I love Fallout. It’s one of a very few CRPGs I’ve seen the ending to and still play on occasion. Lately I’ve been playing Fallout 3 a lot and I find that I’m more interested in looking at the series from here than its predecessors. For everything it may have done wrong in moving from turn-based gameplay from isometric viewpoint to a First-Person Shooter, I still feel like it’s a much more immersive game from the perspective of roleplaying.
Surfing the internets I came across this article; it makes some interesting points about the restrictions placed on the player during the creation and how it molds the formation of the narrative. Specifcally I wanted to address these paragraphs:
“… Since meaning within procedural systems is both limited by and dependent on restrictions, Fallout 3 as open to a far more complex reading that can be redemptive of the limitations of its character creation system. … One of Fallout 3′s most pronounced character restrictions has to do with the range of skin colors available for each race. For instance, Asian and Caucasian characters cannot have the darker skin tones available to African American characters. The legibility of these racial categories are thus dependent on color differences, similar to a 20th century color line divide. This ideology mimics the 1940s/50s American nostalgia of the game world, and effectively constricts the true range of physical difference present in people who self-identify as each of the four races in the “real world.” To put it succinctly, by forcing the player to identify with one of four rigid and institutionalized racial identities inside of a retro-futurist pre-Civil Rights world associated with segregation and nuclear annihilation, Fallout 3 affords a rare and bold consistency between setting and character (and let me note that whether this is conscious or not is of no interest to me). The player is uncomfortably hailed into mid 20th century American racial ideology.
Creating a character in Fallout 3 initiates the player into the violences of a system of raciological thinking similar to 1940s America, but the continued familiar violences of racial categorization seen today in the Census as well as job and school applications, advertisement, and so on.
These issues disappear in the gameworld, limiting them to character creation and squandering what could’ve been an interesting exploration, both procedurally and narratively, of racial politics and issues like nationalism and xenophobia which caused the destruction of DC.“
That uncomfortable juxtapositioning of a 21st century body (the player) into the role of a 20th century American worldview is at the heart of what I think makes Fallout 3 one of the more immerse sandbox RPGs of recent times while at the same time highlighting shortcomings and skirt-arounds that are typical in games. The Lone Wanderer is cast out of the place they’ve called home all their life in to an uncompromisingly harsh environment, put in the uncomfortable position of having nothing left of their former life and trying to reclaim some semblance of normalcy in finding their father, the only accessible vestige of their past.
An argument can be made for the lack of differential facial anatomy as a shortcoming of the game engine and not the developers, and to a point it’s a valid reply. It is a racial component, though, not just from the perspective of putting emphasis on the “retro-futurist pre-Civil Rights”-era world but because it not-so-subtly advocates the forcible assimilation of minorities into a white power structure that’s defined American (or European) culture. The argument of “why can’t you just be like us?” manifested as a physicality of total assimilation into whiteness to the point where the only consistent way of separating and differentiating characters by ethnicity outside of last names (Almodovar, Dr. Li, Vargas, etc) is the color of their skin – and what is the first thing you’ll see before you open up dialog and find out an NPC’s name? Nearly all randomly generated NPCs I’ve seen look Caucasian, just with darker skin, and most of the named PoCs aren’t distinguishable as their claimed ethnicity.
It’s really driven home by the limited array of selections you can make for your character. Skintone and color is tied to a limiting system of 2-3 sliders that effect pigmentation in very strange ways. Making my first characters I found it nearly impossible to get natural, normal brown tones of skin without first randomly generating faces and then altering them, because more often than not I came out with some sort of Yellowish-Greenish diseased looking flesh that made me think I was a Ghoul more than anything. Hair styles can be chosen simply by scrolling down a list and clicking one, but there’s not a single option that depicts natural afro-hair or even the slightest semblance of a curl.
