Historical Themes in Fallout 3

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m well behind the console game curve — here I am, for instance, just having a finished a game that came out in 2008. But I thought that the historical elements of the game were interesting and I’m going to discuss them briefly. I’ve written before about video games on this blog (scroll down for the Skyrim stuff) and I just recently voiced some thoughts on Western themes in Fallout: New Vegas over on my gaming blog. So let’s take a look at historical stuff in Fallout 3.

In some ways, post-apocalyptic games always have a sense of the history, since by definition they’re post something — and that something is us (although Borderlands might be an exception to that, set as it is on another planet). The Fallout series is an interesting spin on that, because although it’s set after the collapse of a futuristic society, that futuristic society is very old-fashioned, with its sort of vaguely 30s-50s aesthetic, resulting in a feeling of nostalgia even for a society that’s nominally set far in our future. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about:

But quite aside from the general historical bent of the post-apocalypse genre (it occurs to me that many films set in the middle ages are basically post-apocalyptic films, which may also mean that they are basically westerns), Fallout 3 has a heck of a lot of history content. In fact, you spend quite a lot of the early-mid game (if you’re me, anyway) in museums, archives and libraries.

There are several different viewpoints on history expressed by characters in Fallout 3. Perhaps the simplest view is that of Abraham Washington.


Abraham Washington is the head of the Capital Preservation Society, and he will pay good money for historical artefacts you find lying around. In fact, on one of these missions — to recover the Declaration of Independence — you run into another artefact (or should I say relic?) hunter, Sydney.

Abraham’s interest in the past is simple: he collects it. He has the biggest and best collection of historical artefacts in the DC area. He doesn’t understand it — his account of the Declaration of Independence is gibberish — but he likes it and he wants it. Sydney doesn’t care about it at all, either; she’s just a professional who needs the money Abraham offers.

A more sophisticated viewpoint is offered by Moira Brown, one of the first contacts you make in the game. Moira is writing a book, The Wasteland Survival Guide, and she wants your help. Over time, you can chat to her about her motivations, and I think what she says is pretty interesting.


Here’s the full text:

Player: Why are you always working on such weird ideas?

Moira: Well, look around at the world we live in. It may be okay to you, but I’ve read about what it used to be like, and this wasn’t it. So we all need something that keeps us going, despite all the terrible things around us. For me, it’s things like this book.

Player: I don’t understand. Crazy experiments are what keep you going?

Moira: No. It’s like… Did you ever try to put a broken piece of glass back together? Even if the pieces fit, you can’t make it whole again the way it was. But if you’re clever, you can still use the pieces to make other useful things. Maybe even something wonderful, like a mosaic. Well, the world broke just like glass. And everyone’s trying to put it back together like it was, but it’ll never come together the same way.

Player: So you’re trying to make the world better than it was?

Moira: Hey, it sounds crazy when you say it that way, but that’s what I’m aiming for, yeah. The Wasteland Survival Guide isn’t much towards that lofty goal, but it’s an important one. And that’s why I need your help. I don’t think I can do it alone.

For Moira, the things of the past are things you take and use to build new things; she’s a bricoleur. Moira is one of the few characters in the game who think they can improve the world by moving forward. Even her closest ideological counterparts, sincere and benign people like Three Dog and Owyn Lyons, are really only interested in keeping the people out there in the Wasteland safe right now — Lyons doesn’t believe he can actually make life better until an opportunity to do it falls in his lap.

Meanwhile, over on the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got Hannibal Hamlin. Hannibal — named after Lincoln’s abolitionist vice president — is the leader of a group of escaped slaves (slavery is a big theme in the game) who wants you to clear some slavers out of the Lincoln Memorial so that he can restore him. Hannibal’s understanding of who Lincoln was is about as garbled as Abraham Washington’s, but the point is that he’s doing something with it — for him, history is a reason to go out and change the world, an example and a motivation. And if that means that he basically worships Abraham Lincoln as a god, well … if it leads to gunning down slavers in the Lincoln Memorial, that’s all to the good.

The last of our big four historical characters is John Henry Eden, self-proclaimed President of the United States. For most of the early game, you only encounter Eden through his radio broadcasts, in which he waxes lyrical about the old days — about his boyhood in rural Kentucky, his beloved dog, and so on. He also promises to bring back the United States, exactly the way it was, complete with financial aid to students, a baseball team in every major city, and the elimination of ghouls, mutants and basically everyone who doesn’t live up to his ideals for humanity. Without giving the game away, we can say that Eden’s vision of the past is as a standard to return to; it’s the reverse of Moira’s.

