So have you ever played Fallout 3? I certainly hope so. At the time of this writing 8C appears to be playing it, so he’s also reading stuff about it, and linked me to this post about race in the game. It’s interesting, and made me think of a few things. You know, like articles do.
I shouldn’t beat around the bush. I liked the article, but the thing I want to write about was the one problem in it. The author is very intelligent and clearly knows what he (I think he?) is doing. With one exception: based on this one article I think he doesn’t know much about science fiction theory. My reason for thinking that is he talks about the displacement of race away from zero world races onto the ghouls – the zombie-looking radiation victims who are immortal, gravel-voiced, and persecuted by a lot of non-ghouls. My reason isn’t that he talks about it – that would be the good thing – the problem I have is that he describes this as a “cop out” design decision, and comes out and says they should have included racial tension between the zero world ethnicities in the game.
The displacement he describes as a “cop out” is how SF works. A SF text creates something alien to the reader, and uses it as a tool to examine ideas, problems, or concepts that turn out to be not alien at all. Think of what I’ve already written about here: Dracula has a big, evil vampire, but uses him to examine issues of gender and race. Frankenstein has an abused and violent Creature but uses him to examine parent-child relations as well as God-worshipper relations. The displacement is what it’s all about, when it comes to the “big issues” in a SF text.
So, what about Fallout 3? Well, unsurprisingly, it doesn’t try to tackle race issues directly. That’s not really what it’s trying to be about. It’s about a post-apocalypse. Does that excuse it from race issues? Not exactly. But a text can’t really be blamed for something it didn’t try to do. Henry James allowed that every author or text needed to be allowed to do what it set out to do. He called that intention a “donnee.” He claimed you judge the work on whether it accomplished its donnee, not whether it did something you think it should have done instead. So, in fact, Fallout 3 talks about race more than it even needed to.
Here’s how. It’s not just the ghouls. Fallout in general, and the third game specifically, use a kind of understatement to talk about things. I know that seems weird. Here’s what I mean: there’s a mission you can find in a vault, basically trying to see what’s going on. Every enemy is labeled “insane survivor.” Except one. He’s simply labeled “survivor.” But he’s just as aggressive as the rest. If you hack into a computer you can find that the vault was experimenting with drugs in the air ducts. The survivor who wasn’t insane was locked in a lab, wearing a lab coat. That’s about all the information you get. But you know the story now. Hidden in the basement is a small tunnel bored out of rock rather than the typical vault walls. Near its entrance is a rack with a mini-nuke on it. Implication? The half-mad survivors were trying to blast their way out, but went crazy before they could. They also probably managed to irradiate themselves.
That’s Fallout 3’s method for telling much of the background in its setting. People talk about the Chinese trying to invade, and actually invading Alaska, but to this day I have no idea where the Chinese platoon holing up in an abandoned factory came from. Are they the descendents of an advance group of soldiers? Are they from whatever’s left of China, come to see if resources remain here? I have no idea. But there are remarkably few Asian people in the Capital Wasteland. Given how many people default to murder and violence in it, I have a guess as to where they all went in the aftermath of the war.
Back to those ghouls, though. The author of the post I linked to points out how people hate the ghouls, and on a specific racial line – all ghouls are bad. Of course, this is a little complicated because of something he doesn’t mention – the actual crazy ghouls who act like movie monsters and attack everyone indiscriminately. Turns out when some people are dosed with the radiation they end up with no higher brain functions. As Three Dog says, “shoot as many as you damn well please.” So the overt message of the racial displacement is pretty old-fashioned – judge a ghoul by their actions, not their skin damage. What sort of commentary can we trace back through that displacement to the real world?
Well, one of the tag lines of the game is “War. War never changes.” The game is obviously about the difference between inherent and social conflict. It makes the claim a lot of post-apocalypse stories make, that our survival drive will make many people very aggressive, leading to the raiders taking from everyone – think of Mad Max. However, very good people will band together to resist them, leading to small pockets of community, looking very much like the medieval setting of a fantasy story – both sharing a dangerous “outside world” risked only by a few brave or foolhardy souls. This is a direct claim about human nature, that we do rely on violence but can overcome it through society. Not alone, but with a little help from our friends. New Vegas states this more directly through its companions – each one you meet gets his, her, or its own section during the ending cinematic to talk about what you did or didn’t do for them. I was pretty sad I’d forgotten to get Rex a new brain, because without it he just dies. I went back and got him one, he’s happy now. And aggressive. Dang guard dog brain.
So, again: what about the ghouls? In light of the reminder the game offers that sometimes people are just violent, it’s a refreshing one: sometimes people of a race are just violent. Any race. Any utopian attempt to describe one race as better than another falls apart and not just through the inherent racism, but because the supposed “superior” people suck just as much.