In Real Life

I'm A Mormon: Pop Culture Often Mocks My Faith, But Fallout Treated It Right

I’m a 31-year-old, fifth-generation Mormon (member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) from Salt Lake City, Utah and I love video games. I’ve been playing since my parents brought home the original NES with Track & Field, Duck Hunt, and The Legend of Zelda. Unlike most of my friends I never “grew out” of video games and love them today as much or more than I did as a kid.

Among my many loves (Demon’s Souls, Half-Life 2, Total Annihilation, Mass Effect) stand two games I just can’t get enough of: Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas. I must say that I was surprised how my religion was featured in the most recent Fallout I played.

I had never heard of Fallout until 2010 when I noticed my friend’s little brother had logged over 125 hours in Fallout 3 on his Steam account. Intrigued, I rented Fallout 3 and was instantly hooked in that rare and wonderful way that happens when you experience something truly new and wholly captivating. I ploughed through it on my PS3. I would get up at 5am to play before the kids woke up and the work day started, logging some 40 hours in the 10 or so days it took me to complete the main story. When I returned the game I was dogged by how many locations and quests I had to leave unexplored and unfulfilled due to my limited rental window.

After building a gaming desktop for my birthday and getting both New Vegas and Fallout 3: GOTY on the Steam Summer Sale, I knew I was in for a pair of very special treats. I have since logged over 200 hours in Fallout 3 and another 130 in Fallout: New Vegas.

Mormons of the Wasteland

As a Mormon, I am much more accustomed to seeing my religion portrayed in unflattering and even disrespectful ways in entertainment media (“Fort Joe Smith” in Starship Troopers comes to mind, as does The Book of Mormon Broadway musical and HBO’s Big Love series) than to seeing any positive or deferential representations. Hence, when I came across The Old Mormon Fort outside New Vegas it naturally piqued my curiosity as to how it would be featured. Would the game’s developers at Obsidian take the well-worn road of clichéd irony by making The Old Mormon Fort some den of hypocritical debauchery or zealous extremism, or would they do something different?

I wasn’t expecting anything necessarily pro-religion, let alone reverent. This is a Fallout game, after all.

Picture: via DesertUSA.com; screenshot by the author.

I was nevertheless surprised and impressed by what I found inside The Old Mormon Fort: a struggling but hopeful sanctuary for the lost and ill-fated souls of the Mojave wasteland. I found a people whose purpose very much in harmony with the aspirations of Mormonism and Christianity generally. (For those who may have heard otherwise, we Mormons worship Jesus Christ and consider ourselves Christians.) While Mormons weren’t the ones running the show — it was the Followers of the Apocalypse who had set up shop there — their noble goals and purpose, connected as they were (at least nominally) to the Mormons, gave me a strong feeling of appreciation. They intrigued me.

I wanted to find out if there were more Mormon references in the Fallout universe, and were they as curiously sympathetic and respectful as this? Thanks to the exceptional collection of Fallout resources at falloutwiki.com — including numerous leaked documents from the pre-Obsidian studio Black Isle’s cancelled alternate Fallout 3 project in which the Mormons of Vault 70 were going to figure rather prominently — I have been able to analyse Obsidian’s Fallout Mormons from the perspective of a lifelong member, and am pleased to share what I found.

Some minor Fallout: New Vegas spoilers will follow.

Joshua Graham: The Prodigal Son

Clearly the most significant Mormon character in the Fallout universe is Joshua Graham, also known as Malpais Legate and The Burned Man.

For those who don’t know the lore, Joshua Graham was a Mormon missionary sent from New Canaan (post-apocalyptic Ogden, Utah) to preach to the tribes of Arizona. Like most real-life Mormon missionaries, Graham had to learn a new language in order to preach to the Arizona tribals and, like most real-life Mormon missionaries, was able to do so. I myself served a Spanish-speaking mission to the Mojave wastelands of San Bernardino county, California. And Utah boasts one of the highest concentrations of US-born polyglots — speakers of more than one language — in the country due to the Church’s foreign missionary efforts, with 30 per cent of Utah’s male population and up to 75 per cent of the students of the Church’s Brigham Young University speaking a foreign tongue.

In the game, it appears that Graham’s linguistic abilities may have been pivotal in the formation of Caesar’s Legion. Graham had been sent from New Canaan to preach to the tribes of Arizona and had managed to master a number of the tribal dialects. Meanwhile, The Followers of the Apocalypse dispatched a research party from California to study the tribal languages that were emerging in the east. They met Graham along their way and enlisted his help as a translator.

