The Red Menace (Re)Imagined
Daniel John | Cardiff University
Video games are being engaged with by more and more people every year, and many of these games now inform and are informed by notions of popular history. To some, it may seem absurd that a video game can inform anyone of history, especially when it comes to a series like Fallout, which is known for having a fantastical universe inspired by retro-futurism. Fallout, briefly, is situated far away from our own past, as it is set hundreds of years in the future with a timeline that has diverged from our own. While the exact point of divergence is left vague, it happened sometime after World War II. Yet at the same time, even someone who is only slightly familiar with the last century will feel a curious sense of familiarity when undertaking their own journey through post-apocalyptic America. This article will explore the ways in which a game like Fallout 76 evokes popular history on many levels to create an atmospheric experience for the player that mimics our own history. Moreover, this article will explore how there are multiple layers of engagement when it comes to the popular history of the Cold War that this game evokes, from the background elements that act as decorations, to the game mechanics themselves that reinforce the ideologies at work.
The key differences in Fallout’s divergent timeline are the developments of technology, as humanity within the Fallout timeline is hyper-focused on enhancing their proficiency over the atom after 1945. As a result, the Fallout universe closely resembles a ‘world of tomorrow’ that was common in early sci-fi, where cars are powered by nuclear generators, weapons fire bolts of atomic plasma, and even the signature ‘Nuka-Cola’ beverage has radioactive elements in its’ recipe. The emphasis on nuclear technology also led to a cultural shift from our own. The Fallout universe finds itself almost preserved in a stasis, where the culture of the 1950s and early 1960s continues to dominate the USA, even hundreds of years in the future. The games themselves are set in the twenty-second century, further emphasising the futurism that the series leans into. Despite the world being futuristic and advanced (at least in terms of how the atom is harnessed), the Cold War did not end in 1991 like our timeline. Instead, due to the continuation of early Cold War culture, China became the main communist threat to an increasingly paranoid USA, and eventually, this culminated in one of the greatest fears of our own Cold War – a ‘Great War’ where a nuclear apocalypse envelops humanity. The Fallout games are set after this apocalypse has reduced America to a wasteland, and the player finds themselves wandering the irradiated remnants of the USA. This is a world that both satirises the early Cold War, but also brings its greatest fear to life.
Tragically, even though there is an emerging cohort of historians that seek to study video games on a historical and academic level when it comes to the Fallout series, Fallout 76 has been overlooked. This is likely due to the game taking different directions in terms of its mechanics, being an online-focused experience rather than a traditional single-player role-playing game (RPG). Yet when it comes to 76, the game, in my opinion, is particularly worthy of analysis. The timeframe of the game being so close to the climax of the ‘Great War’ (aka, the nuclear apocalypse) means that the culture of Cold War America is closer than ever before to players that explore this world.
To begin, let us look at the more overt ways that anti-communist culture presents itself within Fallout 76. One of the best ways in which this is shown is through the various decorations that are in Harpers Ferry, reduced to rubble in Fallout 76’s post-apocalyptic Appalachia. These decorations, as shown in the images above, are vibrant and provocative in nature. They easily catch the eye, and the simplistic slogans that are employed on the poster make their viewpoint obvious: you are either with them, or against them. Furthermore, there is no middle ground or alternative option, it is either America or certain doom. It is easy to assume that posters such as these are satirical, given the nature of Fallout as a whole, but in reality, these posters resemble our past more than you might think. The early Cold War was ruled by absolutes, where, as Stuart J. Foster (2000) highlights in his exploration of the Red Scare, leaders across the board, whether in economics, politics, or business, heralded American capitalism as the only acceptable way of life. Communism, on the other hand, was seditious, dangerous, and destructive. Anti-communist rhetoric dominated American culture during the post-war era, and the American people were subsequently surrounded by the ‘with us or against us’ narrative. You are a patriot or a traitor, nothing in between. This narrative often manifested on the individual level, but also on an institutional level. Both levels acted as great social pressures to conform.
In the game, these posters help establish the same tone that hovered over America in the early Cold War, from which Fallout takes its inspiration. They use the same easy-to-understand arguments, the same bold and provocative colour schemes, and intense expressions. The enemy that is defined in the posters above is noteworthy as well. This faction is the ‘Free States’, a secessionist movement present in Fallout 76. The ‘Free States’ movement is not necessarily communist in nature, but since they do not accept the status quo of the American government they are branded as such. They are guilty by simply deviating from the political norm established by the government. By scratching the surface regarding these posters, we can see that the commentary they provide on the early years of the Cold War is much more nuanced and complex than one might expect at a first glance, offering both a view of how the overt propaganda looked, as well as just who might become a target of said propaganda.
