The Presence of the Past in Fallout 3

Dec 13, 10 The Presence of the Past in Fallout 3

Fallout 3 offers much to swoon over. In hindsight though, the most memorable moments from my game play are not slow-motion replays of exploding super mutant heads. Most of the in-game moments that have stuck with me involve interactions with, Apple II-ish green-screened in-game terminals. Computers that have apparently been running since before the nuclear holocaust.

For those unfamiliar with the Fallout universe the description, and links, from the fallout wiki offer a bit of context. :

The game is set in a post-apocalyptic, retro-futurist Washington, DC following the Great War between the US, China and other countries. The Great War was a conventional and nuclear war that occurred on October 23,2077 and lasted less than two hours despite causing immense damage and destruction. Before the Great War were the Resource Wars, during which the United Nations disbanded, a plague rendered the United States paranoid, and Canada was annexed.

Playing the game is reconstructing it’s fictional past

As the fan wiki definition suggests, the fictitious history of this world is of critical importance to the player community. After nearly 70 hrs of game play I never really cared about my character. I didn’t really care about her father. For that matter, I didn’t really care much about any of the characters in the game. Instead, I was enthralled with playing the game as a kind of future archeologist, excavating our present through traces left on these terminals and strewn about the physical landscape.

Examples of terminals from the game

What is interesting here is how I like to play the game. (Really, who cares about my idiosyncrasies?)  What matters is that developers at Bethesda thought enough people wanted to play the game this way. So much so, that they invested a substantial amount of time and energy rounding out these parts of the game. Many of these moments have no role in the games over-arching narrative.  The optional nature of these discoveries makes them all the more fascinating. The idea that many players miss this women’s story makes that story feel all the more powerful.

Reading the Germantown Logs

Late one evening, several months back, after fending off a batch of super mutants (or were they ghouls??)  in the fenced in area around the former Germantown Police Headquarters I stumbled across a set of log entries. The 8 log entries, written by Nancy Kroydon reportedly of the National Catastrophe Relief Auxiliary – Response Unit MD-478. The logs record her experiences before and after the nuclear attack on Washington D.C. I have included the text from a few of the logs below. Feel free to read them or just skip to my analysis and come back to them. You can read the full log entry transcripts on the Fallout Wiki.

Germantown Police Headquarters

The first entry establishes the context. Nancy is in charge of a medical response unit which has been deployed to respond to a potential Chinese attack on the Capitol.

We were mobilized in the early evening. My security clearance isn’t high enough to know this on an official level, but I have it on good authority that we’re under threat of a Chinese attack. I don’t dare share this with the girls; most of them are a solid sort, but I can’t trust that some won’t desert to try and protect themselves or their families, and wind up spreading panic, especially on flimsy rumors based on flimsier intelligence from DoD. 

We haven’t been debriefed yet, but it’s probably safe to assume we’ll be on an evacuation detail in the rural areas. Our unit scored somewhat poorly in the last round of drills, and the high-flyers always get the urban details; we’ll be stuck herding farmers and hermits in the hills.

The second log reports the aftermath of the attack. In it Nancy shares her fear and confusion, as well as the realization that a colleague’s unit has likely already died.

This can’t have happened. We don’t even know if it was the Chinese, but DC was hit. My God. Andrea’s unit was on evac detail right on the Belt Loop.

Dear God. More bombs. What’s happening?

Skipping ahead, log six establishes the dire situation. Prussian blue and filgrastim, are both real treatments for radiation poisoning.

We’re low on Prussian Blue. Most of them don’t know what that really means, for which I’m thankful. One of the local doctors in our camp knows about a cancer treatment facility not too far from here. We’re sending some of the guardsmen out to investigate. If they can recover any filgrastim, we might be able to stave off widespread radiation sickness a little longer.

Log seven documents the beginning of the end.

These days I feel like more of a preacher than a nurse. We’ve lost hope that the reservists will be back. I can only hope they died with some scrap of honor and didn’t abandon us. Without medication, people are succumbing to radiation sickness, for which there is no hope of treatment. We can do nothing more than make our patients comfortable as we await the end. When the painkillers and whiskey run out, prayer is all that we can offer them. I’ve taken to wearing a headwrap; I don’t want them to see how much of my own hair has fallen out.

In the following log she records a goodbye, reporting that she realizes she will soon die, she hopes that someone will find and read her record.

