I know I promised to write about sex last time, but if there’s anything I’ve been forced to learn through the most lovely of tortures we like to call dating, it’s that teasing things out can build up the excitement, and hopefully lead to a bigger payoff in the end. Besides, sex in gaming, like a Texan, is such a large and loaded concept that it’s been tough how best to tackle it without turning it into a small novel or getting shot in the process.
So with an interest in (relative) brevity in mind, I’m going to talk about something completely different, and that’s going to be Fallout.
A couple months ago I took the train up to Portland, Oregon, in a desperate attempt to find . . . something.
While ostensibly the trip was about joining my sister on her summer road trip through the Pacific Northwest to get some family bonding in before adulthood separated us yet again, I also needed to remove the despairing Los Angeles smog from my lungs and clear my head. All while enjoying some of the fine company and coffee the region has to offer, of course.
So I’m bouncing north along the rails of a Starlight Express coach car when I find myself falling in love. Not with any of my fellow passengers, charming as they were. No, I’m falling head over heels in love with the countryside that hurtles slowly past my window.
The train moves quickly of course. But the grand majesty of the seemingly endless mountains, hairy with pines and redwoods, the sheer size of them causes the pastoral beauty to linger; the ant looks long at the man when he trundles past. Yet, as humbled and awed by the rolling, endless ranges as I am, and despite this being my first northerly wander past the meridian of San Francisco, everything is strangely familiar.
I was here once before, just not really.
Klamath Falls, Modoc, Redding; I passed through or near all these cities, and I know the names by heart. Despite the fact that I’d never been to them and for the vast majority of the American populace, they’re inconsequential points on a map rarely examined. Why? Because of Fallout 2 of course. This patchwork of peaks I passed through, it’s the setting for what many still consider to be the great American CRPG (other than perhaps Planescape Torment, though I’d argue that it works best as a complicated adventure game).
It’s a happy disillusionment to see that these places are real and alive and beautiful, instead of being the bombed out shells of a desolate post-nuclear ruin that was my only prior envisioning. A silly thought, I know. But my initial impressions of these places was so linked to the game and the truth so disparate it was something of a shock.
I’ve been through most of the Southwestern states and seen most of the major sites – the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Four Corners – and having crisscrossed the Mojave more than a few times, I’m more accustomed to the vast expanses of the desert with their scattered brush than looming mountains and lush green trees. Wide ranges of near lifelessness baked and bleached by the sun, this was my backyard. On some level, that’s what I must have thought this place would resemble as well.
Isn’t that truly what the wastes of Fallout are? Desert rampant? Desert overgrown? Desert unleashed by nuclear fire upon all the green we take for granted?
The next thought hits me like a plasma rifle critical to my brain’s combat inhibitor. These particular wheres of the games, these cyclopean deserts wrought from annihilation, are so inseparable as to be fundamental. At its core, Fallout isn’t so much science fiction as it is a Western.
Sure, on the surface Fallout seems like sci-fi and is thus defined by its unique technology. Technology derived from the McCarthy-era fifties, a time of atomic science that barely understood the effects of radiation. Of computer science that couldn’t fathom miniaturization. Of the unchecked optimism of The Jetsons dashed against the Cold War thermonuclear horror of The Day After and Them!
If taken at face value, the physical setting of any particular game wouldn’t seem to matter so much as the retro robots, archaically advanced laser pistols, or giant fire-breathing mutant ants. You could theoretically put a Fallout game in England, Tokyo, or Brazil if that’s all that mattered. I’ve heard such arguments before.
But to do so would be to miss the point more than your Facebook friend who thinks articles by The Onion are real.
All the hallmarks of the Western are there. Thirstily wandering along at a calculated pace in the waste, sleeping under the stars in the wilderness, taking the role of the unknown gunman who wanders into town to solves everyone’s problems with a hail of gunfire before drifting out like a tumbleweed, the reintroduction of tribal culture set apart from homesteaders on the fringes of societies where law is thin and it’s best to travel with a gun on your belt even if you’d prefer never to use it. Arguably (and that’s exactly what I’m doing) this gameplay is as important, if not more important than the tools used or enemies fought.
More than most games, Fallout captures the nature of rugged individualism idolized in the Westerns of old. It’s a tale of the frontier. Only it’s a new frontier built atop a forgotten history.
Not only is every Fallout set in the U.S., but 3 of the 5 officially recognized Fallout games (no one cares about BoS [Brotherhood of Steel], as it was a PoS) take place in familiar Western settings. The first was set in Southern California, with some bleed through into Mexico and Arizona. The second, as my travels reminded me, in the Northern California region bleeding through to Southern Oregon and Western Nevada. New Vegas, well that one should be obvious.
The two that weren’t, Fallout 3 and Tactics, are also the two most controversial amongst hardcore Fallout fans, and I think it’s because (aside from the fact that they marked major gameplay departures) they lacked a bit of this Western magic.
