The Fallout TV Series Wants to Be Much More Than Just a Video Game Adaptation

Exclusive: Showrunners Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Graham Wagner open the vault to tell us what to expect from Amazon Studios’ new Fallout TV series.

Photo: Amazon MGM Studios

This article appears in the SXSW 2024 issue of Den of Geek magazine. Check out all of our SXSW coverage here.

“I know that I’ve lived a relatively comfortable life,” says Ella Purnell’s Lucy in the trailer for Amazon MGM Studios’ new Fallout series. She’s about to step out of the underground vault she’s called home her entire life and into the savage Los Angeles wasteland 219 years after a nuclear holocaust turned the world to rubble. It’s the start of a story longtime fans of the post-apocalyptic role-playing games know well, but this is the first time it will open a TV series. 

According to showrunners Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Graham Wagner, it’s the only way their adaptation of this most revered of video game franchises could begin. After all, it’s the moment that kicks off most of the games.

“We always knew we wanted to pay proper homage to the games by having a Vault Dweller going to the surface for the first time,” Robertson-Dworet tells Den of Geek magazine when we catch up with the showrunners ahead of SXSW 2024, where the series has an activation called Filly, a post-apocalyptic “shanty town” where festivalgoers can experience firsthand the unique world of Fallout. “Lucy comes from this very privileged, civilized vault. It’s a place that prides itself on how peaceful, civilized, and kind everyone is to each other.”

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Lucy isn’t just leaving her cozy existence and venturing into a hyper-violent hellscape ruled by bloodthirsty raiders, grotesque mutant creatures, power armor-wearing super soldiers, and giant killer bugs because she’s bored. In the Fallout series, there’s usually an inciting incident that forces the protagonist to brave the dangers beyond their vault. 

“She goes to the surface to find someone she loves and encounters moral dilemmas she’s never had to face,” Robertson-Dworet explains. If we had to guess, that loved one could be her father Hank (Kyle MacLachlan), who is also the overseer of their vault, or her brother, played by Moisés Arias.

Lucy hails from Vault 33, one of the many subterranean fallout shelters constructed across America to protect select citizens from an impending nuclear war. When the bombs begin to drop in the year 2077, these chosen survivors and their descendants are sealed inside for centuries until it’s safe to reclaim the surface. But as Lucy quickly discovers once she’s outside, the wasteland has long been settled, but not by other Vault Dwellers, as Lucy’s blue jumpsuit-wearing, well-coiffed people are known to Wastelanders–those forced to live off scraps on the radioactive lands beyond the vaults. 

Carving out a brutal existence that, more often than not, involves killing, stealing, and cheating to survive, these Wastelanders have built small Old West-style shanty towns out of the ruins of the last world. Unlike Lucy’s neighborly Vault Dwellers, these folks are heavily armed and rarely friendly. According to the showrunners, one of the key storylines of the first season is how interacting with the people unfortunate enough to live on the surface challenges Lucy’s beliefs and moral compass.

“One thing we wanted to deal with in the show is how morality can be a privilege. If you have all your needs met, it’s incredibly easy to be a good person. If you give to charity or buy an electric car, you have the extra cash lying around for that,” Robertson-Dworet says. “We wanted to examine and dramatize how Lucy’s going to find it harder and harder to be a good person when she’s on the surface, and she feels desperation for the first time.”

Purnell’s naive adventurer isn’t the only main character of this piece, though. In fact, the show’s a three-hander, also starring Walton Goggins as a corpse-like bounty hunter known only as The Ghoul and Maximus (Aaron Moten), an ambitious squire who dreams of joining the elite ranks of the Brotherhood of Steel, the aforementioned super soldiers who rose from the ashes of the U.S. military. As executive producer and director Jonathan Nolan has teased previously, the thing that ties these characters together is “an artifact that has the potential to radically change the power dynamic in this world.”

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Developed by the Westworld team of Nolan and Lisa Joy, Amazon’s Fallout isn’t a re-telling of any one game in the series but, in fact, a live-action continuation of the story set in the same timeline. (Elsewhere, Nolan has even described the series as “almost like we’re Fallout 5.”) The show follows its own path but without ignoring what’s come before from Bethesda Game Studios, the developer that has worked on the series since 2004, taking over from original creators Interplay Entertainment. 

“It’s more creatively interesting to be able to build our own story in the world that they’ve carved out for us,” Wagner says. “That’s historically been the trajectory of Fallout. It’s traded hands many times, with different creative teams taking it over. It’s kept it fresh, kept it relevant. We chose to just vainly look at this as our Fallout.”

It’s no secret that Fallout is a game that has long been considered unadaptable, particularly because of the fluid nature of its RPG storytelling, which reacts to and morphs around the decisions players make throughout the journey. According to the showrunners, it would have been a fool’s errand to try to re-tell a story that no two players experience the same way.

“It was almost liberating that it would be impossible to adapt any one of the games faithfully because these are open-world games. Your experience playing the game would have been different than mine. You would have made different choices and played in a different order,” Robertson-Dworet explains. “If we tried to do it faithfully, half the gamers would have been like, ‘Wait, this is not the order that I remember.’”

As you would expect, creating an original story in this universe involved plenty of input from Bethesda and the studio’s executive producer, Todd Howard, who is recognized in the industry as one of the greatest game devs ever. Robertson-Dworet and Wagner describe Howard as a great collaborator, a “‘Yes, and’ sort of person” who was “very receptive” to their ideas, especially when they pitched things the games have never explored about the horrors of the breakdown of society. There’s one particular pitch that stands out to Wagner…

“When we delivered the pilot to Bethesda just to read, Todd’s first comment was, ‘You know, we never really tackled the incest thing. That’s a good idea,’” Wagner says. “That obviously could’ve gone the other way. But he was just like, ‘Hats off, guys.’” Longtime fans know that Fallout has tackled virtually every human depravity one can think of, including ritualistic murder and cannibalism, so coming up with a new way to make people shudder in their seats is quite the accomplishment. “That was what made him really proud to be working with us,” Robertson-Dworet adds.

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But while the goal was to make a show that wasn’t just a retread of the games, the team also wanted the live-action world to feel recognizable to Fallout fans who’ve adventured in the wasteland for decades.

“We found a nice balance of not trying to pave over what happened in the games, but also build new stuff,” Wagner says. “There’s stuff in there for the gamers, and we hope it also makes sense for those who couldn’t get past the buttons.”

There are plenty of nods to the games to sink your teeth into just in the trailer, including the retrofuturistic 1950s aesthetic that adorns parts of the world, the bulky Pip-Boy computer Lucy wears on her arm, and the happy-go-lucky Vault Boy symbol emblazoned all over Vault Dweller gear. Then there’s the most important element of all: the hilarious shifts in tone where one minute you’re in the most stomach-churningly violent scene of all time, and the next you’re (in the showrunners’ words) “popping down to the vault [to] do something incredibly banal and quotidian” like it’s a sitcom.

“To me, the tone is what’s sacred and special about Fallout specifically,” Robertson-Dworet says. “It’s a post-apocalyptic series with tons of crazy violence and action, and moral dilemmas that are delicious, but also a really absurdist sense of humor. Not that many games are funny the way Fallout is. That was something we were very eager to protect with every decision we made.”

Fallout will premiere Prime Video on April 12.