Thursday, June 04, 2015

The Call Of The Wild, Wild Wasteland

In this temple
As in the hearts of the people
For whom he saved the Union
The memory of Abraham Lincoln
Is enshrined forever.

With Fallout 4 on the way, I've been giving some thought to apocalyptic fiction generally and to why 2008's Fallout 3 worked so effectively and proved to be so popular.

Fallout is a post-apocalyptic role-playing game set in the aftermath of a devastating global nuclear war.  It isn't our world, but rather a version in which all of the fantasies of fifties sci-fi came true.  Popular culture stagnated in roughly 1953, like a version of Marty McFly's parents' Hill Valley but with nuclear-powered cars, zap-guns and robot servants.  For over a century America remains an Eisenhower-era, sci-fi consumer paradise amidst escalating Cold War paranoia and repression, until an inevitable nuclear exchange with China finally destroys civilisation.  The action begins in the radioactive wreckage.

In the first two games, the Great War was pretty much only the backdrop for wickedly humorous, misanthropic Westerns in which the player roams the Wasteland splattering giant mutated insects and aiding or annihilating settlers.  The franchise was bought out by a new development company in the 2000s and their game, Fallout 3, drew on the mythology of this blasted world to create a story with genuine pathos - a violent land filled with aching sadness and nostalgia for a vanished era and a sincere elegy to America itself, delivered from the midst of America's ruin.*

The Great War is central to the action - how could it not be, in the world that it created? - and the game is rich in Cold War imagery and analogy.  This is interesting because the game tackles head-on the contradictions of the Cold War-era United States and mutually-assured destruction, with China and Russia staying mostly off-page.

The vanished America of Fallout 3 was a beacon and rallying cry for freedom, and a globe-straddling, cynical empire with the capacity to extinguish all life on Earth, and it was both of these things at the same time.  The world is a nuclear-blasted wasteland not just in spite of the great patriotic quest for liberty, justice and the American Way, but probably as the direct result of it

The player is then invited to choose which idealised myth of America will win out in the Wasteland, for good or ill.  Will it be the America of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and the lofty ideals promoted in their rhetoric, or the paranoid one of Joe McCarthy, Douglas MacArthur and freedom maintained by force of arms, meaning nuclear brinkmanship?  Like the real America, neither version is what it claims to be and both may well contain the seeds of their own destruction, but the ramifications of this choice for the future of the Wasteland will be enormous.

Practically, this plays out by various factions explicitly drawing on the imagery and ideals of their destroyed Utopia to help them construct a new world.  A fascistic remnant of the American military evokes  revolutionary war-era propaganda by broadcasting a series of "Presidential addresses", delivered in the chummy manner of Roosevelt's fireside chats.  Escaped slaves look to Abraham Lincoln for inspiration, trying to restore the statue in the Lincoln Memorial as a symbol to give hope to all those held in bondage.

There are cranky libertarian farmsteaders, plucky settlers scratching a living from the radioactive dirt and technologically-obsessed military orders, all of them threatened by the feral humans, insane battle robots and mutated monsters spawned by the old world.  The final shot of the game is the statue of Thomas Jefferson in his memorial as a symbol either of humanity's quest for freedom and a better existence or as the harbinger of destruction, depending on how you choose to play.

It's a crapsack world, but hope remains that a better one can be built.  America may be gone but remnants of the glory that was America endure and may yet destroy the few who survived its fall, or even succeed against all the odds.

It's hope that separates Fallout from many other takes on the apocalypse.  When 2000 AD's writers take a serious stab at imagining what it would be like to live in Mega-City One, they have Joe Dredd himself categorically state that This Is Not America but rather an endless dictatorship, and that any hope for another way of life is futile.  The democratic United States is gone forever, a ruinous and despised experiment, never to be repeated.

The player's own selfish actions in The Last of Us demonstrate why humanity will never recover from the viral outbreak that all but destroyed it.  In the zombie-plagued Georgia of The Walking Dead all glimmers of optimism or redemption are illusory, only heightening the horror of the protagonists' inevitable violent demise.  The few notes of hope in 1984 and The Handmaid's Tale are to be found in post-scripts analysing the regimes that terrorised their characters, using the past tense.  The dystopian America of Escape From New York is so vicious that it probably deserves extinction.

