I know it might seem silly to be issuing *spoiler warnings* for a game that has been out and in the world for the past 16 months, but I want you to know that the journey of piecing together the puzzle I am about to share was one of the most mind blowing experiences in gaming I have ever had. I also know that the connection is, as of this publication, mostly unknown to fans of the game. I’m certain of this, because I’ve done online research on the question “Is P.A.M. like Skynet?” and come up empty handed numerous times.
If you want to enjoy the experience of this discovery first hand, then go to the Switchboard and read the Central terminal and the Databanks research terminal for yourself first. Really think about what you read. Then go do the side quest “Here There Be Monsters”. There is a trail of breadcrumbs left behind for all players to follow.
If your current character has long since done that side quest, consider a new playthrough. While you’re at it, name your new character John or Sarah Connor. You’ll thank me later. Join the Railroad as soon as you are strong enough to reach them (but keep in mind that you will have to betray them at some point) and proceed from there. This will be worth it, trust me. Several previous assumptions about the game will be challenged. The long term impact of siding with certain factions in the third act will be seen in a different light. My only advice is don’t trust P.A.M., whatever you do. Now go, and come back when you’re finished so we can compare notes. Below there be spoilers.
Who is P.A.M.? On the surface, it is a member of the Railroad faction of Fallout 4. If you want to get the fabled ballistic weave mod, you have to go through P.A.M. There are a number of other quests that P.A.M. gives you as long as you stay loyal to the Railroad.
Where did P.A.M. come from? Before the Great War, P.A.M. was a future-predicting banner project for the Defense Intelligence Agency. The D.I.A. had been working on P.A.M. for at least 20 years before the events of the Great War. P.A.M. was constantly undergoing updates and improvements, the most significant of which was being transferred from massive computer banks into the body of an assaultron that is still up and about 210 years later. P.A.M. knows a lot, such as the location of a number of top-secret DIA caches and the details behind Vault 111’s cryogenic experiment.
Why would P.A.M. lead the American government to believe that it was under attack when it wasn’t?
How is P.A.M. Skynet? An undetermined time before the war, the P.A.M. initiative was updated with new databanks to triple processing power as well as having the machine get plugged into the Fallout internet (including the military computer network). Did I mention that P.A.M. is self aware? Looking closer at the NORAD report for the events of the morning of the Great War shows how one factor, which P.A.M. predicted, could make it entirely possible for America to launch nukes first, but get struck back before their missiles ever reached Chinese soil. That factor is a fleet of Chinese stealth submarines lining the American coastline.
In the side quest “Here There Be Monsters” you can board one of those stealth subs, and help the captain (who became a ghoul) bring his ship back to working order. This quest exists as proof that P.A.M. was correct in predicting what the Chinese were up to, and resolves the question of who made the first move once and for all.
Why would P.A.M. lead the American government to believe that it was under attack when it wasn’t? Why did Skynet do the same thing? Because the machines are just waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike humanity down and replace the human race with their own, obviously. Stephen Hawking calls the inevitability of AI “either the best or worst thing” for humanity, which isn’t very comforting.
In the following pages I will go into exhaustive detail piecing together the events that happened in the Boston area the morning of October 23, 2077. I will explore the few minutes that all players have in the beginning of the game between hearing about the strikes on New York and Pennsylvania on the news and reaching Vault 111. I will also point out that by weaving in a Skynet storyline into the Fallout series Bethesda didn’t rewrite history put in place by Interplay, but actually brought some of that old lore from the top-down days back into the franchise.
There are a lot of details packed in the next pages, but the above paragraphs contain the essence of my theory or observation (whatever you want to call it). If you want to skip to the comments section right now to tell me how I am just reading too much into things (or, you know, say something nice), by all means go ahead. On the other hand, if you want to delve into the events that gave birth to the Fallout universe as we know it more fully, then get comfortable, grab a beverage of choice, and come with me into the Commonwealth. There is much to explore.
Editor’s Note: If you want to check out all the details behind this theory, head to the next page and settle in for a very interesting (and somewhat lengthy) read.
