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