The state’s tourism board on Thursday announced a partnership with Bethesda Softworks to promote Fallout 76, which is, of course, set in the wild, wonderful 35th state. “It’s finally time the rest of the world sees what a gem West Virginia is,” Gov. Jim Justice said in a joint statement, with the kind of suspender-popping promotional pride that is a governor’s constitutional duty to project, along with putting ribbons on things at the state fair.
Seriously, though, even before this news release there has already been some tourism interest in the Mountain State thanks to Fallout. At least, that was the reason the games press was asked not to reveal that they were headed to the state for last week’s hands-on preview and promotional event at The Greenbrier. Even in the evergreen seclusion of White Sulphur Springs, evidently there were enough Fallout aficionados lurking about that the ballroom had a Greenbrier security guard posted, and we were specifically warned to wear our lanyards at all times to distinguish us from peeping interlopers.
That’s because The Greenbrier (now owned, by the way, by Gov. Justice’s family) is a hotel anyone can check into. Twenty-six years ago, a freelance writer by the name of Ted Gup did just that, chatted up hotel staff about some things he’d heard, and delivered news about the secret bunker — really, no one knew anything about it — Congress had installed there in case of a nookular attack on Washington. And that bunker’s existence is one of several reasons Bethesda’s developers were convinced to stick the game in West Virginia, probably the flyoveriest of flyover states in the Eastern time zone.
“When we choose a location, we look at what’s around, and sometimes things just click,” Emil Pagliarulo, the design director at Bethesda Game Studios, said last week. “And with West Virginia, so many things clicked. Like, ‘Oh, we can do a prequel; we’ll have all these different areas; we’ve got the cryptids and all the local lore. It’s close enough to Washington, D.C., that you’ve got the continuity-of-government stuff.’ It was, like, perfect.”
Our group toured the old congressional bunker and, though we were not permitted to take pictures (the facility is now an ultrasecure site for cloud hosting, sssshhh), it practically stunk of the jet-age aesthetic that gives the Fallout series its ironic appeal. We went through the decontamination corridor that would have hosed down irradiated senators. There was an old-fashioned Carol Burnett switchboard that provided 1,000 telephone lines to 535 members of Congress, plus another one for a staff helper. The jokers who posed as Greenbrier staff from 1962 to 1992, as groundskeepers and security, had to test these lines every day. There was an antenna that popped out of the ground in the middle of a forest to link up with the Pentagon or something.
That bunker tour (hearing the 25-ton door slam behind us, chef’s kiss) is advertising enough to check out The Greenbrier, which isn’t, yeah, “affordable” lodging if you’re talking about a weeklong stay. But on a gamer’s budget, you could do a night for the price of a special edition, especially in the shoulder season. And there’s a landline phone right by the commode. It reminded me of Pinehurst, another Southern resort that’s made a video game appearance (in the Tiger Woods PGA Tour series). I remember being thrilled to see the clubhouse at the end of No. 18 in that game. I sat on its steps waiting to interview Emilee Klein after she won the 1993 North and South Amateur. It was a video game, and a golf video game at that, but the sense of place was still profound.
“There was more than one location in mind; I won’t say what the others were,” said Bethesda Softworks’ Pete Hines, who, as a Wake Forest alumnus, has driven the Shenandoah Valley back and forth dozens of times in his 19 years with the company. “I won’t say what the others were, but there was more than one location that they at least thought about, or talked about, in terms of what fit the criteria for what they were looking for: It needs to be remote; they needed to have some biodiversity, and regions that felt very different.”
Pagliarulo spoke pointedly about doing right by West Virginia once the development team settled on that area.
“One of the things I personally, absolutely hate with some post-apocalyptic fiction is, I hate ‘redneck post-apocalyptic,’ you know?” said Pagliarulo, who helped bring his home of Boston into Fallout with 2015’s Fallout 4. “It’s very cliché, stereotyped. And that was really important for us, to not stereotype the people or the culture and to not go down that road, and to treat it with respect.”
The event at The Greenbrier invited the usual suspects among the gaming press, and also a lot of local media. West Virginia TV stations, websites and other publications. Brian Crecente, Kyle Orland, Noah Buttner and I were there to do the old-hat hands-on trial. The rest were here to get a story, the classic local angle of community journalism. I would have traded assignments if I could.
The best thing about the Fallout series is how it gives the player the feeling that, if shit really goes down and the world blows up, they still have what it takes to get by. In a world of bottle cap currency where you’re grateful to drink out of a john, where ultimate, it’s-you-or-me struggles against unholy mutations happen around any corner, just making it through a day-night cycle feels like the screaming demonstration of your will to live. I’ve done this in Washington, in Las Vegas and in Boston, and now I get to do it in the backwoods.
The hardiest people on earth are the hillbillies of Appalachia, and now my favorite video game franchise is giving them the center stage. We get to find out if we have what it takes to be one. Fallout 76 isn’t so much the affirmation of West Virginia, the place, it’s an affirmation of West Virginians, the people, because now everybody wants to be one of them. Hell yes, anyone — everyone — from West Virginia should take pride in this moment.