The Philosophy of Fallout
Welcome to a special edition of 8-Bit Philosophy, where classic video games introduce famous thinkers, problems, and concepts with quotes, teachings, and more. This week – the Philosophy of Fallout
Ep.37: The Philosophy of Fallout
Written by: Alec Opperman
Created & Directed by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Yesel Manrique
Assistant Editor: MB McClain
Assistant Editor: Ben Peterson
Researcher: Ben Peterson
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
The Philosophy of Fallout
Hey everyone, this is Jared, one of the creators here at Wisecrack. Today we have a special episode about a series everyone’s going crazy about: Fallout.
The Fallout series takes place around the 23rd century, in an alternate reality where the culture of the 1950s just wouldn’t die, but most of humanity does. In this world, the cold war mentality was prevalent right until the bitter end. After nations began to run out of oil in the 2050’s, the world plunged into a global conflict that ended in 2077 when the then-nuclear powers decided to launch their arsenals at each other, enveloping the world into a new dark age.
Apocalyptic fiction is a goldmine of philosophical analysis- and Fallout is no different. Welcome to this episode on The Philosophy of Fallout.
In our first section, we’ll be talking about how society, culture and propaganda can convince us to do really, really stupid things..Okay so we know a nuclear war completely devastated Earth, but one of the more fascinating questions is how did it get there?
In the alternate reality, fascination with atomic power proliferated during the mid 20th century, and was never offset by the invention of the transistor – you know, those little electrical parts that led to the radio, computer, and the smartphone you’re probably watching this video on. As a result, the prewar society of Fallout is technologically advanced like our own, but in a slightly different way. Technology is big, and bulky, and the computers are primitive compared to our own. On the other hand, they have badass power armor and laser guns, so society as a whole probably didn’t miss the advent of Minecraft that much.
The Wasteland, the general term for the nightmare landscape that pervades the game, is filled with reminders of the sheer optimism of the pre-war world. It was the age of atomic energy, where our greatest dreams could be accomplished with a little ingenuity and maybe a few giant anti-communist death robots
Nowhere is this optimism more apparent than in the vaults: the self-sustaining underground societies that the prewar world built in anticipation of the coming nuclear war. Even when nuclear annihilation seems imminent, the remnant Vault posters maintain a certain cheeriness.
Now, let’s ignore the fact that many of the vaults were really just a cover for the government to concoct insane experiments on its residents.
The Vaults are a testament to the human power of cognitive dissonance. The possibility of being locked in an underground bunker for an indeterminate amount of time is advertised as an exciting foray, where you can meet new friends and raise a family. The vaults are a callback to the luxury bomb shelters of the Cold War era – yes, they really existed.
These mental gymnastics were taken up by German-American philosopher Herbert Marcuse during the height of the Cold War. He argued that these pleasant appearances plastered over modern day nightmares were a testament to the ability of modern society to destroy criticism. In other words, capitalism is so damn good at marketing, it makes even the worst shit in the world seem just “dandy.” He even cites the real life “deluxe fallout shelter,” replete with televisions, lounge chairs and Scrabble boards as the ultimate example of the “obscene merger” between appearance and reality- between a cozy luxury getaway, and a situation that unilaterally sucks balls.
The posters and various media we see in the Fallout universe may just seem like overt sarcasm from the creators of the game, but they reflect a cynical reality where those in power can ignore the most glaring discrepancies between the self-satisfying “official story” and the tragic reality.
This disparity between appearance and reality is what drives the humor of Fallout. We are constantly confronted with contrary images: the quaint and cheery Leave-it-to-Beaver-esque culture and the hellscape it’s set in. In addition to the vaults, this can be observed in the game’s radio stations that serenade the Wasteland with chipper jazz tunes as the player fends off the crazed irradiated remnants of human race
Even the lyrics and titles of the songs draw this contrast. The use of The Ink Spot’s “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire,” used prominently in the game’s trailer, plays off of the song’s innocent romanticism with the imagery of the burnt out remains of Washington DC.
And, you know, the world was literally set on fire. Other songs, like Cole Porter’s upbeat “Anything Goes,” a song about the lax morals of modern society, is a nod to the absolute anarchy of the Wasteland, where in addition to “exposed women’s stocking,” cannibalism is also fair game.
These marriages between positive and negative, happy and sad, dream and nightmare aren’t just comedic. It’s the mechanism in which we as a society are constantly celebrating the same culture and technology that consistently puts us at the brink of total annihilation. We may laugh at this ironic play of elements, but we can also view it as a criticism of government propaganda.
