Reconstruction Vol. 12, No. 2

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Destroying Yesterday's World of Tomorrow

Playing in the Wasteland / Derrick Rowan

Abstract: In the video game Fallout 3, the nuclear wasteland is filled with the remnants of technology from before a globally cataclysmic nuclear war, but the prewar world is neither entirely historical nor entirely futuristic, an alternate history in which the 50s-era glorification of the possibilities of technology in the atomic age came true. This portrayal of technology in the wasteland contains inherent tension between the glorified possibilities of technology and the fact that the nuclear wasteland was brought about by those same technological advances. This paper examines the ways in which the game both looks backwards at the Cold War and forwards to a science fiction-styled future in order to highlight contemporary concerns about technology and progress.

The paper argues that the simulation of a retrofuturist world torn apart by nuclear war is an implicit critique of technology and our interface with it. The retrofuturist simulation gives rise to critiques of technology that players can easily recognize as contemporary technologies, while exploring the consequences of their technological dependence from within a safe simulation. By making the technological tension part of gameplay, the game critiques contemporary cultural notions of progress and modern reliance on technological advances. The Cold War-era themes help to create an ironically safe space to explore contemporary anxieties about technology, and the game becomes a place to play out those anxieties.

<1> Perhaps the most striking recent representation of the wasteland in nuclear fiction is in the video game Fallout 3, where the wasteland becomes part of an interactive experience. The game offers a richly textured world in which day-to-day survival 200 years after a global nuclear war is still rife with technological uncertainty and concerns about radiation. The continuation of life after nuclear war creates an ironically “ safe” space, based in nostalgic Cold War-era promises of security and certainty, and the nuclear wasteland becomes a place to showcase and explore contemporary anxieties and critiques of technology, both nuclear and non-nuclear through the retrofuturistic space it creates. Like many games, Fallout 3 begins with a “ tutorial” level during which the player customizes the avatar's appearance and basic abilities, and learns the basics of how to play. The tutorial level functions in most games to set up the player's understanding of the diegetic world and how it will operate for the rest of the game. However, in Fallout 3, the tutorial introduces the player to a fundamental lie about the diegetic world, and the end of the tutorial is built to expose part of that lie. The game opens on a radio flickering to life in a destroyed bus, playing the Ink Spots' “I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire” as the camera pans out to show the city in ruins, with the remains of the Washington Monument in clear view. During a voiceover by an unnamed narrator, the narrator says that in 2077, due to man's penchant for war and escalating armed conflict, “the world was plunged into an abyss of nuclear fire and radiation. But it was not, as some had predicted, the end of the world” (Fallout 3).

<2> The game’s narrator indicates that some people were lucky enough to be “spared the horrors of the holocaust by taking refuge in enormous underground shelters, known as vaults” and goes on to state that “ on that fateful day, when fire rained from the sky, the giant steel door of Vault 101 slid closed and never reopened. It is here you were born. It is here you will die. Because in Vault 101, no one ever enters, and no one ever leaves” (Fallout 3). The player's avatar, a character that later becomes known as the Lone Wanderer,[1] is portrayed being born and then growing up in the vault, with each milestone contributing to the player's knowledge of the game and methods of play. The tutorial ends with a forced exit from the vault, because the Lone Wanderer's father has left without permission and the vault's leader, the Overseer, is furious and ready to kill in retaliation for the betrayal. With the apparent safety of the vault taken away, the Lone Wanderer must confront the lie that the vault was ever a truly safe place, or a place separate from the wasteland and its insecurities and problems. The boundary between the Wasteland outside and the shelter of the vault is broken when the Lone Wanderer’s father exposes the rule that the vault door is to remain sealed as a lie, and this broken boundary calls into question the imagined safety invoked throughout the game. The attention to the illusion of safety also serves to parallel the illusion of safety created by the game itself in regards to technological critique. The space the technology is being critiqued in may be imaginary, but the anxious and ambivalent relationship that people have with technology is current.

<3> After expulsion from the vault, the Lone Wanderer must brave the nuclear Wasteland in search of her [2] father. The “Capitol Wasteland” surrounding the D.C. ruins is populated by bedraggled-looking settlers in makeshift towns and violent nomadic raiders, along with robots, animals, “ghouls,” and “super mutants,” all threats to the Lone Wanderer. The game becomes far less linear at this point, and player choice dictates which stories to engage in, but the primary story of the game is to find the Lone Wanderer's father James, and to help him complete the “Waters of Life” project that was abandoned after the Lone Wanderer's mother died in childbirth. This story reveals the other part of the lie about the sealed nature of the vault as it becomes apparent that James brought his infant child to Vault 101 from a wasteland town, a notion that further breaks apart the illusion of the sanctity of the shelter. The Waters of Life project that the story centers around is a project to build an enormous water purifier to eliminate the radiation and toxicity from all of the D.C. area's water supply, a project that hinges around trying to use and re-purpose technology from before the nuclear war to struggle against the harsh conditions of the nuclear wasteland. While at first the differences between the wasteland and the vault seem stark, throughout the story the boundaries are challenged as it becomes clear that the promise of preservation and rebuilding that helped create the vaults has been broken, showing the shelters to be an imperfect preservation, and not a stable and distinct alternative to the wasteland outside. While the game calls into question the notion of stability and a space separate from the wasteland, it does so by invoking imaginary security and comfort of the Cold War era.

