The Fear of Fallout – a talk given at the FWPCA Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada on Saturday, February 25th, 2012
This weekend I went to Vegas to present a paper on Fallout. (Note: If you haven’t been to Vegas you should. It’s a lovely city, the architecture is breathtaking, and the downtown life is lively.) Here you will find a recording of my talk along with the transcript and the powerpoint images used.
To download the Powerpoint file, follow the link:
What you see behind me are photographs of Las Vegas, Nevada: a vibrant city full of neon lights and rooms full of smoke where women could come and go talking of Michaelangelo. Vegas is a city that excites the imagination of those who visit; and in the world of Fallout, and perhaps in our future, Vegas looks like this.
When Fallout 3 was to be released on 2008, Bethesda advertised the game using a poster that depicted Washington D.C. in ruins.
These posters seemed to make individuals nervous, and after several complaints Bethesda decided to remove the posters (Mann, GamePolitics). There were various reasons as to why people asked for the Fallout 3 advertisement to be removed. One of the reasons given was that even though political speech and art is protected under the first amendment of the U.S. constitution, videogames were not art; therefore, the use of controversial and potentially offensive images in their advertisement campaigns should not have been allowed. Had the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on whether videogames had achieved “art” status and obtained the protections of the first amendment before 2008 this would have been a non-issue. However, even though videogames have had literary and artistic qualities for a long time, it was only last year that the Supreme Court of the United States granted videogames official “art” status.
Certainly, when future complaints of this kind are made, this will not be an issue that can be exploited – not that it ever should have been in the first place. Still, while the constitutionality of games might have been the key reason for taking down the advertisements from a legal perspective, there was another more powerful reason given as to why the Fallout posters should have been taken down, and it is a reason that speaks volumes about the society in which we live.
In a letter to the editor published on October 5th, 2008 in The Washington Post, a D.C. resident by the name of Joseph Anzalone wrote that “The people of our city do not need a daily reminder that Washington is a prime target for an attack. We do not need a daily reminder of what our worst fears look like.” In short, Joseph was afraid of the potential future depicted in the Fallout advertisements. The key term is fear.
Throughout history, literature has reflected not only the values of a society, but also the concerns and fears of the society. This is evident when we look at Blake’s writings on the French Revolution, Emerson’s comments on how American literature should be American in nature, Arnold’s writings on religious concerns in the light of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, and the many war poets of the 20th century. Yet if we were to apply this same rule to our current society while defining the term “literary” as it traditionally has been, then one would have to say that we are concerned with, or afraid of, magical children and sparkly vampires. However, the idea that only words on a printed text are literary has been challenged throughout the past decade, and even now scholars and writers like Janet Murray and Joseph Michael Owens comment about the literary and artistic qualities of videogames. And so, with more Americans playing videogames than reading books, and both of these media being equally valid as artistic forms of expression, it might be worthwhile to think about how values and concerns are represented in videogame texts. In this paper I will explore how Fallout 3 and New Vegas depict our major collective fears and how the medium’s ability for interactivity actively empowers the player to cope with these concerns while making the claim that the Fallout titles are some of the most significant cultural works of this generation.
And this brings us to our fear of Fallout.
The science fiction narrative of Fallout is set in a retro-futuristic, unknown-yet-familiar post-nuclear world. The Fallout timeline is fairly consistent with that of our reality until the post second world war era, when different outcomes to major political events shift the world in a different direction. In 1970, China fails to adopt any free market reforms and remains similar to what it was under Mao. In 1991 the USSR did not collapse. These two events strained relationships between the communist nations and the United States and led to a perpetual cold war. By 2059, oil resources become increasingly scarce and the United States decides to drill in the Alaskan oil fields. In 2066, China, with her oil reserves exhausted, invades Alaska. Between 2072 and 2076, the United States works on annexing Canada, and by 2077 America reclaims Alaska.
On October 23, 2077, nuclear bombs are launched by the United States and China. According to the lore of the Fallout world, “who struck first is unknown. Other countries, seeing the missiles on their way, launch their planes and fire their warheads as well.” The American People, having been bombarded with fear propaganda during the previous 100 years, neglect to heed the warnings of the oncoming attack and fail to find safe shelter. The effects of this event result in the world in which the player is set lose 200 years after.
Although Fallout 3 is set in Washington D.C. and New Vegas is set in Las Vegas and the basic story told in each game differs drastically from each other, the games themselves share a similar theme that can be unlocked by looking at the world and its inhabitants. It is through this world, and through the behavior of the non-playable characters, that the Fallout titles allow players to confront some of their fears, namely the fear of a nuclear attack and the fear of a decayed state of humanity.
When players are first faced with the worlds of Fallout 3 and New Vegas they become overwhelmed with a sense of uncanny. Players who are familiar with what Washington D.C. and this city, Las Vegas, should look like are quick to experience that instant where the game world is simultaneously familiar and foreign. This results in a feeling of uncomfortable familiarity. This is heightened by the player’s ability to put together the narrative of the game and wonder “what if?” Just as the advertisement had a discomforting effect on the population of D.C., so do the games, which force players to come to terms with a possible reality where one must kill and steal to make a living and where most of the food is radiated; a potential future where one must eat to survive, but the act of eating results in a slow, painful death.