Shortly thereafter, Graham and the Followers were captured by the Blackfoot tribe, one of the weakest of eight warring tribes in the region. Fearing they would be killed along with their captors, a Follower named Edward Sallow determined that to survive they needed to remake the tribals into a capable fighting force. With his knowledge of ancient Rome, Sallow enlisted Graham’s linguistic talents to help him train the Blackfoot tribe in the ways of total war.

Sallow and Graham went on to lead the tribe in conquest after conquest, with both men ultimately forgetting or abandoning their humble and humanitarian beginnings and getting caught up in the violent rise to power of their new nation.

I take no offence at the story of Graham becoming Caesar’s first Legate and actually thought it was exciting to have a Mormon figure so prominently in the history of one of Fallout‘s principal factions. One big reason for this was because his fall was precipitated by very human failings (fear of death, lust for power, pride, etc.), not a failing specific to his religion. Consequently, Graham becoming a ruthless villain doesn’t feel like an attack on Mormonism any more than Caesar forming the Legion feels like an attack on the Followers of the Apocalypse (which it doesn’t).

But it is Graham’s life after the Legion that sheds light on another reason why I appreciate Obsidian’s handling of Mormonism so much.

Obsidian avoids the lazy cliché of religious people being hypocritically unforgiving and intolerant.

After failing at the first battle of Hoover Dam, Caesar has Graham covered in pitch, set on fire, and thrown into the Grand Canyon. Graham, already renowned for his resilience as much as for his cruelty, survives. Stripped of power, title, and purpose, he returns to New Canaan filled with remorse for what he had become and for the shame he brought to his people.

Here again, Obsidian avoids the lazy cliché of religious people being hypocritically unforgiving and intolerant and has the Mormons of New Canaan forgiving the penitent Graham, embracing him as a returning prodigal.

I’m not sure if Obsidian was touching on the general theme of sin, repentance, and redemption common in most all of Christianity or if they looked more specifically at Mormon history, but this type of story played out repeatedly in the early history of the Mormon church. There were multiple times that high-ranking Church members betrayed Church leaders by swearing false affidavits (i.e. Mormons planned to overthrow the government) which resulted in repeated imprisonments and even near execution, only to later have the traitors return seeking forgiveness and finding it extended by a magnanimous prophet and people (see W. W. Phelps, Thomas B. Marsh, Oliver Cowdery).

Regardless of what inspired the plotline, once again I appreciated that the core Christian tenet of repentance, forgiveness and redemption figured so prominently in the story of saint-turned-sinner-turned-saint, Joshua Graham.

As a fun side note regarding the fictional Graham and a famous real-life Mormon, Fallout: New Vegas project lead J. E. Sawyer said in an online Q&A that one interesting aspect of Mormon history is that John Browning, inventor of the M1911 pistol, BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle), and M2 .50 Cal Machine Gun, was a Mormon from Ogden, Utah. Joshua Graham, perhaps in a show of hometown pride and religious camaraderie, seems to be quite a fan of Browning’s M1911 .45 calibre pistols.

“Elder” Bert Gunnarsson & Driver Nephi

Until I started writing this I had overlooked that Bert Gunnarsson was a Mormon (probably due to most of the Mormon-related dialogue not making the final cut of the game), but I certainly had my suspicions about Driver Nephi.

While the name Nephi will not likely carry any significance to anyone outside Utah or the Mormon Church, to those in the Church Nephi is the first author of The Book of Mormon. For Fallout players, however, Nephi is one of the three fiend leaders that NCR Major Dhatri asks The Courier to kill in the Three-Card Bounty quest.

Bert Gunnarsson, on the other hand, is a ghoul medic and Mormon working with the Followers of the Apocalypse. He can be found helping NCR Captain Parker care for the poor and needy of New Vegas at the Aerotech Office Park.

If you speak to Gunnarsson he reveals that he is ministering to the poor and needy of New Vegas and that he has some medical training from the Followers. However, the GECK (mod tool) reveals a number of lines of unused dialogue that more fully flesh out his character. In one of Bert’s lines he explains that in the Church people call him “Elder Gunnarsson,” the title borne by full-time missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, implying that Bert is a Mormon missionary.

Also cut from the final game was an option that allowed The Courier to ask Bert what brought him out of Utah, to which he replies, “Following a lost cause, I’m afraid. My old friend Nephi fell in with a bad crowd. Drug runners, raiders, probably worse things it’s better not to dwell on. When his gang headed west, I followed. I thought perhaps I could turn him back to the Church.” This obviously implies that the golf-club wielding fiend Driver Nephi is also a Mormon, albeit a seriously lapsed one.

