When Fallout first arrived back in 1997, it was the Super Mutants that were the primary threat in the Wasteland. But the Super Mutants actually had an appropriately horrific and sordid history before the events of Fallout 1, and they would continue along this trend for over a century until Fallout: New Vegas. The Super Mutants, like the Brotherhood of Steel, have deep roots within the Fallout canon that stretch back to before the Great War. These roots were tapped into by the original creators, and largely ignored by the developers that followed. Because of this, there are primarily two distinct types of Super Mutants - West Coast and East coast. This post will focus on the original, and the best, West Coast Super Mutants.
Standing on average at ten and a half feet tall, Super Mutants tend weigh in at around 800 pounds, or 363 kilograms, of pure muscle. Although typically greyish/green in color, there was an elite faction of West Coast Super Mutants, dubbed ‘Nightkin’, who have blue due to prolonged use of Stealth Boys. Super Mutant mutations have done away with recessive genes that generally cause genetic issues in humans, and their DNA has been modified to bring about the optimum combination of traits on a genetic level. They heal from wounds much faster than humans and are all but immune to radiation and death from old age. When they’re created perfectly, a Super Mutant maintains the intelligence they had in their former lives as a human and tends to begin life as an all round superior being.
Things don’t always go perfectly, however, and when an inferior Super Mutant is created they still get all the physical traits but they lose most of their intelligence. A primary drawback of the mutation process is that the Super Mutants are made infertile, and despite not dying of old age they are prone to senility. Along with this, those elite Nightkin who turned blue due to prolonged use of Stealth Boys also developed some serious mental disorders as a result of being invisible for such long periods of time. Super Mutants may be strong and near unkillable, but they’re also deeply flawed and imperfect beings. They’re less a genetically viable race and more super solider mules that’re created specifically for war and not much else. They may be well suited to the harsh life of the wasteland but they don’t exactly have it easy. It’s not just their genetic drawbacks that make this the case either, because they’ve got quite the checkered history.
Before the Great War, in 2073, there was a company called West-Tek that was researching a way to make the American population immune to any sort of biological attack that might be instigated by China. This was called the Pan-Immunity Virion Project, or PVP for short. It was an attempt to fill out an individuals DNA to make them immune to any sort of pathogens. While it did work, there were some noticeable side effects among the animal test subjects. Both the test subject’s size and intelligence dramatically increased, as well as their aggression levels. The virus was re-dubbed the Forced Evolutionary Virus, or FEV for short, and the scientists began delving into these side effects. It didn’t take long for the government to notice the possible military applications for this project and so they seized control of the project, to capitalize on these possible applications as well as from fear of potential espionage.
Mariposa Military base was built specifically to house and work on the FEV Project. And nine months before the Great War, at the start of 2077, the military started doing human testing on military volunteers. The horrors that transpired within Mariposa were such that once the military personnel stationed there learnt of their extent, they executed all the scientists involved and went rogue. This is the beginning of the Brotherhood of Steel. The Great War kicked off a few days later.
Decades later, in 2102, a man by the name of Richard Grey breaks into Mariposa Military Base to try to discover the source of the brutal attacks on his caravans. While most of his group is killed, Richard is knocked into a vat of FEV and spends a good while submerged in the mutagenic goop. He may have fallen in a man of rather dubious character, but upon his eventual escape he became the unhinged mutant freak known as The Master. He started out absorbing the flesh and minds of anything that wandered into Mariposa while simultaneously merging with the base’s computer network via a neural up-link. Eventually he started experimenting with the FEV, “dipping” other humans into it and studying the results. This is the birth of the Super Mutants as we knew them in the first Fallout game.
The Super Mutants were mostly dumb, brutish hulks that increased in size and strength but also lost most of their intelligence. A rare few, roughly one in six, were able to retain their intelligence though, and so The Master theorized that the deciding factor was the subjects radiation exposure. He himself was originally an exile from Vault 8, far to the north, and so his radiation levels were far lower than most wastelanders. Subjects with minimal exposure to radiation tended to yield far better results than those who had a lifetime of radiation stored in their flesh. For anyone who knows Fallout the meaning of this should be clear, those who lived in Vaults would make far better Super Mutants than those who grew up in the Wasteland.
