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Fall(out) of Civilization: On Wilderness in Fallout 4

  • January 16, 2016 12:56 AM EST

    Fallout 4 has been out for a few months now, and I've poured a lot of hours into it. There's a lot to like here, and I certainly think it's an enjoyable game that's worth the price for fans of open-world RPGs and the Fallout series. However, I think Fallout 4 as a setting has quite a few (fairly significant) flaws that hurt my ability to enjoy it even more. It's not secret that I'm a fan of both immersive, explorable games and well-done worldbuilding. After giving it a lot of thought, I think I've figured out a theory explaining just why the Commonwealth is so disappointing and how that relates other worldbuilding done by Bethesda (specifically, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim). This theory delves into the dichotomy between civilization and wilderness, and just what it means for a setting to be "post apocalyptic."

    Civilization versus the wilderness is a theme that goes back to the very beginnings of human thought, when we huddled around campfires and wondered at the surrounding dark. In the modern era, it is a theme that has been especially resonant among those who live in the "civilized" world, that is highly-developed post-industrial counties such as the United States of America and Europe, where the concerns of day-to-day survival and struggle against nature have been subsumed under concerns like taxes, mortgage rates and parking tickets. Fantasies about the end of the world fascinate us because they represent a return to a more immediate way of life, one unburdened by the bewildering array of signals and pressures we labor under. (and that often seem so illusory, and yet inescapable) To someone who is forced out of their home because of the actions of bankers playing with imaginary money half a world away, it may be comforting to imagine a world where you own your house because you say you do, and are willing to back that up.

    When talking about wilderness and civilization in a game like Fallout 4, think of "civilization" as being everything that pertains to organized human existence - housing, farming, doctors, teachers, walls, guns...anything that goes into creating a lifestyle and culture that a modern human would recognize. Wilderness, then, is the absence of those things - a more primal state, where the world has not been tamed by human masters, and the only rules that matter are what you can do and what you can't do. In Skyrim, the wilderness is what exists beyond the edges of the cities and towns; the country has been inhabited for a long time, even civilized to an extent, but it hasn't truly been tamed. In a post-apocalypse setting, the purpose of the end of the world is to return that world to a more primitive and wild state; to take a tamed land and make it feral again. To take the trappings of civilization and make them wilderness.

    The Fallout series does this in a number of ways. (Full disclosure: I've only played a little of Fallout 3, half of Fallout: New Vegas and all of Fallout 4) The most immediate and obvious is by setting its games among the ruins of the Old World. FO3's Capital Wasteland, with the monuments and buildings of a destroyed nation; New Vegas' shining casinos against the barren desert; and, of course, the decaying remains of Fallout 4's Boston. As you traverse the game world, you are constantly encountering the bones of a civilized world - buildings that still stand, 200 years later; shattered roads and crashed cars; long-abandoned "safe houses" and complexes. Each and every one broken and dusty with the weight of neglect. It's all very convincing as a world that has been left behind, that is no longer being taken care of. And yet...

    Civilization is more than just the things it leaves behind; civilization is people. And here is where Fallout 4 struggles to create a convincing picture of a world decayed, a world that has returned to the wilderness. Culture is an important part of any society; even the smallest and simplest of groups will develop unique interactions and references among themselves, setting them apart from other groups. And culture is strongly influenced by the environment. "Civilized" people act the way they do because they have been raised in an environment that supports such behavior. I could never survive on my own in a forest, because I grew up in the suburbs of a major city and skills like "find food" and "don't get 'et by a bear" were not incredibly useful. Skills like great reading comprehension and the ability to quickly count out exact change in a fast-food line were. (if you need something proofread, I'm your girl!) A big way that games create convincing worlds is by having the people within them act appropriately for the culture and environment the game creators are trying to make. People in a science-fiction setting don't go, "Wow, spaceships!" all the time, because spaceships are supposed to be normal to them. (Just like you probably don't go walking around saying, "Wow, cars!" or "Wow, electricity!" It's normal to you)

