In the spring of 1974, my uncle Joe Mirenna left Pennsylvania, the state he grew up in, to join some friends on the 23 acres of remote hillside they’d bought 30 miles north-northeast of Charleston, West Virginia. An itinerant fiddler and leatherwork artisan, my uncle had chafed at the constraints of polite society and longed for a new kind of independence and self-sufficiency; he’d moved from job to job and relationship to relationship since dropping out of college, occasionally clashing with his mother and stepfather—my grandparents—over his apparent aimlessness and perpetual poverty. It was time for a change.
Joe describes his arrival on Green Creek in an immensely entertaining 2019 memoir, The Making of a Field Hippie:
I’ll never forget that mid-April day when I drove my van to that place where the hard road ends and the dirt road begins, loaded with gear, a thousand dollars to my name […] As I started my descent on the twisty road toward the Hart farm five miles away, heavily rutted from the end of the March rainy mud season, I was struck not so much with the litter of old refrigerators and such at the gully bottoms, but with the stunning beauty of the white dogwood blossoms and their horizontal structure, contrasted with the rosy blooms of redbud dotting the landscape. The rest of the forest had not leafed out, so here stood a view reminiscent of a Japanese painting.
I will also never forget my own, rather less dignified arrival in West Virginia, on my own patch of hillside, which also occurred on an April day, this one in 2103, inside the online multiplayer videogame Fallout 76. I woke with a hangover in the subterranean vault where I had spent my life cowering in terror of the post-apocalyptic wilderness outside. I’d overslept; everyone else had left before me. I gathered some supplies and stepped out into the sunshine—only to be attacked and killed by Chinese Liberator robots, artifacts of the war that had further devastated the plague-stricken, genetically-engineered world of the late 2070s.
Revived, I tried walking the other way this time and encountered two friendly women. They directed me towards a bar that had just opened—presumably the first new business in West Virginia in decades—and I made my way there, dodging giant rats and moles, and pausing to pick a few blackberries from a bush. It was inside that bar, The Wayward, that I would be given the first assignments of my new life off the grid.
Outside the bar, outside the game, outside my house, humanity had been stricken by its own, mercifully less severe plague, to which I had reacted with surprising—to me—extremity. Writers on the internet cracked wise that spring about how little the coronavirus pandemic was likely to affect their lives: Never leaving the house, you say? Drinking alone? Shunning humanity, having food delivered? Why, that’s what I’ve been doing for years!
But I am not an introvert. I like to rub elbows with strangers, share meals, talk for hours. COVID-19 transformed me into a shirking, flinching coward who crossed the street to avoid children, who trembled with rage any time an unmasked jogger passed too close by. One writer of my acquaintance, barely older than I was, died of the disease; several others my junior survived with severe, and possibly permanent, damage to their respiratory systems, joints, and mental clarity. I imagined getting infected, not knowing it, and infecting my family—the briefest lapse in vigilance giving way to the death of everyone close to me, leaving me the sole survivor, my body ruined by illness and my mind by guilt, shame, and loneliness.
In Fallout 76, you can have any kind of body you want. Players create a character at the game’s outset by adjusting a fantastically detailed set of parameters; it’s possible to turn yourself into a bizarre freak with just a few taps of the joystick. In single-player games, I usually invent a character unlike myself, often a woman, and costume them fancifully, for kicks. But in 76, I spent an hour recreating my real face from a set of selfies.
My wife, who had initially found this process entertaining enough to observe, eventually had to leave the room. “It’s too close,” she said. “I can’t look at it.” I dressed myself in the kind of clothes I might wear in real life: pink jeans, orange sneakers, a baseball cap from a local high school, and a letterman jacket advertising a brand of soda. If you encounter me in the game, you will see the real me: middle-aged father of adult children, trying to recapture his lost youth.
76 is merely the latest in a long-running and beloved series. Its single-player forebears are praised for their strong writing, amusing voice acting, complex branching narratives, and memorable non-player characters. The consensus favorite is probably 2010’s Fallout: New Vegas, which takes place in the ruins of Nevada in 2281 and features some of the franchise’s funniest, weirdest, and most beloved characters, including the sinister amnesiac Dr. Mobius, the Elvis-impersonating gang leader The King, and the disfigured cultist Joshua Graham, aka the Burned Man.