So there you have four major perspectives on the past in the game. You can think of them as opposed pairs: Hannibal / Abraham and Moira / John Henry. Fundamentally, they’re all asking the same question: what is the past for?

Now, as it happens, this question doesn’t ever really get resolved by the game. Its only resolution is in the choices you make. The end of the game winds up being a big-ass battle between pretty clear good guys and bad guys, with your choice limited to “who you got?” Which is fine for me, since I’m light side for life and always have been.

But it might be the most interesting examination of the individual’s relationship to history I’ve ever seen in a game, and right at this very moment I’m having trouble thinking of better instances in other media.

Historical Themes in Fallout 3

Everybody Knows

For the last few days, I have been thinking about categories of historical knowledge. There are lots of different kinds, but there are a few in particular I want to focus on.

First, you’ve got things that everybody knows. By everybody, I don’t mean historians, I mean more or less everybody. For instance … I dunno … “in fourteen hundred ninety-two / Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

All historical rhymes should include some comment explaining that it's a fuckin' miracle he didn't die.
All historical rhymes should include some comment explaining that it’s a fuckin’ miracle he didn’t die.

Next, you’ve got your things that nobody knows. Again, by nobody I don’t mean nobody — but the things that knowing means you must be a specialist in that area or at least have done some recent reading on the subject. I dunno … “Contemporaries referred to the consulship of 59 BC as ‘the consulship of Julius and Caesar’.” Your typical Rome viewer does not know that, I wouldn’t think.

But in the middle there is a special kind of fact — the fact that, as far as I can tell, everyone knows, but that everyone still acts like nobody knows. The example that prompted this thought was “Vikings didn’t have horns on their helmets,” but I’m sure you could think of other examples. “Roman buildings were brightly coloured, not white,” maybe, or “Napoleon wasn’t actually short.”

That moustache is on point tho.
That moustache is on point tho.

You can go anywhere on the internet and find people being all “DID YOU KNOW: Vikings didn’t have horns on their helmets! It’s a popular misconception.” By this point the number of people explaining the misconception must far outnumber the people who believed in it.

Just at a glance, it’s interesting that the examples I can think of are all positioned in opposition to how things are portrayed in popular culture — or possibly, how they were portrayed when the speaker was younger? So maybe there’s that.

I suppose my question is: do we have a word for that?

(Side note: I think that “the Civil War wasn’t about slavery” which goes to show that an opinion flying in the face of conventional wisdom needn’t be right as long as it positions you as a savvy insider.)

Everybody Knows

Pirates, comics, and historical fiction fads

Check out this exciting new vidya technology!

Show Notes

I am a big fan of The works of Larry Gonick. See my previous post on the topic.

The first volume of Age of Bronze is a good place to get started. I wrote about it in an earlier post.

I got my copy of Escape Velocity at Comix Experience in San Francisco.

Check out Archaeological Oddities.

Pirates, comics, and historical fiction fads

Movie Monday: Hoodlum (1997)

Gangster films are very comforting to me. I realise they’re not intended to be that way, but there’s a certain warm familiarity in the formula. I feel the same way about mystery-comedies or martial arts movies. When the monitor on the right is occupied by some big project — as it was today — the monitor on the left can be full of dapper suits, swell hats and tommy guns.

That’s right, it’s time for 1997’s Hoodlum, starring Laurence Fishburne, Tim Roth, Andy Garcia, Vanessa Williams and just … oh, all sorts of people.


If history bios are a genre, true-crime gangster movies are a very specific subgenre. If I told you who the main characters in this film are and asked you to write out a plot summary, without telling you anything about the historical Ellsworth R. “Bumpy” Johnson, I bet you would write something like:

  • Bumpy Johnson comes back to the old neighbourhood after getting out of jail.
  • Harlem is being preyed on by gang lords, here represented by Tim Roth and Andy Garcia as Dutch Schultz and Lucky Luciano.
  • Bumpy takes command of the local mob to fight off the white gangsters.
  • In the meantime, he woos a good woman who disapproves of his life of crime but loves his sensitive soul.
  • However, in order to beat his opponents, Bumpy becomes increasingly ruthless until the people he intended to protect don’t recognise him any more.