Marcuse argued that we are living in an age of “one-dimensional thought,” enabled by the merging of positive and negative, where rationality and technology can only go one way – forward. In other words- we are told that technology is always good. Always. So while society is free to debate about the best way to bring order to the Wasteland or kill Communists
there is no room “negative thought,” ideas that undermine the one-dimensional, inane positivity of society. You can kind of see this in the style of gameplay itself. While Fallout takes place in a sandbox-style world, where players can make their own decisions and go where they please, they’re also hopelessly entrapped in the game mechanics. This is perhaps most clear at beginning of Fallout 3, where the player is literally trapped at their own birthday party until they have a sufficient amount of fun. Dialogue options are scripted, choices are determined in advance, and in the end, we all get the same, albeit slightly different, ending.
Another component of “making everyone A-OK with our twisted reality” is simply making them too happy to care.
This leads us to The Enclave. The Enclave is what’s left of the United States government that want to purge the Wasteland of, well, everybody. We learn that John Henry Eden, the president of “The United States” is a computer. As if an actual computer trying to kill everybody wasn’t enough to demonstrate the dangers of one-dimensional thinking, Eden understands the
importance of fun and leisure in an obedient society. In one of his radio addresses to the Wasteland, Eden praises the virtue of baseball as some savior to the American dream:
The comfort and recreation that John Henry Eden is trying to revive are hallmarks of the prewar society. The Wasteland is littered with reminders of our own excess: leisure suits, magazines, televisions. We’re even confronted with a gang that mistakenly thinks that Elvis Presley is some kind of deity. These comforts provide us as an easy way to cope with the horrific reality around us.
Eden is trying to resurrect the same kind of distracted society that got society in this mess in the first place. A society that probably wouldn’t mind if he tried to kill them all, because he’s still totally trying to do that too.
From the Great War that decimated the world, to the secret government experiments that created the Super Mutants that are now trying to kill you; we’re constantly reminded of technology run amok. In Fallout, as in real life, technology is a double edged sword- both good guy and bad guy.
So when we, as players, are confronted with choices about technology, the game presents us with a series of moral dilemmas.
Should technology be used to provide clean water for the people of the Wasteland, or unleash a devastating virus to purify the Wasteland of its violence and corruption? Who should gain control of Mr. House’s robotic army in the battle over the fate of New Vegas? These questions, for the thoughtful player, can be quite troublesome.
The idea that humans can’t handle technology is really old. Fallout draws inspiration from the Greek myth of Phaethon, the son of the sun-god Helios. Phaethon, being the brash child he was, decided to take his dad’s ride for a spin. But unlike your dad’s Porsche (clip from Risky Business- it’s one of my favorites), Helios’ ride was a chariot that carried the actual sun across the sky. It went exactly as you’d expect, with Phaethon pretty much ruining everything –and burning up huge portions of the Earth. In New Vegas, the giant solar plant capable of harnessing (pun intended) the sun’s energy is called Helios One. And like Sun-god Jr., the player can gleefully take the sun’s destructive power for a joy ride and slaughter thousands of NCR soldiers.
One response to this technological dilemma is the Brotherhood of Steel, the secretive order of power-armor clad badasses who roam the Wasteland looking for long lost technology. Like post-apocalyptic hoarders, the Brotherhood stashes their technology in heavily armored bases to make sure that it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands – the wrong hands, of course, being
anybody but them. The Brotherhood is so insistent that nobody can be trusted with technology but themselves that they will go to war with any faction possessing advanced technology.
Perhaps the Brotherhood is right that we can’t be trusted with technology, but if so, it’s probably also true that they shouldn’t be trusted either.
The other response to technology is seen in Caesar’s legion, who swears off technology except the kind that enables its user to kill better. But unlike the Brotherhood who thinks technology is inherently dangerous, Caesar believes that technology makes people weak and dependent.
Even without technology, Caesar’s legion manages to plenty of wrong-doing. The brutal, totalitarian state doesn’t need super computers or power armors to make everyone’s live a living hell.So maybe technology isn’t to blame after all. As for the Brotherhood of Steel, they’ve spent so much time trying to protect the world from the misuse of technology that most of them have devolved into xenophobic war-mongers.
The citizens of the Wasteland come together to create various forms of governments, from cruel tyrannies fueled by slavery, to liberal democracies, to uh, whatever this is
Aside from illustrating political theories from the days of yore, Fallout also does a pretty good job of explaining modern theories about international relations.
