War. War never changes. It seems no matter the era, humanity will always savage itself for resources, shelter, land, or anything else that grants power or survivability. In the Fallout series, the player sets off alone to explore the Wasteland that once was America, and along hir journey must tangle with the worst the species has to offer, be it cannibalistic raiders, ruthless warlords, or the last, diluted remnants of the government.
Fallout, as a series, is all about defining your life in the face of the utter madness and meaninglessness of existence. The games are not content to demonstrate that the sum of existence is worthless, or else there would be nothing worth fighting for and there would be no ending influenced by player action. You as player are thrust into a world you do not understand, whose society only barely resembles our own, and you must decide what is important in this world, what deserves saving and what should be left to die.
In the Fallout series, you assume the role of a Protagonist (Large P, so…well, you get it by now), who must embark upon the Main Quest, that is, the main plot of the game, which, once resolved, ushers in the meta-apocalypse that is the end of the game. Each of these Protagonists is different, faces different challenges and circumstances. But in between the opening and ending, each read in Ron Perlman’s Bastion-esque narratorial style, the player’s agency is just about unlimited. So unlimited, in fact, as to seem terrifying.
In considering the terror the Wasteland represents, I am reminded of the Whiteness of the Whale, as expressed by Ishmael in Moby-Dick. Ishmael expresses terror with regards to the whale, specifically naming its whiteness of color as its most frightening feature. Here “whiteness” is an analogy to the unknown, mysterious aspect of nature, that which is both powerful and not-human. The great white unknown of the whale, utterly powerful and natural, has driven Ahab mad, and chances are good that many will lose their life in its pursuit. In much the same way, the Wasteland is terrifying because it is so vast and lethal. The gray of nuclear ash is a fitting likeness of the dread whale’s whiteness. The Wasteland, like the whale, represents an unknown that could, just as easily as not, eat your face and leave, as your epitaph, a belch as it searches for the next poor schmuck to devour.
Exploring the Wasteland, the Protagonist encounters a grim reversal of humanity’s domination of nature; creatures are much bigger and hardier after the bomb. The natural world has survived and radiation has made the survivors very fit indeed, including mole rats the size of dogs and hellish mutated iguanas that pose a significant threat to the struggling human population. It is easy to grow complacent when humanity has finally learned how to build our own caves, heat and cool them regardless of season or time of day, and are only required to hunt and gather for the best bargains at the grocery store, but the fact of the matter is, nature doesn’t care about us and will eat us if we are not careful.
If you, reader, would think back over the heroic stories you have enjoyed, you might be surprised to realize how many of them follow the typical arc of the “Coming-of-Age Story.” The formula is simple enough, and so ubiquitous that I won’t bother to relate it here. The coming-of-age arc is one which lends itself very well to gaming, incorporating as it does the Protagonist’s rise in power/ability/importance in the world. It is noteworthy, then, that the Fallout games do not feature coming-of-age narratives. Fallout’s protagonists have nothing to prove. It is generally safe to conclude that any coming-of-age arc in the life of a given Protagonist has already happened. You, the Protagonist, are not embarking upon a journey of self-discovery or a vision-quest. You are already an adult, and you know who you are (a respectable set of skills is even defined by the player at the opening of the game as a rule).
The struggle in the Fallout games seems to be wrestling with the demands of adulthood, rather than coming into it. You are called to take a stand in a world that is much larger than you and your concerns. You may want a water chip for your vault, to find and get answers from your deadbeat dad, or get your hands around the throat of the bastard who shot you, but your needs are secondary to a massive Super Mutant army breathing down the collective neck of civilization, a struggle for control of the world’s clean water supply, or the inevitable grudge match between two great armies. By the end, a higher purpose is served, and the Protagonist moves, acts, and bleeds for something greater than hirself.
Unlike coming-of-age narratives, which involve the theme of growing into self and acceptance of responsibility, the Protagonists of the Fallout series are thrust into the forefront of the game narrative for some quality they already possess. It might be that ze is judged to be the only one capable of solving a given problem, or the destiny of Protagonism might be foisted upon hir because of who ze is. The Fallout Protagonists can be viewed, then, as the odd one out, victims of the luck of the draw. The Vault Dweller (of Fallout) was given his job because he was considered the right man for it, the best equipped to survive in the Wasteland, even though nothing in Vault life could have prepared him for what he would find outside its imposing metal door. The Chosen One (Fallout 2) is the grandchild of the Vault Dweller, a victim of heredity whose lineage is thought to carry with it a special destiny. The Lone Wanderer (Fallout 3) is just a kid whose dad broke open the fragile ecosystem of Vault 101, and who gets inexorably drawn into a risky experiment that (unless ze is not a total douchebag and assuming the Player has not installed the Broken Steel DLC) ultimately claims hir life. The Courier (Fallout: New Vegas) is just some guy or gal who took a strange job and got burned for it. The Fallout Protagonists are remarkable in that they could be one of us if we too grew up in a post-end-of-world world.