The only surprising deviation from the formula is that in the end Bumpy triumphs rather than going off to jail, since in fact he died a free man. And, fidelity-to-history wise, this movie benefits from the fact that it has a lot of characters to choose from who already have a legendary status in the American popular press. In addition to big names like Schultz and Luciano, you have lesser-known but still colourful characters like Stephanie St Clair, who ran a gambling racket in Harlem with Bumpy Johnson as her enforcer.

Other than that, you have the usual stock character types. Chi McBride is the funny best friend, Vanessa Williams is upright and noble (here represented by being a passionate Garveyite, even though she barely talks about anything Garveyish. You do see her handing out food to the poor and so on). There’s a fat Irish cop and a naive, idealistic young wannabe gangster and some grizzled old veterans and a black guy who works for Tim Roth and is all conflicted about it. You know the kind of thing.

The problem with making a good historical film is always simply that history resists being turned into a conventional narrative. That’s why films with historical settings are often satisfying but films about historical events aren’t as much (unless they’re very confined and selective, like Gettysburg). This film has that problem as well. The film ends with the murder of Dutch Schultz (which produced a weird and sometimes chilling ramble as Dutch lay dying of his wounds). This leads to the OK Corral problem — although the death of Schultz solves Bumpy’s strategic problem, it doesn’t resolve his personal plot in any way, really, though. After it happens there’s a scene where he goes into the church and the choir is singing and then he comes outside and there’s one of those baptism-metaphor rainstorms.

I was waiting for a caption to come up: “Bumpy Johnson remained a crime boss for 30 more years.”

So is it good? Iiiiiit’s OK. It’s super formulaic, but it’s an interesting look at a part of the Depression gangster era that doesn’t often get portrayed. And it’s got a lot of good people in it. Sometimes it’s a grey autumn day and you’re sitting inside writing and you just want to see Laurence Fishburne shoot some fools in a series of dapper outfits.

Movie Monday: Hoodlum (1997)

TV Tuesday: Sleepy Hollow (2013)

This past Sunday, I was struggling and swearing trying to change a tyre, as you do, and the phrase “history is a genre” entered my head. I’ve talked about this concept before, and I don’t think my insight is revolutionary. I’ve just never phrased it in that way.

Coincidentally, later that evening I watched my first episode of Sleepy Hollow.

Now, I want to stress here that I’m not complaining about any of the historical content in Sleepy Hollow. It’s completely goddamn crazy and has nothing to do with anything; the whole idea of Ichabod Crane is just to be this guy from Olde Times when needed for obscure knowledge or laffs. Sometimes this is just dumb, but at other times it’s used to great effect.

Let’s take the fifth episode, “John Doe,” as an example. In this episode, Ichabod and his modern-day partner Abbie get mixed up in the case of a sick boy who is found wearing old-timey clothing and speaking Middle English. Ichabod, who naturally speaks fluent Middle English, talks to the kid and discovers that he is from the lost colony of Roanoke. Abbie doesn’t know what this is and asks him, so we get the whole spiel, Virginia Dare, missing people. No CROATOAN, which is the allegedly spooky part of the whole thing.

So, obviously this is bullshit from stem to stern. For example:

  • Roanoke was founded in 1585. Did Shakespeare speak Middle English?
  • Nobody called it Middle English in the 18th century.
  • Abbie’s never heard of it. This was the weirdest part of it for me: who the hell hasn’t heard of Roanoke? I mean, maybe if you are not from America or you’re very young.
Look at these Elizabethans.
Look at these Elizabethans.

I get what they’re doing — trying to make the historical colonists seem weird and unfamiliar, which is a good thing. And like I said, I’m not complaining. I’m enjoying the show.

I mainly wanted to post to say that the whole thing reminded me of that panel from Fun with Milk and Cheese where they go to the Renaissance Faire and just (being Milk and Cheese) beat the shit out of everyone, and they’re screaming “SHAKESPEARE AND CHAUCER WERE NOT CONTEMPORARIES, YET YOU EVOKE THEM AS IF THEY WERE! TELL ME WHY, ACTOR-MAN!”

The other interesting thing is that when I was around the age that I was when I first read Milk and Cheese (so my late teens), I would have had exactly this reaction, cussing and spitting tacks. But time passes.

TV Tuesday: Sleepy Hollow (2013)