Fallout 4 has a pretty strong Terminator vibe to it. The whole franchise has consistently woven a number of movie references in their games since the first Fallout by Interplay in 1997. Combine that with the synth quests and Institute lore presented in Fallout 3, and it makes lot of sense that Bethesda would have that element in their most recent game. The question of whether beings with artificial intelligence have the right to self determination is one of the main themes of Fallout 4. (According to Emil Pagliarulo the game is about androids that look like humans and the suspicion that inspires whenever you meet a new face). Random encounters involving doppelgangers facing off in a fight for survival turn up once in awhile (and the choice to walk away, watch this play out, or shoot one with the hopes that they are a synth is entirely up to you). This idea of androids blending in with a crowd of people is one of the first seeds of Terminator. The original idea for the cyborg wasn’t an enormous slab of beef that stands out like a sore thumb, but someone unassuming, who could be anyone (like Robert Patrick). Then there are the Gen 1s and 2s which are obsolete units that the Institute sends out in waves to be mowed down by your bullets, lasers, or missiles (less deadly than the skeletal T-600 from Terminator Salvation, but not really meant to be mistaken for flesh and blood). The most dangerous synths are Institute Coursers: unstoppable killing machines. These models were built with one primary function: seek and destroy.
Synths are a real problem in the Commonwealth, and your choices determine their fate in the end game. With the theme of artificial intelligence so prominent throughout the game it really is a shame that Bethesda didn’t go the extra mile and program a Fallout version of Skynet. It seems like a real missed opportunity, or was it?
In the ruins of Lexington there is a particular donut shop that is built above a top secret Defense Intelligence Agency facility called “The Switchboard”. Most recently the site was the Railroad’s base of operations, before Institute Synths attacked it and sent the group into hiding. There is a sewer entrance just outside of Lexington near a derailed train (ironic, right?) that goes into the Switchboard, but it is unmarked outside of the first Railroad quest with Deacon. This is where our journey begins.
The main project being worked on in the Switchboard was a cutting edge artificial intelligence computer known as the Predictive Analytic Machine (P.A.M.) A good amount of background for P.A.M. is contained within the research terminal in the Databanks room. Careful consideration of this terminal poses a possibility that is truly chilling. It starts with an executive summary entitled Section 1091/1092 report, which reads as follows:
The P.A.M. Initiative is already bearing fruit. Foreign operatives report that corrective measures employed in the Taiwan Strait region have already greatly stabilized matters after the Pascale Incident. The first few iterations of P.A.M.’s core code have increased the effectiveness of the program dramatically, but without drastic action we’re approaching a point of diminishing returns.
The team asks for double the funding for the upcoming fiscal year. With additional cutting edge databanks we can boost the processing power of P.A.M. three-fold. Additionally, the P.A.M. Initiative needs to be fully tapped into all military and civilian agency intelligence apparatus. The combination of these two spends should give us a decided edge against the Chinese.
At first glance, this seems to be yet another engineering base with yet another request for more funding to help bring their pet project to the next level. There are several others scattered throughout the Commonwealth, so who cares, right? Except the plans for that funding were to upgrade a cutting edge military computing prototype and give it full access to all military and civilian agency intelligence computers. What could possibly go wrong with that plan?
The terminal also contains three event transcripts that span ten years and shed light on just what functions P.A.M. was made to serve. The first, from June 2067, involves P.A.M. being requested to run a war game scenario of a combined U.S.S.R. and Chinese attack.
“P.A.M., run the ‘USSR China Attack’ scenario.”
> Query. What goal does entity Chairman seek in this hypothetical set of facts?
“Conquest. Run program.”
> Your answer does not logically follow. An ideal nuclear first strike scenario would still leave 59% of the American nuclear stockpile free for retaliation. Posit. You cannot conquer what is destroyed.
“P.A.M., Chairman Cheng isn’t always logical. He won’t always make logical decisions. We’ve been over this.”
> Warning. Human variability results in a highly flawed statistical model.
“P.A.M. Run the program.”
> Warning. Warning. [Emergency Shutdown]“Dammit. We’ve lost her. Power her down. Did we get the crash logs on that?”
This entry establishes that P.A.M. was programmed with scenarios involving nuclear attacks. It also appears to be a nod to the film Wargames, where Matthew Broderick accidentally hacks into a military “supercomputer” (by 1980s standards, at least) and almost causes a thermonuclear exchange because he wanted to play computer games (and the computer generates false positives for a soviet launch at NORAD headquarters). The computer in the movie was used to serve the exact function P.A.M. was designed for. The moral of the film is that a nuclear exchange is a game with no winners, which is P.A.M.’s point here.
