It’s not often that an iconic video game character isn’t, in fact, a playable character at all. In the case of the acclaimed post-apocalyptic open world RPG series, Fallout, which has gone on to become one of the most recognized gaming franchises in the industry, the appearance of the Vault Boy – the cartoon mascot for Vault-Tec – has become synonymous with the game itself, acting as the iconic staple of each entry in the series. But what makes Vault Boy, a mere mascot in a video game, such a memorable character? To understand this, we have to understand mainstream branding and pop culture; something that Fallout satirically prides itself in.

The idea of using cartoon mascots to promote businesses, corporations and products existed long before Fallout entered the scene. On almost every conceivable cereal brand, for example, people were greeted to a lively drawing of a cartoon character. This was an intentional marketing move to promote a sense of joyful youth and energy in the brand, often eliciting a positive reaction from customers. Cartoon characters tapped into a primal element of human nature; that of youthful positivity. As kids, cartoons represented a detachment from reality, and were often exaggerated, colorful figures, both anthropomorphic and human. They also instilled a kind of wondrous sense of security and comfort within us, and through this clever psychological tactic, also lead to trust.

So when Vault-Tec painted the Vault Boy as the blond-haired, round-faced vault-suit wearing mascot of the company, they invoked trust from potential vault dwellers in the grim narrative inevitability of a nuclear fallout; a recruitment process of some kind best compared to Uncle Sam of America’s military. Despite this impending apocalypse by way of the cruelty of man, the Vault Boy symbolized the idea of comfort. Greeted by a warm smile and often a thumbs up (which many people don’t know is actually a way by distance to judge the extent of a radiation zone after a nuclear bomb cloud has spread… fun fact), the mascot reaffirmed assurance and most of all, safety from harm.

However, in the ironic satirical charm of the Fallout universe, the oddly cheery Vault Boy is most remembered for some deadly, world-ending events, becoming more cynically morbid than comforting. This is brilliantly illustrated in the opening loading cinematic for Fallout 4, in which the Vault Boy is the animated subject of a series of television safety broadcasts, all depicting ways in which to survive the desolate wastelands following the aftermath. The broadcasts seem family-friendly enough until they begin to focus on the more life-threatening dangers, which causes the television to skip and briefly brush over horrific, violent imagery of the Vault Boy experiencing these dangers first-hand. It’s a slice of clever social satire made all the more eerily disturbing thanks to the design of the mascot.

The now iconic design of the Vault Boy was first officially introduced in Fallout 3 as soon as Bethesda revamped the series with a new coat of paint and a few mechanical tweaks. The character became the central symbol of Vault-Tec’s mask of trust and safety, ironically contradicting their more sinister agendas in which the very bomb shelters they built became the focus of often terrifying human experimentation and testing. This is not true of all vaults, but the series smartly focused on the ones that mattered and painted a grim light on the subject of social corporate safety. As one would be lead to believe by the “trustworthy” image of Vault Boy alone, it mirrored a fundamental part of reality and the often misleading ways in which popular culture can manipulate and influence the masses.

Vault Boy may not be a real character within the Fallout universe, but he does play a pivotal role in setting up the world and particularly the antagonistic government forces behind Vault-Tec. The cartoon mascot acts as a symbol of trust, safety, and confidence in the corporation, but behind the warm colors and bright smile there’s more going on than meets the eye. As a dropped veil for the inhumane testing within the shelters, the Vault Boy appears not only as the manifestation of the players statistical progress, but also as a means of taunting them in the most darkly comical way possible. Iconic, within Fallout and without, is where he firmly stands.