Fallout 3: Worlds Best History/Archeology Sim

What strikes me about these logs is the layers of authenticity they provide for the kinds of thinking that historians and archeologists use to produce histories. As players unearth and develop a sense of what happened in this world from these kinds of records they do so in strikingly similar ways to historians and archeologists. For example:

  1. Interpreting authentic forms of writing: People don’t leave history books around, they leave personal journal entries, duty logs, planning documents, etc. Part of playing the historical game is to imagine yourself in the role of the creator of the document and read them on the terms they were written.
  2. Dealing with gaps: There is no complete record. The game requires players to extrapolate from disparate and scant sources. This in part creates the mystery that drives the history game (both for fallout players and for real life historians.)
  3. The documents are full of relevant and irrelevant information: The documents contain all kinds of potentially relevant and irrelevant technical information. Players need to be able to tell what does and doesn’t matter in the morass of materials they come across.
  4. Relevance of the information is connected to what you want to know: The above documents include information about personal reactions, about strategic decision making, about attempts to get into the Vaults. Depending on what you are interested in you will need to pay attention to different parts of the documents.
  5. Resequencing evidence: As you acquire information you need to piece it together. Things only come in sequence, like these logs, in cases where that is legitimate to the artifact. As you travel the world you need to put these pieces back together into your own history of the world.
  6. Dealing with conflicting evidence: The authenticity of the documents is further challenged by the fact that people lie, people frame things in ways that make them look good, some people (and robots) are just plain delusional. In The Wasteland Survival Guide quest line this becomes explicit, as you talk to different individuals in rivet city and are required to weigh the truth of different stakeholders accounts and corroborate those accounts with physical evidence.
  7. You can’t help but read the ending into the documents: When you are standing in the wastes, reading the first log entry you are already reading into it the fact that this is going to end badly. As someone in a historical moment you cannot help but read that moment into every sentence of the account.

Despite having no history in it Fallout 3 is the world best history game

There is no history in Fallout 3. Or more specifically, the idea of history as what happened in the past is not in the game. However, it is the best game I have played at getting at historical thinking. Frankly, the idea of history as what happened in the past is the least interesting and least important kind of history. Much more important is the idea that history is the thing that historians do. In this sense, history is not what happened in the past, but instead the negotiation and creation of our understanding of the past. While the content of the game is not an authentic past it does provide a captivating space to develop the kinds of critical tools for thought that historians develop. Beyond being the most authentic notion of history, the idea of history as tools for thought is the most important contribution history can offer to the education of citizens in a democratic society.

Like everything, this only works because players care

The lesson here is not, “hey, lets put a bunch of text documents in something and call it a game.” The only reason this works is that before I got to the Germantown logs I spent 20+ hours becoming interested and immersed in this world. I was immersed in the art. I had become paranoid about walking in open spaces or on clearly marked trails. My heart raced as I crawled my way through the abandoned and collapsed Metro tunnels. Once you care about a world you will do all kinds of things that look like work, or homework. Even more fascinating than the fact that people want to do this is the fact that there are people that want to document this. This post would not have been possible without the Vault, the amazingly comprehensive fan wiki which has just about every spot, item, character, and event in the game documented.

31 Comments

  1. Great post, Trevor! Really got me thinking about ways to use the world in all kinds of different learning practomimes/games. To what extent do you think you were obsessive about the history of the world in Fallout 3 because of your known historical predilections? That is, how easily can we transfer that obsession to students?

    • Trevor Owens /

      I’m not really sure. It is hard to separate out my experience of the game as a history guy and as a gamer. With that said, I think it is a big part of what people get from the game. It is probably not so much historically specific but as it fits more broadly into the way many people play games as explorers.

      • Fantastic post, and a good point from Roger. The broader question is something I’ve found myself struggling with as well, in developing a “gamified” course: how universal is the appeal of the things that we find compelling about games? It’s hard to know how to get a handle on this problem. I’m loathe to try to take a purely quantitative approach, testing specific mechanics and combinations thereof. But I’m also afraid to go too far out on a limb by establishing a hugely complex system (let alone one with a narrative component) which could easily be rejected by students.

  2. A surprising number of video games depend on a deep imaginary history–they’re driven by a kind of “historicity”and even if you don’t uncover it, it lends emotional weight.

