Visions After the End: Political Community in Fallout 3

Repeatedly I return to wander the Wasteland: as a black man, as a white woman, as my own self-styled simulacrum. I have awoken from night terrors of never-ending gunfire hell, dreams of green-brown skin lit up by neon light in the unillumed, labyrinthine hallways of some abandoned hospital, shaken by the omnipotent threat of annihilation. I return to flee, scrounging in burnt rubble, accumulating a cache of long-lost life: lunch boxes, large burned books, baseball gloves, a dinner set. I return again and again for the traumatic narrative of strangers, their imagined loss, hope, evilness, self-deception. I roam, bleary-eyed, for countless hours through the Wasteland’s quotidian.            

                                                                                                                                               – W.H. Holmes, As I Saw It (1932)

Set within the apparition of Washington, D.C. two hundred years after a nuclear war between the U.S. and China, Fallout 3 (2008) is a role-playing video game where a player-generated character is used to navigate a web of interlocking and independent storylines inside of an open-world environment. In a post-apocalyptic wasteland of mutated flora and fauna, where rocks and metal have been fused into amorphous mounds that speckle the green and brown terrain, a player interacts with a range of settings. Suddenly on the horizon appear the blown-out remnants of a two-story house with its bathtub intact or an abandoned factory that contains a slew of human and non-human enemies, stashes of ammo or Stimpaks, the game’s first aid. Fallout 3’s encouragement of exploration brings gamers into contact with a variety of political communities, some of which the game recognizes, some it does not. This essay will explore both types of community in an attempt to not only interrogate the boundaries of Fallout 3’s political imagination, but also to interrogate what the game’s boundary exposes about visions of political belonging in our own, pre-apocalyptic moment. 

An over-arching narrative of Fallout 3 involves the specter of the former United States government attempting to retake control of the Capital Wasteland, the area surrounding what was once Washington, D.C., by poisoning the fledgling water system thereby wiping out anything or anyone who is irradiated. This genocide would eradicate all of the threatening mutated animals, the mole rats, the mirelurks, as well as several humans: the ostracized ghouls, with their visibly blistered, radiation-poisoned skin, though, barring this one phenomenal trait, they are just like the “smooth skins,” the name by which ghouls refer to humans. But there are also the Super Mutants, whose low-verbal functioning and awesome strength obscures their capacity for complex thought and cooperative action. The non-irradiated humans, who would presumably be turned into the citizens of this reunited regime, already exist in a number of disparate but recognizable political communities. These assemblages are made recognizable within Fallout 3 by allowing a player to permeate and navigate their interior spaces. In addition, a player can discourse with members who share histories, express feelings, and testify to the conditions of post-apocalyptic being, becoming in the course of conversations both unique characters and also representatives of the place or group that they belong to.

There are two principles for political organization that can be discerned in Fallout 3: heterogeneous/geography and homogeneous/identity. For the latter, a shared personal identity defines a particular group who assemble within a territorial boundary. There are communities where identification as a ghoul, vampire, cannibal, slave, child, etc., is the organizing principle that binds together a community. For example, Underworld is described as “a small city” that is the “home to many ostracized non-feral ghouls.”[1] As Winthrop, a technician ghoul, explains when a player first arrives in the basement of the former Museum of History where Underworld is located: “I’m a ghoul. Everyone down here: Ghouls. That’s what we are.” Little Lamplight is an underground “settlement” exclusively made up of children younger than 16. The Temple of the Union is a “small compound” where runaway slaves, of all color and gender, have assembled themselves along with the head of an Abraham Lincoln statue. A security force guards each location, which ensures that transgressions against their group are penalized, and besides the player, there is little to no deviating from the unifying principle. In each example of political communities organized according to the homogeneous/identity principle, members find refuge from the biological and social conditions of the post-apocalypse in communities organized around a feeling of shared identity trait.

There are just as many communities organized by the heterogeneous/geographical principle in Fallout 3. Players start off in Vault 101, one of a series of Vaults created during the pre-apocalyptic era which function as monarchic political communities led by a quasi-religious figure called the Overseer. Nearby is Megaton, which is described as a “fortified settlement,” a place where a variety of traders, religious zealous, scientists, etc. all live surrounded by a wall built of soldered airplane pieces. Megaton has a mayor and sheriff in Lucas Simms, who collapses the legislative and executive powers into one body that determines citizenship and punishment. Like Megaton, destinations such as Rivet City and Canterbury Commons also have a diverse population: men, women, black, white, merchants, settlers, historians, and scientists, for example. In these places, what binds people is the occupation of shared space. The blank space of the Wasteland is turned into a series of bounded partitions, locatable and labeled on the game’s “World Map.” By so doing, the game makes these places recognized, legitimate spaces where human life is shown to be taking place. The player can engage characters in conversation, have discussions about the specifics of the location’s space/group, rent a bed, and buy or sell merchandise. These places are saturated with a sense of life, even if precarious, and, despite the uncertainty, a sense of futurity. By allowing the player to not only participate with but effect change within these communities, they are made observable, made recognizable.

Within this rich political world, the Raiders are a group who are not organized according to either principle of organization. They are made unrecognizable despite sharing similarities with the other, recognized political communities. Within the game, the Raiders share the same position as ‘non-human’ enemies: mole rats, Radscorpions, bloatflys, for instance. As de facto enemies, the Raiders are denied the ability to discourse, and therefore to bear witness. In a game where a voice is used to bear witness to the ongoing trauma of life in the post-apocalypse, as well as to articulate communal belonging, the Raiders are a group whose silence relegates their way of life to the unrecognizable, to the non-human.

