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.