Well, the Fallout 4 trailer’s out, and they’ve destroyed the world again.
Well, that’s not entirely accurate. Since it’s Fallout 4, it’s still the same post-apocalypse as, by my unscientific and uncorroborated memory, six other games. But there’s no shortage of world-ends across the medium.
It’s a conceptual setting that lends itself to lone heroics, so it comes with a built-in cultural history to ease any disconnects between the player’s centrality to everything and the need to acknowledge other people’s existence. It provides a narrative justification for why there just aren’t a lot of those other people around. Challenges to programming AI, budgeted priorities, the constraints of development and the limits of the capabilities of the human/computer centaurs that are games—these can’t be acknowledged. And it provides a narrative justification for why you can kill so many of those people who are around. That’s just how it will be after civilization falls apart, when all the lies are stripped away and only the fittest survive.
That’s definitely not a philosophical position.
And so it’s certainly not political.
In her 1991 analysis of Western books and films, West of Everything, Jane Tompkins argues these settings, and the stories told in them, are reactions against feminine influences, which in a post-Victorian society built on public/private work/domestic masculine/feminine dichotomies ultimately means civilization itself. The Western is a throwback, a reminder that the outdoor spaces, the men’s spaces, the violent spaces, were there first.
They’re foundational myths. The post-apocalypse is their inversion. Rather than show what truths and realities predate civilization (with its political correctness and its pushing for social justice and its refusal to let you off the hook), you show what’s left after civilization is gone. You have to destroy because, in a world like ours, perceived and believed to lack frontiers, you have to destroy things in order to have something to explore. What I mean is, you have to destroy the results of previous colonization; not the things your initial expansion destroyed (then it’d just be a Western or an adventure).
Exploration, adventures; historically, these tended to result in new, unbalanced social structures that we call “colonies.” The maps that said “Here be dragons!” could have been made more accurate by saying “here be people who don’t look like me!”
Our modern world has few, if any, frontiers. We can no longer
escape to the frontier of the West, explore Darkest Africa, sail to the
South Seas. Even Alaska and the Amazon Jungles will soon be lost as
wild frontier areas. Furthermore, adventures are not generally possible anymore.
Gygax’s bemoaning these places no longer being frontiers ignores the historical fact that plenty of people lived there when they WERE considered “frontiers.” A frontier requires a point of view, a place to stand, a “here” to the frontier’s “there.” And here’s it’s Euro-American (“Darkest Africa”? Really?).
So fantasy, games, adventure stories, they provide that fantasy of exploration without the pesky realities of people already being there—stories and games create their worlds as you explore them. They don’t preexist, so you’re not really doing any violence toward those who are already there.
But back to the post-apocalypse. In the Western, the end is already written: the cowboys will kill everyone who can’t be brought into civilization. But in the post-apocalypse, civilization’s center could hold; but don’t worry, the brave and strong will survive. And you’re playing the game set here, so you get to pretend to be brave and strong.
Because the end isn’t written, civilization doesn’t have to be inevitable. It’s usually suspect; anyone who has maintained the trappings of civilization in a post-apocalypse is a fake and a danger. They’re cannibals, or slavers, or decadent or inhumanly strict. It could be a metaphor for how our societies exist at the expense of others; usually it’s an adolescent fever dream of the evils of conformity and, well, domesticity.
The final shot of John Ford’s The Searchers shows the newly reunited family entering the cool darkness of their home. John Wayne’s character, whose violence and ruthlessness allowed this to occur, stands outside in the doorway. He turns and walks away, not coming inside.
The post-apocalypse says that what is gone, turned away, that violence, was necessary to create something and will return when what it has created is gone. This myth creeps into so many of our stories: the idealistic law enforcement officer who turns to torture because that is truth; the man who sacrifices his soul to provide for his family; the True Detectives who are bad men who keep the monsters at bay. It’s key to a worldview that suggests requiring respect for others is dishonest, not natural; too soft, not violent enough—it’s not harassment, it’s just how things really are! The Internet, its message boards and comments sections are filled with people who believe they’re outside the “hypocrisy” of society; they think it’s their Wild West, when maybe they’re the rage zombies infesting the wasteland.
Sometimes a post-apocalypse results in the rebuilding of a society. The end of the second season of The 100, a post-nuclear-war drama on the CW Network, tweaks the necessary violence philosophy: the teenager who has made multiple violent decisions against those who aren’t “[her] people” verbalizes that she can’t reenter the survivor’s camp. Having those standard difficult-leader-decisions by a teenage girl, rather than a grizzled old man, does open up that myth to a different demographic with less need to reconfigure their identity, but it’s still more of Moses can’t enter the promised land .
More often than not, these spaces are a particular kind of philosophy as landscape. One with a history that has largely been obsessed with violence and men, and men’s violence, and its necessity. And that’s just not that interesting, is it?
(Thanks to Anna Anthropy, whose ANNARCHIVE allowed me to source the Gygax quote.)
Brian Taylor is on Twitter.