    So how have the people of Fallout 4 been changed by the change of environment, the collapse of civilization and return to wilderness? My perception is: not very much. And that's really the heart of the problem. People in Fallout 4, by and large, don't act very differently than people from before the bombs fell. The environment has radically changed, but the culture has not. We still have people living in houses, people going to doctors, people running eateries and shops and schools. They still speak the same language, use the same slang, consider money as the primary source of exchange. There's very little cultural friction between the people of the Commonwealth and the Sole Survivor, despite them being as far removed from her/him as she/he is from the days of Ulysses S. Grant. They might be a little more blasé about fighting for your life, or about getting killed by wildlife, but for the most part they are no different from the people you walk into Vault 111 with, despite their world being a far, far different place.

    In short, Fallout 4 is a game set in a wilderness in which barely anyone acts like it.

    Oh, they pay lip service to the idea that the Commonwealth is a dangerous place. Everyone talks up threats like raiders and mutants and radiation, but they don't seem to act like their entire region is a hellhole where one mistake will result in a horrible death. You frequently meet lone NPCs out in the wasteland, people who really have no business wandering around a place that supposed to be so deadly nobody bats an eye at disappearances. I met a young girl and her father, just walking along and talking about getting a puppy. I saw a dog salesman in between a raider camp and a nest of giant, radioactive scorpions. I had a guy try and run a credit card scam on me, in the middle of a bombed-out neighborhood infested with super mutants! What!? Why would you be out there, dude? Everywhere you go, you have people who live in a radioactive wasteland acting like they're in the middle of New York's Central Park; you have to keep an eye on your purse, maybe, but nothing to get too worked up about.

    I could understand it if that kind of attitude was confined to the people of Diamond City. After all, the whole point of DC is that it's a protected, fortified location that isn't subject to the same vagaries as the rest of the Commonwealth. If the people there have maintained a more civilized and Old World-style way of life, that makes sense. They are protected by their precious Wall, with plenty of resources, and can afford to devote time to things beyond pure survival. Unfortunately, that isn't the case. By-and-large, everyone in the Commonwealth acts the same way, as if they are all just living in a particularly rough neighborhood instead of Mordor. This creates a huge tonal problem, because why should I take the wasteland seriously when none of these people are? One of the minor factions is a bunch of power armor-obessed greasers holed up in a diner/chop shop in the middle of nowhere. How can they afford to live like that, and where did they get the mannerisms/aesthetic from?

    Even the raiders seem less like people who have abandoned their humanity and gone feral than just a few particularly rough biker gangs. And where do they come from? Are they supposed to be reproducing out there? We never see raider children, or evidence that they have any sort of continuity beyond the immediate "this is our pile of junk, get lost!" And the Gunners! Who pays them? They're a huge, incredibly well-organized army. Why are they not taking over the whole Commonwealth? And there's still room for the Triggermen to cosplay as 1920's gangsters, despite there being basically no law for their crime to be organized against. All of these groups exist, but without a the civilized support structure that allows for things like mercenary companies and mafia families, they just...float in a void, recognizable but without purchase in the world Fallout 4 is trying to create.

    If, culturally, there's no difference between the people of the "civilized" Diamond City (or other large settlements, like Bunker Hill) and people who just live in the wasteland, it makes the wasteland seem far less like wilderness and civilization less special. "Oh, you have a school? That's cool, so do these people who live in a garbage dump." Jack Cabot and his family live on their own, in a fancy house far from any settlements. How does that happen? How do they survive there, even with their resources? Cabot also has mercs guarding an asylum quite a distance away from his home, which seems nonsensical in a world like Fallout's, where everything is supposed to be wilderness. You can't (or shouldn't be able to) just pop over 40 miles up the road to check things out. Without cars (or, apparently, horses) or some other mode of transport, even as close as across the city should be a substantial journey. Civilization is supposed to be in this primitive state, yet everyone goes through the motions as if they're modern humans just transplanted into a wasteland setting. (the only one who should do that is the Sole Survivor, for obvious reasons; and maybe some pre-war ghouls)

