Humanity’s technological advancement has bought about the demise of most of the world’s population. The earth is scorched. All manner of unsavoury creatures roam it – mutants, ghouls, slavers and raiders are all there to greet you when you escape your home and prison, Vault 101. There are reminders of a past where men and women cared for perfectly square lawns, shopped in all-new supermarkets, cheery diners and cheerier housewives. In fact, the game really makes you wonder if the American dream was really any better than nuclear armageddon. On the other hand, considering Fallout 3’s preoccupation with the themes of prejudice, discrimination and slavery, why is it silent on topics of (human) race, (historical) slavery and racism? One has to ask: Is Fallout 3 really as subversive and “out there” as it thinks it is?
As I finally exited the Vault, it was tense. Real tense. I felt as taut as a drum – I could tell something big was going to happen, something that really packed a punch – I was going to discover something, something about humanity, about the nature of evil, about life and death…
But nothing. By the middle of Fallout 3 I was practically screaming at the screen: make me feel discomfited! Make me feel angry, sad, complicit! Give me some subtext! Make me care, dammit!
By the end, I was apathetic.
Let me explain. Fallout 3 excels in juxtaposing the aesthetic and veneers of 1940s and 1950s America with a hostile and unwelcoming present. However, as interesting, fantastical or surreal as fictional societies can be (see any Philip K. Dick book) we are limited by our contexts – our bodies, our personal histories, our national histories, and so on. When writing about alternative worlds, we are always also writing about our world, our present. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Some of the most successful moments of Fallout 3 lie in the subversion of America’s nostalgia – a happy, cheerful times is made somehow horrifying.
However, because Fallout 3 is only interested in surfaces, veneers and the aesthetics of the American suburban dream, we have a game that often feels lifeless and stunted. The 1940s and 1950s, the horror of suburban American life was real: what about the experience of being a housewife in the 1940s? What about racism and social exclusion? There are ample opportunities to create real horror through interesting comparisons and political commentary, but instead Fallout 3’s focus is on a “new” society which simultaneously evokes and erases American history in problematic ways.
Fallout 3 operates on the premise that the world is now a post-racial society. You can choose to be whatever colour or race that you’d like. You meet a diverse set of characters, again of various ethnicities and races. The nuclear catastrophe has created a kind of ground zero, in which people have “forgotten” the racial inequality that formed (and continues to form) modern day America. This can be seen in the quests involving slavers and slaves – there is no racial logic underpinning slavery in Fallout 3 and the slavers are equal opportunity offenders after rich and poor, black and white alike.
At least, that’s what the developers chose to portray. However, the politics of race are explored in submerged ways through prejudice and discrimination towards mutants and ghouls. This is a classic RPG trope. RPGs tend to deal with racial matters through stories about white people attempting to get along with “beasts”. This is why, even when RPGs provide nuanced and complex treatments of discrimination, they bury their message by almost always portraying “others” as beasts, animals or aliens.
The most memorable set of quests involving prejudice towards ghouls is the Tenpenny Tower storyline. Ghouls are humans who have been adversely effected by radioactivity but, instead of dying like most humans, undergo a transformation into a different species. There are civilised ghouls who you can converse with, and wild or feral ghouls who fight you. Because of the feral ghoul’s savage behaviour, people are generally prejudice against all ghouls.
The residents in Tenpenny Tower are no different. They live in an elitist oasis, where rich residents can escape the harsh reality of the wasteland through luxury, gambling and shopping. The ghouls nearby serve as a nasty reminder of the outside world, and most of the residents live in fear of them. Chief Gustavo is particularly bigoted and is certain that “they’ll all go feral one day.” Unfortunately, the ghouls want access to the Tower, and they are offended by the bigotry of the humans. So far, they’ve been civil and polite, but when you enter the picture the main ghouls are so offended they’re planning to kill all the humans.
Your choice is to side with the humans by killing the ghouls, side with the ghouls by killing the humans, or alternatively force them to coexist. Now, good samaritan that I am, I chose to have them coexist – with disastrous consequences. Once you re-enter, you find Tenpenny Tower practically deserted. The ghouls are lodging in the Penthouse Suites. They tell you that you might want to avoid the basement.
Spoiler: the ghouls have killed all the humans. You can’t ask why they did it. The ghouls are ambivalent, cavalier. You get no sense of the drama that might have occurred. There was a “misunderstanding”. That’s all we know. It’s as if the developers wanted to deal with weighty themes like race and discrimination, but didn’t know how and ended up resorting to lame shock factor. Like so much of the game, this storyline is rich with material but suffers from poor execution. This isn’t nihilism, Bethesda, it’s just lazy writing. I don’t even want a happy ending, I want a satisfying conclusion to a long and arduous quest! Why don’t the ghouls try and attack you? You are a “filthy smooth skin” too, after all, even if you did help them. Why don’t we find a human survivor who tells you what has happened? Why don’t you go to the basement and find all the residents have transformed into ghouls, and are too ashamed to come out? Or, having been transformed, consort openly in the tower with the ghouls as happy equals?
Tenpenny Tower, and many of the other quests in the game barely scratch the surface of their subject matter for the same reason. (The one notable exception to this in the game is the quest in Vault 112 – if you’ve played the game you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.) What I’m suggesting is that if they really wanted to deal with race – why didn’t they just deal with it? Why play it safe?
Or, fine, use allegory – but why not allow people to react like people? Has everyone had the emotion bombed out of them? Has the radiation made everyone into psychopaths? The Tenpenny Tower storyline isn’t even the worst example – the majority of the quests which should, in theory, be hard-hitting and dramatic are flat and uninspiring. At one point you deliver the news that a woman’s vampiric brother has killed and partially eaten their parents. Her reaction is laughably anti-climatic.
I’m writing about all this as if I care. I don’t. Life is cheap on the Wasteland. You can kill people arbitrarily. You can steal, maim and mess up as much as you want. The laissez-faire attitude you have as a player is reflected in the attitude of the developers: the game is interested in big, difficult ideas and heavy themes, but never gets across the human cost. Instead of dealing with America’s very real and harrowing history, the game brings in Ghouls and Vampires. There’s much to be commended about Fallout’s dystopian landscape – unsurprisingly, when it comes to race, the developer’s imaginations didn’t stretch far enough.