The apocalyptic fiction that I like is always essentially a love letter to the present.  Children of Men ends with the laughter of kids at play, the very thing that's so pointedly absent throughout the movie, while faith and human decency are right at the heart of The Road, a story that is on the surface all about despair and atrocity**. 

And that's what Fallout 3 did so well.  In order to really humanise America and its mythology in video game form, it was necessary to destroy America.  In the wrecked cities and abandoned homes, in the children's toys and rusting consumer goods and the fifties soundtrack lie the hopes and dreams of a nation, starkly juxtaposed with the destruction that this civilisation brought upon itself...  And yet life endures, striving to create something better than this horror.  Despair, longing and optimism saturate the Wasteland and lend a kind of nobility to many of its inhabitants. 

Or, to summarise all of this in a short sentence - Fallout 4 is going to rock, dude.

*This isn't easy to do, when all of the player interactions are clunky, the graphics are painfully lo-res, the colour pallete is a muddy mixture of greys and browns and all of the characters and creatures are weirdly stiff and robotic.  It's also true that many fans of the original Fallout games absolutely hated Fallout 3, for reasons too various to go into here.  Suffice to say that many video game fans don't agree with my opinion on why Fallout 3 succeeded and that this post will cause hoots of derision, if it attracts their attention.

**I've long suspected that the hardship of existence in this type of fiction makes it easier for viewers/readers to sympathise with the characters but if it was that easy to pull off, there wouldn't be quite so many failed attempts.


Phil said...

My son played this (I am very, very old). People - possibly including your good self - raved about the "world built by Ayn Rand" backdrop of BioShock, but from my passing acquaintance with it the world of Fallout 3 was far superior: weird, thought-provoking, disturbing, while still being genuinely funny in places. The "game within a game" where you're transplanted to small-town America, and coached through a series of missions which end up with Killing Them All, creeped me right out - although I guess it encapsulates a lot of what you're talking about in the review.

Interesting stuff; I'd almost be tempted to play it if my son's PS3 hadn't gone all YLOD on us. (The worst of it is that he took it apart & cleaned it out the last time he was home, & seems to have bricked it in the process; we don't even get the yellow light now.)

Anonymous said...

I just hope we get the chance to fly a vertibird in it.

flyingrodent said...

Bioshock is a great comparison Phil - it got lots of plaudits for the world that it created, but it wasn't exactly deep. While Fallout 3 received a lot of praise, most of it was for the depth of exploration and immersiveness, and I don't think the story and themes got a lot attention.

Bethesda can't take credit for creating the backstory to Fallout of course, nor for the wealth of 50s sci-fi that they flat-out rip off, but they can take a lot of credit for really masterful use of classic American iconography and appropriation of Cold War themes. Fallout 3 really does have a lot to say about patriotism, militarism, human nature and decency and for the most part it does it quietly, even if it does ram it down your neck on a couple of occasions. It pulls off a destroyed world trying to recover some civilisation to better effect than a lot of films, books and TV series have done.

And the Tranquility Lane sequence that you're talking about is great example of what I think was the writers' core conceit - that pre-war America, while placid and wonderful on the surface, had hidden within it a deep cruelty and depravity that led inexorably to its own destruction.

Any time you encounter people living in some kind of 50s normality, it's a sign that something is badly wrong, and it's clear that any attempt to simply recreate America isn't going to work and that something new but America-inspired will have to be built. It's not exactly a weighty philosophical dissection of the western half of the Cold War but it's one of the best attempts at the topic that I've seen in popular culture.

I just hope we get the chance to fly a vertibird in it.

I'd advise hoping just for the chance to ride a pack brahmin, so that anything better is a pleasant surprise...

Anonymous said...

That is a fair point.

I wonder if a brahmin minds carrying a fully BoS power armour suited Wasteland Wanderer when a Blamco Mac & Cheese is enough to send said wanderer into over-encumbered territory..