Fallout vaults are unusual. On the surface, they’re basically sophisticated bomb shelters designed to help US citizens survive the eponymous fallout of the 2077 war. But if you’ve played Fallout 3, New Vegas, or Fallout 4 – or the classic isometric RPG games from Interplay and Obsidian – you know that the vault’s creator, Vault-Tec, is up to something more sinister. Now, Tim Cain, co-creator of the original Fallout way back in 1997, shares the true, original meaning behind the vaults.
Having co-created Fallout, and also been part of the design team for Fallout 2, Cain was involved in the apocalyptic open-world series from its very conception. He explains the original story behind the vaults, and what Vault-Tec has really, supposedly been up to this whole time. With only 1,000 vaults planned for construction, and each one holding around 1,000 people, Cain decided that Vault-Tec had other plans than just repopulating the US.
“There is no Earth to come back to,” Cain explains. “And so, the head of the Enclave and the highest levels of government were like ‘let’s build a starship, and take it to nearby stars.’ But that would take forever, so it has to be a multi-generational starship, and the only technology we know how to build is atomic power.
“So we can make an atomic power plant that would help us build a starship for hundreds of years, but we don’t know how to do anything else. So the Vault-Tec director, not being a great person, says ‘why don’t we use the vaults to figure out the technology we’ll need on the ship?’”
In Cain’s original vision, each vault is created to test a different scenario, or prototype a different technology or manufacturing technique, that would be needed for humanity’s interstellar emigration.
“Tell me if these experiments sound familiar,” Cain continues. “‘They’re going to have to have food, so we’re going to have to figure out how to grow plants really well in an enclosed environment. We’re also going to have to figure out how to store the crew – we’re going to have to have cryo chambers and see what happens when we pull them out every few years.’”
Experienced Fallout players will recognise these immediately as Vault 22 from Fallout New Vegas, which is overrun with living, bioengineered mutant plants, and Vault 111 from Fallout 4, where Nate and Nora are frozen during the game’s prologue. Even the healthy, functioning vaults apparently served the bigger Vault-Tec mission of leaving Earth behind.
“I always thought the vault that made Vault City in Fallout 2 was a control vault,” Cain says. “It was designed to do everything right. It gave Vault-Tec a purpose beyond just ‘let’s save some of the American population then release them back into a radioactive dead zone.’
“That’s the thing that doesn’t make any sense. Making the vaults technological, experimental beds with a purpose towards making a multi-generational starship to take our best and brightest away from Earth if there’s a nuclear war – that made sense.”
Cain has also talked about Bethesda, and how the Skyrim creator “revitalised” Fallout. Nevertheless, next time you’re scavenging through a vault, just remember, this was once designed to help humankind’s mission to outer space. I dread to think what my personal favourite, Vault 106, with the psychoactive drugs released into the air supply, was meant to simulate.
Take a look at our refreshed and revised list of the best Fallout New Vegas mods for 2023. You might also want to try some of the other best games like Fallout, or maybe find out about the Fallout 5 release date, which we’re hoping to see sooner rather than later.