The fear of a possible post-nuclear world becomes more intense when the player finally interacts with the citizens of Fallout. In this world, remaining humans try to organize themselves based on their recollections of capitalist society. However, due to the lack of organized societal structures, the survivalist nature of individuals surfaces. This results in an anarchist world guided by a crude version of Herbert Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” where the strongest groups survive and the weak are quickly discarded. This is specially true in New Vegas. By forcing players early on to seek out and join one of the many warring factions and by taking away the player’s ability to lead the world into a happy, peaceful ending, “Bethesda completely wipes away the idea that, somehow, a grave disaster would bring out nobility in humans, that there is always hope for humanity, that, essentially, we are all decent beings” (Michael Samyn). In short, the Fallout titles tell players that in a post-nuclear world there is no hope for a revival of humanity because each individual is focused on self-preservation. And so, what was originally fear of a potential future and fear of a dehumanized society becomes fear of the self.
The Fallout titles do not force players to traverse the story in a linear path where the same outcome is inevitable in every play through. Fallout is as much a spatial narrative as it is a story-driven narrative. Because of the openness of the world, players are afforded a higher level of agency over their character than in other texts – print or otherwise. The game offers players a level of freedom to the point where they can actively make choices that affect in-game characters and the world itself. The fallout of these choices range from potentially harming an individual to detonating a bomb in one of the few safe cities in post-apocalyptic D.C. or allowing an army to overrun the Vegas strip. This heightened sense of control coupled with visible, measurable reactions of the game world to the player’s choices force players to think before they act, to consider different possibilities, and – perhaps most importantly – to discover themselves based on the actions they make in-game.
The Fallout titles force players who are invested in the characters they have created to ask themselves “how far would I/my character go to survive and come out on top?” The first time players are faced with this question in Fallout 3 is when they reach the town of Megaton. In the center of the town there is a still active bomb that is worshiped by the “Children of Atom”, a religious group. When they enter the city players are approached by the a character, Jericho, and asked to deactivate the bomb. Successful completion of this quest will give the player 100 caps, the currency in the fallout world. However, the player also has the choice of blowing up the city, which has the potential of earning the player 1,000 caps. Here players are forced to ask themselves if they are willing to destroy an entire city for a substantially higher reward, or if they made what would be considered “the good choice” in a world where morality, not profit and self preservation, were the norm.
Similar situations are scattered throughout the world of Fallout 3. In the quest titled “Superhuman Gambit” players are asked to “dispose” of two individuals who are fighting amongst each other. Here players are forced to ask if they are willing to kill an individual for 200 caps, or both individuals for 400 caps, or if they should turn down the quest. In the Tenpenny Tower quest the player can choose to help a number of disfranchised ghouls enter the safety of the tower, where they will kill the owner and many of the residents. Players are also given the choice of killing the disfranchised ghouls. There is a higher road that players can take if they have a high enough speech skill which will result in the ghouls and humans coexisting in the tower, but the conditions required for this option are rarely achieved. If the owner of the tower is dead when players start this quest they will have to convince Gustavo, the leader of the Tenpenny militia, to let the ghouls in. However, this is not programmed into the game, so players will be forced to kill Gustavo to proceed with the quest. Players will have to follow this by making a resident of the tower, Millicent Wellington, kill her husband Edgar and her husband’s lover Susan and by making two store owners leave the tower by stealing from them. And so, this leaves the question unanswered: “would I be willing to do this?”
In New Vegas the scenario becomes more complicated. Because players are forced to join factions and create a reputation from the early moments of the game, the question evolves from “would I be able to kill someone under these circumstances?” to “would I be able to kill someone to build reputation with my group?” Unlike Fallout 3, which has a limited number of outcomes, the ending sequence in New Vegas is determined by the player’s actions. Should players decide to help defend the town of Goodsprings and gain a good reputation with the citizens, or should players decide to join the invaders and gain access to their weapons? Every active choice players makes inevitably leads them down a path where either the New California Republic will take over Vegas, an army by the name of Caesar’s legion will enslave Vegas, or where Vegas becomes an independent power – either under the rule of a despot Mr. House or under the direction of an artificial intelligence. Depending on the quests taken by the player, the outcome might be one the player was not looking forward to. In my first play through I wanted to side with the NCR, and instead I ended up giving the power over Vegas to the artificial intelligence because the NCR didn’t want me and I hated both Mr. Housse and Caesar’s Legion. This made me realize that the mechanics of New Vegas are similar to those that govern life in the sense that things might just not turn out the way you expect or want them to.
In the end, it is easy to interpret Fallout 3 as a protest and a warning against nuclear warfare. The dark world and darker behavior of the characters that inhabit it tell a story of longing for what was and certainly serve to warn players of a dark possible future. However, because of the mechanics of the game which force players to engage with the game world in ways that they might not want, the Fallout titles give players a valuable lesson about the self. Through Fallout people like Joseph will be able to face their fears and embark in a journey of self-discovery that has the potential of making individuals question their own sense of self. And all options have been explored, they might even walk away with the lesson that war… war never changes.
Unformatted Sources (because I’m lazy on my blog like that ^^)