Dec 152008

Much of political philosophy concerns a significant thought experiment called “the state of nature”. This hypothetical condition is one in which mankind has never had a government, and it is a popular way to address the question of why a person would ever choose to surrender rights to the State. Stories that involve the breakdown of civilization often include a representation of such a state, and naturally the qualities of this created world will depend on your beliefs about human nature. The wasteland of Fallout 3 represents the state of nature as the war of all men against all men. In so doing, and by connecting the wasteland’s state of nature to that between countries, the game argues that the death of governmental and international covenants are fatal to both individuals, and humanity itself.

For many Americans, Washington D.C. is synonymous with government, and by setting its story there, Fallout 3 invites the player to ponder the subject. A significant number of the game’s quests involve monuments of beloved presidents, or various of the Smithsonian Institutions. Many of the game’s treasure troves and safe places are former military installations. And, of course, the player gets around the ruined city primarily via the public transportation system. The shattered state of these locales mirrors the breakdown of government at large. Although a supposed president drones constantly from many of the radios, there is no evidence of overarching government, and little echo of democracy.

[C]ovenants, without the sword, are but words and of no strength to secure a man at all. Therefore… if there be no power erected, or not great enough for our security, every man will and may lawfully rely on his own strength and art for caution against all other men.

— Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

It is force that rules the wastes, even in the remaining pockets of civilization. Towns such as Megaton, Canterbury Crossroads, and Arefu are essentially anarchical, with well-armed sheriffs barely able to contain the mayhem. Tenpenny Tower, Paradise Falls, the Republic of Dave, and even Little Lamplight are run by strongmen. Places that lack an authoritarian leader, like Grayditch and Big Town, are universally imperiled. Each of these towns is an armed camp. Even in Rivet City, where cramped the hallways are endlessly patrolled by well-armed security guards, everyone is packing heat. None of these places have any legal system worth mentioning. There is no law; there is no justice. The only State in the wasteland is the state of nature, aptly matching that described by Hobbes:

Hereby it is manifest that during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in the condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man.

For Hobbes, war means a state of perpetual readiness to fight. He does not argue that the state of nature is a state of constant battle, but rather that it is a place where everyone has a weapon already drawn or within easy reach. This is the war taking place in Fallout 3. It is not a clash of ideologies or civilizations, but a universal war between every man and all his fellow men.

In Leviathan, Hobbes asserts that men in the state of nature quarrel for three main reasons: resources, security, and renown. Fallout 3 addresses each of these motivations. The central concern of the main quest is the scarcity of water. Because nearly all the water in the wasteland is irradiated or otherwise contaminated, agriculture is practically impossible. The only apparent source of relatively clean water lies in the small town of Megaton, and its residents don’t share. Fresh food in the wastes means the produce of mutated animals such as two-headed cows or giant ants, or other human’s bodies. The only alternative is the preservative-laden, imperishable junk food left behind by the previous civilization.

The struggle for security is also evident. Nearly every settlement around the capital has a wall; Rivet City even has a moat. Those who don’t have secure settlements struggle to get accepted into them — the efforts of the ghouls to get a place in Tenpenny Tower exemplifies this desire. The character is repeatedly reminded that the Vault is the safest place in the wastes, and of course the wasteland residents are likely to idealize a miniature city with an impenetrable door and walls as thick as the earth itself. But as it turns out, the Vault is also a violent place, ruled by brutish, simplistic authoritarianism.

The game toys with the player’s own desire for glory via the Galaxy News Radio station. In addition to hearing your stories on the radio, the karma system also seems to primarily be one based on renown. Different kinds of characters recognize and appreciate you based on what approach you have taken. One can also interpret some of Elder Lyons’ decisions as influenced by a desire for a kind of glory or recognition.

So the wasteland resembles Hobbes’ state of nature in several crucial respects, and that implies some basic beliefs about humanity. Fallout 3 by depicting the state of nature in this way, argues that people focus on their own survival and satisfaction first, and only rarely care for the needs of others. Those who attempt to do good for others are destroyed by men who are greedy for power and renown. Were that all, Fallout 3 would merely be a depressing commentary on human nature. But the game also tries to draw a line between this brutal land and the world of today.

…in all times kings and persons of sovereign authority, because of their independency, are in continual jealousies, and in the state and posture of gladiators, having their weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed on one another…

The desperate resource conflicts of the wasteland reproduce on a small scale exactly the kinds of conflicts that led to its creation. In Fallout 3‘s fictional history, the collapse of the United Nations in the 2050s opened up an era of resource conflicts between nations that culminated in a war between the United States and China over the rich lands of Alaska. This war in turn led to the U.S. annexation of Canada (something our northern neighbors would surely find most vexing) and eventually, catastrophic nuclear war. Now, the United Nations could never seriously stand in for a hegemon, but written materials found in the game suggest that the collapse of this limited international framework returned the world’s countries to their state of nature, which also matches the Hobbesian description.