<4> From the outset, there are clear critiques in the game of nuclear technology, and specifically of the technologies of nuclear war, through indication of global destruction by nuclear war and reference to the technological evolution of technologies of war. However the game goes beyond these simplicities to reveal a complex and ambivalent relationship between people and the technology they build and use. The game's richly built world of futuristic technology and Cold War aesthetics hinges on the dilemmas inherent in the reliance on technology and the advantages technology brings to humanity. The tension is built into the gameplay, as the Lone Wanderer must constantly rely on the remnants of prewar technology while remaining surrounded by reminders that it was some of this same technology that brought about nuclear apocalypse. Through the simulated experience of a history that is both connected to lived historical experience and widely divergent from it, Fallout 3 critiques assumptions that technology is either good or evil, helpful or detrimental, by layering the game with technology that serves all of these purposes. However, the contemporary relevance of this is clear. With a rapidly progressing and technologically dependent society, players are exposed in the game to a far-future possibility for their own world. The game also explores the boundaries between shelter and wasteland societies, and showing how those boundaries are not as firm as they may at first seem, but are fluid and permeable. The game offers up a complex picture of humanity's relationship to the technologies that could destroy it, suggesting that concepts of total destruction or total safety are both inadequate. The game accomplishes this by invoking the Cold War, with all of the related tension, but also by invoking the perceived security of the era as well, with increasingly sophisticated technological lifestyles and clear threats and enemies. For contemporary players, the Cold War themes indicate the promise of safety, but also invoke the historical knowledge that Cold War promises of safety and certainty were propaganda-driven, especially in regards to nuclear technology.

<5> There are noteworthy issues and limitations of studying any video game fiction since these do not progress in the same narrative fashion as novels or films. Because in video games, the programming parameters sometimes operate outside of narrative necessity, such as in the case of the programming dictating a percentage chance that the player will be attacked in a certain area, it is unlikely that any two people will play through the game in an identical fashion. The flow of the story may be different, depending on choices the player makes. In The Art of Videogames, Grant Tavinor states: “ videogames, unlike almost all other narrative forms, are interactive fictions, and for a number of reasons, interactive fictions do not seem entirely apt to present narratives of the kind seen in traditional narrative arts (115). In a game like Fallout 3, this effect is heightened due to the wide variety of choices the player can make, up to entirely fracturing the linear narratives available within the game. However, while the video game may not present a traditional linear narrative in the same way as the other texts I have examined, its textual meaning arises from these varieties in story as well as the cinematic features of art and setting. Although the individual player's experience of the game is in some ways unique, the setting and in-game texts that I will reference are easily accessible to all players. It may also be helpful to note that while the player does not need to adhere to all in-game narratives, the entire diegetic world of the game does produce a consistent story about technological ambivalence, a consistent story about the world before the war, and a consistent story about the nature of the wasteland and vaults.

<6> While Fallout 3 is not the most recent nuclear-related video game, it is a significant distillation of nuclear themes not present in earlier games, and more in line with nuclear wasteland fictions. As early as 1980, nuclear destruction was a theme in gaming. In Atari's Missile Command, a player was forced to defend cities against increasingly swift attacks from nuclear missiles, with no way to win. Many subsequent games have used nuclear weaponry or themes of nuclear war, with a variety of applications and purposes. Nuclear-sounding titles like Duke Nukem and Half Life have astonishingly little to do with either nuclear weaponry or radioactivity, while other games such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare portray nuclear weapons and even a nuclear explosion, but not a full-scale nuclear war or its ramifications. For games in which nuclear fears are more significant, as in the Metal Gear series, the focus in the game has mostly been the control of nuclear weapons and the prevention of their use. While it is clear that video games have a rich history of nuclear themes, the Fallout series is a unique example in the way that the game's focus is not solely on the use or prevention of nuclear weaponry, but instead centers around a future in which nuclear apocalypse has not been prevented. The first two Fallout games are vastly different from the third, but are nevertheless important to Fallout 3 because they establish the series and are considered canon. The earlier games were developed as computer roleplaying games, with and were both critically acclaimed, with themes that are continued throughout the series. [3] Fallout 3 builds on the themes presented by these games and continues their narrative, but as with many video games, this installment of the series is designed to stand alone without the expectation that players have played the preceding games. Fallout 3 received numerous “Game of the Year” awards (“Fallout 3 Awards”), making it critically as well as commercially successful. The popularity of the game is significant in that it replays and rehashes a number of Cold War-era fears and concerns, highlighting some cultural preoccupation with the concept, even though the creation of the game postdates the end of the Cold War by some time.

