Fallout 4: An Apocalypse Outside of Context
The Fallout franchise of games take place in an alternate universe, one in which the United States totally embraced nuclear weapons and technology after winning World War 2 without ever evolving from the culture and politics of the 1950′s and post-war American life in general. 100 years into this future, nuclear war annihilates most life on earth, save for those chosen few “vault dwellers” who were invited to hide underground in corporate subsidized Fallout shelters. The central protagonist in every Fallout game tends to be of of this number, and Fallout 4 is no different. In it, you play as a man or woman with a fridged partner, a missing son and a world full of incongruously zany adventures to be had.
One thing irritates me, like a rock in my shoe, as I wander the irradiated wasteland of Boston and its encircling suburbs: if Fallout imagines a future born from the ashes of 1950’s cultural norms, where is the racism? The world your character awakens in is one that reflects a Gene Roddenberry-esque vision of utopian racial harmony. Not to say there isn’t plenty of oppression visited upon the last dregs of humanity. It’s just that whether from roving bands of bloodthirsty outlaws, or slavers, or mafia-like crime lords it is visited in an entirely colorblind way. Slave camps (which appear in much of the series), a relic of America’s ugly historical relationship with its black population, are populated with people of every race and gender. And the roster of villains themselves are as diverse as a Benetton catalogue. It’s a world where race is relegated to the realm of phenotypic distinction, down to the roll of the dice, emptied of social significance.
This algorithmically derived ambivalence has beneficial aspects. Your character in Fallout 4 can be any imaginable race. You can be a mixed-race couple without comment, without any contrived narrative explanation. Your child then shares the characteristics of both parents, something previously unheard of in games, let alone most media. I feel like I should be overjoyed by these developments and in some ways, I am. I’m happy I have the chance to recreate my own features in a game, rather than having to settle with someone who looks either unambiguously black or unambiguously white but with a tan. (Still can’t choose my actual hair, but that’s for a whole other essay). In general, Fallout nails the visual representation of the diverse world I see around me daily, yet it still falls flat when it comes to cashing that check on the narrative end.
It baffles me that a game drenched in the aesthetics and cultural values of the 1950s manages to sidestep the massive amount of virulent and systemic racism that marked the period. I can’t help but draw the comparison to Rockabillies and other subcultures who appropriate the look and style America’s post war period without acknowledging the white supremacy that supported it all. Narratives that sample from history can certainly make incisive commentary- in Fallout’s case: how the crippling fear caused by the Cold War aided the meteoric rise of American militarism, patriotism and corporate hegemony — but it’s a mistake to ignore contexts that do not fit your narrative. You must meet all your demons head on.
A great example of a game that does this well is Inkle’s 80 Days. It’s an interactive text-based adventure based on Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. Instead of ignoring the fact that Verne’s original book, which — while a seminal work of science fiction — was steeped in colonialist prejudice and white supremacy, Inkle chose instead to write fiction that tried to present third-world nations as complex, well-rounded places and the protagonists as well meaning but often bumbling privileged interlocutors.
Bethesda’s random racial lottery does much to present traditionally marginalized people as well rounded characters. But it does so by erasing identity rather than adding to it. Austin Walker, a writer at Giant Bomb, once spoke about character creation being a mixed blessing. To summarize: the best character creators succeed by allowing people to play as themselves in a game, which is no small accomplishment in a market of samey-looking grizzled white men plastering the covers of the majority of big budget titles. But what’s missing from this are the hand-crafted narratives that make avatars into characters rather than empty husks for the player to inhabit; motivators of action with no motivation their own.
When Sidney Fussell, a freelance writer, posted a Fallout 4 screenshot on Twitter of a corpse dangling from a basketball rim (a victim of the macabre humor of raiders) it was interesting to analyze the tweet in the wider cultural context that Fallout ignores. Basketball is inseparable from its image as a professional sport predominantly played by black men. Often it’s our only way out of poverty, as Lebron James recently proclaimed in defending why his son didn’t have to play. Does basketball in the world of Fallout carry with it such weighted associations? Or did athletes play with knee-high socks and short shorts and bench their black athletes right up until the bombs dropped? Certainly, we, the audience can draw our own associations. But the missed opportunities to add racially conscious commentary to the rest of the game’s already ubiquitous cold-war messaging strikes a painful nerve as I patrol this bleached out hellscape.
For what else but whitewashed can you call a world that where the civil rights movement of the 1960’s might conceivably never have happened? Robots have replaced the servant class and while Fallout questions the ethics of relying on intelligent beings for their uncompensated labor, we don’t get to find out if there was a Betty Friedan-equivalent who ever questioned the assumption that it’s a woman’s job to take care of the kitchen in the first place. The robot becomes the homemaker, but the concept of homemaker could not exist without the patriarchal structure in place to contrive its necessity.
There is, as mentioned, a slave trade in the Fallout universe. But it is presented as blanket ethical quandary rather than historically associated barbarity. Boston, like most of the country has its own centuries-long history with slavery. But even this history is erased from the game’s space, whether purposefully or not. Gary Alexander @grylxndr on Twitter noticed the glaring omission of the figures and text from the Robert Gould Shaw 54th Regiment memorial as it is depicted in the game.
The statue memorializes the first officially recognized regiment of black soldiers in the American Civil war. Its omission, while not necessarily one of malice, is a stark example of the erasure of the history of oppression and prejudice from the world of Fallout. Oppression is only what takes place in Fallout’s present. It exists solely along class lines, acted out through preposterously pompous villains, or gleefully bloodthirsty raiders and outlaws. It tells us imperialism has been left in the past, and the structures that bore it, prejudice, bigotry, white supremacy, are of the past as well.
In Roddenberry’s Star Trek, the world he envisions is one which has also moved past the ethical injustices that plagued its past and our present. But it doesn’t pretend that they never existed, rather it shows the viewer the attractions and pitfalls of prejudice and the terrible outcomes for societies that embrace it. It yearns for us to be better as people; this is as much the mission of the show as it is the crew’s who make up the show’s protagonists. Roddenberry’s fiction rightly belongs alongside 80 days’ — it is writing that tries actively to be anti-racists, anti-sexist, and even anti-colonialist. In contrast, Fallout presents history in bland and universal terms, which naturally tend to be framed through the same privileged western white perspective we see in other examples of genre fiction. Mutants and synths take up the mantle that fantasy’s orcs and elves must bear as analogues for real-life racial minorities. Historically rooted forms of oppression are stripped of their power and are set up instead to effect everyone equally. The city of Boston itself is neutered and reduced to landmarks, its ghettos forgotten, its slave regiments erased from stone.