Michael Toy, Print Project Proposal: Cold War Apocalypticism in the Fallout series

It seems as if since the very birth of civilization itself, mankind has had a fascination (I dare say even fixation) with the apocalypse, resulting in predictions of cataclysm and finality for humanity dating back to the earliest known religions and mythologies. Though almost exclusively couched in religion for thousands of years, the “End of Days” paradigm has been in the back of the human mind since the beginnings of recorded history. Though firm and often literal religious interpretations of this impending apocalypse are still alive and well today, since World War II and particularly throughout the Cold War with the very real threat of Mutually Assured Destruction, a more secular fixation with a final cataclysm became increasingly widespread among the American population at large.

Since the end of the Cold War, despite the ostensible end to the MAD paradigm that reigned supreme for most of the 20th century, today terms like “anti-Christ” and “apocalypse” rank as some of the most often-searched terms in Google, while countless films, TV series, and video games have emerged focusing on some apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic environment, creating a rather substantial sub-genre in science fiction revolving around the countless scenarios that might result in humanity’s near- or total destruction. Everything from out-of-control global warming to swarming nanobots to zombies have been used as the harbingers of civilization’s downfall, but one wildly popular video game series takes a unique perspective to apocalypticism in the modern era: Fallout.

Set in an alternate timeline where the Cold War never ended, but a Cold War in which the primary players were not the United States and the USSR but the U.S. and China, reflecting a more modern post-Cold War international rivalry that has preoccupied U.S. foreign policy since the 1990s. The the series begins several hundred years following a massive nuclear exchange that took place on October 23, 2076 following intense international strife stemming from dwindling natural resources and follows various survivors emerging from decades of isolation in underground bomb shelters to traverse “the Wasteland” as it has come to be known. Of five main titles across a variety of platforms produced from the 1997 to the most recent in 2015, the Fallout series takes great pains to recreate real locations as faithfully as possible: Fallout 3, for instance, takes place in a destroyed but still very recognizable Washington D.C., while the fourth installment, Fallout: New Vegas, recreates a drastically transformed but, again, still somewhat recognizable Las Vegas.

The most recent game from 2015, Fallout 4, takes place in Boston and is by far the most detailed, most geographically accurate, and most philosophically driven of the series, and poses tough ethical questions not just about the morality of a post-apocalyptic world but also questions of social belonging, reclaiming and reinterpreting lost culture, and even challenging the definitions of humanity, sentience, and the future of automation and human obsolescence. My proposal is to analyze the depictions of post-apocalypticism in the Fallout series, focusing primarily on Fallout 4 and how the themes that run so strongly in the game reflect modern social and cultural anxieties about future of science and technology, lingering Cold War sentiments and paradigms coloring national sentiment, America’s uncertainty in the post-Cold War environment, and the strange new iteration of the Cold War many scholars have argued we are in the midst of right now.

ADDENDUM: Completely unrelated to the above proposal, another proposal percolating in my mind is to use tools like Google n-grams to search for the usage of the terms “The Great War,” “World War I,” and “World War II” between 1900 and 1950. When we did this example search in class, I was intrigued by the fact that the results for “World War I” and “World War II” seemed to indicate that they actually predated the advent of World War II; though very few and far between, the usage of these terms was not 0% as one might have expected, which seems to indicate that there was at least a small group of people during the interwar period not only imagining another World War, but actually anticipating it. This leads to an interesting question: who was using terminology like World War I and World War II prior to the latter’s outbreak, in what context were they used, and what sort of second World War were these writers anticipating?

One Reply to “Michael Toy, Print Project Proposal: Cold War Apocalypticism in the Fallout series”

  1. Exploring ideology in Fallout is a great idea. The games do a lot of interesting things with how memory, history, and representations function. (I wrote a few things about this before http://www.playthepast.org/?p=459 and http://www.playthepast.org/?p=679 ). I think your particular focus on Fallout 4 makes a lot of sense. The way the games build their own visions of American history and play with interpretations of the past offers a lot of context to explore issues in social memory.

    If you were to go ahead with this project, it would be good to know more about how you would go about doing analysis of the games. You can jump ahead to the week we have on video games, but I can offer a few initial observations. Part of what is so intriguing about games as a form of digital media is the many ways they open themselves to interpretation and analysis. That is, you might focus on how the narratives of the game work, or the mechanics of the game, or beyond that you might look out across the web to see what kinds of material fans of the game create and discussions between game players online. That is, there are a wide range of sources you could be working with/from.

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