As I have played much more of Fallout: New Vegas than any other title to date, the exploits of the Courier are freshest in my mind, and so I will spend a little time discussing the Mojave’s favorite little mail-person that could. More so than those of the other Protagonists, the Courier’s journey exemplifies coming to terms with one’s own mortality and place in the universe. The game opens with the Courier tied up, kneeling on the ground, and getting shot in the head (and is arguably one of the most kick-ass openers a game has ever had). The rest of the game, then, can be read as one man or woman’s recovery from a near-death experience and coming to terms with hir own mortality. After waking up from getting shot in the head, the Courier chases hir attacker, Benny, across the Mojave desert, righting wrongs or wronging rights, depending, until finally confronting Benny in his casino, whereupon ze finds out what’s really going on. From there, the Courier must decide the fate of Vegas, the Mojave, and the two armies battling for control of each. And all because of a stupid little job.
The main game of New Vegas is a rich text indeed, but it is concerned with the Courier’s role in events larger than hirself, outside of hir direct sphere of experience. The Courier is truly given hir due in the four DLC titles, which, when considered holistically, represents an arc of later-life growth, a path of character development much as might happen after one has been confronted with one’s own mortality.
The circumstances of the titles are too many for this article, and, as I believe New Vegas to be one of the most important titles I’ve ever played, I urge you to experience it for yourself; I do not wish to spoil. Instead, I will supply you with the lessons that the Courier is to derive from hir experiences in these astounding, profound novellas. Dead Money’s admonition is simple: Let go of the past. Move forward, and do not build for forever as forever will outlast you. To be trapped in the past is death, and will consume you. Honest Hearts shows that, in your life, there are times when you are responsible for the fates of others. Though the circumstances might not affect you in the slightest, you have the moral imperative to choose wisely. Old World Blues cautions against attempting to grow too wise; too much knowledge blinds one to reality. All there is cannot be known, and the blind pursuit of Knowledge can lead to one’s loss of humanity. Finally, the lesson of Lonesome Road is that the road you walk in life, though you may walk it by yourself, is never walked alone. Your actions, however trivial they may be in the moment, have consequences that extend much further than you can fathom, and you can hurt people with the smallest carelessness. This is different than Honest Hearts, where dispassionate choices can make or break others’ fortunes. Lonesome Road is specifically a day of reckoning, a judgment day near the end of your Courier’s life for hir sins. To own the consequences of your actions is the final lesson New Vegas teaches you, and it is perhaps the most important, for in this world, much like the Mojave, your actions, your choices, define you and are all you have to show for yourself.
When confronted with the vast unfairness and senselessness that is the Wasteland, it is impossible to escape the insanity that pervades it. Nuclear holocaust and insanity go hand-in-hand, as seen in such film classics as Dr. Strangelove, where humanity’s erasure by mushroom cloud is treated, not with mockery, but with madness-in-the-face-of-dread. One of the Fallout series’ most endearing qualities is its oddball humor. The games have moments of complete wackiness which are simply accepted at face-value. Taking the Wild Wasteland perk in New Vegas further adds to the zaniness, allowing the Courier to witness even more bizarre occurrences than usual. In my current playthrough, my Courier was assaulted by a gang of old ladies who attempted to shake me down with rolling pins. Think about that for a moment.
In our world, much like the alternate world of Fallout, life as we know it can end in a flash. You are confronted with fucked-up shit on a daily basis; the horrors of human evil and suffering are just there, and nothing you or anyone can do will stop them. Life is madness, and yet you must live. Fallout’s treatment of the human condition is subtle, but effective. There is no escaping the madness of existence, nor is there any combating it (although the pack of grannies were most combatable). It is there, whether you like it or not, and you must engage it.
At the same time, the temptation is great to simply sit back and hide, to “tunnel”, if you will. Existential tunneling of course has its benefits, and is sometimes imperative to survival; if the Vault Dwellers hadn’t buried themselves underground, humanity would have been much worse off than it is in the time of the games. Even when the need to venture forth is greater than the need to stay sheltered, the safety of the Cave –er, Vault, is difficult to overcome.
In every major title since Fallout 2, the player is greeted with an initial loading screen (that is the opening text of the game) commanding the player to “PLEASE STAND BY.” This is no mere loading-screen text, but a call to surrender to the bleakness of the Wastes and withdraw into the comforts of Vault-Tec and its state-of-the-art Vaults. But Vault-Tec cannot protect you forever; eventually, your water chip will malfunction, or your dad will get one of his moon-eyed ideas and do something crazy, or some other force will pull you out from your shelter and force you to confront the world. And it will suck, and it will be scary, but at the same time, you must confront it, because war? War never changes. Its horrors will always be there, and hiding underground will never change that.