Because the wild west isn’t just about big open spaces and lawlessness. You can do that anywhere thanks to the atomic fire provided by Fallout‘s backstory. No, it’s also about the culture of unique spirituality and quirky insanity that thrives in the Southwest of the U.S. like nowhere else.
The desert is a hard place, and it breeds hardy people. For the folks who live in the Southwest, a place already closer to the end of the world out there than most of America, what would the nuclear war that kicks off the Fallout series truly change, culturally?
Moreover, deserts (in general) create an understanding of existential emptiness not found elsewhere down the other back roads and dirt trails of the United States. Separating yourself from society in the woods or the swamps and you’re still surrounded by life and nature and all the noise they bring. Do so in Sonora and, well, there’s simply less. You connect to the stars in the sky and to the immense enveloping darkness without end upon nightfall, and little else (hope you brought a blanket by the way, it gets cold fast).
There’s an ineffable quality to this region where Native traditions still have sway. A sense of the mystic, of being closer to earth. It often attracts a type that’s a breed apart.
Not just in the types of folks who want to sing Kumbaya with coyotes on a vision quest, but also often the types who live off the grid, and ones who might be bit odd or off their rockers. Essentially, the types who make up most of the supporting cast in the Fallout games.
But again, there’s a desert difference. These folks are often more willing to connect to a stranger, to listen and nod rather than rave. The paranoia and bonkers bred in the desert is simply more Art Bell than Glenn Beck.
This is a primary reason, apart from mere physical location, that Fallout 3 and Tactics are so different from the other three Western games.
They lack a certain sincerity. A light touch of affection to the often cynical portrayals of the small town wasteland oddballs that the series derives a lot of its humor from. A sense of humor that I add, is as vital to the series as the decaying Atom Punk decorum, the retro-future tech or the gunslinging gameplay. It’s an irreverent silliness that’s incredibly necessary, as it prevents the sheer weight of the dying world the games exist in from becoming completely overbearing.
It’s not that the Eastern Fallouts weren’t funny or that they were bad, it’s just that they were missing this certain extra . . . something. In the case of Tactics, it was probably because most of the RPG was stripped out of it. But for Fallout 3, it really truly comes down to location, location, location.
Climbing through the ruins of Los Angeles in Fallout 1, it’s difficult to feel too bad. L.A.’s a city of impermanence that centers around vacuous cults of personality and vanity, and The Boneyard, a settlement replacing it, features a religious order that worships an unseen “Master” who attempts to create “physical perfection” with the Super Mutants while having no singular identity of his own. The joke is obvious – nothing has really changed.
Climbing through the ruins of Washington D.C. in Fallout 3 on the other hand, it’s difficult not get depressed. As you sift through a sacked Smithsonian and notice that the Lincoln Memorial’s head has been decapitated by slave traders? Seeing the loss of all this American History, the loss of our cultural identity – it hurts.
This then, is why the setting of a Fallout matters most of all. Attachment and cultural significance. When you have too much history attached, it becomes horrible to see it dashed to pieces.
The two genres most dominant in Fallout – Post-Apocalypse and Western – are rather the same thing in a lot of ways. The frontier life is almost indistinguishable from living in a shattered civilization, apart from the technology available. Fallout is simply a Western epic but with lasers, and a well made one at that (unlike certain Favreau helmed projects).
But while the Frontier Westerns are about the freedom of new lands and the promise of a new life found within wild borders, post-apocalyptic tales most often dwell in the anarchy of old lands and the slow death of the last among them. Fallout, in attempting to be the post-apocalypse with a sense of humor, had to find a way to coexist between these two extremes. It’s through the Southwestern setting, and all that came with it, that I feel Fallout found its true identity, it’s true balance.
The heart of the desert, a place centered on the nothingness of empty space and the total freedom the player has to choose in this void. There is no major history to decay, for the place is timeless; there is no culture to lose, for the people are ongoing.
Because again, Fallout isn’t simply about being sad about an apocalypse, it’s also about reveling in it. Laughing at it. Screwing with it. Not actually feeling at all bad that the world ended up dead-ending.
It was Zombieland before there was Zombieland. Only it also had lasers, giant mutant lizards, nuclear explosions and a Doctor Who cameo (and even zombies, sort of). Way before that was cool.
It’s badass. It’s American. It’s a Western.
But of course, Bethesda Game Studios is based in well, Bethesda, Maryland. With their East Coast perspective there’s a good chance they’ll do something dumb like set the next Fallout in Boston or something.
Westerns don’t work in Beantown Bethesda! Who ever heard of such a thing? (Ok, there’s Copper I guess, but that’s it, right?)
In the off chance there is justice in the universe, they’ll realize that aside from diction coaches and anyone who hates the New England Patriots, few would really want to see a decimated downtown Boston. As with Washington D.C., it’s one of the centers of American history. Watching that get wiped out isn’t particularly conducive to having a good time.
If that happens, they’re going to need alternates. Which I’ll be more than happy to provide. Maybe.
Until then, this is Mr. New Vegas, and each and every one of you is wonderful in your own special way.