Again, I find much to appreciate in these two characters and their stories. First of all, Bert Gunnarsson is a Swedish name. Scandanavia was the second most successful foreign mission in the early days of the Mormon church with 23,000 Scandanavian converts emigrating to Utah between 1852 and 1905. Consequently, Elder Gunnarsson may be a seventh- or eighth-generation Mormon, his ancestors perhaps dating back to those early Swedish converts. Did Obsidian know this historical tid-bit? I don’t know, but their research into Mormonism so far seems to reflect a much deeper level of effort than is typically evidenced in entertainment media, so maybe they did.

Another way in which I feel Obsidian avoided a tired anti-religious cliché is in making Gunnarsson a ghoul.

In many media depictions, religious people are xenophobic and intolerant of the “other”. In the Fallout universe, the group that most fits the persecuted “other” is the ghouls.

As Three Dog reminds us in Fallout 3, “For all you would-be bigots out there, ghouls are people too. See children, ghouls are simply humans who have been exposed to an ungodly amount of radiation and haven’t had the good fortune to die… So if you meet one of the wasteland’s many ghouls, leave your prejudice at the door, and your pistol in its holster.” Three Dog reminds his listeners continuously about the unfair and apparently wide-spread anti-ghoul prejudice that exists among the humans of the wasteland. In this sense it is encouraging to see one of the only explicitly religious characters depicted as both a Mormon and a ghoul. This seems to indicate to me that the Fallout Mormons are not the xenophobic other-hating religious stereotypes featured in some media: Not only do they accept ghouls among their ranks but send them out as official representatives of the faith.

Lastly, it is poignant to me to think of this ghoul missionary following his wayward friend over 640km into the desert in the hopes that he might turn him from his self-destructive path.

It is poignant to me to think of this ghoul missionary following his wayward friend over 640km into the desert in the hopes that he might turn him from his self-destructive path.

In cut dialogue, Driver Nephi speaks ungenerously of his old friend and tells The Courier to tell Bert that he’s never coming back to “his little cult”. Bert admits to The Courier in another piece of cut dialogue that he was “never able to reach” Nephi, and that “drugs and hatred” have consumed him. In spite of this, it seems that Bert is determined to wait and hope for a change of heart that may lead his friend away from the fiends and toward redemption. Given that Bert is a ghoul and does not have an NCR bounty on his head, he likely knows he will outlive Nephi and seems willing to give as many of his long ghoul years as he must to offer his friend a lifeline back.

When death inevitably comes to Driver Nephi, likely at the hands of The Courier, if the player speaks to him Bert laments Nephi’s passing (oddly, it would seem, given that all of the related dialog was cut) and expresses the hope that Nephi’s soul is at peace.

“Elder” Bert Gunnarsson exemplifies the Mormon belief in the power of repentance and forgiveness, and that even someone as lost and sinful as the murderous Driver Nephi can be redeemed.

If you might indulge a film-based redemption analogy to further illustrate the point (*Pulp Fiction spoiler ahead*), it is as though Joshua Graham is Jules Winfield and Driver Nephi is Vincent Vega, with each of the former surviving a near-death experience and turning from their wicked ways to find forgiveness, and each of the latter persisting in their wicked ways and finding death.

Obsidian not only thoughtfully presents the concepts of repentance, forgiveness, and redemption in connection with Mormons but also the self-sacrifice, patience, and hope of the people seeking to extend those gifts to others as Mormon missionaries, like Elder Gunnarsson, work to do the world (or wasteland) over every day.

More Mormons of the Wasteland

There are a few other fair-minded Mormon Easter eggs in the Fallout universe, but they would take too long to explain and are relatively trivial compared to those presented here (but for those that are interested, see Jeremiah Rigdon, the rise and fall of New Jerusalem, Caesar’s extermination order and Missouri Executive Order 44, Daniel from Honest Hearts and Ammon from The Book of Mormon).

I as a Mormon feel a deep sense of appreciation for the time and energy Obsidian clearly spent researching Mormonism historically, culturally and spiritually.

Rather than taking the safe route in the entertainment industry of making Christianity, and especially Mormon Christianity, a punching bag or the butt of a string of jokes, Obsidian has shown that at least in post-apocalyptia, Mormons can get a fair shake.


Skip Cameron plays video games and goes to church in Boise, Idaho, and has to make time to game before the sun and his kids are up. He posts screenshots of his adventures through the wasteland at viewfromravenrock.blogspot.com