Of course, books such as Douglas Field’s American Cold War Culture (2004) and Gary D. Rawnsley’s Cold-War propaganda in the 1950s (1999) tell us that anti-communist sentiment was not just on the explicitly overt level when it came to post-war America. In the 1950s and 1960s, anti-communist sentiment leaked into all aspects of life, from the strictly political to more innocuous areas, such as pastimes like watching television. Ultimately, this was because the notion of the ‘American way of life’ was intrinsically linked to anti-communism. Americans were encouraged to consume in a true capitalist manner, and they were encouraged to see their way of life as under constant threat from the insidious beast known as communism. Fallout 76 engages with this idea that anti-communism was much more deep-seated in society via satire, offering a plethora of different ways in which anti-communism is expressed, such as the holotape games that players can sometimes find when wandering through Appalachia. These games mimic the old single-player RPG games of the 1980s, parodying titles like the original Final Fantasy, developed for the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1987, or in the case of Wastelad, act as a homage to Wasteland (1988), the game that would become the basis for the Fallout series.
Above is an example of a holotape game, called Wastelad. Wastelad has the main character, named after the title of the game, go on a journey out of his vault to fight Chairman Cheng and destroy communism. Wastelad is unique to Fallout 76, and greatly emphasises the sheer amount of anti-communism that is prevalent in the Fallout universe, as well as providing a mirror into the ways in which America visualised itself in our own reality: the people that dare to stand up against communism are ‘patriots’, and the communists themselves are nothing but sinister villains that seek to undermine everything good with the world.
We should also explore what makes video games unique in comparison to other forms of media. Adam Chapman, among others, has written extensive works on the concept of ‘ludonarrative’, which is the intersection between the traditional narrative of a video game and what is known as ‘ludic elements.’ Ludic elements, in short, are the ways in which the player can interact with the game as an actor rather than just a passive recipient, such as in the case of other media like film and literature. Fallout 76 utilises ludonarrative elements to reinforce the hostility of Fallout’s America by creating a world that is reactive to the player’s presence. Ultimately, this unique element of the video game genre allows the player to not only sympathise with the Cold War through its narrative elements but also through its gameplay. The hostility of the world, and the reactivity it has to the player, is an excellent way to convey how hostile the early Cold War felt.
One of the ways in which the ludonarrative shines is through the machinery found in Fallout 76, specifically the robots that roam the wastes. In previous installments of the franchise, robots such as the ‘Mister Gutsy’ line have become iconic, acting as both adversaries and companions throughout the series. Something more unique to Fallout 76, however, is the ‘Liberator’ robots that resemble spiders. These machines were originally manufactured by the Chinese Army in Fallout and dropped on Appalachia before the War was over. These small robots are the remnants of an attempted communist invasion and are hostile to the player. As soon as the player is within range, the ‘Liberators’ will begin screaming in Mandarin, firing lasers at their target, and will drop propaganda posters upon their destruction. These machines, therefore, function as a way to reinforce the notion that this world is an inherently hostile place that does not welcome the player, and at the same time introduce one of the key reasons why this world is so hostile: there has been an ideological war here, and that war has been escalated to a destructive conclusion.
I will not make the claim that Fallout 76 or the other games in the series will teach a person about the Cold War in its entirety. A satirical alternative history can only do so much in that regard. What these games will show a person, however, is several other important things that are key to understanding the last century. Firstly, these games can show how destructive ideologies can be when they are escalated to their climax. Secondly, the games effectively highlight the ways in which Cold War propaganda functioned, both on an overt level as well as a more sinister cultural level. And finally, the ludic elements of these games offer a way for the player to actively feel the hostility that is present in a world like this, rather than simply reading about it second-hand.
Daniel John is a Master’s student at Cardiff University. His current research interests include 20th century ideologies, religion, and historical video games. He is writing his MA dissertation on alternative histories in video games and their relationship to popular nostalgia, focussing on the Fallout and Wolfenstein games. He can be found on Twitter: @danj_76