Really? In a freaking post-apocalypse where day-to-day survival is iffy, you’re constantly put upon my any number of mutants, raiders and logic-defying abominations, you want me to believe that people of African descent still prioritize chemically straightening their hair over all else? The history of how hair is treated among those of afro-descent is rooted in assimilating and conforming to a white standard of beauty, so taking note of this lack of choice is particularly telling from both a modern (developer) and lore perspective.
In the context of the in-game history race is largely made a non-issue outside of McCarthyist prejudice against “The Red Threat” and xenophobic, propaganda-fueled anti-Chinese sentiment. What you learn about the USA prior to the bombs falling is largely from the perspective of faceless accounts of those dead or from a militaristic viewpoint in what I assume was an attempt at downplaying the pervasive racist ideologies of the 1950’s. Any nationalist rhetoric is presented as either brought on by madness in the case of Nathan of Megaton, or setting the tone of Pre-War wasteland. It’s there, but it’s presented as an aside to the overarching plot of the game and not delved into in any meaningful way. But still, as Higgin pointed out, it comes back up in more subtle (possibly more effective) ways, still presented in a way so as to be dismissed as a non-issue, but it was an interesting realization for me. Then again it comes up in some far less subtly ways also.
Higgin’s article tags the ghouls of the Capitol Wasteland as ‘racial proxies’ for addressing race within the context of the 40’s-50’s perspective of the gameworld.
“But that’s not to say that racial tensions completely disappear. Instead the game’s anxiety over race is displaced onto the “ghouls,” whose irradiated and disfigured bodies separate them from the rest of the human population, and who, as figures of zombie fantasy, allow for a safe and comfortable canvas for the issues of race announced by the process of character creation. It’s a classic design cop out: instead of tackling race head-on, we use fantastical proxies.“
This article makes the point that a typical trope of Science Fiction to “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. ” It’s a good counter-point, but in Fallout 3 Bethesda used this trope as a scapegoat for a much more insidious statement about racism, especially it’s history in the US. cuchlann goes on to write:
“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 … 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.”
I don’t agree with the latter claim; personally I feel what can be inferred or is implied in a work is far more telling than most of what is explicit, and I definitely don’t feel Fallout 3 does much of anything to talk about race. Not in any meaningful way, at least. He goes on to say that “Falloutin general, and the third game specifically, use a kind of understatement to talk about things.“ - which is true, much of the history of the game is there to be inferred but not always spelled out for you. However there’s a few very pivotal examples that have stuck with me since I first played Fallout 3.
If one was to wander west past the Washington Monument you’d run into the Lincoln Memorial whereupon you’d find a group of encamped Slavers. Slaving in Fallout would be nothing particularly shocking, I guess, if you’d played the previous two games, but 3 drew in a lot of newcomers to the franchise. Anyway. Advancing on this dastardly bunch one might notice that by chance a fair number of them are Black. One might consider this a curious coincidence and shrug it off as a quirk of the randomly generated NPCs. But wait! Two of them in particular have names; so they’re not randomly generated to look that way, it was designed like that. Silas, I should note, is supposed to be asian(http://www.falloutwiki.com/Silas) – however I was playing modded and he looked black as far as I could tell. Leroy Walker, however, is clearly black.
So, you might initially shrug this off as alone it isn’t particularly poignant. However imagine my surprise when I learned Paradise Falls, the HQ of the Slaver faction, was led by a Black Male by name of Eulogy Jones. Even the doorman is black, though once you’re inside the Falls most of the named NPCs are caucasian. I [hope] I don’t have to explain the long, sordid history of slavery in America and it’s ongoing effects. I can’t believe that the development team at Bethesda needed to have it explained to them either. Point being, the fact that these two slaving groups, though connected, are led by black men is no accident. It’s an understating way of talking about race in context that offers little discussion or room for thought. Eulogy Jones is one of the biggest assholes you’ll meet in the Wastes; nothing is beneath him (don’t quote me on that, I didn’t talk to him extensively), he’ll even enlist the Wanderer to go enslave children. It’s demonizing and polarizing, meant to disgust the player and drive home how horrible these Slaver types are. But it’s twofold, because it also reinforces negative stereotypes people have about minorities, and specifically blacks. It reinforces also a fear in white people that, if given the opportunity, Blacks here in the US would do to them what they and their forefathers did out of spiteful malevolence. It’s ridiculous and entrenched in racial stereotyping but is seemingly a real one in some of the people I’ve spoken to about this, and Fallout 3 puts it out there not as a discussion place but a fact.
