Sunday, November 14, 2010

The End Of The World As We Thought We Knew It... And I Feel Fine

So Fallout New Vegas came out last month. I'm sure that's something you know, if you're at all involved in gaming; it's only one of the most anticipated titles of the year. I know that I had been anticipating the hell out of it, personally, and I'm sure that everyone I know is sick to death of me talking about it. I've been playing it religiously since my copy arrived, but as far as the storyline goes, I'm not all that far in. I like to play these sorts of games slowly. Do every side-quest, explore every nook and cranny, never, ever quick travel. I like to savor the game, like a fine wine.

Also I'm kinda broke right now, so I'm trying to make this one game last me till Christmas.

On a related note, anyone giving out spoilers in the comments will one day wake to find my hands at their throat, squeezing the life from them. I swear, spoil me, and I will murder you. Some time, some where. Could be tomorrow. Could be three months from now, when you've forgotten all about it. Could be on your 50th wedding anniversary, at a party, surrounded by your loved ones. If you spoil Fallout New Vegas for me, you will die by my hand. Someday.

So instead of talking about New Vegas in particular, I'm gonna talk about the Fallout series as a whole, in particular the world that Fallout inhabits. For me, the world of Fallout was always the most interesting thing about the games, and it is certainly one of the most fascinating settings in any video game. Fallout asks the question; what if our future had turned out just the way that the optimistic science fiction and wide eyed concept makers and inventors of the 50s had told us it would? And then, what if that future had been destroyed, by a combination of our own hubris and nuclear fire? The answer it shows us is a world that is familiar yet fantastical, eerie in how it puts on display the rotting corpses of Americana, a decaying testament to humanity's great folly and failed dreams.

I'm not old enough to remember the 50s (for those who can't do math, I was born in the late 80s), but neither are most of the people who play, or even the ones who made, these games. But the 50s, or some version of it at least, lives on in the collective, rose-colored memory of America. We all know what the 50s were, right? They were sock hops and malt shops, leather jackets and poodle skirts, I Love Lucy and Leave It To Beaver. They were cruising in your T-Bird to make-out point with your best gal. They were the nuclear family, Mom, Dad, two kids and a dog, living in friendly picket-fenced neighborhoods where no-one locked their doors at night. There was Mom, vacuuming in her pearls, Dad, lounging with his pipe and a copy of the evening news, and the whole family sitting down for dinner together. In the economic boom following World War 2, all of America was content and optimistic. We'd beaten Hitler, America was obviously the best country in the world, and we looked forward to the future, fully expecting it to hold great things. How could it not?

This is your vision of the 50s. Don't lie.

By now my savvy readers are probably going "Hold up, Sunny! For a lot of people, the 50s really sucked!" and that's true. I did say that these are our rose-colored memories of the 50s, filtered through nostalgia and Happy Days re-runs. As we all know (Or at least, I hope we all do. Public schooling these days...), the 50s were a pretty repressive time, especially for racial minorities, women, and homosexuals.  Women, only given the vote some 30 odd years before, had been encouraged to leave the traditionally male jobs they'd filled during the war and return to being housewives, or else serving in "womanly" professions, as secretaries, teachers, or nurses. Segregation was still in effect, and it was still acceptable to openly mock and deride minorities, deny them jobs, keep them from moving into your nice, white-fenced neighborhoods, and even, in some places, kill them. Homosexuals, when their existence was acknowledged at all, were seen as sexual deviants on par with pedophiles, and for most of them, coming out was an impossibility. Sexuality was repressed, difference was frowned upon, and morality was black and white. But hold that thought. I'm gonna come back to it.

One thing America was especially enthusiastic about in the 50s was science. Our superior technology had helped us win the war and would soon put us on the moon. There was nothing good ol' American know-how couldn't accomplish. Auto companies released futuristic looking concept cars, some even experimenting with jet fuel and atomic energy. Appliance companies promised us "homes of the future" with push button technology to make cooking and cleaning a breeze, all supposedly a decade or so away from reality. Sure, it all seemed a little silly, but you can't deny the appeal of all that sleek, shiny technology making your life so much easier.

One glorious day, we will all have helipads on our roofs.

This video is a really good example of the sort of thing I'm talking about. A 1956 short by General Motors, Design for Dreaming features a futuristic kitchen, a car supposedly designed for "the electronic highway of tomorrow," silly looking future fashions, and some really crazy dancing. I've taken the liberty of providing the version with Mike and the Bots riffing from when it was featured on Mystery Science Theater 300, to make it easier to watch. You're welcome.

