Fallout is one of the biggest franchises in video games, set in both an alternate timeline (where the retrofuturistic imagery of early 20th Century sci-fi became reality) and a post-apocalyptic future where the world has been partially laid waste by a nuclear exchange between the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China. Eight video games in the Fallout series have been released, along with a number of spin-off mobiles games, a board game, a miniatures wargame and a forthcoming tabletop roleplaying game.
The Thirteen Commonwealths
In the alternate history of the Fallout universe, history diverged from our own shortly after the end of World War II. The transistor was not adopted for widespread electronic use, with vacuum tubes instead continuing to be the primary technology used in televisions and computers, which remained far bulkier, slower and less powerful than in our world, at least until the development of AI in the mid-21st Century.
Politically, a major change was the unification of the American states into the Thirteen Commonwealths in 1969, an intermediary step between the US federal government and the individual states. The Commonwealths were organised as follows:
- Northwest Commonwealth: Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Northern California, Alaska.
- Southwest Commonwealth: Southern California, Nevada, Hawaii
- Northern Commonwealth: Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota.
- Four States Commonwealth: Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico.
- Plains Commonwealth: Nebraska, Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa
- Texas Commonwealth: Texas, Arkansas
- Great Midwest Commonwealth: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan
- East Central Commonwealth: Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky
- Gulf Commonwealth: Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida
- Southeast Commonwealth: Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina
- Columbia: Virginia, Maryland, District of Columbia
- Eastern Commonwealth: West Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey
- New England: Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine
There is little information available on why and how the Commonwealths were unified, their centres of administration or how they interacted with either the States below them or the federal government above them.
The flag of the United States was adjusted after 1969 to show a single, central star representing the Columbia Commonwealth as the centre of American power and twelve other stars encircling it. In 2076 the flag was adjusted to incorporate a thirteenth external star to represent the annexed territory of Canada. However, the process of changing the flags was incomplete when the Great War took place on 23 October 2077, hence flags surviving after the war are a mixture of both types.
The prospect of a global nuclear war reared its head following the detonation of the first two nuclear weapons at the end of World War II, in 1945. A lengthy cold war between the United States and the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics followed, which several times threatened to turn hot. Unlike our timeline, the USSR did not collapse in 1991 and the prospect of a nuclear war continued to threaten into the early 21st Century. By the late 2020s, Vault-Tec Corporation had been founded in the United States with a view to building large-scale nuclear bomb shelters, each one of which could house up to a thousand people for several decades.
By around 2045 the threat of a nuclear war between the United States and the USSR had receded somewhat, with both nations now cooperating and adopting a more friendly stance towards one another. However, this period was also marked by dwindling oil supplies, threatening the global economy. Tensions rose sharply first in 2051 when the United States staged a military intervention in Mexico to secure oil supplies across the border, which had been endangered by internal shortages. This was followed in April 2052 when the European Commonwealth (a strategic military alliance of European nation-states including at least the United Kingdom, France and Italy) mounted an invasion of the Middle East to secure their own oil supplies. This conflict was fiercely controversial and saw the collapse of the United Nations in July. In December 2053, Tel Aviv was destroyed in a nuclear strike, sparking a retaliatory nuclear exchange. This exchange was limited in scope, but saw several cities across the region reduced to radioactive craters.
The European Commonwealth itself collapsed in 2060, as oil supplies from the occupied territories only lasted a few years before running dry. Meanwhile, in the United States major concerns had been raised about the nuclear exchange. Vault-Tec was formally commissioned by the United States government in 2054 to build nuclear fallout shelters to protect the American civilian population. Project Safehouse was initiated to this end.
The initial findings of Project Safehouse were depressing. With each vault only capable of holding 1,000 people, 400,000 vaults would be needed to house the entire population of the United States (which was now in excess of 400 million). With each vault taking years to build and costing tens of billions of dollars, this was clearly untenable. The emphasis shifted to the vaults protecting the “best and brightest” of the American population. Aware this could cause discontent and panic, it was also decided that some vaults would be built to house more “ordinary” Americans, but these vaults would also have the purpose of running behavioural and sociological tests (many of a dubious moral nature) on the inhabitants, for the sinister purpose of engineering a “better society” after the war.
The project was initiated in 2054, but there was significant controversy between the federal, commonwealth and state governments over funding for the vaults. As a result of this, wide-scale construction of the vaults did not begin until the early 2060s and currently existing records show that the first vault was not open and ready for business until 2068. It also appears that budget cuts saw the original desired number of vaults slashed to just 122, along with several proof-of-concept prototypes and a secret “command and control” vault in Colorado. Some states and commonwealths also seem to have been far more in favour of the project than others: states like West Virginia, Massachusetts, Nevada, California and the area surrounding Washington, DC had lots of vaults, whilst vast swathes of the country seem to have had none at all.