Fallout’s characters tend toward obsession, megalomania, and internal moral conflict, and their narratives are overloaded with dark irony. Fallout’s timeline—all the games share lore and history—diverged from our own sometime soon after the Second World War. Its aesthetic is retrofuturist, and is heavily influenced by 1950s culture and style; its cracked and twisted highways are littered with tail finned behemoths, and bakelite radios play oldies in abandoned houses.
And though many of the games’ most iconic elements are military in nature—like the power armor, a craftable and customizable mechanical exoskeleton designed for combat, which I despise and never use—their most important recurring theme is that of home: having once had it, losing it, rebuilding it.
“Every door and window in that house was recycled,” Joe writes, of the home he built, with his own hands, on Green Creek in the summer and fall of 1976. A neighbor had an old shed he wanted to be rid of; he told Joe to salvage whatever of it he liked. He taught himself masonry.
From April to November I worked my butt off to get in before the snow started falling. By then, I had faced the interior chimney with some beautiful salvaged brick, installed a wood stove for heat, and found a near-perfect Home Comfort wood cookstove for the kitchen. […] I felt like I had built a mansion. There is nothing like the secure feeling of being heated by a fire fueled by wood you cut and split, sleeping in a warm bed covered by a roof you just built, and hearing the cold autumn rain patter against the windows.
I saw this house for myself in 1979, when I visited Green Creek with my mother and grandparents. The road there was barely a road at all; it ran through creeks, not over them, and my teeth chattered as the car rumbled in the ruts. I was nine years old. In a photo I have, the house stands perched on cinder blocks, as straight as the trees around it. My memories of it are as vivid as any I have from childhood.
Though his adventures and achievements loomed large in my childhood, I saw my uncle only occasionally. So I was surprised to find I’d rated a mention in The Making of a Field Hippie, as usurper of his status as the family black sheep, a change that, during my college years, offered him a “temporary sense of relief” from the judgment of our professionally-minded clan.
“Then,” Joe writes, “John had to screw it up for me by getting published, a huge paycheck, and eventually a tenured position at an Ivy League college,” knocking him back to his former status. He’s kidding—and also, like most people, mistaken about the lucrativeness of a writing career—but I truly was taken aback by the notion that my success had somehow exceeded his. I wore out the record he made with his West Virginia bluegrass cohort, The Booger Hole Revival, and it unquestionably influenced my own musical endeavors. But, more significantly, my uncle built a house. Alone.
What took my uncle half the year in actual West Virginia took me only a few hours in the game. I salvaged lumber from fallen trees, metal and glass from the husks of old buildings and from roving robots I’d destroyed. I went on quests to learn how to build workshop tools and bought plans for my own cookstove with money I’d earned selling weapons, armor, and drugs.
I’d chafed at the settlement-building mechanic in Fallout 4, the previous game—I wanted to have adventures, not make dollhouses!—but now I savored it, and derived deep satisfaction from the results. I loved my dollhouse; it immediately felt like home. I began fervently to search the wilderness for more plans, more collectibles. I acquired a display case for magazines and figurines I’d found, and earned in-game currency to upgrade the furniture and wall decor. Sometimes I’d walk into the house—the door thunking audibly shut behind me—and, in the real world, in my real body, I would endure a wave of intense emotion.
Also in the real world, we went to my in-laws for Rosh Hashanah. There had been some debate about whether we could take the risk: college students had returned to our town, and cases had spiked. If these new infections turned into a real outbreak, our chance of carrying COVID across the state would increase dramatically. This kind of depressing logic puzzle had become commonplace in American life, once it was clear that our former president’s cowardice and narcissism had locked us into an indefinite stalemate with the virus.
In the early days, we were content to hold ourselves apart from our loved ones until the pandemic was over. It felt noble, almost romantic, for a couple of months. Now, of course, a year later, we dutifully indulge in exhausting probability exercises before eventually giving up, taking a deep, masked breath, and making the trip. This particular one was peaceful and uneventful, and no one got sick.
Their most important recurring theme is that of home: having once had it, losing it, rebuilding it.