The well-read people of that time seem to have known how their story would end. You can find a townhouse in the Georgetown area containing a still-functional housekeeping robot. Taking a page from Ray Bradbury, the robot can be ordered to recite a poem, which is “There will come soft rains” by Sara Teasdale. But in Bradbury’s story this poem is meant for an adult, while in Fallout 3 it is meant to be heard by a child. Imagine what fear you must live in if you comfort your kids with the idea that at least the world will be no worse off without us.

In Fallout‘s view, however, Teasdale is wrong. Mankind burned the world when it killed itself, and Spring never awakened. The fictional world of Fallout represents the idea that the endpoint of the state of nature is meaningless death, for nations as for individuals. By opting to go it alone, to abandon what little international government existed, we chose the state of nature. And as in the “Tenpenny Tower” episode, conflicts in the state of nature have no good answer. That quest cannot be completed without eviction or murder; there is no endpoint where nobody dies. There is no happy ending. The same can be said of any state of nature — such a world makes monsters of us all. Given that anthropogenic climate change is predicted to usher in an unprecedented era of global resource conflict, that’s something to consider.

Even in the final moment of triumph, the game offers an especially bleak perspective. When the Brotherhood of Steel chooses to dislodge the Enclave from the Jefferson Memorial, they do it not out of any higher motive, but out of a desire to ensure their own safety. And when you manage to purify the wasteland’s water, what then? You haven’t changed the state of nature. You haven’t established the covenant that protects men from each other. Water is now safe to drink, but the people of the wastes will just find something else to fight over. The concluding slideshow promises the same thing that the opening did: war will go on, and war never changes. And what is the world like, in war? Well, it’s much like the experience of the game’s main character:

In such condition there is… continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

  7 Responses to “Bellum omnia contra omnes”

  1. "And when you manage to purify the wasteland's water, what then? You haven't changed the state of nature. You haven't established the covenant that protects men from each other."

    All of which means that your "sacrifice" at the end is stripped of even *more* meaning. Just another pointless death in a long line of them. There's really nothing the writers could cram in at the last minute to change that fact.

  2. I agree. In fact, one could plausibly argue that by removing the only power that could realistically dominate the wastes you have done their inhabitants a disservice. The Enclave is brutal and repressive, but at least it could have brought some kind of order. Given the dire straits of the wasteland, an organizational force is greatly needed, even if all the water is pure.

  3. @sparky: But the Enclave wants to wipe out all the ghouls! it aint' right!

    Great piece by the way, I actually used the Hobbes comparison in a piece I wrote about fallout I. Kismet!

    There's an interesting way, I think, that the postapocalyptic wasteland serves as a state-of-nature. Which is one reason why I found the fallout games so interesting, they really create a situation in which the normal societal rules fall by the wayside.

  4. At the same time, I think assessing the state of nature in the post-apocalyptic world seals you in to a particular kind of story about the state of nature. The idea that people blew up the world just doesn't allow for very much optimism when it comes to human propensities. Of course, Fallout 3 goes further than it strictly has to by making so much of the force internally directed. Lucas Simms and the Rivet City security force aren't patrolling the walls of the settlement pointing their guns at the rest of the world. They're patrolling the inside, pointing the guns at their own citizens.

  5. So megaton has no military, only Lucas as police force? That's a good thing, isn't it? ^^

    I would say that fallout argues "that the death of governmental and international covenants are fatal to both individuals, and humanity itself" but only given a certain prerequisite. Had the government been disbanded more peacefully, and people had been more in control of the situation, then things would have worked out differently. But there wouldn't have been as much killing then, if the main characters objectives were not that of the enclaves.

  6. I think it's arguable that having police instead of military sends a more depressing message. In any situation, you'll have people who are willing to rob and attack the "other", but even in the midst of the desperate need of the wastes, people in Megaton are robbing from and killing their friends.

    And I don't think that Fallout embraces this anarchistic message you attribute to it at all. Every successful settlement in the Wastes has a clear power structure or at least a strongman, the only apparent exception being Evergreen Mills. I don't see anything here to support the idea that a less violent disassembly of the social order would have turned out fine.

  7. Looking at it from that perspective, yes, it is quite depressing. But maybe "otherness" is confined to ghouls and such in fallout and people would get along across different towns? This way, criminality can be explained by simple lack of resource; desperate as someone may be, he still hasn't become that desperate to traverse the wasteland.

    I wouldn't say I attribute an anarchistic message to fallout 3, and I probably should have written that things COULD have worked out differently if USA was ended peacefully. But I do believe it's possible that clear power structures in successful settlements weren't a conscious way of making a statement, but rather that it could have been convenient for the writers to create choices for the characters, and also powermen to be able to relate to and choose to side or not to side with.

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