America the Irradiated: Playing Fallout 3 in an election year
Over the past few months, I, like every other person in America, played the politics game. I had been paying fairly close attention to the promises the candidates made for the past year and half, and I spent the evening of November 6 with my wife exhausted with the whole parade, watching coverage of the election and awaiting its outcome. After the dust settled and another American presidential election had come and gone, I decided to reflect on this strange thing called democracy by diving into the most America-saturated video game that sits on my shelf. I played for about five minutes before celebrating the election by setting off an atomic bomb in the heart of a makeshift town in the wastes of Washington D.C. Let freedom ring.
Bethesda released Fallout 3 in the autumn of 2008, an election year that saw just as much mudslinging as any other. Naturally, a game built on the ruined architecture of a bombed-out version of United States’ capitol garnered significant attention, especially considering its timely release in the twilight of the presidential race. Wanting to avoid controversy, Todd Howard, the game’s director, went directly on record to say that the game’s timing was “all a coincidence” and that its message “has nothing to do with the current state of affairs.”
Howard’s statement makes sense, of course, given that the game began development in 2004 (interestingly, an election year…), and there is really no way to accurately predict how quickly or slowly a development process will take. As coincidental as the game’s timing was, though,I’m troubled by Howard’s insistence that the game holds no reflection to its contemporary political and social atmosphere. The game may not directly reference American politics and culture in 2008, but to deny that Fallout 3’s relevance to its time devalues not only the game’s worth as object to be critiqued but also gaming criticism as a worthwhile exercise.
Separating the game from the socio-political landscape of American from 2004 to 2008 would create a critical methodology that is about as effective as voting for a third-party candidate in a two-party system. Call me cynical (as many folks do), but I don’t think games like Assassin’s Creed III (set during the American Revolution) and BioShock: Infinite (though it got pushed back, this trailer says it all) have election time releases coincidentally. Contextualizing Fallout 3 within its contemporary setting yields, if nothing else, insight into the medium’s culturally conscious capability. And the Fallout series is nothing if not culturally aware. The games reference nearly every post-apocalyptic scenario to come out of the Cold War era: zombies, Mad Max-like bandits, robot rebellions, giant insects, etc. The series is a digital science fiction megatext that pays homage to as often as it lampoons everything from the Red Scare to Hammer Films.
Fallout 3 certainly fits nicely into this tradition while inundating these tropes with an abundance of Americana. The game goes to painstaking effort to make sure the player knows he/she inhabits the wastes of Washington D.C. The Washington Monument stands decrepit, overlooking trenches filled with Super Mutants. Propaganda spreads across radio waves and dilapidated road signs. Highways crumble, raiders bleed, and innocent people suffer all under a pre- war United States flag.
The flag, of course, raises the key point that gives Howard his out in the discussion of American politics: the game’s America is not our own. Fallout’s setting involves America’s development of fusion power instead of petroleum, effectively creating a new fuel source that leads to a world war and nuclear holocaust; it’s alternate history at its most blatant. Alternate histories, though, depend on our abilities to distance ourselves from them while recognizing their connections to our own. We recognize that Fallout 3 does not take place in our America; nevertheless, elements of familiarity: rendered weapons and tools, popular music, and above all notable landmarks. Though it may not be our America, the Capitol Wasteland is certainly an America, and it warrants discussion as such.
This nuked shell of country became a safe-haven for me from the political war waged in the United States over the last few months. While politicians debated and fought, I walked alone over rubble and ruin all the while killing bandits and mutated critters. Mitt Romney spoke about foreign policy; I negotiated with a group of vampires. Obama kindled ideas of hope for the youth; I saved a boy from a town overrun by mutated fire ants. Speeches about the future collided with my character’s journey across an irradiated city-turned-wilderness, and it amazed how similar the ideas at play in the game mimicked the political rhetoric in an media-saturated election year.