The Nuclear Hyperreal

<7> Although in terms of video game genres, “simulation” is normally used to describe games that directly portray everyday situations, there is a broader way of looking at the concept of simulation. In Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard introduces the term “hyperreal” to describe “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality” (1). This initial definition indicates that modeling the “real” is in fact a way of making up for a lack of underlying reality. In short, according to Baudrillard, the hyperreal occurs when the referent for a model does not exist, and therefore the model becomes the only representation of the assumed “reality” of that referent. Baudrillard says: [3] “ In short, there is no real: the third dimension is only the imaginary of a two-dimensional world, the fourth that of a three-dimensional universe” (107), and thus each successive imaginary is just another layer that obscures the lack of an original and essential reality. He introduces these notions in terms of clones and holograms, but the same mechanics are at work in video games. Advanced games such as Fallout 3 attempt to create the most realistic game possible, and in doing so, create another layer of hyperreality. [4] The diegetic world it models is not just a science fiction world where history and technology are different from non-diegetic historical experience, but a model that simulates a historical “ reality” that is almost but not quite the same as lived experience. It works from a model, but the model is that of 50s-era fantasies about what the future held, a model which has no origin in lived historical experience but is nevertheless deeply tied to that history. In the game, these fantasies become, in the game, a simulated reality that references historical technology and create models from the technological dreams of an historical era. With this hyperreality in mind, the world of the game becomes a critique, not on the fictional world's technology, but with modern U.S. society's own perceptions of and relationships with technology.

<8> A method by which the game creates this “ history without origin” is it's “ retrofuturist” aesthetic. “ Retrofuturism,” a term usually associated with artistic and architectural movements, was made popular in the 1990s by J Mays, as “ a useful evocation of nostalgia for a time of forward-looking hope and romance” (Patton 85). The inherent contradictions in forward-looking nostalgia are precisely what places retrofuturism firmly in the realm of simulation. Fallout 3 exemplifies this design aesthetic, which draws less on the historical design of the mid-twentieth century and more on that era's optimistic hopes for technology (Patton 85). The game does so by going beyond artistic representations and including cultural elements as well, effectively invoking a world that is, in calendar date and in some forms of technology, ahead of our own, but that still retains an overall flavor of the United States during the 1950s. Although no exact date is given for the diegetical world's divergence from the historical timeline, the primary divergence from history seems to be between 1945-1950, as evidenced by technology that seems to have been consistent with history until around that time, and the use of 40s and 50s songs popular in that historical era. After this apparently shared history, the diegetical world splinters off in many respects, creating an alternate world and a radically different United States. The point of the split is a way to create the simulation of a retrofuturist world in which technological development can look radically different than that in the nondiegetical world. Historically, high hopes for nuclear energy hit their pinnacle shortly after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the end of WWII. In By the Bomb's Early Light, Paul Boyer describes some of these hopes, but says that “ one scientist after another cautioned against atomic-energy daydreams” and that by 1946, “ the atomic scientists' initial reticence on the question of peacetime applications had progressed to full-scale counterattack” (115) against the idea of atomic usefulness. The grandiose speculations of the media and lay scientists on the atom's potential were quickly dismissed as scientific impossibilities. In the Fallout 3 timeline, however, the backlash of practical science against the grand ideas of what atomic power could do did not occur, and the disillusionment over the technological power of the atom was never realized, allowing the diegetical world to remain entrenched in the hopefulness of the atom's promise. It is also worth noting that for Baudrillard, the same design aesthetics that retrofuturism draws from are an example of the emergence of the hyperreal. In Jean Baudrillard, Richard J. Lane discusses how Baudrillard's description of the tail fins popular on United States cars in the 1950s concludes that they are “ representative of a fantasy of aerodynamics” and for Baudrillard characterize “ speed that can never degenerate into the real because it belongs to the abstracted hyperreal” (29). In this way, the very basis of the game's retrofuturism, the design aesthetics of the 50s, are already moving towards hyperreality.

<9> The retrofuturist simulation gives rise to a complex modeling of technology, and highlights an inability to have conversations about technology that are not tied to nostalgic backwards-reaching portrayals of society. The divergence in history means that scientific achievement remained hinged upon atomic reactions, creating a vastly different timeline of technological development. However, the divergence between the historical timeline and the diegetical world is not total; tensions between the United States, Russia and China are still evident in the game's history, setting the stage for global tensions that escalate into nuclear war. While the ideologies of the game's prewar society simply extend and expand historical Cold War fears, the technology becomes something completely different, a hybrid of science fiction desires and technological limits. The limits come across as developments which did not happen in the Fallout world. In “ Back to the Retro Future,” Computer Graphics World's review of Fallout 3, the lead artist for the game, Istvan Pely, says: “ We tried to demonstrate this contrast between the technology's capabilities and the primitive nature of the manufacturing processes and miniaturization” (8). What this design perspective shows is the assumption that in the world they designed, the miniaturization of electronics remained at a very early stage and that the sophistication of production did not progress as quickly as it did historically, while the exploration of nuclear power bloomed and progressed far past atomic weaponry and power plants.