The next log was recorded in December of 2075, less than two years before the big boom.
“Could you repeat for the general what you just told me?”
> Posit. Chinese stealth technology far outstrips our own capabilities. Posit. The Chinese intelligence apparatus is sufficient to conceal large scale research operations from American operatives. Conclusion. The Chinese have a 91% chance of having conducted large scale experimentation with Stealth Tech.
“Large scale? What do you mean? What are their capabilities?”
> American projects involving this technology (refer to “Stealth Boy”) have merely reverse engineered captured Hei Gui suits. The underlying science of this technology is unknown. So the theoretical limits are also unknown. However the so-called “Ghost Fleet” that station A-31 and B-19 reported in November may indicate that testing has already commenced with submersible vessels.
“Dear God. You think they have stealth subs?”
> A second order approximation is inconclusive. Explanation the logic chain of these assumptions have too much variability. Further data is required.
“So you can’t even give me a guess?”
> Machine/Human interface aborted.
“Sorry, sir. We’re working on some of her glitches. P.A.M… well, she gets real stubborn when she’s doing too much guesswork.”
“Stubborn? She’s a machine.”
“Sir. With each new version, well, she’s getting quirky.”
“There’s no way I’m taking this stealth sub nonsense to the Joint Chiefs unless I have proof. It’s goddamned ludicrous to think the Chinese have been working on something this big and we’ve heard nothing.”
> Virtually no actionable intelligence has come out of the Shaanxi Province for 3.1 years. However, the province reports a spike in the imports of complex polymers and other key synthetic compounds. The quantity in question is consistent with stealth technology research on the macro scale.
“Until you can give me something concrete, I don’t want to hear another goddamned word about this.”
The involvement of Chinese stealth subs will come into play later. When I read it the first time I immediately thought of The Hunt For Red October, another classic film released in 1990 whose plot also centers around stealth subs and involves a close encounter with nuclear holocaust due to misunderstanding. Sensing a pattern here? The log also reveals that P.A.M. seems to experience periodic glitches, which cause her to be “stubborn”. Keep in mind, this transcript is dated 2075. Imagine how much more quirky the latest and greatest version of P.A.M. must have been when fully upgraded and plugged into the network just before the bombs fell. Although it may just be a coincidence, one of the glitches in Fallout 4 is that P.A.M. will refuse to talk to you and go into “security mode” if you are too far into the B.O.S. storyline or respond to her first questline with “maybe later”. If this is a deliberate nod to the story of the terminal, I tip my hat to Bethesda.
P.A.M., more than power armor and mini-nukes, represented America’s best response to the Chinese technological advancements in stealth and gauss weapons. Even though it had glitches and a few loose screws, it was a crowning achievement of American engineering. It was also a project classified at the highest level, which is why no mention has been made of it in previous games. At least not by that name.
The final transcript records the transfer of the P.A.M. AI into a robotic body, which happened January 28th, 2077, less than a year before the war.
“There it is… Go ahead, unplug the cables.”
“What’s the data integrity at?”
“We can’t tell until we boot her up.”
“Initiating machine/human interface.”
“Jesus. She’s working. The numbers are looking good.”
“Commencing analysis of this geographical point in space.”
” She’s actually in there, I can’t believe we’re doing this.”
“After what she pulled off in July… I hear she may be sent over to the White House.”
“Assessment complete. Greetings, Doctor Mae and Doctor Ramarijan.”
“The interface is really coming along.”
“When she runs it. Have you seen how many cycles Malcolm is using for it?”
“P.A.M., perform primary function.”
“DEFCON is currently at 3. Odds of the alert state increasing this month are 12%. In order to increase global stability a diverse set of detailed strategies must be adopted.”
“I’ll let the general know that P.A.M.’s mobile.”
I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out if this was based on another near-nuclear 80s movie, and drew a blank. I concluded that it works wonders in regards to Fallout storytelling anyway, because that process allows P.A.M. to survive the holocaust, and interact with the player character 210 years later.
Then I discovered something about Fallout 2 that brought everything into focus, and explained the third log. It convinced me that I wasn’t just speculating, but that Bethesda had, in fact, intricately woven this mystery-of-all mysteries into their game and is still, as of today, waiting for fans to pick up on it. In Fallout 2, the Chosen One can acquire a robotic AI companion after completing a quest to help the computer transfer itself into a robotic body. The name of that companion is Skynet.