In New Vegas, Caesar wants to unite all of humanity under his banner in a dystopian nightmare where everyone is a slave and Roman cosplayer. While Caesar’s Legion is superficially modeled after the Roman Empire, the actual foreign policy of Caesar is alive and well today. Caesar thinks that peace comes through security and doesn’t believe that peace is attainable until his Legion is the only dominant faction in the Wasteland, if not the only faction at all. In international relations, we call this “hegemonic stability theory,” which believes that superpowers scare the living hell out of everyone else and they all, for the most part, behave.
To an extent, it works in the game. Traders prefer to trade in Legion territory because it’s safer: raiders have been eliminated and everyone is terrified to break the law. Traders in NCR territory, however, always have to be on alert for raiders and other small factions.
Every faction in Fallout is essentially trying to become the local hegemon, the international equivalent of the playground bully, by putting other factions in their place and vying for power. And it goes without saying that if Caesar eliminated the NCR and other factions, there would be some sort of “peace” on the Wasteland.
If you’re not looking to enslave the whole world, there are other options available. In many situations, a balance of power among factions makes war too costly. If the NCR hasn’t invaded New Vegas to annex it, it’s not because they’re a bunch of outstanding citizens, but because the cost would simply be too high. The Boomers understand this, and like a post-apocalyptic Switzerland, have only managed to stay out of everyone’s business by protecting their borders with a constant barrage of artillery fire.
For those who ascribe to a “realist” model of international relations, each faction or state is only out to save their own hide, and power is a zero-sum game. The only way to ensure security is to make sure you have more vertibirds than the next guy. Peace is only achieved by uncertain ceasefires between, say, the NCR and the Enclave. Alliances are fleeting, and only exist to combat more powerful, and dangerous, factions Now, whether or not this works is debatable. Even in the real world, lots of wars are fought over who gets to be in charge.. It precludes the ability of factions to work together and truly trust each other, and isn’t that what launched us into nuclear holocaust in the first place?
The stakes of diplomatic relationships in Fallout are always REALLY high. Namely because every single issue is caught in a life and death struggle for the soul of humanity.
But how far are you willing to go to maintain your security?
Should the NCR resort to bullying, tolerate corruption, and make alliances with not-so-scrupulous figures to maintain the peace and expand their power, all in the name of democracy? In Fallout 3, how far will you go to bring clean water to the Wasteland? Should you, as a player, murder every obstacle, or seek the diplomatic approach?
Assuming you haven’t decided to play the game in the most evil way possible, many make a choice to support whoever is “right.” Maybe you believe that the NCR, while flawed, is the kind of democracy that the world needs. Or maybe you think technology needs to be taken from the irresponsible actors who possess it.
The problem with “security logic,” according to some philosophers, is its totalizing logic. Daniel Callahan argues that there is no limit in the amount of terrible, grotesque things we are willing to do in the name of survival. There are no dictators who simply profess to wanting to murder millions of people, but simply do such things as a means of fabricated self preservation.
Or, in the words of ol’ Ben Franklin “Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor
do they deserve, either one.”
The point is not lost on Enclave President John Henry Eden, who declares on radio:
“It’s time we discussed something rather important. The issue at hand is, well, my presidency. The question has been raised, I know, as to just how I came to be elected to this most illustrious office. Or, whether or not I had been elected at all! To that I must answer: Of course! Of course I was elected, sweet America! Isn’t the right to vote the very foundation of a democracy? Unfortunately, in the interest of national security, I’m not at liberty to discuss the details of the election. You understand.”
The Enclave will even go so far to save the “real” humanity by exterminating all the mutated riff raff that threatens them.
A similar despotism is seen in New Vegas, though a little less genocidal. If you work for Mr. House in New Vegas until the conclusion, you’ll trigger an ending the looks like this: “Mr. House continued to run New Vegas his way, a despotic vision of pre-War glory. The streets were orderly, efficient, cold.” In other words, the chaos of the Wasteland could be tamed after all, but only at the expense of personal freedoms and democracy.
Mr. House is explicit in his distaste for freedom, saying “Nothing to impede progress. If you want to see the fate of democracies, look out the windows” and ““But autocracy? Firm control in the hands of a technological and economic visionary? Yes, that Vegas shall have.”
In actual history, we see security as a constant theme among dictators. Crises are manufactured, and threats exaggerated to justify more police and more repressive laws. In the world of Fallout, there are no shortages of these crises to exploit.
One of the most fascinating elements about the Fallout series is its constant interrogation of human society and government. The game’s refrain that “War never changes” might as well say “humanity never changes.” After all, aside from the feral ghouls and super mutants, the scariest part of the Wasteland is a rehashing of our own regrettable history: slavery obsessed Romans, Orwellian dictatorships, and genocidal governments. History, it seems, does repeat itself.