The science fiction of the time looked at these scientific accomplishments we'd already achieved, as well as the future marvels we were being promised, and ran with them. The Space Race was just starting to pick up steam, surely we'd be zipping through space in no time, discovering new planets and alien races. World War 2 had brought military technology not before dreamed of; gargantuan battleships, jet planes, and bombs that could wipe out entire cities. Of course things like lasers or atomic powered weaponry couldn't be far away. And if we were so close to jet powered cars and automated kitchens, were we really very far from flying cars and robot servants? In the movies, comics, and serials of the 50s, we saw visions of the future which, most of the time, looked pretty bright. It wasn't hard to imagine that, in no time at all, we'd all be living in gleaming futuristic metropolises and taking weekend trips to Disneyland on the Moon.

"Look, honey! It's like my penis!"

 With all the changes our projected futures would supposedly bring, most mainstream sci-fi left some things conspicuously the same. The comics, serials, and movies rarely showed women as anything other than love interests for male protagonists. If they were lucky, they were scientists, or some sort of space princess, but they were still regulated to the sidelines most of the time, and still usually had all their other desires trumped by the desire to bone the hunky protagonist. Minorities were lucky if they even showed up. We all remember what a big deal it was when Star Trek premiered with such a diverse cast, and that didn't happen till 1966. Before that, minorities in science fiction were more often than not cast as villains, if they were cast at all. Look at Ming the Merciless from the Flash Gordon comics. I know he's the emperor of the planet Mongo and all, but the fucker has yellow skin and a Fu-Manchu mustache, in an era when we were especially afraid of Asian people. You do the math. As for homosexuals... well, if they feature at all in any 50s science fiction, I've never heard of it. If you know of any, please send it my way, because I'm really curious. At any rate, it seems pretty obvious that the existence of homosexual people was ignored entirely in mainstream sci-fi, much as in real life.

Ever hear of the "Yellow Peril?"

So the 50s vision of the future was of one in which technology advanced at amazing and fantastical rates, but societal norms remained largely stagnant. Which brings us back, finally, to the Fallout games. Because this is the world that Fallout inhabited before the bombs fell; a world with all the technological marvels promised to us by the science fiction of the 50s, but also possessing the same flaws of the era. To quote the Fallout wiki...
In the Fallout universe, twenty-first century America descended into an era of political paranoia and mania similar to the 1950s. The United States government became more and more militant and aggressive against its real and imagined enemies. As the world's fossil fuel supplies started to dry up and conversions of the existing fossil-fuel infrastructure to the recently-invented nuclear fusion power lagged, people in the United States and across the globe became desperate.  
 And check out this trailer for Fallout 3. It's like a futuristic Leave it to Beaver. Mom's making the breakfast (with help from the robot), Dad reads the paper (which happens to be about China invading Alaska). Notice the creepy way they imply that the daughter's true worth lies in her ability to repopulate the world after the end. Also notice that all of the little cartoon people entering the safety of the vault are white. Yep, looks like good old fashioned 50s values are alive and well in 2077.

The games are full of little hints like this that 50s style oppression was still happening before the bombs fell. Besides that, we know that the American government of pre-apocalypse Fallout was extravagantly corrupt. They were completely willing to experiment on their own citizens without their knowledge or consent, all in the name of scientific advancement and a military edge over their enemies. In a way, the subsequent nuclear war almost seems like something this twisted version of American society brought upon themselves. Like the Abrahamic god calling the great flood to wash away the sins of the old world, this futuristic world was baptized in fire as penance for it's own sins, of greed, oppression, corruption, and hubris. Our yearning for knowledge and power outstripped our development of ethics, and it destroyed us.

