The Impossible Will Take A Little While

The Impossible Will Take A Little While

I’m as corny as Kansas in August, high as the flag on the Fourth of July…

Fallout 3, the most critically acclaimed video game of 2008, continues the series tradition of incorporating big band music from the 40s and 50s. However, while the first two games only used these classics for one-offs (Fallout 2’s instructional video being a classic example), Fallout 3 is the first game to incorporate them into the soundtrack.

In the game, one of your earliest missions is to repair a jury-rigged radio antenna atop the Washington Monument. Doing so allows Three Dog – a jive-talking DJ, part Wolfman Jack and part Super Soul – to broadcast his pirate radio station, Galaxy News Radio, to all corners of the Capital Wasteland. Three Dog announces helpful tips (“make sure to keep your weapons repaired,” etc). He also keeps everyone within one hundred miles informed of your progress – praising you if you do good, slamming you if you do evil.

But mostly, he plays music.

Every song Three Dog plays comes from the big band boom of the 40s and 50s. Upbeat music about city life, swooning torch songs, and toe-tapping jazz numbers. You’ll hear classics like Roy Brown, Cole Porter and Billie Holliday, as well as long-dormant artists like the Ink Spots (whom you just heard in the trailer above).

Pleasant, yes? An entertaining diversion? Well …

Consider the soundtrack in context.

All of the music comes from American artists in the 1940s and 50s. America had just won the second World War. While Europe reeled with debt and death – several generations lost in the last two wars, architecture and infrastructure bombed to flinders – America at least had the appearance of health. The war effort had propelled American technology forward, giving the world the digital computer and the atomic bomb. The postwar housing boom and the Interstate Highway Act put two conflicting goals – the security of land and the freedom of the open road – within reach of every American.

The theme was Optimism, and the music of the time reflects that.

Look at the lyrics of the Andrews Sisters’ hit “Civilization” (featuring Danny Kaye):

They hurry like savages to get aboard an iron train
And though it’s smokey and it’s crowded, they’re too civilized to complain
When they’ve got two weeks vacation, they hurry to vacation ground
They swim and they fish, but that’s what I do all year round

So bongo, bongo, bongo, I don’t wanna leave the Congo, oh no no no no no
Bingo, bangle, bungle, I’m so happy in the jungle, I refuse to go
Don’t want no jailhouse, shotgun, fish-hooks, golf clubs, I got my spear
So, no matter how they coax him, I’ll stay right here

It sounds like a paean against civilization, but it speaks with a smart-aleck, satisfied tone. It spends all of its verses listing the immense wealth of the First World – mass transit, movie theaters, ranch houses – but little depicting what makes the Congo so preferable (“I got my spear”). People who are genuinely unsatisfied with civilization don’t write big band music. They write punk.

For a less ironic take, consider the dopey sentiment of the lyrics of Bob Crosby’s “Way Back Home”:

Bob doesn’t even bother coming up with clever rhymes – “the trees are the sappiest; the days are the nappiest” – or developing much of a narrative beyond them. The meaning is clear: the benefits of home are obvious enough that I don’t need to spell them out. I can make up silly nonsense rhymes about it, because we’re all on board.

So this is the soundtrack. What is its intended effect?

10 Comments on “The Impossible Will Take A Little While”

  1. Ryan #

    It’s very true: after playing so many hours of Fallout 3, I can’t stand not to hear Three Dog on the radio. It’s too quiet. Even in the deserted metro stations, I have to have it playing. Also, I’m now a big fan of the Ink Spots.


  2. Punning Pundit #

    My first playthrough, I didn’t repair the radio station, and thus spent a lot of time listening to Enclave Radio. It was actually a rather effective bit of propaganda…


  3. Eric #

    “People who are genuinely unsatisfied with civilization don’t write big band music. They write punk.”

    Sorry, but that’s just an embarrassingly bad line. Grow up.


  4. Perich #

    @Eric: You’re totally right! “Dissatisfied,” rather than “unsatisfied,” would have worked much better. Thank you.


  5. odeed #

    “My first playthrough, I didn’t repair the radio station, and thus spent a lot of time listening to Enclave Radio. It was actually a rather effective bit of propaganda…”

    Yeah, I actually found myself thinking, ‘maybe these guys aren’t so bad after all,’ Eton sounds so calm, and kindly.


  6. AtomicRed #

    I love Fallout 3 and reading this article makes it more appealing. Keep up the good work.


  7. Sheelagh the vault dweller #

    Very interesting piece.

    However, while it might help make your point, you’re wrong about humanity dying in the Fallout universe. Out west, the NCR has a population of 700,000 along with railroads, factories, electricity, a well-organised army and a police force. While the Capital Wasteland is more lawless, there’s no shortage of people there either (Vault 101, at least, has the lack of genetic viability, something the Overseer admits)

    What are your thoughts of on Enclave Radio? Broadcasting stirring speeches and patriotic songs across the devastated remnants of the nation? Trying to rally the people by talking about stuff they’ll have never experienced, like baseball games? I have to admit, I support the Enclave. Not because of the propaganda, but because of the truth. They have the biggest, most advanced army in the Capital Wasteland. Who better to get rid of the raiders and super mutants (you see patrols in lots of areas doing just this), to use their resources to let people get on with rebuilding instead of just surviving?


  8. perich OTI Staff #

    @Sheelagh: good points. I don’t know that the Fallout developers have commented explicitly on the long-term future of the human species in their universe. And they probably don’t intend to. So maybe things aren’t hopeless!

    However, an industrial society (like the NCR and the Enclave are trying to recreate) requires an industrial population base to labor in support of it. 700,000 people may be enough to support a civilization with railroads and factories, but I suspect that’s cutting it really close. London circa 1900 had 6.7 million people. Presuming (pure seat of my pants guesswork) that 15% of them worked in blue collar labor, that’s at least 1 million souls keeping the trains running on time.

    Also, bear in mind when I talk about “the end of the human species,” I mean on an ecological scale of time. It took the last Cretaceous dinosaurs at least a million years to die off. Humans have wrecked the planet far worse in Fallout 3, but even the most pessimistic estimates would give the human race another, say, two thousand years of life.


  9. Sheelagh the vault dweller #

    @Perich: Good points too. Don’t forget that the Fallout universe is more advanced than ours, and so automation (specifically robots and AIs) can take care of a lot of tasks. They also have huge advantages in the form of their fusion power sources which means electricity isn’t something that needs as much effort dedicated to it. I suspect this is part of the explanation for how (as my other half wondered) all the lights in the subways and sewers still work – every so often, you come across a small reactor humming away happily in a utility room, as it has done for the last two centuries.

    As we never get to see the NCR running (apart from the capital city) up close it’s hard to say just how well it all works but I’d imagine that it must. Certainly in Fallout 2, the various independent settlements all had a speciality they traded (Modoc had produce, Vault City medicine, Redding gold, Broken Hills uranium, Gecko power, San Francisco weapons) for the stuff they lacked.

    A lot of folks have said that Fallout 3’s nuclear devastation would be more befitting of a world 2 years after the war, not 200. After two centuries, many plant species would have started to regrow and certainly we wouldn’t still have a desert… Point Lookout gives a more realistically overgrown setting. It’s also mentioned that once you get about 50 miles out to sea, the ocean is largely as it is now (and no doubt getting better, given there’s no trawlers scooping up everything in huge nets).


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