There’s a lot to be said about the Fallout series, and almost all of it has long-since been said. However there’s one aspect of the series, particularly its first 2 entries, that has been playing on my mind.
War….war never changes.
Far from a cool slogan, this phrase, though oft-misunderstood, helps to frame a larger discussion of games from a critic and developer perspective.
The Fallout series is generally billed as taking place in a post-apocalyptic setting, however this is a surface reading of the game and definitely isn’t the case for the earlier entries. Fallout 1 isn’t a post-apocalyptic game, it’s post-post-apocalyptic. This distinction may seem subtle at first, and easy to miss on a first pass, but its implications are vast; the world is not reeling after a nuclear apocalypse, the world is flourishing, as much as it can. Civilizations are being rebuilt, power consolidated, resources claimed, taken, fought over.
The central conflict of Fallout 1 is based entirely around this larger world-wide conflict; there are only so many resources for so many people. You’re sent out to secure a long-term source of water for your Vault, the closed off pseudo-secure technological paradise promised by retrofuturism, the quintessential safe-haven in the face of apocalypse. But upon emerging from Vault 13 you find yourself not faced with desolation and ruin, but with flourishing nascent civilizations locked in the same quest you find yourself embroiled in: secure resources.
Conflicts blaze and threaten to burn out of control time and time again. One in particular comes to mind; the struggle between law and order vs unrestrained capitalism in Junktown. Gizmo, a conniving capitalist makes a play for power over the town, attempting to kill the sheriff and end the restrictions placed upon his business practices, a war for control that you can settle once and for all.
A simple surface reading of Junktown would suggest that Gizmo, despite his ill intentions is in the right, if you side with him the town expands and flourishes, and without a critical eye it’s understandable to come to this conclusion. However if we look at this holistically in light of the greater conflicts of the game as a whole, this reading is fundamentally flawed. Yes, Gizmo helps the town to flourish, but it’s through predatory business practices, a consolidation of resources through financial warfare, that of bidding, outbidding, underbidding, stockpiling, and stand-over tactics. Junktown flourishes, but at what cost to the communities around it? The “right choice” for the survival of Junktown isn’t the right choice for the survival of those impacted by its posturing and stockpiling.
Later in your quest you can find ways to supply water to your Vault in lieu of securing a water chip, buying you more time, but doing so is a costly proposition. Resources, due to their scarcity, have a high price tag on them for those willing to trade, and securing the capital to make that trade is time consuming and not necessarily always morally clean. Even the implication of trading for the resource of water is a problematic one; there is only so much water to go around, and in bidding for the water available in the quantities you need someone else without your buying power goes thirsty. Without deeper critique this is a simple choice, but with further thought and analysis you can start to see these cracks forming, and the choice suddenly becomes a lot more complex. This is a theme that runs like a vein of gold throughout the entire game, and one that is far too easy to miss without understanding the entirety of the world, and critiquing the themes and assumptions at play
Once you find your way to the town of Necropolis you’re presented with yet another conflict. The local population have a water chip, and a broken pump. While there is a peaceful solution, there is the option to simply steal the water chip (an alluring one if you’re running particularly low on time before everyone in your vault dies from dehydration), although doing so will ensure that the ghouls will perish in the place of Vault 13’s inhabitants. Running low on time, do you look out for yourself, or take the risk to find a solution that will ensure that all parties have the resources they need to survive?
These conflicts are new to your character, having enjoyed a cordoned off cushy life up until this point, but they’re one that has clearly brought towns to the brink of death above ground time and time again. The world teeters on the brink of destruction yet again, the message here is apparent: War, war never changes. If everyone chooses to look out for number one, take care of only their community and damn everyone else, you ensure that only those with the best fire-power or the best buying-power (two concepts intertwined like a pair of venomous serpents around the rod of capital) will take everything, a worrying notion given that the fire-power unleashed last time nearly annihilated all of humanity.
This is the true war, a conflict of self-interested actors making rational decisions that lead to irrational destruction time and again; endless cycles of violence and annihilation until humanity builds once more to its eventual nuclear crescendo, sending the world off with an earth-shattering bang that would make Tchaikovsky blush. You can stockpile, look out for number one, and thousands will suffer and die because of your eminently rational actions, or you can collaborate, give to the communities you come across, and find a way to mutually thrive, eschewing this conflict and the base assumption that it’s the only way.