    If only they had better weapons in the Civil War, and left big stashed of ammo lying around

    • Agreed!

      This kind of imaginary historicity is implicit in a lot of fantasy and science fiction literature as well. Here’s Jo Walton, at the sci fi site Tor.com on world-building science fiction and what it asks of its readers:

      “Having a world unfold in one’s head is the fundamental SF experience. It’s a lot of what I read for. … Because SF can’t take the world for granted, it’s had to develop techniques for doing it. There’s the simple infodump, which Neal Stephenson has raised to an artform in its own right. There are lots of forms of what I call incluing, scattering pieces of information seamlessly through the text to add up to a big picture. The reader has to remember them and connect them together. This is one of the things some people complain about as “too much hard work” and which I think is a high form of fun. SF is like a mystery where the world and the history of the world is what’s mysterious, and putting that all together in your mind is as interesting as the characters and the plot, if not more interesting. We talk about worldbuilding as something the writer does, but it’s also something the reader does, building the world from the clues.”

  3. TheWanderer14 /

    Ourstanding analysis! I remember finding these logs in the game, and as much their existence is their location: out in the scarred remains of the waste. Their authenticity was tied to their location as much as their content.

    This type of thinking, this historicity, is what was missing from Elder Scrolls IV. There were ruins out in the world, but they served no purpose and themselves had no story other than to loot them. One unique feature of TES IV, though, was the presence of other adventurers, other archeologists who would wander through the ruins and offer you a conversation. It was only in passing though: they themselves contributed nothing other than a hello. Such a lost opportunity.

    Another fantastic example of this archeology in Fallout 3 came in the Anchorage monument on the way to the fire ant quest-line. There was no reason to search that structure unless you cared about finding all the logs, about digging deep enough to find out what happened to all the inhabitants.

  4. I identify with your earlier statements. I, too, couldn’t care one lick about my character and didn’t really connect with any of the NPCs. Sure, their stiffness was an aspect, but that wasn’t all of it.

    The most powerful moments in the game were all the incidentals, a few of which you pointed out. For instance, coming across a thrown-together hovel and finding a bit of food and a checkerboard. The skeletal remains in the corner cause me to mentally reconstruct what those poor souls’ lives were like.

    No XP, no plot relevance, nothing but bones and a board. Still gives me chills. Great piece, sir.

    • Trevor Owens /

      In some ways the fact that those elements are incidental, that the game doesn’t try to give you any points for them sorta adds to the weight of them. I am not sure if I have an idea for how that works but it just seems to work that way.

  5. Sean Gallagher /

    Damnit Trevor! My friends have been telling me for a couple years now that I need to play Fallout. I think all 5 of my close group of guy friends have played this. They all love it and have been saying what a great game it is. But I haven’t had time to give to another game except WoW and nothing about what they were saying was enough of an argument to get me to switch. Now you start talking about history of the game and get me interested in playing after all. Not enough time in the world to play all the good games :)

    • Trevor Owens /

      I took my time getting to it as well and I think it will still be worth playing for you. If your at all unconvinced I think I have another post to write about it still :)

      • David Hughes /

        At this point, make sure you do the PC version. Modders have done so much to improve the experience, and the GOTY edition has come way down in price.

  6. Terrific post, Trevor. “Much more important is the idea that history is the thing that historians do. … Beyond being the most authentic notion of history, the idea of history as tools for thought is the most important contribution history can offer to the education of citizens in a democratic society.” Damn – you’ve just mooted and preempted a half dozen things I intended to post on this site!

    • Trevor Owens /

      Glad you liked that part! I really don’t think we can say it enough though. Making sense of the past, the process of making history, is what is of the utmost importance. It makes me want to see the wikipedia style discussion tab on every academic monograph and history book.

  7. I wholeheartedly agree with your conclusion about inferred history in Fallout 3. Although for myself I felt less drawn to the computer terminals (they seemed a bit contrived, like Design Notes left scattered around the world because the writers wanted people to know they had thought deeply about that particular alley or store) but were enjoyable nevertheless. Definitely done better than the TES literature (books mostly) but seemed a bit too standard (as TES was books, most of these were on terminals).

    Rather, the actual visual spectacle that the world presented left me ashamed. Little additions of coke bottles, burnt out signs, old stuffed animals, pictures on the walls of a child’s room, a safe unopened but set into a wall that had already been broken into, and so on. I think I literally spent a half dozen hours just wandering mesmerized through landscape after landscape hungering after the smallest little details, which told the story better than anything else could have.