<10> The limitations of miniaturization help to create the retrofuturist look of the game, since computers and robotics remain large in scale. The tradeoff is, of course, that nuclear power is everywhere, and unlike electronics, the miniaturization of nuclear energy sources has progressed to very sophisticated levels: the broken buses in the city have radiation danger warnings on the back, indicating that their power source is nuclear and electronics can be powered by “ fission batteries.” But the miniaturization also serves to alienate the technology and its production from average people, to make it nearly impossible to attain again. Jameson argues that miniaturization is a “ change from human scale to a system of nuclear matrices” that makes the body superfluous (129). With technology that no longer operates on a human scale, the means of recovering that technology, once lost, are unavailable. The Lone Wanderer and wasteland residents are playing out the end result of this commercial miniaturization, which is a world so dependent on it that even once the technology has been very nearly obliterated, it is at the center of the world and human interaction. The game explores through its retrofuturism the present-day dependence on this miniaturized technology that is no longer available on a human scale.

<11> The nuclear wasteland in the game is filled with the remnants of this retrofuturist technology, painting a clear picture of scientific promise marred by grim reminders that the same science led the world to nuclear destruction. However, the retrofuturist technology itself is bound by the anxieties that keep the technology from being more closely related to the modern technology it critiques. Fredric Jameson says in “ Postmodernism and Consumer Society” narratives which are “ set in some indefinable nostalgic past,” show that “ for some reason, we were unable today to focus on our own present, as though we have become incapable of achieving aesthetic representations of our own current experience” (117). Jameson sees this as a symptom of consumer capitalism giving rise to a society that can no longer cope with time and history. In the context of Fallout 3, the inability to confront problems of technology head-on may be part of this symptom of capitalist society becoming increasingly aware of past history and past patterns without moving forward to create representations not tied to nostalgia. The game’s setting is only futuristic insofar as the future has been imagined in a nostalgic past. The inability to represent the present means that the technological issues of the present become filtered through the nostalgia of retrofuturism, and therefore rather than producing a direct critique of contemporary technologies, the game instead uses imagined safety of the past to work through technological themes.

Technological Ambivalence

<12> The player’s first encounter with implied critique in the game is the critique of nuclear power and weaponry, starting with the pervasive mention of it at the beginning of the game and continuing throughout. The nuclear post-apocalyptic simulation is not incidental or simply backdrop for the story; it creates immediate tension due to the sensitive nature of the location of the simulated wasteland. Tavinor says that in terms of being a “ morally serious narrative” this is a vital element because “ Fallout 3, in particular, is resoundingly bleak in tone and it is hard not to think seriously about nuclear annihilation given the vividness with which it presents a post-apocalypse Washington, D.C.” (168), and with such a recognizable hub of United States culture in ruins, the destruction of the setting becomes implicitly more threatening. The game simulates the aftermath of nuclear war as brutally harsh, even 200 years after the cataclysmic nuclear events; a move in line with most simulations of nuclear war. In regards to nuclear war, Baudrillard states: “ It is not the direct threat of atomic destruction that paralyzes our lives, it is deterrence that gives them leukemia. And this deterrence comes from the fact that even the real atomic clash is precluded” and that “ The whole world pretends to believe in the reality of this threat” (32). In this way, the nuclear annihilation in Fallout 3 is the same kind of pretending; the “ real” nuclear threats are replaced with a simulation of nuclear war having been carried out, allowing for a critical view of nuclear war on a scale that has not occurred in history and, if the theory of deterrence is correct, will not ever occur. It is made as realistic as possible through hyperreality, so that it is a very accurate simulation of an event that did not exist historically in the first place. In the “ Back to the Retro Future” article, Martin McEachern notes that “ the imagery of the Washington Monument, the Capitol, and other iconic structures reduced to rubble would provoke an immediate visceral response about the power and magnitude of the enemy” (7), but since the entire world of the game has been reduced to post-nuclear wastelands, the enemy that caused the destruction is no longer there to fight. The enemy is replaced by yet another simulacrum, and the Lone Wanderer faces a host of potential enemies, none of them responsible for the initial destruction. The nuclear war is not at issue in this game, because the assumption that it is possible is crucial to the believability of the game’s premise. In this way, the nuclear wasteland in Fallout 3 is critical of itself by simulating the end result of commonly shared fears of destruction, despite the fact that the model of this kind of destruction is what produces the deterrence that assures it will not happen.