The political narrative of America makes its way into Fallout 3 through its two opposing parties, the Brotherhood of Steel and the Enclave, and fringe groups often become caught in the crossfire. The small independent settlements maintain sketchy relationships with each other via systems of trade and mutual benefits, while other groups (super mutants, raiders) control outposts and hold loyalties to none. My character, a redheaded female with a bad attitude and penchant for pistols and assault rifles, holds loyalty to no one, but, in order for the game to progress, she must choose a side.
But she doesn’t. The game’s main campaign has the player hunting for his or her character’s father (voiced oh so pleasantly by Liam Neeson). My character did not give a damn for her father or the vault she grew up in, which is probably why she killed almost everyone there. As soon as the game opens up after its obscenely boring opening half-hour, you have a choice to follow your character’s father in a trek across the wasteland, forever altering the Capitol Wasteland for good or ill..or not. My character and I embarked on a different quest–one of self-sufficiency and gratuitous violence.
Like a libertarian voting in the electoral college, I chose what every American has the right to choose: to ignore the key players. Fallout 3 understands this choice better than most games, even to the point of admitting its pseudo-terrible writing. I use “pseudo-terrible” because, like so few games, Fallout 3 is aware of its own ridiculousness. The main quest of creating fresh water for the Capitol Wasteland reeks of bad-movie sci-fi, and the ancillary quests offer little else in the way of good story-telling. While most open-world games lack complex narratives, Fallout 3 relishes its anecdotal inadequacies, taxing the player to build his/her own meaningful experience through gameplay.
Gameplay, like your character’s interaction with the environment, can be as boring or exciting as the player wants. Combat explodes in Gallagher-esque hyper-violence that is as comic as it is disturbing. Close-ups highlight exploding heads and limbs as viscera and brain matter splatter across rubble. But bloodshed can often be avoided with stealth or a silver tongue. Again, the flag of virtual of liberty flies high above the game’s ludological promises.
Virtual freedom, though, is a bit of a joke, and here’s the punchline: no matter what you elect to do, you are still bound by the game’s affordances. Freedom, it seems, is just as slippery a term when applied to gameplay as it is in any political speech. Our characters are still subject to the laws of the game designers, and when we step outside those laws, the game lets us know via glitches and invisible walls.
Of course some aspects are designed to be unavoidable. For instance, the media battle between the disc jockey (who admits he has no idea what the hell a disc is) Three Dog’s station, Galaxy News Radio, and Enclave Radio has just as much a presence as each party’s soldiers. I cannot help but hear echoes of Fox News and CNN in almost everything each broadcaster say, sometimes offering a bit of useful information amid the inane chatter of honest “news” and political promises. The repeated messages from each station seem a convenient commentary on politics in new media; even in digital America, all the pundits can do is rehash the same damn message and pretend it’s news.
The best part of this whole mediated political war, though, appears at the end of a mission aptly titled “The American Dream.” Captured by the Enclave, your character mus free him/herself from prison, only to learn that the self-proclaimed president of the U.S.A., John Henry Eden, is not a man but an artificial intelligence (originally built to monitor a military installation) residing in a supercomputer. Fed a healthy diet of American history, Eden became self-aware and modeled himself as an amalgam of U.S. presidents, complete with Virginia accent. The execution of the revelation is just beautiful, and the player can convince what should be the ideal leader of America to shut himself down for the good of what’s left of the country. Meanwhile, all across America, votes were counted for two possible leaders.
So, here I sit, the election over and safest town in the Capitol Wasteland is a crater, and I cannot stop myself from smiling at the sweet irony of the politics of the term open-world. I made my choice, sure, but I did so as only the game would allow me. At least I got to shoot the mayor and steal his badass duster and hat before I slipped out of town to detonate the bomb. Though I’m still bound by the games political system of affordance, I still find ways to rebel–even if they are illusory. With the crater at my back and ashen mountain majesties on the horizon, I set out in the wastes, making my own way but nevertheless bound from sea to radioactive sea.