But on the second night of the holiday, I dreamt of home. Not the house in upstate New York where we actually lived, but my rustic bungalow perched on a hillside just west of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. This was actually my fourth residence in the game. I’d first laid out a sleeping bag and a campfire just up the road from The Wayward. Later, once I’d gathered enough firewood and scrap metal, I built a cabin on the eastern shore of the Ohio River, just across the road from a ghoul-infested cemetery. Eventually, I amassed enough supplies to move to a remote hilltop south of Seneca Rocks, and finally achieved my present tricked-out settlement, in close proximity to a small pond and a harvestable junk pile, and a short walk to the Berkeley Springs train station, where I trade loot with a sarcastic, vaguely threatening robot.
In the dream, I stepped carefully along the path I’d made through the mud out of scrap lumber, around the low white fence, over the carrot patch I’d planted, until I reached the structure’s southeast corner. The joint where the clapboards met was irregular, the result of the wood’s warp and my artisanal ineptitude. I reached out and stroked the weathered and peeling white paint with my thumb; flakes dislodged and rained down on the weedy ground. A breeze picked up, the trees sighed and whispered, and cool fall air filled my lungs.
The sensation of home was overwhelming—a feeling of comfort, dominion, mastery, and rightness that I’ve never felt about a real house before. The closest I’d come was the sprawling farmhouse I’d bought with my first wife, that I had tried and failed to maintain with skills acquired through books and the internet. My sense of failure there had been compounded by the enormous sums of money I paid to other men, merely to return parts of the place—the roof, the well, the siding—back to functional condition.
Now, through my efforts in the virtual world, I had managed to create a home that, though imperfect, could be maintained without assistance from anyone, despite the malevolence and unpredictability of the environment. Could this be real? Could my in-game homesteading have transferred, somehow, to my actual life? I stood there, feeling the breeze on my cheek, hearing the moans of distant monsters, the hum of my generators, the genial clanking of my Collectron scavenging robot, and arrived at the disappointing conclusion that I was dreaming—that the game could exert its influence only in my imagination, and never in the ruined world I was about to wake to.
Fallout 76 was a mess upon release. It was plagued by technical problems, combat imbalances, and, more significantly, griefers—players who entertained themselves by destroying your house, shooting you dead, and stealing your stuff. What’s worse, the game had no NPCs. The only humans alive were you and the other players; the only quests the game offered were given by robots, or derived from the diaries and voice recordings of the long-dead.
Early adopters of the game complained of loneliness and boredom, and reviews were abysmal. Bethesda, the publisher who currently owns the franchise, responded with a pacifist mode and bounty system, and eventually a great deal more content, including, at long last, a smattering of NPCs organized into factions that players can align themselves with for special rewards, including rare weapons, armor, building materials, and silly outfits. (Today it’s not unusual to fight a battle alongside, say, a cartoon mole, a businesswoman, a cow with two heads, a nurse, and an astronaut.)
76 is my favorite Fallout game. It’s still crashy, imprecise, chaotic. Weapons or armor fail to work as expected; promised buffs and enhancements fail. Players can be seen floating nude in midair over a battlefield an hour after they’ve left the server. Sometimes buildings suddenly vanish, and sometimes they reappear where you’re standing, trapping you underneath. NPCs converse with their backs to you, repeat themselves, and clip through walls and floors.
Could my in-game homesteading have transferred, somehow, to my actual life?
And yet I love every flaw; my fondness for the game’s perpetual brokenness is proportionate to my despair at the brokenness of the real world. Sometimes, when I fast travel back to my house, it isn’t there yet—I have to wait for it to load into place, wall by wall, window by window. It’s a glitch, but it moves me every time—undisaster unfolding, my home in a state of undecay.
Do you remember houses? Other people’s, I mean—the way they looked and smelled, how cushy their sofas were, the mysterious contents of their medicine cabinets? Do you remember inviting other people over to your house—people you knew, but just a little? That’s something we used to do, in the before times. (“The before times” is something we used to say as a joke, in a priestly monotone, back at the beginning of the pandemic. We are not kidding when we say it now.)
Since I started playing 76, I’ve made a point of doing as much visiting as possible. Each time I log on, I’m assigned to a random server with different players; visiting their settlements to trade supplies and marvel at their creations is one of the game’s greatest pleasures. Some people have tried to make their houses resemble, as closely as possible, real houses from the real world, but most are as fantastical as the game’s building elements allow.
Early in my time in Appalachia, I stumbled into a public event, the game’s second annual Fasnacht Day. I’d only been visiting its host village, Helvetia, to pick up some of the firewood I knew was stored behind a restaurant on the edge of town. Instead, I found preposterous chaos: a dozen players wearing colorful clothes and masks, gleefully parading through the streets to oompah-band music, annihilating waves of enormous mutated toads, bees, and wolves.