<13> The wasteland simulation allows for a more thorough exploration of technological ambivalence by providing the way to act through various parts of this ambivalence, exploring the ways that technology is a source of fear, comfort, power, and more. Fallout 3 contrasts the destruction of nuclear war is contrasted with the endurance of modern technology and the perceived safety of fallout shelters. Because the player may choose different ways to use the technology the game presents, with differing outcomes for play, the game invites the exploration of ambivalent technology in a firsthand way. The wasteland town nearest to the Lone Wanderer’s vault is Megaton, a town built up around an unexploded atomic bomb. The bomb immediately becomes a site of tension, as people with different agendas approach the avatar. Lane says that for Baudrillard, “ the disturbing point … is that the hyperreal doesn't exist in the realm of good and evil, because it is measured as such in terms of its performativity – how well does it work or operate?” (84), and in this sense, the hyperreality of the unexploded bomb allows exploration of the “ workability” of what are posed as moral choices, but leaves moral certainty out of the equation. The bomb itself is almost comically enormous, and is at all hours surrounded by members of the “ Church of Atom,” a cult group that worships the bomb. The town mayor asks if the Lone Wanderer knows enough to disarm the bomb, and a sinister man in the bar offers her money to remotely detonate the bomb and destroy the town. Each of these encounters demonstrates the ambivalent morality surrounding nuclear weapons. The church will be angry if the Lone Wanderer disarms the bomb, she will become a murderer if the player chooses to set it off, and leaving it be will keep the town in danger. The game offers no specific pressure in regards to taking any of the various actions, leaving the player to act on any of the requests or not, further encouraging the sense of ambivalence in regards to these weapons, with no clear statement on whether the Megaton bomb is a fearful weapon or a relatively benign remnant of lost technology. Each action produces a different outcome in the game, with different possibilities and consequences, but the choice of how to interact with the bomb remains tied to the ambivalence the game explores. Rather than being entirely based on moral choices, it is a question of what works, and how the player wishes to interact with the game’s technology.

<14> The more subtle elements of critique are present in the less overtly nuclear representations of technology, particularly the nostalgic way in which the technology is designed and portrayed. These representations are nevertheless an integral part of navigating the nuclear wasteland, and are still tied to the concepts of weaponry and danger. These portrayals of technological achievements become retrofuturist, because Fallout 3 lifts its design for the prewar world almost directly from the popular conceptions during the Cold War of what the future should look like. Boyer notes in the book The Almighty Atom: The Real Story of Atomic Energy, John J. O'Neill “ predicted fantastically cheap power, 'atomic-energy vitamin tablets'; the mining and smelting of various metals through radioactive beams; and the imminent availability of atomic-powered rockets, airplanes, ships, and automobiles” (111). These types of speculations for technology were common, and are the sorts of sources from which the Fallout world draws its technology. An additional layer to these portrayals is not just the hyperreal simulation of things with no historical existence, but the way that their existence in the diegetic world reveals one of Baudrillard's principal concerns about technology. Lane describes that related to hyperreality is the idea of “ hyperfunctionality,” which in terms of Baudrillard's writing means that “ the object or gadget no longer serves the world, performing some useful task – it serves us: our dreams and desires of what objects can and should do” (33). The retrofuturist technologies in the diegetic world are precisely this, objects built on the dreams of what the people of a historical era thought those objects might be. There is evidence that transportation was nuclear powered before the war and that nuclear energy was cheap and plentiful. While there are no atomic-energy vitamin tablets, there are glowing bottles of “ Nuka Cola Quantum” that provide a performance boost in-game. While the game objects draw on historical nostalgia, they also reference the desires of modern players too: quick and easy fixes to problems of health, nourishment, and safety. The objects in the game are patently devoid of practical realism for modern players, yet they are acceptable as objects that echo the dreams and desires of the game’s audience as well as those of the 50s.

<15> Yet this idealized nuclear-powered world is intimately tied with the problems that brought it crashing down, a reminder that even the deterrence presented by unreal nuclear war does not solve the problems of warlike technology. This theme appears in the forms of technology that is still working but no longer under control, and of nuclear-powered vehicles that no longer work, but that will still spew radiation into the air if damaged. Ubiquitous throughout the game are “ Robco” brand robots that seem to have been used for numerous reasons, from household tasks to security. Those that are still active can sometimes be repurposed to do work for wasteland inhabitants, but without control of their programming, even the robots that should be set to clean a house may shoot the Lone Wanderer as a perceived threat.[5] This problematic use of “ helpful” technology is one that Baudrillard finds to be explicitly linked with “ peaceful” applications of nuclear power. He says: “ Pacification does not distinguish between the civil and the military: everywhere where irreversible apparatuses of control are elaborated, everywhere where the notion of security becomes omnipotent” (33). The sense that non-weaponized applications of nuclear technology are explicitly linked with the weaponized applications is another way of revealing an ambivalent relationship with the technology, by showing the boundary between applications to be problematic, with the helpful and destructive capabilities of technology inevitably linked.

<16> Since the game comes out of a culture filled with rapid technological development and increasingly sophisticated technologies, the portrayal in the game of technology as old and broken begins to reveal an anxiety surrounding the ready availability of technological items. The technology of the wasteland is the technology of a past era, and is almost entirely characterized by a lack of progress beyond what was accomplished before the war. From the outset, it is made clear that people no longer have the means of producing the technology they rely on for survival. In the early stages of the game, the player character is given his or her own “ Pip Boy,” a piece of equipment that serves as a radio, personal inventory organizer, map, and health monitor. When asked why it looks so old, Stanley, the vault-dweller who repaired it, explains: “They don't make 'em any more, now do they?” and so it is clear that old Pip Boys must be continually repaired. The inability of even the vault-dwellers to recreate the old technology indicates an anxiety surrounding the level of sophistication of technological objects. Players are invited to identify with the concern over being unable to obtain such a vital piece of equipment in any way other than by continual repairs. The connection to the digital interface of the Pip Boy and the digital interface they are currently playing the game in is unlikely to pass unnoticed.