While some locations where Raiders can be found are labeled on the “World Map,” such as Evergreen Mills or Kaelyn’s Bed & Breakfast, there are several that exist as spontaneous constructions of corrugated metal slabs and metal shelves. Though their encampments include the usual trappings of post-apocalyptic life, such as soiled mattresses or cardboard bedding, first aid kits and ammunition boxes, the proximity of empty liquor bottles and mangled corpses hung from crude hooks is intended to provoke the horror of uncivilized man. In the “Factions and Bestiary” section of Fallout 3's Official Game Guide, the Raiders are described as follows: 

“Chaos and anarchy. Or if you prefer, anarchy and chaos. Raiders revel in both … Most [Raider groups] are no more than a handful of people scraping out a living by preying on anything weaker than them. They have no driving purpose or goal, other than to live to see tomorrow and raise as much hell as possible today.”[2]

The quote poignantly exposes the reason why the disparate Raider encampments, like other recognized communities, are formed: to sustain life. However, inside of Fallout, the Raiders come to represent the fear of post-apocalyptic lawlessness: marauders who exploit a disintegrated security system for the purposes of dispensing random acts of violence or torture for entertainment. Covered in grime and adorned with human bones, beyond mutual recognition, the Raiders present a form of political belonging that falls between the cracks of Fallout’s political imagination.

Fallout makes a leaderless, decentralized form of political community unrecognizable. Without the ability to testify, a shared sense of identity cannot be articulated but only projected upon. The Raiders possess the racial and gender diversity of the communities organized according to the heterogeneous/geography principle, but lacking a singular, stable geographic location. Fallout 3 recognizes forms of political community built upon spatial stability; a world where permeable yet enclosed territories harbor two familiar ideals of political belonging, the ideal of diversity and the ideal of absolute similarity.

Fallout imagines the State form, with its territorial boundaries, to be the natural form that all political belonging will tend toward. The Raiders, who spread and sprawl themselves across the Capital Wasteland in large and small encampments, challenge this apparent naturalness. Demonstrating its inability to manage the possibility of political belonging existing independently of hierarchical organization and territorial localization, the game turns the Raiders into an eternal enemy, marking their form of life as the conceptual boundary of human possibility.

The game leaves us to consider outside of its world: can we imagine a form of political belonging independent of the State and its need for geographic boundedness? Can the apparent teleology of all human grouping toward the State form be reconceptualized?

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri take up the concept of the nomad in an attempt to respond to this contemporary problem. In response to the multifarious power of Empire, the implication of the State within the operations of global capital, Hardt/Negri turn to the possibilities of fluidity and population mobility as a form of resistance: “Mobility and mass worker nomadism always expresses a refusal and a search for liberation: the resistance against the horrible conditions of exploitation and the search for freedom and new conditions of life.”[3] For them, the multitude resists bondage, including bondage to “the slavery of belonging to a nation, an identity, and a people.”[4] The nomad, with its emphasis on flux and dispersal, becomes the positive force through which real struggle against the various realized and potential horrors of the hateful marriage of the State and capital.

It is the Raiders, who refuse hierarchy, territorial boundary, and recognizable identification, that Fallout 3 is incapable of recognizing and thus turns into the enemy that must be eliminated. That they occupy this position exposes the difficulty of challenging the pre-apocalyptic conclusion that the State is the natural form that human grouping tends toward. Modes of human belonging that deviate from this are then cast as morally deviant and short of truly realizing what it means to be human.

By way of a conclusion, what might a video game look like that tried to create a positive vision of this nomadism that Fallout refuses to recognize? We may glimpse the answer in the 2007 video game Flower developed by Thatgamecompany. The final sequence of the game finds a player navigating an effusive chain of flower petals through a colorless and dilapidated urban setting. As the chain of flowers comes into contact with twisted steel and concrete, the cityscape is transformed into a colorful and pristine urban paradise. In the final shots of the game, a scene is shown where a large tree sprouts in the foreground while a pristine city skyline can be seen in the background, showing the fusing of the human and the natural.

In addition to mobilizing a utopian idea about environmental change that allows for urban life to persist, the sequence is a fascinating instance of distributed agency producing positive change in the world. The chain of individual petals, which acts as a visualized metaphor for the multitude or nomadic clan, swim and swirl appearing to be tied together by an indefinable gravity. It plunges forward, adds pedal by its mere proximity, transforming and illuminating the world as it moves not only through the darkened city but also through other sequences set in the countryside.

The movement of the chain of petals through various settings demonstrates that, like the Raiders, the chain is not tied to a particular territory. While both are unbound, one is allowed to be a force for transformation that leads to the flowering of the space of human life, and the other is turned into an enemy, the threat to the evolution of human thriving from its nascent form to the inevitable State form.

Fallout 3 and Flower raise questions regarding the nature of political community and how one might envision political belonging. If we are incapable, as Fallout 3 seems to be, of envisioning forms of decentralized political belonging and agency in the radical future, a place where we can attempt to test the bounds of the gravitational pull of our own historical moment, then there is little hope for the near future beyond reproducing features of the present in new forms. Flower provides us an imaginative model for reconceptualizing spatial distribution of people and the various forms that political community can take. If the State form is incapable of being anything other than the Repressive State Apparatus, then we have to continue searching for other forms of political community that are more capable of meeting the needs of the multitude.

[1] Fallout Wiki. All quotes, unless otherwise noted, come from this source.

[2] Fallout 3: Prima Official Game Guide, 2009

[3] Hardt/Negri, Empire. p. 212.

[4] Ibid. p. 361.