Follow the Past, Find the ‘Future’: Fallout 4’s Freedom Trail

This blog post follows from the previous, general look at the use of the past in Bethesda’s Fallout series, and more specifically, the repeated reference to and use of American historical memory as the foundation for alternate-history narratives. Here, one Fallout 4 quest is discussed at in more detail, ‘Road to Freedom’.

Chris Sullentrop of Kotaku already blogged about ‘Approaching Fallout 4 like a tourist’,  and how this one quest in particular allows the player to ‘role-play’ as one. But there is arguably more to the use of these historic sites than giving players the chance to be tourists.

(Trying to keep spoilers to a minimum, but obviously, for this quest in particular, they’re unavoidable). 

‘Tourists’ to Sites of Historical Memory.

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‘AT JOURNEYS END FOLLOW FREEDOM’S LANTERN’

While exploring Diamond City, the player might overhear two settlers talking about a secret organisation called ‘The Railroad’, and the code phrase they have for ‘everything’. If they do, this triggers a new mission that has a single, fairly vague objective: the code phrase, ‘Follow the Freedom Trail’. An auto-generated map marker will then point you toward Boston Common as the starting point for the quest. After approaching the quest marker, the player meets a ‘Tour Bot’, who will unlock the next quest objective, as well as telling you about the history of Boston Common, if you ask it to:

Let us go back hundreds of years. It is the year 1775. For seven years, thousands of British soldiers have camped on this very soil in their orderly rows of tents. Led by General Thomas Gage, they seek to quell the growing tide of Revolution. The night of April 17th:

At this point, the Tour Bot plays a pre-recorded audio segment of a conversation between ‘Colonel Smith’ and ‘General Gage’, in which they plan to march on Concord, in order to ‘seize and destroy’ the arms and provisions colonists had been storing there, in order to ‘defang them’. The Tour Bot then provides the player with the context of this exchange:

So near midnight, Colonel Smith marched with 700 Redcoats to face brave American patriots in the Battle of Lexington and Concord. And thus the Revolutionary War began. Continue on the trail to walk through more of our great city’s history.

Though the Tour Bot might encourage such an ‘historical experience’, this is where the mini-history-lesson effectively ends and the ‘present day’ exploration begins again. Blending the historicity of these places with the fictional world the player is now confronted with, the player follows the ‘real’ red brick path and must stop at each of the historic markers they see on the ground, in front of the historic buildings and sites they unlock on their map. On these floor markers are segments of a code that allows you to gain entry to the Railroad’s headquarters, underneath the Old North Church, the final stop along this real (and now virtually) walkable route.

The Railroad are trying to have their own ‘Revolution’, helping to free ‘Synths’ (synthetic humans they believe should have the same rights as all other humans) who have escaped from ‘slavery’ in the Institute where they were created.  Following the Freedom Trail to find them is therefore another example of the past facilitating the present in the Fallout universe, a means towards Bethesda’s narrative ends. This is not history for history’s own sake, and there’s no onus on the player to take in any of this ‘historical knowledge’. But Bethesda is making their own historical memory experience, using historical audio-reenactments and the meticulous recreation and preservation of actual places that can be visited, with a museum-like quality of historical experience. But the preservation of these sites is hardly ‘authentic’. They have been ‘documented’ in a state of decay befitting how these buildings and public spaces may have looked had they been subject to an atomic bomb. (IGN did some comparisons of Fallout’s Boston to the real Boston here)

But even so, with little-to-no other explanation, the Railroad still use the symbol of a lantern as part of their code, and the crudely-written sign at the beginning of the Trail reads: ‘At Journeys End Follow Freedom’s Lantern’. Though warped and altered by nuclear war and the almost-destruction of civilisation, ‘hundreds of years’ later, the iconography of the past remains and is evoked by people, even in this world where conceptions of the past, as it was, are rendered almost completely irrelevant, and are interpreted in different ways and put to different means by the competing factions that now inhabit the Wasteland.

Does it matter? 

In IGN’s walkthrough of the quest, they ‘skip all of that’– ‘that’ being the actual journey the player might follow, and the historic sites they could visit and interact with, or at the very least look at. Some YouTube walkthroughs essentially do the same, directing the player straight from Boston Common where they complete the initial objective, to the Old North Church where the Freedom Trail in this mission ends and stops being of any value. Even though these historic memories are there, to what extent will players who simply want to ‘get on with the action’ interact with them? But nonetheless, they are there as a means of historical interpretation by the creators of Fallout 4, offering a possibility for historical engagement, waiting to be accessed.

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