The above map shows the location of all confirmed vaults, where known or suspected. We know that 122 vaults (it is unclear if this count includes the secret Vault 0, three prototype vaults, a VR simulation vault and a secret research facility in Texas) were completed or almost complete when the war took place. The location of 66 vaults – more than half the total – has not yet been identified, whilst we have extremely firm information on 30 of the other vaults. There are 26 vaults where we have rumoured or unconfirmed information, of varying degrees of credibility.
The layout of the vaults is interesting and shows the dramatically differing commitment levels of different regions to Project Safehouse. Here is a breakdown of confirmed vaults by commonwealth:
- Northern Commonwealth, Plains Commonwealth, East Central Commonwealth, Gulf Commonwealth, Southeast Commonwealth: 0
- Northwest Commonwealth, Texas Commonwealth, Great Midwest Commonwealth: 1 each
- Four States Commonwealth: 3
- Eastern Commonwealth: 7
- Columbia: 9
- New England: 10
- Southwest Commonwealth: 12
Here is a breakdown of confirmed vaults by state:
- Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, Alaska, Hawaii: 0
- Washington: 1 (Vault 6)
- Utah: 1 (Vault 70)
- Texas: 1 (Vault 39)
- Illinois: 1 (Vault 1)
- Maine: 1 (Vault 118)
- Colorado: 2 (Vaults 0 & 29)
- Maryland: 2 (Vaults 92 & 108)
- Washington, DC: 2 (Vaults 53 & 100)
- California: 4 (Vaults 13, 15, 44 & 17)
- Virginia: 4 (Vaults 87, 101, 106, & 112)
- West Virginia: 7 (Vaults 51, 63, 65, 76, 79, 94 & 96)
- Nevada: 8 (Vaults 3, 8, 11, 19, 21, 22, 24 & 34)
- Massachusetts: 9 (Vaults 10, 75, 81, 88, 95, 111, 114, 117 & 120)
Note that this only refers to the vaults whose locations are known; the 66 so-far unplaced vaults could be located anywhere in the former United States.
Note on other possible vault locations
At different times, Bethesda, Black Isle and Obsidian have considered making Fallout games set in New York and San Francisco, suggesting that both of those cities have vaults in their vicinity. There have been many other rumoured but never-confirmed locations for Fallout games over the years, ranging from Florida to Louisiana, where vaults could probably be located. Given the density of vaults in previously-explored areas (such as Virginia and West Virginia, Nevada, around Washington, DC and Boston), it is likely that those areas where there are only a few vaults may have more nearby. Texas, Colorado, Washington and California may therefore all have more vaults then the relatively small numbers we’ve seen so far.
The concentrated number of vaults in set locations and only around 122 vaults in total means that there are inevitably vast regions of the United States with no vaults at all. It is likely that the relatively sparsely-populated state of Wyoming has no vaults, and the same may be true of Nebraska and Montana (it is unclear if Montana housed as many nuclear launch silos as it did in real history, in which case it may have been more likely to have at least a few vaults).
Note on Sources
Remarkably, given that the Fallout franchise has been worked on by several hundred programmers, writers and developers across twenty-two years, not to mention being owned by two different companies, there has not been a major canon clash to date given the numbering or location of the vaults (i.e. we’ve never had two sources putting the same vault in different locations). The vault numbering system has remained consistent over the years.
Primary Sources: Fallout, Fallout 2, Fallout 3 (and DLC), Fallout: New Vegas (and DLC), Fallout 4 (and DLC), Fallout 76 (and updates)
These are considered fully canonical sources.
Other Sources: Fallout Tactics, Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel, Fallout Bible, One Man and a Crate of Puppets
The attitude towards these sources seems to very over time, but Bethesda has not outright contradicted any information in them and has still employed them recently; Fallout 76 has several moments when it seems to still be drawing on lore from the Fallout Bible, an internal Black Isle document designed in the late 1990s and early 2000s to maintain consistency between the various games. As such, adopting a “probably canon until Bethesda says it’s not” attitude is best.
One Man and a Crate of Puppets is a short comic created as a marketing tie-in for Fallout 3; how much it is considered canon by Bethesda is unclear.
Unmade Games: Van Buren, Fallout Extreme, Fallout Tactics 2, Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel 2, Fallout: New Vegas 2
These games were never made, so ergo are not canon, but they in turn drew from information in things like the Fallout Bible and in some cases ideas from them did resurface later on or impacted on other choices. As such, this material should not be considered remotely canon, but again nothing in them has been outright contradicted (aside from some Van Buren elements which were upgraded for New Vegas, which was based on some of the same ideas). As such their ideas can be considered interesting, but will likely be contradicted in the future.