USA in Fallout, USA today
23. 10. 10.
We once thought that the era of Donald Trump had come to an end, but it appears it hasn't. While Trump may have lost the election, his supporters' enthusiasm remains robust. What fuels this enduring energy? Moreover, is the driving force behind Trump's rise aligned with traditional 'American' values or does it run counter to them? It's worth recalling that Trump's campaign slogan was 'Make America Great Again'. Yet, years later, when President Joe Biden won the election after a vigorous anti-Trump campaign, he declared his presidential message as 'America is back.' So, which vision truly represents 'America' – Trump's or Biden's?
The Fallout game series also raises questions about 'what is the USA', although it's unclear whether this was the developers' precise intention. Let's consider the New California Republic (NCR) as an example, the epicentre of the Fallout world. NCR is a nation rebuilt by the power of its people from the ashes of destruction and appears to serves as a metaphor for how Americans perceive their nation's founding narrative – the USA that was built by the people, on the lands that European settlers deemed as 'uninhabited'. Furthermore, NCR represents a highly advanced civilisation with a touch of snobbism and expansionism, yet an attempt to avoid excessive conflicts with the outside world. This mirrors the historical fact that the USA, while aspiring to become a global power/player, maintained an isolationist foreign policy for a significant period before World War II.
The protagonists in the Fallout series are typically residents of the vaults. For instance, in Fallout 1 and Fallout 2, the protagonists have close ties to and support the NCR or its preceeding entities. These protagonists emerge from the vault that preserves remnants of the 'old world' and in the game, for the first time, encounter the 'new world' outside in a state of ruin. This reminds me of historical events when the European settlers from the 'civilised' world initially set foot in the 'barbaric' new world in ruin, seeking to establish colonies.
As its name suggests, the New California Republic (NCR) establishes itself in the west, pushing into the wasteland, which notably evokes memories of the 'Western frontier'. America's westward expansion was driven by heightened nationalism under the leadership of Andrew Jackson and, in the process, resulted in significant conflicts and the destruction of native peoples and their cultures. This parallels the situations that gamers encounter through the various factions' conflict for control of the Hoover Dam in Fallout: New Vegas.
Caesar’s Legion, an antagonistic faction in Fallout: New Vegas, consistently asserts authoritarian control over its territory. This reflects how colonist might have appeared from the perspective of indigenous people during the westward expansion. Historical accounts reveal that Native Americans resisted this expansion by forming alliances with or receiving military support from, British or French troops stationed in the region. In the context of the modern-day United States, Caesar’s Legion seems to draw inspiration from extremist groups like the Islamic State (IS) – also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). However, it's a well-known fact that modern Islamic extremists have their roots in military groups formed during the Cold War, in response to the imperialistic expansion of both the United States and the Soviet Union. This parallel is mirrored in the game Fallout, where Caesar, the leader of Caesar’s Legion, was formerly associated with the 'Followers of the Apocalypse', a humanitarian and intellectual medical group. In a way, Caesar’s Legion can be seen as an anti-civilisational phenomenon born out of the frustrations with a failing civilisation. When players confront Caesar’s Legion in the game, they are also confronted with the historical ironies that the USA faces in its own history.
The Enclave, a villainous group that appears in both Fallout 2 and Fallout 3, serves as a significant element prompting questions about the ‘truly American'. To settlers, the Enclave represents an 'old world' power aiming to dominate the wasteland by controlling knowledge and employing force, with their actual power centre concealed in a distant location. This scenario bears resemblance to how historical Great Britain might have been perceived by the colonists in America across the Atlantic before the American Revolutionary War. Interestingly, the vault residents, despite sharing similar cultural and societal norms, opt to coexist with the wasteland and resist the Enclave. This mirrors the stance of the colonial intellectual class that led the War of Independence against Britain.
Yet, there’s one crucial factor that I must point out. Historically, the dominant conflict within American political society during westward expansion revolved around the clash between the ‘old world’ and the ‘new world’, with the old world associated with power, knowledge, and the clerical system. For instance, America's evangelical church, which gained popularity during the Great Awakening, found itself in conflict with the established colonial clergy and intellectual elite. The evangelical doctrine of the time, which permitted ordinary worshipers to serve as preachers, obviously challenged the traditional churches of the 'old world'. From the evangelical perspective, these established churches were perceived as mere institutions that monopolised knowledge, power, and divinity. Coming from this historical trace, Richard Hofstadter once noted that American anti-intellectualism can trace its roots to a deep-seated antipathy toward knowledge and power, creating a point of convergence between anti-intellectualism and democracy.
Within this context, we can interpret the vault residents as symbolic representations of colonial elites who have a favourable disposition towards the wasteland but can never truly become a part of the wasteland. This dynamic helps explain the ambivalent feelings that Fallout players have towards the Brotherhood of Steel (Brotherhood), another faction aiming to monopolise intellectual and military resources in the post-apocalyptic new world. From the perspective of the wasteland's inhabitants, the Brotherhood appears as nothing more than elite exploiters who make oaths of 'good faith', reminiscent of how settler communities may have perceived colonial intellectuals and clergy that misuse power. This narrative framework forces the players, empathising with the vault residents, to feel both sympathetic and rebellious against the Brotherhood.
