop amongst the ruins of a recognizably modern civilization. Through the Fallout series in particular – one of the most successful contemporary gaming franchises – this paper considers the way in which the space of the bunker is used in-game (structured, navigated, viewed), as well as the development of the contemporary bunker imaginary over time. Does the in-game bunker reveal a paradigmatic space of contemporary geo-political formations (Klinke), or are they more suggestive of Heterotopic spaces (Foucault), contested and inverted representations of “real” physical space? Bunkers as ruinous architectures also reveal a dystopian index of fragmentation and decay, and a utopian site of alternative historical perception (Benjamin) - as the bunker imaginary and mechanic has evolved through the Fallout series, what does the “vault” tell us about the bunker-form, and ruins? Finally, do real-world practices of play and exploration in bunkers (Bennett, Garrett) map onto virtual bunkers as spatial models for subterranean survival?

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