<17> The Pip Boy is just the first of many encounters with technology that indicate a serious lack of new development, and each new instance of repaired and rebuilt technology adds to the anxiety that perhaps nothing new can be created. As the game progresses, it becomes increasingly evident that the reliance on ancient, badly functioning technology is pervasive. Guns are an important part of protecting oneself in the wasteland, but they are all old pre-war models, in constant need of repair. While the Lone Wanderer may find “schematics,” blueprints that allow new weapons to be created, the schematics require pieces of older technology to build. In order to build a “dart gun,” for example, the Lone Wanderer must obtain a paint gun, a toy car, and surgical tubing, all foraged from the wasteland ruins. Since even new weaponry is created by repurposing older technology, the game indicates that there has been little attempt to find new ways to reproduce the technological sophistication of the past. This technology is all vital to the survival of the wasteland inhabitants, but it is also a crutch, preventing new development with a series of fixes and repairs for older technology. With no new technological development or advancement, there is no sense of ever regaining what has been lost.

<18> One of the most important examples of reliance on bygone technology is the almost total absence of the piece of equipment that was supposed to spare the world the horrors of the nuclear wasteland. The conclusion in the game is that the promises of fully rebuilding once the world has been destroyed and the means to produce new technology has largely been lost are just as meaningless as the promises that there is a barrier between the shelter and the wasteland. The “ Garden of Eden Creation Kit,” also known as the G.E.C.K. was supposedly issued to the Vaults in preparation for the war, to be used for terraforming the earth, purifying the water, and making the planet livable again. However it is clear from the state of the wasteland that this has not happened, at least not on a large or meaningful scale. The explanation of the G.E.C.K within the game states: “ The G.E.C.K. will collapse all matter within its given radius and recombine it to form a living, breathing, fertile virgin landscape and allow life to begin anew” (Fallout 3). The state of the wasteland refutes the promise of a new, fertile landscape by its very existence. The earth is still an irradiated desert. Early access to Vault 101’s computer system reveals that some Vaults did not receive the G.E.C.K, Vault 101 included. The primary plotline of the game centers on “ Project Purity,” an attempt at creating large-scale water purification, the project that the Lone Wanderer’s father left the Vault to complete. Finding the G.E.C.K. is a necessary step in completing Project Purity. Although the Lone Wanderer can eventually locate and use one of the kits, successfully removing radiation from the Potomac River as it enters the tidal basin, the near-miraculous promises from its description do not come to fruition. The broken promise represented by the G.E.C.K. speaks to the anxiety about lofty promises of technology, because despite its effectiveness in creating clean, life-giving water, it does not act as a total technological solution for the wasteland. The technology is helpful, but not as powerful as it was once promised to be.

<19> Nourishment also plays a somewhat disturbing role in the negotiation of a space in which technology does not permit the making of new products. While this is an inconvenience in terms of weaponry, it is a serious problem in terms of food shortage. Players are presented with familiar food items in the game (the red and white labeling on “ Nuka Cola” should be instantly recognizable as a Coca Cola reference, for example), and encouraged to see food in terms of technological anxiety as well. There is a stark difference between the food that remains in the world from before the war and the food available fresh. Before the war, an implied abundance of processed food graced most United States homes. For reasons unexplained, this food is still generally edible 200 years later, albeit with a dose of the all-pervasive radiation as an ingredient. Offerings like “ Blamco Mac & Cheese” and “ Dandy Boy Apples,” along with the previously mentioned Nuka Cola, paint a picture of an active consumer culture with the means to preserve food masterfully. In contrast, the fresh food available in the game is limited to the products of hunting and herding. The two-headed cows known as “ brahmin” provide milk, and the meat of various wasteland animals like giant mole rats and wild dogs makes frequent appearances on menus. All of these representations of food point towards a general inability get beyond food basics, and a serious lack of fresh non-meat foods. Because food is one of the game's methods of replenishing health, this is not just decoration.[6] The lack of sophistication in fresh dishes shows some deep disconnection between the means of producing food such as the packaged products, and the means of producing food that is more than roasted animal meat. There are a handful of examples of dishes that go beyond this, such as “ squirrel stew,” but the number of these is small enough that more elaborate cooking seems to be uncommon in the wasteland.

Leaving the Vault

<20> Complicating the ambivalence of technological issues present in Fallout 3 is that there are stark differences and contrasting themes between the culture of the fallout shelter and the culture of the wasteland. These differences, however, are revealed to be illusory, and the shelter and the wasteland are not separate spaces, but all part of the same wasteland space. As in other works of nuclear fiction, the most important character in the story explores liminal spaces, troubling the boundary between the shelter and the outside. The story of Fallout 3 places the main character in the fallout shelter, or “Vault,” from the outset, and the emergence from the vault is the first experience of the wasteland. Through portrayals of the vault and of what it means to be inside of it, outside of it, or somewhere in between, the game explores how fallout shelters provide protection and serve to preserve technology, but in doing so, they do not always provide the kind of safety that they are supposed to and do not always preserve technology in useful ways. The shelter becomes, in this way, an integral part of the wasteland concept, since presumably a shelter that functions as it should would give rise to a very different story, one in which humanity emerges when the radiation is no longer so unsafe and rebuilds and repopulates the world. Because this does not happen, the shelter is not a symbol of successful preservation, of renewal, or ultimately of hope, but of staleness that becomes just as much of a wasteland as the above-ground deserts and ruined cities. By continuing the themes of sterility and failure of preservation common to the nuclear wasteland, Fallout 3 presents its Vaults as a vital component of the wasteland, and a testament to the notion that there is no true protection of people or technology.

