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…


Existentialism, as advanced by writers and philosophers following World War II, derives meaning from human action instead of social order or supernatural ethics. Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus is probably the classic example – though Sisyphus’ task is cosmically hopeless, and in fact a punishment from the gods, he derives meaning from the labor he exerts.

Existentialism also tells us that human beings define themselves through the act of existing – hence the name – rather than conforming to some Platonic essence. “Man first of all exists,” wrote Sartre in Existentialism is Humanism, “encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterward.” This has both depressing and exhilarating impact: it means that humans are not inherently good, but neither are we inherently wicked. We are (to quote Vonnegut) what we pretend to be.

Finally, existentialist literature pulls a lot of weight by drawing our attention to the absurd. Kafka’s the supreme example here, depicting the absurdity – both frightening and entertaining – in modern bureaucracy and civilized mores. The alienation that Kafka’s protagonists feel, whether being turned into insects or witnessing horrible judicial tortures, divorces them from their prior allegiances to God or society.

In Fallout 3, there is no evidence of the supernatural. And there is no social order to speak of.

In Fallout 3, your character can be as good or as evil as he or she wishes. Nothing requires her to accept missions from friendly town elders; nothing prevents her from slaughtering them.

In Fallout 3, listening to Billie Holliday croon about being crazy with love while setting a bunker full of human beings on fire is absurd.

By pairing cheery big band hits of the 40s and 50s with post-apocalyptic despair, Fallout 3 does more to advance the case for existentialism than five decades of French philosophy. It projects the player into a world where hope is impossible: the human race has reached the end of its technological arc, and the die-off has begun. But instead of descending into savagery, the game reminds you of the sentimental world from which this one emerged. Their sentiment and your despair have equal weight. Some people – raiders, slavers and the tyrants of the Enclave – will take that as an excuse for brutality. Others realize that it means you’re free to do good.

The battle between right and wrong comes not from God or from society, but from the war in every human’s private soul. And that war never changes.

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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