Fallout 4 sought to encapsulate these recurrent historical themes within the USA more condensedly and comprehensively. The game leveraged the spatial characteristics of the game’s New England region as a narrative instrument to reincarnate the early US history. The game's protagonist, who retains memories of the era preceding the Great War (translator's note: a fictional conflict in the Fallout series, posited to have occurred between the USA and China, culminating in a nuclear apocalypse), also serves as a bridge for players to engage with the game's narrative and the history. In Fallout 4, players can construct and establish settlements, akin to the initial settlers who migrated to the American continent. Here, the Commonwealth Minutemen, one of the in-game factions that the protagonist first encounters in the game, play a pivotal role in bridging the historical context. Within this framework, the history of the US is portrayed as having begun sometime when patriots organised a militia for the nation’s independence. It is this thematic backdrop that explains the game design elements of small-scale city-building simulations in Fallout 4.
Moreover, in Fallout 4, the Institute (translator’s note: one of the factions in Fallout 4) appears to allude to a period in history marked by the confluence of anti-intellectualism and anti-communism, known as McCarthyism in the US. The game's aesthetics are notably influenced by the country's post-war culture of the 1950s – the very essence of the Fallout universe aesthetics – which vividly encapsulates the era of McCarthyism. US scholars have attributed that rise of McCarthyism in the US to a series of political events, including the Soviet Union's successful nuclear test, China's expansion of communism, and the stalemate situation of the Korean War. These incidents compelled Americans to perceive a formidable ‘outside threats’ beyond their reach, subsequently prompting the US populace to embrace McCarthyism as a means of countering this perceived menace from within. In essence, McCarthyism aligns with a recurring historical pattern in the US, characterised by public apprehension in the face of power struggles, conflicts between old-world and new-world elites, and tensions involving intellectuals.
This explains the in-game characters' reactions to the Institute in Fallout 4. For example, we can observe the hostile responses of Fallout 4 characters toward "synths", the artificial humanoids produced by the Institute. They exhibit a deep-seated fear of synths, often calling them the 'boogeyman', and engage in witch hunts to locate and expose these synths. This behaviour fundamentally mirrors the way McCarthyism indiscriminately labelled intellectuals, government officials, and artists as 'communists' without any substantiated rationale.
Another intriguing aspect of the story is the presence of a counteracting faction in the game, an underground movement that defines synths as oppressed beings and strives to liberate sentient synths from their creators. This faction, known as The Railroad, strikingly resembles a historical phenomenon, a covert network called the Underground Railroad, which aided the escape of black slaves from the South to free states in the North. By contextualising the game's narrative within the historical backdrop of the US, the synths first mirror the unjustly accused victims who were branded as 'communists' during McCarthyism. Simultaneously, they symbolise the oppressed history of ethnic minorities facing racial discrimination.
The plot takes an intriguing turn as it becomes clear that the Institute's objective, mobilising synths, was ultimately aimed at the reconstruction of the world. It's worth revisiting that the Institute bears resemblances to communism in the historical context of McCarthyism. Throughout history communism underwent significant trial and error, resulting in substantial civilian casualties. However, even if one is compelled to acknowledge that communism represented an effort to address prevailing issues, the question arises: What might occur if the US were to embrace certain elements of communist ideology in the present day? Or, what if the US society were to recognise the social and economic value of immigrants (the synths) as an essential component for global stability? Furthermore, these same questions can be posed from an entirely opposite perspective, considering the metaphorical resemblance of synths to both 'communists' and 'slaves'. For instance, if we were to perceive the rise of Trumpism and the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq as attempts to resolve inherent prevailing issues in America, and strive for a better world, where do we go from there?
Fallout: New Vegas and Fallout 4 give players multiple decision-making scenarios in this ‘where do we go from there?’ situation. Players can either opt to align themselves with a particular faction introduced in the storyline, aiming to undermine or annihilate their adversaries, or they can forge their own group. The commonly perceived 'true ending' of the game unfolds when the protagonist embarks on a journey, envisioning a new future shaped by human hands. Nevertheless, whether this path truly represents the best choice among the available options remains a matter of uncertainty.
But regardless of the option the player decides to choose, the game's outcome often serves as a reflection of certain episodes from US history, as previously discussed. The ongoing political struggle in the US, exemplified by the conflict between the Trump and Biden administrations, therefore, can be seen as another iteration of the US’s historical pattern. Biden brings Trump, and Trump brings Biden – a cycle of perpetual conflict. The fictional world of Fallout emerges as a consequence of ‘resetting’ these recurring conflicts followed by the massive destruction. Yet, the humanity still hurtling down to the path of self-destruction through warfare. However, even within what may appear to be an endless cycle, one can choose to explore uncharted territories, akin to the Yes Men in Fallout: New Vegas or the Commonwealth Minutemen in Fallout 4. Just as the American Revolutionary War once emerged, all these elements contribute to the complex tapestry of the US as what it is. Perhaps it is the reminiscent of Fallout's timeless slogan, "War never changes".