<21> The Vault-dwellers are deeply concerned with keeping their society cut off from the society aboveground. This is done in multiple ways, but with a pervasive sense that what is going on in the Vaults is preservation of certain technologies and societal norms but paying a price of staleness and sterility. The first indication of this is early in the game when an older woman in the Lone Wanderer’s home, Vault 101, makes an offhanded remark about there being fewer children around. While the Vault-dwellers have renewable food, water, and power, they are starting to dwindle in population. The vault, in this sense, preserves the technologies but begins to fail at observing the people. Since nobody in the wasteland speaks about radiation-related fertility problems, it seems that such threats are past, leaving the vaults ironically as the site where, regardless of superior technology, human survival becomes more tenuous. Another disturbing take on the concept of preservation in the vaults is Vault 112, where the original inhabitants have been kept alive in pods and forced to endure a megalomaniacal scientist's simulated personal playground for the past 200 years. The simulation the player encounters in this vault is one that replicates the prewar society, further implicating technology as a method of preservation. In Vault 112, the technology and its methods of preservation have become a prison that serves only to provide an ongoing behavioral experiment.

<22> In representing the vaults, the game takes care to show how the vaults were supposedly conceived of before the war. Like the G.E.C.K, “Vault-Tec” vault technology is portrayed as having been built around the idea of making the prospect of nuclear war manageable and less terrible. There is strong evidence of this in the Vault-Tec display in the game's “Museum of Technology” off the Washington Mall. [7] Inside the display, automated recordings and posters describe the promises of life in the vault. The emphasis on convenience assures that in contrast to being an option of the bare necessities of disaster, the vault will function as a very comfortable family home. It advertises self-cleaning floors and an automated kitchen, invoking once more the retrofuturist aesthetic of high-tech solutions for average living situations. This promise of an average life deep underground is what prompts the sterility and isolation of the vault, because it is also a promise of being closed off from the nuclear war, and thus a promise of being closed off from the rest of the world. A banner across part of the vault display promises that Vault-Tec is “Revolutionizing Safety for an Uncertain Future.” This promise of safety is couched in the implicit threat that the “ uncertain future” is nuclear war devastating enough that most people would be unable to survive outside of a vault. By promoting the vaults as safe havens, the message is also one of caution that implies, correctly or not, that life outside of the vault will be far more terrible. In addition to the idea that the vault will be safe and closed off, there is also a sense in the Vault-Tec display of surveillance and control. While the display shows this in a positive light, it is clear from the above examples of the vaults in action that this theme produces troubling results. Found in the display and elsewhere in the game is a Vault-Tec promotional poster that shows a family picnicking and playing outdoors, with Vault-Tec's smiling mascot [8] pictured in the sky among the clouds, godlike, with the reassurance: “We'll Be There!” splashed across the top of the poster. Such imagery is directly in line with the rest of the message, that Vault-Tec's technology is centered around not just preserving people, but preserving the United States way of life, but it is also implying a state of control as well, as there is no safety without relying on Vault-Tec. Even more disturbing is the way the surveillance is built into the vault itself. A recording states: “Eye on You cameras enable the vault's leader to watch your every move. You'll never be alone again!” In this way, the technology of the vault also becomes a means of control, all the time masquerading as safety. Since none of the vault methods of control have served to keep everyone safe in either example of Vault 101 and Vault 112, it is clear that the Vault-Tec technology is flawed from the outset.

Surviving the Fallout

<23> At the conclusion of Fallout 3, The Lone Wanderer succeeds in purifying the water for the Capitol Wasteland: rather than being dosed with continual radiation, people and plants will be able to rely on clean water. The Lone Wanderer is left to continue her new life in the wasteland because she cannot return to a safe life in the vault. Although she is able to pass through the boundaries between wasteland and shelter, the revelations that the vaults do not fulfill their promise of safe preservation and renewal exposes the idea that there was ever an impermeable boundary to begin with. The vaults do not protect their inhabitants, they do not stay sealed, and they are therefore open to the wasteland and a part of it. This failure of the Vaults destabilizes the concept of the wasteland and shelter as separate, divided spaces, and so the trajectory of the Lone Wanderer from her safe childhood in the vault through the wasteland seems to keep her from coming full circle by denying her the possibility return to life in the vault. However, since part of the journey through the wasteland reveals that the vault is not truly separate from the wasteland, the Lone Wanderer’s trajectory may not be a linear one from vault to wasteland, because she has not been in a location that is not already part of the wasteland.