A high-level player took notice of me and invited me to his house a short walk up the creek, a four-story neo-Victorian decorated with fairy lights and giant taxidermy apes. He let me take as much water as I liked from his purifier and gifted me a paper sack of rare guns and outfits. He was from Ohio and he wished his wife wasn’t at work, so he could introduce us. “She’s like level 300. She’s a badass.”
The closest real-life analog to holiday events in 76 is Halloween: costumed strangers thronging the streets, collecting loot. Thanks to COVID-19, we didn’t have Halloween in the real world last year. But it’s always Halloween in Fallout, and always has been, in every game. The bombs dropped on October 23rd, so Halloween decor is everywhere, forever.
Before this, I’d never played an online game. It took me months to work up the courage. I figured I’d be doing a lot of talking to other players, so I bought a gaming headset with an integrated microphone. As it turns out, most players prefer to keep their mics muted, and communicate via a menu of gestures—“emotes”—accessible through their controller or keyboard. The sound of another player’s voice can be jarring.
One day, not long ago, I fell in with a player who had left his mic open, perhaps unwittingly, while he talked to his real-world partner about their shared illness.
“I still feel like shit.”
“You shouldn’t go to work.”
“I have to.”
We were picking through the ruins of a ski resort. I was searching for a quest item—a holotape that would allow me to log into a computer miles away. He was lumbering around in his power armor, picking up scattered ski poles, presumably for the aluminum they contained.
“He’s just going to send you home,” his partner said, coughing.
“He won’t even notice.”
“He’ll notice if I don’t show up, that’s for sure.”
Unlike most of the American workforce, I am a member of a privileged class that hasn’t needed to choose between their health and job. The private university where I teach closed early and quickly moved online; I haven’t seen a student in person in more than a year. As it happens, the work I do—discussing short stories with small groups of young people—lends itself fairly well to teleconferencing. We can hear one another’s voices and see one another’s faces. We pass notes in the chat and share links to books.
Being alive and present shaped our world.
What I most miss about my real-world workplace is the laughter. In a properly managed online meeting, with everyone on mute until called upon, every joke is met with crushing silence. But it’s not even the laughter in my own classes I miss so much, it’s the sound of other teachers and students, heard from the hall, reacting to one another’s corporeality. Between periods, we used to spill out into the corridors, threaded ourselves through crowds, eddied around each other like water over rocks. We waited in line for coffee and sandwiches, found vacant corners to check our phones. Being alive and present shaped our world.
In a 2011 study, a team of Notre Dame psychologists determined that moving from one room to another prompts us to forget, a phenomenon popularly known as the doorway effect. Performing actions in a space creates what they call an “event model,” a temporary body of knowledge that contextualizes further actions there. Leaving that space means leaving its event model behind, clearing the mind for new activities in new spaces. Before the pandemic, my walks from the parking lot to the building to my office to the classroom to the café kept my mind refreshed, despite a tightly packed schedule of obligations.
Now, my entire professional life is conducted through the same rectangle, in the same room. I go hours and hours without leaving it, until my event model is as crustily layered as a telephone pole outside a nightclub. It’s the same rectangle and room I use to be entertained, to talk to family, to write fiction, and to play Fallout 76.
Surprisingly, the Notre Dame study was conducted not in physical spaces, but virtual ones, in a rudimentary video game. The doorway effect works the same way whether the body is in motion or not. If I could hold my classes in 76, I would probably feel a lot better. (Some frustrated workers have actually done something like this, holding business meetings around a campfire inside the cowboy-simulation game Red Dead Online.)
Or maybe not. There was something I didn’t want to admit to myself: I was beginning to grow dissatisfied with the game, and my sojourn there would soon come to a ragged, unsatisfying end, much like Joe’s time in the real West Virginia.
“I became consumed,” he writes, in the memoir’s final pages, “by the dark feeling that some big change was happening.”
I began to sour on the band, and I made known my intentions to leave; these fine friends of mine probably happy to separate from such an ever grumpy-growing fellow. Suddenly my happy little brightly lit home looked shabby and woefully isolated. […] The only promise I could assume was a long lonesome existence, living as a pathetic old bachelor at the end of a dirt road.
