Bethesda released Fallout 4 this month. It’s the sequel to one of my all-time favorite games, so I’ve talked about it with most of my friends. As with books and movies, people often ask “so, what is the game about?” I think there are two general ways to answer this question for the Fallout games, and which of those two choices you pick may reveal something important and fundamental about how you see the world. Like seeing glasses of water as half-empty or half-full, some people tend to see Fallout (and the world) as about individuals, while others understand the game and society in terms of the relationships between groups.
1) Wasteland v. Shelter
The entire Fallout Universe is set in an alternate future Earth that results from a history that diverges from our timeline around the 1950s. In The Fallout Universe, dwindling natural resources ultimately lead to global nuclear annihilation in the year 2077- though the happy-go-lucky hokey culture of the iconic 1950s middle-America never went away. Pockets of the population survived the nuclear holocaust in large underground Fallout Shelters, called Vaults. In each of the four main Fallout games, the player controls a character that emerges from one of these Vaults to explore the desolate American ruins (called “the Wasteland”) and navigate the emerging post-apocalyptic civilization.
My own interpretation is that a Fallout game is “about” an individual: the player’s character, who emerges from the vault and explores the Wasteland. The alternate understanding is that the games are about a post-nuclear war America, and the societies and choices that might exist there. I think that the design (e.g, the isolation in the player character’s generic identifier) and mechanics of the game (a first-person RPG) focus the game on the player, rather than the world. The contrast with another Fallout game, Fallout Shelter, makes this distinction even more clear.
When project lead Todd Howard announced Fallout 4 at this year’s E3, he also announced a simple game for tablets and phones: Fallout Shelter. This game allows a player to design, build, control and manage a Vault of their own. This game requires players to optimize work assignments within the vault, balance resources, manage growth, and face disasters. In contrast, Fallout 1-4 require a player to create and manage a single character. Then the player must move that character through the Wasteland to find supplies, fight enemies, and make individual decisions in their interactions with non-player characters. Other game design elements also emphasize the difference between the focuses of Fallout and Fallout Shelter. For example, Fallout Shelter continues after a Vault Dweller’s death, whereas a game of Fallout ends when the player’s character dies.
2) Kierkegaard v. Hegel
It can be difficult to talk about some things that are extremely basic to our experience. We don’t stop to think about how we could describe the primary colors or define some commonly used word, much less explain three-dimensional space or what it feels like to feel. So, most people don’t reflect on some of the axioms they use in interpreting the world. Luckily for we plebeians, it is the business of philosophers to ask questions that “normal” people never get around to asking.
Soren Kierkegaard is known as the father (or grandfather) of existentialism, as well as one of the most prolific Christian theologians. He focused much of his philosophy on a concept of “subjectivity,” or “inwardness.” While we think of “subjective” as a term to describe something uncertain, indeterminate, or disputable, Kierkegaard rarely means anything like this. His use of the term refers to individual experience and existence—the things that no one else can feel or be on another’s behalf. (See also: phenomena, ownmost) For some people, this is the fundamental operation of the world: reality is only ultimately understood as individual subjective experience. This is not to say that the rest of the world does not exist, but only that the world is understood as an individual experiencing that world. This might be more clearly understood by a comparison to an alternative view.
G.W.F. Hegel is one of the most influential philosophers in history (just look at the last paragraph of his intro on Wikipedia!). His ideas still influence most of the humanities and social sciences, and in turn influence public policy and law. His most enduring ideas— synthesis-antithesis-thesis, slave-master dialectic, and other ideas assorted the End of History—all find their basis and application in a particular understanding of the world. Hegel understood the world in terms of broad groups and populations. Though he paid more attention to nationalities and cultural groups, Karl Marx would pick up his ideas with a sharper focus on economic classes, and 20th and 21st century branches of feminism similarly rely on understandings of groups of sexes, genders, race, and so forth. Whatever they type of group, criteria of classification, or mode of organization, this view sees the world as sets of people. What matters, fundamentally, is the structures and systems that guide the interactions and relations of these groups.
Except in the most extreme cases, neither of these contexts aims to deny the existence of the other. Hegel’s view of people as masses and classes does not deny that individual humans exist or have experiences. Despite his more polemic and attention-grabbing assertions, Kierkegaard acknowledges that large groups of people may have enough in common to be grouped together for at least the purpose of discussing issues at a large scale. However, these two base concepts are so different that they can have trouble understanding one another, and apparent conflicts between them can be frustrating for both sides.
3) War Never Changes, Even on the Internet
I’ve seen a few disagreements in cyberspace. (I’ve seen them in physical reality, too; the same precepts apply, but arguments are easier to dissect and consider when they are recorded in unaltered writing… because logos.) Particularly on subjects of social or political concern, parties can reach an impasse which I think stems from the same kind of difference that I find between Kierkegaard and Hegel.
Many disagreements feature an assertion of some fact about the world (in the form of statistics or data about large groups, large scales, or general systems and structures), which finds a response in the form of a personal anecdote (a friend’s experience, a single individual counter-example, a personal story, etc.). This personal experience appears to contradict the first assertion, and both parties reaffirm their positions without exploring the difference in the kind of evidence offered. Progress is rarely made, and each combatant will leave the fight feeling certain of their own victory, and annoyed that their opponent was too stupid to even understand such a clear and convincing outcome.
One significant effect of these different viewpoint axioms is what kinds of things can constitute valid evidence. For those associated with Hegel’s position, most single, individual experiences can be dismissed as statistically outliers or generally poor basses for public policy decisions. However, for those who embrace Kierkegaard’s understanding, individual experience is of paramount importance in shaping individual thought and opinion; larger scales may certainly be considered, but can never replace personal, subjective experience.
4) Believing in the Atom: Quantum Mechanics v. Classical Physics
In Fallout, there is a religion that believes in an inherent divinity of the nature and structure of the atom. Adherents to this sect view nuclear devastation as an act of creation rather than destruction, and see nuclear radioactivity as a source of both physical and spiritual power. The fact that atoms comprise all matter and can be split to unlock tremendous energy inspires awe and wonder for these worshipers. While that is awesome, I find it more amazing that the particles which make up atoms obey entirely different laws than the objects which the atoms themselves make up.
It seems self-evident that the all of the physical world ought to be governed by the same set of laws. We expect all objects, from apples to planets, to behave the same way everywhere in the universe. The fact that sub-atomic particles don’t behave like planets is a vexing concern for many scientists (even those not spending their lives trying to resolve this contradiction by developing String Theory). What seems to annoy scientists the most is that each law clearly works in its respective domain. Neither disproves or overpowers the other, yet they remain incompatible. In the same way, viewing humanity from either the individual perspective or from a scope of large populations seems functional, and neither viewpoint disproves or obliterates the other.
I don’t know whether it’s even the right question to ask, whether Kierkegaard or Hegel was “right.” Maybe that’s the wrong way to think about the matter. But I think understanding these two approaches brings coherence to a lot of apparent noise in internet discussions, and makes comprehensible what might otherwise just appear to be deranged ranting. It will be a lot of work to bring these two worldviews into harmony, but just recognizing them might be a very fruitful first step.