Fallout and How War Always Changes

Fallout is fond of the soundbite “war never changes”, using it as something of a catchphrase for the franchise. But to what extent is this true? And how far is this just an empty phrase, a rhetoric device to make a game full of meaningless violence seem deep.

I will be upfront – I have a problem with Fallout. I don’t exactly know what that problem is. I have logged a good amount of hours in New Vegas and found it alright, but I haven’t picked it up in a while. I do prefer it to its sequel Fallout 4, a game that I’m wrestling with at the moment. I think this is my third attempt to get into the title, and while I’m making more progress that I have previously, I am aware of the enormous distance that exists between me and the game. Like I said I’m unsure why I’m not connecting with this series when everyone around me is replaying it for the hundredth time. This has caused me to scrutinise Fallout perhaps more keenly than I usually would in an attempt to discover the source of my discontent. So while I don’t think that negates any of my criticisms of the game, I do think it should signal to die hards that I’m not on the same hype train as you.

Two sources really inspired me to interrogate this tag line of Fallout – “war never changes”. The most notable being this piece that I talked about in last week’s Sunday Swatch. For those who missed it: a woman who grew up in Bosnia in the 90s plays Fallout 4 and reflects on her childhood experiences in a war zone. The second piece of media is this scene (linked below) from M.A.S.H. Discussing the cold take “war is hell”, Hawkeye states that: “War is war and Hell is Hell, and of the two war is a lot worse”. An oft-repeated, simple phrase can seem insightful, until you take a moment to reflect and discover it is ultimately meaningless and shallow.

From even a basic historical overview, war does change. It has changed and has changed a lot. Warfare is constantly evolving along with technology meaning that one day, maybe robots fighting in space will exist outside FPS titles. Technology has changed not only the tools of war, but the how we fight them. Think about the evolution of media and communication and how its influenced war – from news and propaganda; to espionage and subterfuge. A medieval battlefield would look nothing like a Middle Easter war zone, which would not be recognisable to soldiers familiar with trench warfare.

I could go on about ways that war has changed as society and (geo)politics have changed. And you could easily refute me: “these are superficial things. When we say ‘war never changes’ we mean the violence, the destruction, Hawkeye’s innocent by-standers.” So let’s consider this.

We can say that war involves two sections. Firstly those at the top of the hierarchy: Kings, religious leaders, feudal lords, politicians, the rich and power hungry elite of their time. The second is the everyday soldier on the ground, who is cast as an innocent bystander by M.A.S.H’s standards. This soldier has been sent off to war through some means that leaves him as a victim in some way. Whether that was the law, national feeling, misinformation, or manipulation. And of these two factions, the ones at the top profit and remain relatively safe (so long as they are on the side of victory), while those on the battlefield suffer greatly on both sides – along with any civilian that has the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And this is repeated all throughout history and war never changes.

This is an overly simplistic way of viewing military endeavours. There is some merit to the idea that many soldiers are enlisted through less moral means. The armed forces visited my school several times to show us how fun and attractive the army/navy/RAF was, especially if you were not academically successful. And of course, on each visit the smiling rep talked about sunny weather, good wages and a fulfilling career, but never mentioned killing people with dark skin whose countries suffered due to our colonial legacy. But while there is plenty criticism to be given to the dodgy ways the armed forces find recruits, casting these people as poor, ignorant victims takes away their agency. No one is unaware that the army’s main role is to fight people.

But this whole topic is extremely nuanced and I do not think I could do all the necessary arguments justice. But what I want to show here is that the phrase “war never changes” seems attractive because it simplifies something that is terribly complex and dark. If we say “war never changes” we can sadly shake our heads at the pictures on the news of mutilated bodies and crying refugees without having to fully engage with the issue and our own contributions to it.

And playing Fallout, or many other video games, feels the same. Fallout shows us a harsh post-apocalypse world, permanently scarred by war. “If only we could learn to be kind again” we bemoan, while using excessive violence to murder countless NPCs. “Oh, if only we could come together and build a community like in the good old days” my companion cries, as his bullet causes a man’s head to explode. “I wish we could build and live, instead of surviving day to day in this ultra-violent wasteland”. Having ensured that everyone in the make-shift compound was dead, my player character and their companion spend the night drinking and raiding the dead bodies for loot.

And here I come to some fundamental problems I have with Fallout. Number One: If government and infrastructure collapses, human beings become base animals. Personally I follow the law not solely because it is the law, but because it is morally the right thing to do. Obviously there are exceptions to this, but for arguments sake I’m talking about the big things like murder and theft. I can easily envision a world without institutions where humans can build communities and respect each other. And I don’t think these would be isolated pockets in a cruel world.

My second issue with Fallout is the way the game moralises this world and its violence, then asks me to participate in it without facing moral consequences. It constantly repeats “war never changes” but gives me no options to change it. I can’t chat with some Raiders to find out what their deal is and if they want to chill out and be peaceful. No, all of them are villains and I need to kill them to achieve my goals. And I haven’t seen any time in the game where I’m asked to face my own role in perpetuating violence. Instead I’m constantly lauded as a hero and admired by all.

These are some thoughts I’ve been having while playing Fallout, but also occur to me during many games. I acknowledge its a fact of game mechanics: Introduce a enemy then make the game entertaining by requiring me to fight them. And normally I can ignore the tension there. But when it comes to war games, I find it particularly difficult to shut it off. I find the dissonance between my actions in game (mostly accruing a sizeable body count,) and the way the game frames my actions (as the people’s hero of the wasteland). This War of Mine is free this month on Playstation Plus, and I’m interested to see the way that this game discusses war. It may be a lot to ask of AAA game titles, but sometimes I wish for more nuance in their portrayal of war – but most of all, for games to at least ask us what role we play, both in game and out, in ensuring war never changes.

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