Lonesome Road: Existentialism in Fallout 2

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.

Chelsea L. Shephard

About Chelsea L. Shephard

Chelsea L. Shepard (formerly Hannah DuVoix) doesn't write for the Ontological Geek anymore, but she used to be our Editor-in-Chief! She is currently earning her MFA in Game Design from NYU and is probably also thinking about Fallout: New Vegas.

2 thoughts on “Lonesome Road: Existentialism in Fallout

  • Axelle

    What a great lit­tle essay. It man­ages to offer a very per­son­al read­ing of the game and the way its DLC func­tion in rela­tion to the main sto­ry­line, and it does so with­out need­ing a deeply per­son­al anec­dote to back it up. I don’t mind per­son­al, but more often than not I feel that it’s used as a crutch in gam­ing arti­cles, and I end up not hav­ing a clear view of the point the author intend­ed to make, or not hav­ing learned any­thing about the game that was dis­cussed. Your take on F:NV is a joy to read, it’s sub­jec­tive but well-argued, it drew me into your vision of the game to the point I felt I had to expe­ri­ence the whole pack­age, and bought the Ultimate Edition. I’m about 50 hours into my playthrough and decid­ed to tack­le the Sierra Madre just after Benny ran off from the Tops casi­no. I’m play­ing on Hardcore mode + very hard dif­fi­cul­ty, so gath­er­ing Christine, Dean and Dog took for­ev­er (you gotta love it when just stand­ing out­side brings you 1 health point away from death), but I enjoyed every sec­ond of it. I’m absolute­ly floored by the exe­cu­tion. What a haunt­ing place, it’s like the Sierra Madre is this hal­lu­ci­na­tion or dream the Courier has to go through to emerge changed, like the Greek/Latin motif of the “descent into the under­world”.

    Anyway, all these won­der­ful hours in the Mojave, I owe to you and your beau­ti­ful analy­sis of the game. I would love to read more from you about the world of NV, but even if this remains a one-time thing, thank you all the same.

  • Chelsea L. Shephard
    Hannah DuVoix Post author

    Thank you so much for your com­ment! It made my week!
    Also, I’m glad, and a lit­tle hon­ored that my hum­ble words could com­pel you to dive head­long into the Mojave! And to go for Hardcore/Very Hard is some­thing even I haven’t tried yet! That’s com­mit­ment, right there!
    Rest assured, dear Axelle, I have yet to fin­ish writ­ing about NV.

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