What is it with Fallout and American Historical Memory?

N.B. My intention is to keep blogging about Fallout 4 as I go, commenting on anything I find particularly interesting or noteworthy in terms of historical representation or memory. If anyone who reads this wants to point me in the direction of something they think should be written about, get in touch!

And, of course, there will be spoilers.

After less than a week since its release, Fallout 4 is already making history: but in more ways than one.

So you wake up from cryostasis after 200 years, and leave the underground fallout shelter that was supposed to become your family’s new home after a global nuclear holocaust. You’ve got one thing on your mind: find your infant son, Shaun, who was kidnapped while you ‘slept’. Well, maybe two— revenge plays a big part of it. You make your way out of the Vault and back to the 200 year old ruins of your former house in Sanctuary Hills, Massachusetts. Your robot butler Codsworth, who is still there, just trying to keep the garden alive, tells you that your best chance to finding Shaun is to talk to people in the nearest town: Concord. On your way there, you might happen to come across the nearby settlement of Lexington too. But in the streets of Cocord, outside the Museum of Freedom, you get your first taste of action— you pick up your laser musket and help to eliminate the Radiers who are threatening Preston Garvey—a Minuteman— and those who are following him, seeking safety and protection inside.

As you climb up the levels in the ruined Museum, your path is guided by the route you can use to climb to the upper floor. You pass through a room filled with mannequins, some dressed in Red Coat uniforms, while a prerecorded sound clip of a reenacted battle shouts ‘No Taxation Without Representation!’, and talks of sending the tea back to London. As you travel further through the museum, you come across a wall mural that connects the ‘real’ wars of Americas past with the alternate historical conflicts and events of its ‘future’, from America’s founding to the Brotherhood of Steel’s presence in the post-war Wasteland.

These storylines, and your actions within and around them, are not just the next link the Fallout chain, and just simply the most recent culmination of a franchise beloved by global audiences. They are also part of a wider phenomenon within contemporary video games: the recreation, representation, and exploration of history.

But it is not history itself that is being recreated here— this is 2287, not the late eighteenth century. It is the memory of history that has so carefully and meticulously been digitally created and preserved, allowing players to interact within it. The battlegrounds of the Fallout universe are the museums, the archives, the ruined public and political buildings and historic landmarks, and the monuments to America’s most famous leaders. People in the Wastelands and Commonwealths and Republics of Twenty-Third Century America have found traces of the past, and have repurposed them for their own contemporary needs. The struggles of the people who survived this apocalypse are not just the overarching dramas of fighting against tyrannical military-political elites like the Enclave, or the mysterious and illusive Institute. Their survival depends on more than just shooting your way through the devastation (though that helps too). They are trying to rebuild, and many of them are doing so by collecting and preserving knowledge of what came before, of what it means to be American, while using the traces and monuments of the struggles of the distant past to facilitate the battles of the present and future.

In Fallout 3, one of your main tasks was to find your father, who was trying to bring clean water back to the area around the Washington D.C. Wasteland, through implementing Project Purity— a water purifier housed in the Jefferson Memorial. Three Dog, the DJ of Galaxy News Radio, asked you to retrieve the satellite dish used by the Virgo II Lunar Lander at the Museum of Technology, and to mount it atop the Washington Monument, so that his radio show will reach the entire Wasteland, and he can continue to ‘fight the good fight’ against the Enclave. Hannibal Hamlin, a runaway slave, asked you to liberate the Lincoln Memorial from the slavers who currently occupy it— he intends to make it a haven for slaves across the Wasteland who have escaped their captors and are looking for a better life. Abraham Washington in Rivet City shows you around his museum, the Capital Preservation Society, where he’s managed to collect certain important ‘artifacts’ of American political and social history. He wants you to retrieve the Declaration of Independence from the National Archives for his museum, where it is being protected (along with the Bill of Rights and Magna Carta) by a Protectron robot who believes he is Button Gwinnett. He is programmed to reenact the signing of the Declaration of Independence with other robot units ‘playing the part’ of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock, Edward Rutledge and James Wilson, as part of the National Archives’  ‘Declaration of Independence Show’.

Photo 17-06-2015 12 54 16

The various historical documents collected and displayed by Abraham Washington at the Capital Preservation Society, in Rivet City [Fallout 3, 2007]

So it’s no small wonder that Concord’s Museum of Freedom is your first stop along the way to understanding the story of Fallout 4, and that the Minutemen are now (or were) once again the protectors of the people, the well-armed militia that fights tyranny and oppression throughout the wastes. It’s fitting that Piper’s newspaper is called Publick Occurances, so named after the first multi-page newspaper ever published in colonial America in the late seventeenth century. It’s ironic that, while exploring ‘Diamond City’ (a settlement that has sprung up within the confines of the former Fenway Park), a traveller will point you in the direction of some creepy ‘pre-war ruins’ in the coastal town of Salem, unlocking a map marker that points you in the direction of the Museum of Witchcraft.

Bethesda were explicit about their choice of Boston as a location for their newest release, because the creators “felt that Boston has the right mix of American history and high-tech.” People are obsessed with the ‘alternate history’ of Fallout, and it’s possible that this overshadows the fact that what are being recreated so meticulously here are carefully selected memory images of the past, which are used to prop up sensational, science fiction narratives. Both of these games have consistently and thoroughly played with the idea of historical memory, and done so through recreating sites of collective memory, as we’d visit or experience them today (albeit, a bit more ruined and post-apocalyptically).

As millions more players now make their way through the Commonwealth, as they’ve explored the Capital Wasteland and the New California Republic since 2007 and 2010, American history has once again been unearthed and digitally preserved, allowing players to explore and interact with a virtually-physical rendering of the landscape of America’s past.

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3 Comments

Filed under Games, history

3 responses to “What is it with Fallout and American Historical Memory?

  1. Pingback: Follow the Past, Find the ‘Future’: Fallout 4’s Freedom Trail | Esther Wright

  2. Great post. I’m really intrigued by this idea of the Fallout universe tapping into an American Historical Memory. Fallout 4, in particular, interweaves different notions/versions of history. Not only does it concern America’s distant 18th Century past, it is an alternate history and our protagonist is an example of pre-war history: an atavism from pre-nuclear annihilation, suddenly thrust 200 years into the future. It’s really interesting how you’ve traced various historical representations and interpretations through Bethesda’s Fallout series. I’m really looking forward to reading more.

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