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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.