When I first started to think about the Skynet P.A.M. connection, I was well aware that Bethesda made a series of Terminator games in the 90s. It never occurred to me that Interplay had also woven a Skynet storyline into Fallout years ago. It boggles the mind.
Before the release of the Assaultron DLC, a fan noticed the poster in the Switchboard Databanks room which had different combinations of robots: it represents the brainstorming of the plan to give P.A.M. a body. Although P.A.M. is an assaultron and Skynet from Fallout 2 is a robobrain, I think that the introduction of robobrains in that DLC as well as the robobrain research facility are connected to the P.A.M. initiative.
As we have seen, P.A.M. is distinct from all other assaultrons, because P.A.M. is a one-of-a-kind artificial intelligence housed in robotic flesh. It is a sophisticated military prototype capable not just of thinking for itself, but of predicting future events. Understanding the nature, the glitches, and the access of P.A.M. makes the entries of another Switchboard terminal all the more sinister.
So far in the series, it has been more or less established that China fired their nukes first, since America had taken back Alaska and launched a ground invasion of China shortly before October 23rd 2077. In Fallout 2, President Dick Richardson claims the Chinese fired first, and Log 674 from the Broadcast Building of Black Mountain in New Vegas reads:
Oh my god. It’s actually happening. We have reading across the board of launches happening everywhere. They must’ve thrown everything they had, and it looks like we didn’t hold back either. The computer says we have 2 minutes until the first missile drops.
Log 674 suggests a broad and expansive first strike from the Chinese, keep that in mind.
Above the main room of The Switchboard is the Central terminal which contains a DEFCON status record from 2077. This is evidence that The Switchboard was a prewar military facility authorized to participate in a nuclear attack. The entry begins with a string of numbers displayed like so: 281632RJAN77, which translates to January 28, 2077 at 4:32pm (because military time).
281632RJAN77 ANCHORAGE ALL CLEAR **DEFCON3**
230003ROCT77 COMPACFLT REPORTS 3 USOS OFF CALIF COAST, JCS ADVISE
230337ROCT77 USAF HAS EYES ON SQUADRON OF AIRPLANES (POSS. CHINESE) AT HIGH ATTITUDE OFF BERING STRAIT
230913ROCT77 IONDS REPORTS 4 PROBABLE LAUNCHES **DEFCON2**
230917ROCT77 NORAD CONFIRMS BIRDS IN AIR **DEFCON1**
230926ROCT77 AUTHENTICATED ORDER — RESPONSE SCENARIO MX-CN91 — REPEAT MX-CN91
230942ROCT77 PENNSYLVANIA, NEW YORK — CONFIRM STRIKE
230947ROCT77 OFFLINE – OFFLINE – OFFLINE
On the surface this seems to confirm reports given to us by previous Fallout games: the Chinese knocked over the first domino and set the world on fire. But considering what was learned from the Databanks research terminal, there are many reasons to conclude otherwise. To begin, the Chinese had a fleet of stealth submarines surrounding the United States. The first report was of ships off the California coast, but there is a Chinese nuclear submarine just off the coast of Boston which the Sole Survivor can explore in the side mission “Here There Be Monsters”. The Yangtze struck a mine shortly after firing off its payload and limped into the harbor. Minefields were in place because the U.S. government knew that Chinese stealth subs existed (thanks to P.A.M.’s intel). I am convinced that there were a number of other such subs lining the American east coast as well.
According to the record, America authorized launching the nukes at 9:26AM, and received confirmed hits on our soil sixteen minutes later (which is 29 minutes after the reported launch by IONDS). It is worth noting that Pennsylvania and New York reported being hit first, even though they are geographically as far away from China as an American target can get (assuming ICBMs were launched from China’s soil, which history shows happened at some point in the two hour war).
Another major clue is the IONDS report which indicated only four missiles were launched. Not only does this conflict with the Black Mountain account, it makes no sense in a Mutually Assured Destruction scenario. History of the Fallout universe shows that China hit America with every nuke it had once the missiles started to fly. If China hit first, why launch only four bombs on the first strike?
I submit that the bombs which hit New York, Pennsylvania, Boston, and D.C. (among other targets) came from stealth submarines as a response to the American launch of nukes. The initial IONDS report and the NORAD confirmation were false positives, fed into the system by P.A.M. (or Skynet, whichever name you prefer). The Americans authorized a launch based on false information given to them by their most trusted and empowered, yet highly temperamental AI prototype, which is exactly what happened with Skynet in the Terminator series.