But, again, like the story of the great flood, there were survivors of this horrible cataclysm, only they weren't dumb enough to think they could survive by building a boat somehow big enough to contain every animal on the planet and just riding it out. Again, quoting the Fallout wiki...
The Great War's outcome changed most of the planet into a radioactive wasteland. Those who did not die in the initial nuclear weapon exchanges (likely less than half the world's population) lived in darkness or radioactive misery for decades as much of the Earth's plant and animal life died off from lack of food, sunlight and the persistently high levels of radiation. Yet, living in subterranean vaults or frozen in cryogenic chambers, humanity (at least in the United States) persevered.
 By the time the Fallout games take place, some 200 odd years after the bombs fell, something interesting seems to have happened. For one thing, your character can be male or female, of  any race, gay or straight, and is, for the most part, treated no differently by the people you encounter based on this. The other humans you encounter wandering the wastes display the full range of American diversity, and racism, at least as far as can be told from the ways the NPCs interact with each other, seems to have been more or less universally discarded, possibly because everyone can now get together and join forces in hating on the ghouls (Hey, I said racism was gone, not prejudice. I don't think even a nuclear war could rid us of that completely). The women you encounter are just as likely as the men to be badass fighters, competent leaders, or even completely psychotic sociopaths who want to cut off your head and use it to play kickball.

I think she just wants a friend...

Not to say sexism is completely dead, however. One glaring example would be a new faction in Fallout New Vegas, Caesar's Legion; a slaver nation roughly styling itself on the most barbaric aspects of ancient Rome. Under Caesar's rule, women have no rights at all, and are nothing but slaves, forced to serve the men and bare the next generation of Legionaries. However, it is made pretty clear that the rest of the wasteland peoples consider this to be absolutely horrible, and the army of the New California Republic, the Legion's main rival, seems to be made up of nearly equal parts men and women, serving in all the same roles as men, giving women an active role in the liberation of their sisters. Not to mention how cool it can be to play as a chick and kick the Legion's ass. Take THAT, you toga wearing chauvinistic dickbags!

But one of the most refreshing examples of the way that the near extinction of the human race has leveled the playing field is in the characters of two companions that you can choose to have come with you as you wander the wastes. One is Arcade Gannon who, apart from having the single coolest name imaginable, is a snarky scientist affiliated with the Followers of the Apocalypse. The other is Veronica Santangelo, a Brotherhood of Steel scribe with an affinity for punching things really really hard who happens to be voiced by Felicia Day. Both of these characters are gay, but some people might play through the game without ever realizing that fact. Apparently, 200 years after the end of civilization, homosexuals finally get the privilege of letting their sexuality be merely an incidental part of who they are, something we straight people have enjoyed since... well, forever.

 The thing I love about Veronica is the way she mentions having been in love with another girl as if it ain't no thang... because it isn't. She's not a sexy lesbian there for men to drool over, nor is she a big bad butch stereotype, despite her ability to punch people until their arms fly off. She's a fully fleshed out character, and her sexuality is only a small part of it. Too many video games that do feature queer characters (coughDRAGONAGEcough) rely too heavily on making their sexuality the most important, or at least the most obvious, aspect of their personalities. As much as I liked Zevran, he did sort of have a "HEY! I HAVE SEX WITH MEN! AND LADIES TOO, BUT ALSO MEN! HAVE I MENTIONED ALL THE MEN I'VE HAD SEX WITH TODAY?!" quality to him.

Once again, I feel the need to point out that homophobia hasn't been completely eradicated in Fallout's post-war world. Veronica's girlfriend ran away from the Brotherhood because her parents were overly concerned with her settling down with a man and having babies. People will sometimes make jokes about how the Legion apparently follows the ancient Spartan idea that sex between two men is better than sex between a man and a woman. But these attitudes are few and far between, and most people you meet seem to be of the mind that who you choose to bone is your own damn business, and worrying about it is way less important than finding enough food, or defending yourselves from that screaming hoard of raiders outside the walls. And the fact remains that Fallout 2 was the first video game to allow for in game, same sex marriages, and I think that's pretty cool.

I'm not trying to argue that the world of Fallout is a perfect place, or somehow better than it was before the bombs fell. Living in the wasteland is absolutely brutal; many small communities struggle to eek out meager existences, those with power frequently seek to exploit those without it, and the people you encounter on your travels are just as likely to attempt to rape, murder, or enslave you as not. But the centuries long traditions of oppression based on race, gender, and sexual orientation have, for the most part, vanished. War may never change, but it's clear that people can, given enough time and perhaps some shared hardships. It give you hope that, once the broken world of Fallout is rebuilt (and despite the game's bleak setting, it's clear that this isn't just a naive pipe dream, but a real possibility), it will be built better than before, into a truly advanced society; not advanced by technology or science, but by equality. Which, in turn, gives me hope for our own, somewhat broken, world. Hey, it could happen. Truth, as they say, can be stranger than science fiction.

Sunny out!

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