The message here is easy to miss, relegated to simplistic morality systems implying correct, or at least neutral, solutions when not given an explicit moral weight under the mechanics of the game. And this is a massive flaw with the series as a whole, in the implementation of morality systems we make a series of implicit statements of what is morally good, morally neutral, and morally bad, and while the first and last are well defined, neutrality is far less so; in the face of the clarity of good vs bad it’s far too easy to lose sight of the real implications of actions that seem, to the game, to carry no weight at all. By the absence of a declarative statement surrounded by hundreds of non-ambiguous ones, the player can find themselves lulled into assuming “this isn’t bad so it can’t be wrong”. It’s important to keep factors like this in mind with game design, making a statement of absolute morality can, itself, lead to implicit interpretations of morality by the player that we didn’t account for.
So, Fallout is all well and good, but how does this apply to games at large? Well, I see a tendency with a lot of game devs to focus around a mechanic, an attempt to make a “fun” game as the primary and only end-goal, or a story that the developer wants to tell that doesn’t set out to say much intentionally under the surface (a sin I’m gravely guilty of myself). As a game developer you take on the role of an artist, and this comes with weight and responsibility. While not every piece needs to be a deep exploration of the human condition, it’s important to ask oneself “What am I trying to say? What is the underlying principle of this story? What philosophies am I discussing, critiquing, elevating? Are they the ones I want to discuss? Do my design choices align with this? Do the mechanics? Do the aesthetics? Does the world? Without my personal context, can this piece be effectively interpreted in line with my intent?”
We all approach game development, as we do any artistic endeavor, with a set of presuppositions about the world, and without critiquing those, analyzing what they are and why we hold them, we go into game development far too often doomed to express and exemplify those underlying philosophical, political, and personal beliefs without a critical eye about what we’re saying on a grander scale.
Sometimes you’ll find yourself so wrapped up in making a tighter gameplay loop, a more fluid jump, natural conversation, a more compelling story that you’ll lose sight of what the game is saying on a deeper level, and this can be dangerous. If our personal beliefs are ill-informed, based on premises that we haven’t analyzed that are actually odious or harmful, it’s far too easy to fall into creating something that exemplifies those core beliefs. An artist shouldn’t see what they create as a work in-itself, it’s an expression of the self, and one should set about to the work of critique of the self on a deep and meaningful level to better understand what they want to and what they will convey.
It’s important to focus not just on making a better plasma rifle, or a better narrative, but to analyze what we’re saying beneath the words, the speech under the story, and what falls between the lines. The creation of a coherent self-concept with beliefs that are correct, beneficial to others as well as the self, and to become a better person in oneself is the greatest of all artistic works. You aren’t going to get it right all the time, creation is a messy process full of pitfalls, but you will absolutely miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, so take a shot at yourself, learn to critique, try to understand what others are saying, the narratives beneath their narratives, the words beneath their mechanics, and in doing so hone your ability to understand what you find yourself saying, to deconstruct the implications and the outcomes of what you’re conveying to the world, because if you fail to do so you might find yourself like The Master, locked away in his Vault, coming to conclusions that are as terrifying as they are horrific.
If there is one thing I could ask you to do, dear reader, dev or not, take some time, think about what you think and why you think it, analyze your beliefs and presuppositions, pick up some books on philosophy and pick those apart too, open your eyes to critique before someone more skilled at it than you lays their eyes on what you’ve created and by extension a part of yourself laid bare, and finds it wanting.
Critique is an invaluable skill to the creator. As one uses the erase tool to take away an errant line, one must deconstruct that which doesn’t convey what it aims to, and this requires a thorough understanding of the anatomy of what is being created. In this endeavor, critique is the artist’s best friend; learn to pick apart so that you can pick apart what you create as you create it, see how systems interlock, the interaction between narrative and mechanic, and what these overlaps might convey.
To create one must first become the created, and if you haven’t yet created yourself, then you’re setting out to make a derivative work based on something created by people and systems you might find did not have the best of intentions.
Mx. Medea is a writer, artist, and editor who spends most of their time drawing things with squares and buried under a small pile of endless paper copy. When not working they can be found playing everything from interesting indie fare to oldschool games. You can find them, their art, and their opinions @Mx_Medea on Twitter.