    I've brought up the idea of tribals before as something that is sorely need in Fallout, and I stand by that. Tribals represent people adapting to the new environment brought about by the Great War - as civilization crumbles, they reorganize themselves into a way of life that is more suited to the more primitive world of the wasteland. Absent the large-scale industries and long-distance trade that have made "modern" civilization possible for hundreds (or thousands) of years, humans would out of necessity become much more insular and tight-knit. They would only be able to use things they could make for themselves or scavenge from the ruins of the Old World. There would be some trade, sure, but it would be much more local, save for a brave few who would chance the dangers of the wastes in return for a bigger payoff. There are no tribals in Fallout 4, and they leave a massive hole in the narrative.

    That's not to say that Fallout doesn't create good factions. Caesar's Legion in New Vegas worked well, because it represented the very opposite of the New California Republic. The NCR sought to recreate the society from before the Great War, while the Legion sought to create an entirely new society that is grown out of the changes that conflict wrought upon the world. They are both a response to armageddon, done deliberately, while much of the people in Fallout 4 seem to act like they do ... just because. The Brotherhood of Steel also works well, because it is also a group that exists for its own sake as a response to the wasteland and humanity's fallen state. (One point where I think Fallout 4 does really well is the "Fire Support" quest, where you help a Brotherhood recon team. They really feel alone and isolated in a hostile area, and I wish the rest of the game captured that sense as well) The Institute is physically and culturally isolated from the ravages of the wastes, and thus would definitely preserve a softer and more intellectual way of looking at the world. You could believe they would be disgusted by what's become of the Commonwealth...even if the Commonwealth itself doesn't really sell the Fall as well as it should. Even the Minutemen work pretty well, as long as you don't think about why there are so many unprotected farms in the middle of nowhere with only two or three people living there. (Blake Abernathy says they "knew the risks" about having children in the wastes, as if it was a personal choice rather than a matter of survival. People in colonial America had so many kids because they needed as many hands as possible to help keep the farm going)

    The Fallout series has always been about the contrast between the retro-futurism of its 1950's-style pre-war America and the Mad Maxian hellscape of the world after the bombs fell. Preserving enough of the Old World to provide that contrast is certainly something that should be done, but not at the expense of removing all sense of change and adaptation from the world. I would expect a society like the Commonwealth of Fallout 4 to exist 21 years after the end of a civilization, altered but still clinging to the old ways, rather than the 210 that have actually passed. Skyrim was such a compelling and immersive world because it carefully balanced the idea of a thousand-year-old civilization amidst a largely-untamed wilderness. You could believe that the Nords (and others) had lived there for a long time, but that there was still much that simply wasn't well-trodden. In Fallout 4, the game struggles to give the Commonwealth a strong sense of place, oscillating between "Nothing is left!" and "Everything is the same!" Is Diamond City the last bastion of pre-war culture, or just the biggest of many settlements? Is travel an unthinkable danger, or routine? Is this a game about civilization among the wilderness, or wilderness peaking through a civilized curtain?

    If the Fallout series is going to really "wow" in the future, it needs to find a way to create a compelling setting out of the great potential it has already built, but never quite utilized to its fullest. Make no mistake - I quite like Fallout 4 (I wouldn't write a few thousand words about it if I didn't), but I wish I could see it embrace the same sort of living, full world that made me fall so in love with Skyrim. I know it is possible, because the foundation is there. It just needs to be built upon.

    Thanks for reading.

    • 9 posts
    January 16, 2016 9:06 AM EST

    Very well said!

    I completely agree with your assessment. I feel like I should type a wordy response, but I'm exhausted from reading through your well stated observations.