    What would be interesting (regarding the actual content of your post) would be to take the Afghanistan or Iraqi War logs (or any of the Cablegate logs released by WikiLeaks) and stick those in a modern game about any of the wars that the US is currently involved in. I’m not sure of the legality of that procedure, but it would definitely takes history and shove it a new one.

    • Andy Krouwel /

      I agree with this agreement.

      I loved the logs (Little Lamplight springs to mind), but also the little vignettes.
      A couple of skeletons lying together in bed…
      An abandoned shelter under a ruined bridge…

      I find Fallout’s world staggeringly beautiful.

      In game design terms this is the ‘discover backstory’ method, and it’s a very powerful and useful way of combining interaction and storytelling. You write the (non-interactive as it’s already happened) backstory on the landscape, and it can be discovered (or not) in any way the player chooses (interactive).

      Stitching together the mystery yourself is a very personal and engaging experience, and immesurably better than just being told. This is why walkthroughs are so dry and hollow, and why computer game plots often seem trite when described as a story, not an experience.

      Well written examples can even twist your perception of events by having a single, well hidden, critical clue change the meaning/context of the whole situation. Milla’s Dance Party in Psychonauts is a great example, but Deus Ex pulls this one off nicely too.

  8. BigMill /

    And sadly, there’s almost nothing like this in the Obsidian developed Fallout: New Vegas. They simply dropped the ball and the pathos of FO3 is palpably missing.

    • SidewaysThinker /

      I’d have to disagree, there’s a number of pieces that tie-in to imagined history in New Vegas. Here’s a few that come to mind:

      -The farmsteads along the north end of the map.
      -The various shacks littered all throughout the wastes.
      -The H&H Tool factory, and the whole backstory regarding the rivalry between Robert House and his brother.
      -Vault 11 and the history of its elections with effects on human psychology (I found this in particular more shining than the biggest history descriptions in all of Fallout 3)
      -Vault 22 and its unusual greenhouse facilities
      -Vault 34, its relationship to the Boomers, and the history of its mutiny
      I know there are more but they escape my mind at the moment

      Granted, some of it was a bit more humorous than Fallout 3, although that’s because New Vegas used much the same play area as Fallout 1 & Fallout 2 and had to keep continuity with those games. Across the entire series I’ve been constantly amazed to the attention to detail the designers had when peppering the wastes with various bits and pieces of a century-old world that fell into destruction. New Vegas was just as detailed in my opinion as Fallout 3 ever was. With both games, I urge myself to go find every conceivable location in the hopes of seeing more detail on what life was like before the Great War.

  9. I bought this game with all the add-ons for the 360 and I passed the game and all the add-ons alike… I have to say that I was never able to play the bad guy.. the one time I tried was the mission where you have to blow megaton up.. instead of triggering the bomb I shot both tenpenny and mister burke. This game is awesome.

  10. Your assessment is wonderful, and I really only enjoy games that don’t hit you over the head with their story.

    The best example I can think of regarding this is the original Myst game, perhaps along with Riven. There are the puzzles, too, sure, but most of the game can be spent reading Atrus’s journals and the letters and other messages between the two brothers. It’s entirely up to you to piece together what exactly happened to Myst Island and its eerily solitary Ages. It is an interesting idea to exercise history through games, what a great post.

  11. RickRussellTX /

    If you haven’t played Morrowind, you should. The books in the game — scattered across the continent in libraries, on the shelves of random people, and in odd locations — weave a whole world of backstory drawn from the mythology of the elder scrolls.

  12. I find it interesting that I liked learning the history in the Fallout worlds (Vegas and 3) games and not in Dragon Age Origins. In DAO you even get XP for reading the scrolls lying around, but I never actually read them. Maybe it’s the size of the docs or that I’m not really invested in the world (I stopped playing DAO since I found it too restricting and rail-like).
    In FO though, there is a certain satisfaction of taking in the environment and reading the surroundings that evokes the mood of films like The Omega Man or Mad Max and brings to fore their associated feelings of loneliness, despair, hope, desperation etc. Even the content of the memos to employees in REPCONN HQ contrasts the games’ world with the irrelevant and petty concerns of a safe, pre-war era and makes the player nostalgic for a once civilized world. I don’t know but, I find this more interesting than learning about a medieval cult through some arcane scroll…

    • Trevor Owens /

      I feel the same way. The post-apocalyptic genre just pulls me in more. I think it is that it feels like the game is much more explicitly about the world we live in. That said I’ve always been much more interested in post-apocalyptic RP than fantasy. Never played much Dungeons and Dragons, played a lot of Rifts.