This is why I say the Ghoul allegory is a scapegoat. It’s a device within the mythos of the game to address racism and prejudice in a way that isn’t directly offensive to anyone. But then at the same time there is profiling and racism existent elsewhere in the game but not addressed as part of it, some of it subtle and some not so much. It isn’t even anything new, really, because Fallout 2 does the same thing with Joanne Lynette in Vault City, one of the very few minority (or black) characters in that game (not counting tribals), who is a managerial elitist and justifies systematic, government enforced slavery with bureaucracy and lawmaking.
Maaaaaybe it’s more tongue-in-cheek in Fallout 2 considering the tone of the game but I highly doubt it. I don’t want to think these examples were deliberate and malicious on the part of either creative team, but you see with media that invariably there’s little attention given to those issues relevant to people of color because by and large in development it’s white males making the calls. If you don’t go into something aware of your prejudices, assumptions and biases you’ll almost inevitably reinforce them somehow.
Why is caucasian the default race during character generation? What, aren’t most people caucasian? Why are there no afro-centric hairstyles? Well, who has hair like that? Who [would] want it?
Fallout 3 stands out from the previous two games in terms of atmospheric theme. I’ve always considered that to be a regional difference more than anything. In Fallout 1 and 2 I get the impression that even though society on the west coast is gone the communities that sprung back up out of the radioactive ashes are trying to reclaim some vestige of the old world and make their presence known and lasting. Trading is a norm in the West as is cooperation between communities and factions (sort of). NCR came to the top by domination through numbers, mob factions grew by spreading drugs and intimidation, Slavers by doing what they do naturally, etc.. All in all you get a sense of people working to make something out of what little is left after the bombs dropped.
Meanwhile on the East coast you see that everything’s gone completely to shit in the worst way, and instead of trying to work together mostly communities isolate themselves from each other or actively work against each other. Whenever groups of people get together to work for the betterment of everyone (Project Purity) something happens and it all falls apart and then it’s back to square 1, every man for themselves. I get the feeling that everyone’s basically given up on life - as evidenced by the overabundance of raiders and slavers, and there’s no looking to the future. It’s a day-to-day struggle for most people to get out of bed and keep despair out of mind; going on with living just because they’re too chickenshit to do anything else. Megaton is a perfect example of that feeling, from the patrons and employees of Moriarty’s (Nova and Gob are a great example) to Old Man Vargas. Brailee Ewers in Arefu is a good example also, and Arefu really drove home for me just how bad the situation in the wasteland is. Arefu is also a good example of the segregation of communities. The despair of wasteland hardships has driven any hope from the minds of wastelanders and when they get weak enough they turn to religion (the cults) or insanity (raiders).
The Brotherhood faction that came to the wasteland split because Lyons saw the hopelessness of the Capital Wasteland and he wanted to do his part to give them hope. This was nothing like what he’d left on the West Coast. 3-Dog touched on this sort of, with GNR as his way of parting the clouds and bringing a little ray of hope home to shine over the wasteland. He’s not presented in the Magical Negroe role either, thankfully, just a guy doing his part. The Lone Wanderer is working, whatever his motivations, to at best clean up the Wasteland with force. 3-Dog is working to unite the wasteland and give people something to keep them going; and it works. Gob and Nova have GNR on all the time to keep their spirits up. All across the Wasteland you can hear 3-Dog’s howl. I have GNR on all the time because otherwise the Wasteland is just too dreary.