Reporter’s Notebook: West Virginia can learn from the Wasteland

Normally, this space is where I brief you on the whispers inside the state Capitol, but this week is the Thanksgiving holiday and you’ll get enough politics around your dining room table on Thursday.

Now it’s time for something completely different.

For the last few weeks I’ve been one of likely hundreds of people who played a beta version of a video game that, on first glance, you’d think doesn’t portray West Virginia in a positive light. Yet, the post-apocalyptic Appalachia in the Bethesda Studios video game “Fallout 76” has much to teach those of us in the real world.

For those who didn’t read my August profile piece on the game, “Fallout 76” is part of the Fallout franchise. In this alternative history, the United States still wins World War II. Yet, imagine technology improving, but the 1950s lifestyle continuing into the late 2000s. Resources are scarce, with the U.S. and China already fighting a war for oil in Alaska.

With the threat of nuclear war imminent, a company called Vault-Tec builds hundreds of underground bunkers across the U.S. Now, it would be impossible to go completely in-depth into the lore of “Fallout,” which as produced four games and three spin-offs (“Fallout 76” is the third spin-off). Most of the games take place 200 years after the first nukes go off in 2077. But “Fallout 76” takes place only 25 years after the entire U.S. is wiped out in a nuclear exchange with China.

It’s now 2102 and, lucky you, Vault 76 was one of the few vaults that didn’t experience any glitches or crazy experiments. You and your fellow vault dwellers survived intact and are now ready to open the vault door and step out into what’s left of West Virginia, which ultimately fared a lot better than other parts of the nation. Your job is to help rebuild in a post-apocalyptic Mountain State.

I’m not a diehard gamer, but I enjoy playing games on my Xbox from time to time. Most recently I’ve played a lot of “Overwatch,” a game where you join a team and try to secure checkpoints or escort payloads, and prevent the opposing team from doing the same. I still enjoy playing “Halo,” a game where you play a super soldier fighting off an alien invasion.

This is my first Fallout game, and having a couple weeks to play the beta (meaning I was used as a guinea pig to find flaws and bugs in the game) was a good way to ease into playing a game franchise I was only mildly familiar with. It’s also been nice to play with my guy friends. I’m the only non-dad in the group, so playing video games together while we’re all in different cities or different parts of the area is a good way to hang out in a metaphysical way.

For those concerned about how this game makes us look, you have nothing to worry about. It’s been neat to see the level of detail the creators put into this game.

Sure, you can walk what’s left of the New River Gorge Bridge catwalk, visit the Greenbrier (and its bunker), or ride the rides at Camden Park near Huntington. You can even visit the former campus of West Virginia University, which has elicited several gripes on social media. Folks, WVU is a trademark, so of course they renamed the university. It’s make-believe, so calm yourselves.

What the game doesn’t prepare you for is the small details. If you’re cool with things not being exactly where they are in real life, it’s quite a joy. The world’s largest teapot, located in Chester in the real world, is in the game. The Tyler County Speedway and Fairgrounds are in the game, not far from where they’d be in real life. The West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville is a building you can go in. The ski slopes and resorts near Elkins are yours to raid.

Even the detail of our beloved state Capitol is beautifully captured. You can walk around the front and rear, where the reproduction of the Liberty bell is. You can even go inside, tour the chambers of the House of Delegates and Senate, or look up into the rotunda.

When I worked for the Senate my office was on the third floor down the hall from the gallery looking over the Senate chamber. I live just a mile from the state Capitol, so I used to walk or ride a bike when the weather was nice. In the game, I found the third floor and found the room approximately where my office was in the real world. Inside I found a skeleton of a person who had long since been dead, but in the same room I found a bicycle.

Coincidence? Who knows, but it was fun to see.

Another positive thing I found was, much like real-life West Virginians, these newly created virtual West Virginians were friendly and willing to help you. If you were being attacked by mutated creatures and were outnumbered, chances are someone was nearby and came over to help you fend them off. Sometimes when you came across a group of players you could go do missions with, or relax at a camp and even play music.

One thing I hope happens, as does our Division of Tourism, is that people play the game and decide to visit West Virginia for real. The locations are all here, as is the folklore seen in the game. Trust me, the “real” Mothman is even more interesting than the one in the game. Our New River Gorge Bridge is still standing. The Green Bank Observatory is here and is still exploring the stars. Come spend a night in the real West Virginia Penitentiary.

The West Virginia depicted in “Fallout 76” is fun and I look forward to exploring its world more, but it’s nothing compared to the splendor, beauty and adventure of the real West Virginia.

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com.

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