  13. Jordan M /

    I must say, this is an excellent post. I felt the exact same way as you. You have to discover the story, it isn’t really given to you. My favorite parts were to just walk around a building a try to figure out what the people that worked/lived there went through. This game really indulges mt love for history. Keep ‘em coming!

  14. Your suggestion that Fallout 3 was “the world’s best history game” reminded me Opera Omnia, a game in which you play as a historian, reconstructing history. It’s also extremely sinister.

    (Great article!)

  15. Cristian /

    This too, is why I loved Fallout 3 and why I can’t really get into New Vegas. Fallout 3 felt like a real place with, as you say, history. In New Vegas it mostly feels as the world didn’t exist more than a few decades ago.

  16. Fascinating article!

    I’m intrigued by the idea this presents of teaching or telling a story about the near future by telling the story as if in the far future looking back.

    Suppose you wanted to talk about alternate energy for example. Telling the story as a “what if” look forward into the near future could be fraught with peril with a strong risk of “you got it wrong!” feedback from readers. But telling the story as if looking back presents a whole new perspective where one can take interesting liberties by saying, “This is how we perceived the past” as opposed to the “This is how we perceive the future.”

  17. Not to disagree with you on what history is and how historical analysis works, but to me most of those logs felt contrived and unconvincing. It was as though the author was aware that future readers will be doing the seven things you’re listing and wrote their journal in a way that plays upon that, e.g. realising that historians will have to deal with gaps in evidence, the journal writer chooses which bits to leave out so that the full story is never told in detail but there is very little confusion about the broad strokes of what happened.

    However, that is just bad (in my subjective opinion) writing on the part of the game-makers. I otherwise feel the same as you: exploring the fossils of the past is the most engaging and enjoyable quest in the Fallout series.

    • Trevor Owens /

      Reading the logs again I can definitely appreciate where you are coming from. I am glad you brought this point up, as it gave me pause to reread the logs and think about some elements of the texts that are translated when it moves from the game to this context.

      First off, I would agree that the writing seems a bit stilted. I think part of this is that taking the text out of the context of the game and putting it up on the blog page brings it into a the light and puts it under the scrutiny that comes from close reading. So, when I originally skimmed these pages in-game they felt different than when I went back, pulled the text out and set it in the boxes above. To this extent the lack of subtlety in the text may actually be an important component in making them work in the game. As everybody skims them they sorta need to really hit you over the head.

      Now, beyond this I think there is a deeper point to consider about authenticity. You are quite right that this comes much more neatly packaged than historical work in real life. If the game had attempted to make this experience authentic to what historians do it would involve overwhelming the player with a nearly infinite set of materials to interpret and a limitless set of questions to explore. Further, most of those questions would result in completely inconclusive results from the evidence or situations where there simply is no match between evidence and questions. I guess I am saying that the more a game really tried to embrace and model the endless frustration of authentic historical inquiry the more it would suck as a game.

      Reflecting on this a bit more, I like to think of the relationship between the model of a system in a game and the actual system in the world as very similar to the relationship between a map and the world. To make a map useful you need to get rid of almost all the information that exists in the world. Said differently, a map of the city I live in at 1-to-1 scale is a terrible map! When we remove most of the detail and get to a smaller scale the map becomes a valuable tool for navigating. Similarly, I would posit that when we remove much of the detail from the model a game creates we get something fun and engaging which has some small threads of authenticity in it that become useful for reflecting on the real world.

  18. I agree that the sense of history is powerful- I think it is what makes _Fallout 3_ work. This is something that I think Bethesda did even better in their earlier game _Morrowind_. In that game, there was NO authoritative narrative voice- the player actually had to do the work of an historian, reconstructing the entire narrative based on conflicting accounts.

  19. The thing that really kept me playing Fallout 3 was the game world itself- every location told a story. I’ve yet to play a game that had so much attention to detail pretty much everywhere you went.

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