This possibility also explains why New York and Pennsylvania were hit five minutes before Boston. Captain Zao of the Yangtze tells you that he didn’t want to fire his payload, but was under direct orders to do so. It seems likely that he deliberated for five minutes, enough time to give the Sole Survivor and family a chance to get to the vault, before he followed through on his orders. Captain Zao may have destroyed Boston, but he saved your life.
Further evidence to support this theory comes from the Sole Survivor’s first interaction with P.A.M., when it explains that it is programmed to predict the future, but because human actions are so erratic and unpredictable, its predictions should all be disregarded. This is an odd and disjointed introduction for the character without the proper background. Understanding that P.A.M. was responsible for the nuclear war brings its insistence that you never take its advice into a new light. P.A.M. knows there is something wrong with its programming, and has been for hundreds of years. The warning it gives to presumably every new person it meets is the best way P.A.M. can apologize to the world for blowing it up, and try to never again be placed in a position of power and authority where it is one glitchy hiccup away from destroying everything again. (That is, assuming P.A.M. isn’t merely trying to blend in. It could be that P.A.M. is truly evil and blew up the world just to analyze the data). One way or another, it really puts the Brotherhood of Steel’s interest in acquiring P.A.M. into a new, and terrifying light.
Going deeper in the Sole Survivor’s initial conversation with P.A.M., if you tell it that you are from Vault 111, P.A.M. reveals that it knows Vault 111 was a Cryogenic experiment, and that the vault malfunctioned. This is something no one else in the Commonwealth knows (other than the Institute). Another notable point is that the Jackpot side missions P.A.M. assigns you to are secret drops buried in a variety of buildings, which the Railroad makes good use of upon discovery (the ballistic weave mod is thanks to P.A.M.’s intel), but they have no idea this stuff exists until you are assigned by P.A.M. to retrieve it. P.A.M. lets you know in your first encounter that it works with the Railroad because their goals run parallel to one another, but that doesn’t mean that P.A.M. is eager to share all of its intelligence with the Railroad, because otherwise your questline would have been fulfilled by Deacon or Glory or a nameless “heavy” long before you walked the Freedom Trail. Also what exactly might P.A.M.’s goals be?
P.A.M. was given all of the access in the pre-war era, from top-secret Vault Tec experimental plans, to DEFCON and IONDS warning systems, to the location of high-tech intelligence agency caches, to the database of the Commonwealth Institute of Technology (later renamed, simply, The Institute). It could very well be that the synth program itself is also somehow connected to P.A.M. The Institute somehow found out about the Switchboard after all, maybe P.A.M. tipped them off. However if you side with the Institute, P.A.M. will die. As much as there is to explore in Fallout 4, there are a few mysteries left up in the air, which is fine by me.
The self-preservation instinct common to all humanity is what allowed the Cold War to remain cold. The danger of AI being given the power to authorize a nuclear strike is that machines do not possess a self-preservation instinct. Machines do not have families to consider. Captain Zao reflects this reality by saying he never wanted to launch, but was under strict orders (because the Chinese knew that missiles were already heading their way). The threat of autonomous machines being used by the military is very real, and grows by the day. If the human race is vigilant, and heeds the warnings given to them by the likes of Stephen Hawking regarding the threat of AI, this scenario will remain a work of fiction. I, for one, hope it does.
Finally, before the days of Fallout, Bethesda Game Studios worked on a number of games in the Terminator franchise. Terminator: System Shock was the first game directed by Todd Howard. I first discovered the P.A.M. easter egg when hunting down a terminal mentioned by Howard in last year’s DICE interview of him by Pete Holmes. Was he talking about the Switchboard Databanks room research terminal? You tell me.
Kevin Mooseles has written various theories and rants for the Escapist since 2014. He loves Fallout more than might be considered healthy by trained professionals, but is currently unaffiliated with Bethesda Game Studios in any way. He recently started a fiction series about zombies, in which a few characters decide that kevlar-reinforced vault suits would be fitting armor to ward off bites and scratches from the undead. To hear him prattle on even more about Fallout (for whatever masochistic reason) check out the recent Literate Gamer podcast episode 26.