One of the main plotlines in Fallout 76 is to vaccinate the game’s NPC settlers against the “scorched plague,” to prevent them from turning into hoarse, emaciated, gun-toting monsters. I had finished that quest, and around the time the real vaccines began to arrive outside the game, I realized I’d pretty much finished everything else, too. So much of my love for 76 had derived from its many tiered goals: if you want to get this weapon, you have to fight this monster, so you had better get this armor, which means you need these plans, which you buy inside this bunker. You also need these crafting materials, which you can only get in nuke zones—zones you can only endure if you have this other armor, which is available only after completing this series of missions.
Set against the backdrop of my adopted home, I found this grind immensely absorbing; it brought me all over the map, and helped me to unlock every last location, every perk and plan and ability in the game. It had been, in effect, my job for months—my real job, the job where I marched around doing stuff, as opposed to the imaginary job that I actually made money from, and that I did inside the same virtual space day in and day out.
In an email, I told my uncle about the game. Despite his DIY, off-the-grid roots, he is savvy about technology and the internet. (I follow with interest his epic thread on a woodworking forum about his ongoing project, a ’50s-style camping trailer.) I sent him a link to a couple of YouTube videos of in-game footage, one set in Charleston, the capital city I remember visiting with him, and one in Morgantown, home to WVU and a charming elevated commuter train.
“We’ve always marveled that the capitol dome was gold-plated, in one of the poorest states in the country,” Joe wrote back, suitably impressed. “The video was great. Having lived there I recognized several of those scenes and rode the monorail. Some of the apocalyptic roads looked a little too familiar.”
The real world, of course, is still here; it never really went away.
He concluded, “Well, if you run into a guy with a facial twitch, wearing a tie-dyed tighty-whitey as a doo rag, and carrying a five-string banjo with four strings, make sure you don’t drink the lemonade he offers.”
He can’t have realized how perfectly he was describing a plausible Fallout NPC. I was reminded of Biv, an alcoholic robot in 76, who occupies a former tattoo parlor in the shadow of the monorail. For decades, he has been carrying out the orders of a fraternity brother who, when the bombs fell, had been trying to create the ultimate party punch. If you complete Biv’s quest, you end up with a few bottles of that drink, Nukashine, which causes you to blackout and reappear in a random spot on the map.
As for Joe, he reappeared outside the map, in Wisconsin, where he lives today in another house he built himself. He and his wife rent part of it out, along with a small detached cottage, on Airbnb. He’s retired from teaching, the vocation he eventually came to draw money and satisfaction from, but he still plays the fiddle.
In 76, there will be more stories, more new NPCs and locations, in the years to come, and I’ll doubtless return to the game to enjoy them. But for now, I’m trying to come to terms with the unavoidable fact that someday, Fallout 76 will be gone. Preservation of single-player, offline videogames is already a difficult problem; the systems they run on are forever advancing and changing, and many once-beloved games are now lost or unplayable. But online games—games like 76 that require active development and maintenance to run—are invariably doomed. A time will come when the 76 team will disband and the servers will be shut down; its players and their outlandish characters will disperse, and the game’s world will disappear forever. Fallout 76 will be, like the West Virginia of its setting, nuked.
The real world, of course, is still here; it never really went away. It may even soon be returned to us in something resembling its previous form. But the coronavirus has shown us how fragile our institutions are, how near we are to oblivion. Some of us are already there, were there even before the virus arrived. We’ve elected a new leader, presumably because we liked his optimism, but I fear that optimism is not an adequate tool for keeping the team together and the servers on.
As I write this, the real West Virginia is playing a surprising role in our national drama; its Democratic senator may be the only thing standing between us and the election reform, economic justice, and health policy we need to survive the next decade.
Or maybe the die has already been cast, and we’re hurtling ever closer to the grim vision the Fallout games predict, recalcitrant senator notwithstanding. In that case, the preppers, gun nuts, and libertarians will have been right, and our teleconferences will be little more than a vague memory, a passing triviality receding behind us on that all-too-familiar apocalyptic road.
If you live in that world, centuries from now, you may be reading this, Fallout-style, in the glowing green text of a miraculously intact CRT screen. Hello from America, land of dead NPCs! Good luck with this ruined ground. We used to live here.
Let Me Think: Stories is available from Graywolf Press. Copyright © 2021 by J. Robert Lennon. Lennon is also the author of Subdivision.