<24> By breaking the apparent safety of the fallout shelter, and by consistently showing how the technology of the past remains problematic and even dangerous, Fallout 3 reveals that technological ambivalence may be part of a greater technological anxiety in the society creating and consuming the game. The ambivalence surrounding technology in the game is frequently undermined by the negative effects of technology, such as when the Lone Wanderer activates Robco robots in an attempt to defend herself from attackers, only to find the robots turning against her as often as against another threat. Although the final culmination of the water purifier is a success, it represents a small victory, and the broken promises of technology as a source of protection and regrowth still define the wasteland as a whole. The nuclear wasteland in the game becomes a playground for the concerns of a technologically-obsessed U.S. society. The reliance on technologically sophisticated tools and goods should be easily recognizable as a major part of non-diegetical experience, inviting the player to identify with the problems of technology posed in-game. The appeal of this kind of play, along with its conjuration of Cold War-era certainties for a brighter technological future, rests on this ability to safely explore the consequences of a world in which technological advancement is constant, technology is pervasive, and society increasingly relies upon technology that has the potential to destroy it.

<25> The pervasive nature of technology in the game reflects the pervasive nature of technology outside it, a trend that is easy to notice, considering the very act of playing the game involves a highly sophisticated piece of technology in the form of a personal computer or game console. However, there is risk in playing so safely with the problems of reliance on technological sophistication. Players may overlook in the safety of play the critique the game offers about U.S. society’s relationship with technology, and the indication that everyday technologies of convenience are just as likely to be harmful and problematic as nuclear and weapons technology. These critiques are nevertheless vital to understanding the work the game is accomplishing in showing that technology, and interaction with technology, is an essential feature of the wasteland. Because the game invites identification with the technology in the wasteland, it also invites the player to consider that the technology of the non-diegetic world outside of the game as inherently dangerous and, because it is an essential feature of the wasteland, the game asks the player to consider if the wasteland, at least in terms of technology, already exists in the non-diegetic world. This paper only scratches the surface of the possibilities present in examining Fallout 3 in terms of Baudrillard, simulation, and imaginary spaces. Although the game is aging rapidly, the persistence of its popularity indicates that it is an important enough artifact to keep examining with these, and other frameworks. The study of the game could benefit from further looks at the macrocosm of game, and player, and society, and the significance of the hopes, fears, and dreams of the culture producing the game.


[1] The Lone Wander is the accepted canon term for the “player character” in Fallout 3 (The Vault: Fallout Wiki).

[2] The gender of the Lone Wanderer is player choice. My primary play-through of the game is with a female avatar, so I will refer to my female version of the Lone Wanderer. Gender affects some character interactions and dialog choices, but does not alter the primary storylines. However, it might be argued that the type of play encouraged by the game is traditionally masculine in nature, making Fallout 3 an example of the generally patriarchal structures common in the wasteland throughout nuclear fiction.

[3] Beyond the primary games (Fallout, Fallout 2, Fallout 3), there is downloadable content that can be added to each game, and other games set within the franchise such as Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel and Fallout: New Vegas.

[4] The impulse in Fallout 3 to manufacture realism conjures connections to Freudian and Lacanian dreamwork. The mass-culture nature of the game and the nuclear wasteland as a culturally imagined space locate the game as something of a collective, cultural dream. In this sense, Fallout 3 could certainly be a place of further and deeper discussion of what a collective dream of the future as it is found in this game represents in mass psyche, beyond the portrayals of anxiety.

[5] My first encounter with such hostility was a shock because I had activated a subway robot to protect my poor Lone Wanderer from giant mutant cockroaches, and it started shooting her when it discovered she did not have a subway ticket to scan. I’m a little concerned about the society that shoots people for turnstile jumping.

[6] In fact, when playing the game on Hardcore mode, the avatar must eat, or face starvation, adding a new complexity to the relationship between overall health and risks of radiation poisoning.

[7] One of the unique problems of studying the text of a video game is being of sufficient skill to complete the research. My goal of studying the exhibits in the game's Museum of Technology was severely impeded by going before I was well-equipped, and my museum trips tended to be punctuated by getting shot repeatedly in the head by super mutants who just did not understand the value of research.

[8] The “Vault Boy” is part of the user interface as well, blurring the boundaries between what he represents. In the story of the game, he is associated with Vault-Tec, but for the player, he also represents Fallout 3 in general.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. London: Sage Publications Ltd, 1998. Print.

Boyer, Paul. By the Bomb’s Early Light. New York: Pantheon, 1985. Print.

Fallout 3. Rockville: Bethesda Softworks, 2008.

Fallout 3 Awards.” Fallout: Welcome to the Official Site. Bethesda Softworks, LLC, 2011. Web. 18 Nov. 2011.

Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism and Consumer Society.”  The Anti-Aesthetics. Ed. Hal Foster. New York: New Press, 1998. 111-134. Print.

McEachern, Martin. “Back to the Retro Future.” Computer Graphics World. Mar. 2009: 6-14. Print.

Patton, Phil. Glamour. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004. Print.

Tavinor, Grant. The Art of Videogames. Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Print.

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