In 2155, with the aid of a cult he’d aligned himself with, Richard Grey would eventually move south to the L.A. Boneyard where he would take up residence in a Vault of his own. Super Mutants are great and all but even the intelligent ones couldn’t do what a fanatical human cultist could; infiltrate wasteland settlements and bring them down from within. And what self-respecting villain would forego the chance at an underground lair? Eventually The Master would build a cathedral atop the Vault and forevermore the cult was presented as an honest religion dubbed “Children of the Cathedral.” Few knew of the Cathedral’s connection to The Master, his Super Mutant army or his grand designs of wasteland Unification.
The thing with the Super Mutants is that they’re a direct threat to your character, the Vault Dweller, and his whole community Vault 13. The Master and his Super Mutants are looking for pure humans with minimal radiation exposure, which means that the Vault Dweller’s Vault is a prime target. With this in mind, even if you complete your initial goal of repairing your Vault’s water purification chip, you’re sent back out to take care of the far more dangerous threat that The Master and his Super Mutants pose. To keep this from spiraling any further, in 2161 the Vault Dweller eventually destroys Mariposa as well as the Cathedral and The Master’s Vault beneath it. The source of the Super Mutant threat, as far as the wasteland is aware of, is taken care of.
After the events of Fallout 1, the Super Mutants are scattered. Many form roving war-bands or even armies of their own, going on to become a scourge on the wasteland. A massive force wanders across the mountains far to the east, which leads to the events of Fallout Tactics. For the most part though, with their creator dead and their sole method of their creation seemingly destroyed, the Super Mutants faded into the background of wasteland normalcy. Like humans, some were good, most were bad and they just started living life as best they could. A prime example of this was the town of Broken Hills, a mining town comprised of humans, Ghouls and Super Mutants. Broken Hills was founded by a Super Mutant and a Brotherhood of Steel Paladin, a sure enough narrative nod to the fact that the conflict between the two factions was a thing of the past by this point. Life was never easy in Broken Hills, and tensions always ran high, but the town could survive as long as level heads prevailed… and as long as there was still uranium to mine.
Jump forward to 2236, five years before the events of Fallout 2. The ruins of Mariposa are discovered by the Enclave. They’re a faction that’s a continuation of the US government, so they’ve got access to some seriously high-tech weapons and armor, as well as all the old pre-war records. With the aid of human and Super Mutant slaves, they begin excavation of the ruins and eventually discover some of the still-potent FEV. Mutations begin to occur among the human slaves, as well as some of the Enclave personnel and eventually Mariposa is abandoned. After a slight altercation with a squad of Enclave soldiers left behind to kill everything within the base, the new Super Mutant community begins in earnest. Remnants of the first-generation Super Mutants, as well as the newly created second generation, just wanted to stay down in the ruins of Mariposa and live in peace… and they did… until the Chosen One, the protagonist of Fallout 2, showed up.
By the time of Fallout: New Vegas, in 2281, the Super Mutants have openly been a part of the wasteland for over a century. They’re not exactly accepted, often being treated worse than Ghouls, but they’re not instantly shot on sight either. Sometimes a Super Mutant might live peacefully with humans, or they might live together in their own Super Mutant communities and try their best to maintain peaceful relations with their human and Ghoul neighbors. They’re just trying to survive in the wasteland like everyone else, some may do so as peacefully as possible while others take a more violent and selfish path.
This is the thing about Super Mutants, they’re not just mindless monsters for your characters to kill. They’re an imperfect species that’s going to die out unless they find a way to propagate, either through use of FEV or by solving their sterility issues. In Fallout 1, 2 and New Vegas (and Tactics, as well, if you accept it as canon) they’re a fully fleshed out and flawed people that have drives and a history of their own. They’ve got a sorry past, being created by The Master as tools to bring about his demented vision of a genetically unified wasteland… but they’ve moved beyond that. They’re not all good and they’re not all bad, neither are they haphazardly created idiotic brutes that eat humans... like Bethesda turned them into on the East Coast.