“I don’t want to set the world on fire, I just want to start a flame in your heart. Believe me, in my heart I have but one desire, and that one is you—no other will do.”
-The Ink Spots, ‘I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire’
I first heard these lyrics on the radio in Fallout 3 as I was walking through the haunting wastelands of D.C. They continued ringing in my ears when trekking the deserts of post-apocalyptic Nevada in Fallout: New Vegas. As I walked cautiously down the ruined alleyways of Boston in Fallout 4, I heard them again. They even remained with me outside of the gaming experience, much like the themes of the Fallout series, lingering in my mind and challenging me to think about the failures of my own attempted escapism through video games.
In short, I used to play Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas because real life sucked—I had no girlfriend or sex life, was deriving no satisfaction from school or work, had no motivation, and was basically making no ‘progress’ at all. I found solace in the charred wastelands left behind by the atomic bombs that fell in 2077—in a way the game embodied my fantasy of setting my own life on fire and watching it burn to the ground. I suppose we’ve all experienced frustration, rage, and the impulse to destroy the world as we know it; Fallout seems to offer us a chance to start completely over. Dystopian disasters are really just a fresh chance, an opportunity to simplify our existence and leave everything behind.
But does Fallout successfully allow us to escape our real world?
Having now played the games extensively, I would argue that the post-apocalyptic landscapes of the modern Fallout series remain uncomfortably similar to the world I seek to escape. Almost all the main quests and side-quests revolve around morality, economic problems, post-apocalyptic politics, and familiar power struggles. The pivotal characters of these narratives include reimagined versions of historical figures like Julius Caesar, various American presidents, and the figureheads of high-tech companies; other inhabitants of the wasteland—the masses—are weighed down by the huge political and economic influence of these aforementioned few. Social interactions are shaped by these power-structures designed by the 1%, and the player very quickly finds themselves cast into a surprisingly binary morality system.
I can’t help but play Fallout as a morally decent character, choosing mostly the ‘good’ dialogue options and turning down countless mission rewards because I think the hobos I’ve helped need those bottle caps more than I do. I unconsciously repeat the same decisions I make in reality; decisions endorsed by society and my own moral compass. One might think that taking the opposite route would free the player from this constricting system, but that isn’t the case. Watching the ‘villainous’ walkthroughs of the modern Fallout games on YouTube, I was struck by how many of these players seemed driven by their very real need to live out the repressed, sinister part of their consciousness kept so tightly under wraps in their everyday lives. Speaking of how some poetry seems ‘free’ compared to more ‘limited’ forms, E. E. Cummings once said, “Freedom is only freedom when it appears against the background of an artificial limitation.” Being ‘free’ to follow your evil desires and live out your repressed fantasies only seems that way when compared to something else which seems ’limited’—e.g. our boring, morality-driven choices in reality.
Escapism in Fallout, then, is not what it seems.
One thing is for certain: our need for ‘progress’ trumps our need to set the world on fire. In the virtual wasteland as in reality, a ‘level’ or ‘life’ must be present for us to progress and earn achievements. In Fallout this is represented very literally by the integration of ‘experience points’ and the ability to ‘finish’ quests, but in real life I would point to our quests for ‘happiness’ and ‘success’ as possible equivalents. Rare are the players who launch a modern Fallout game to experience absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, a world in which people exist in a limbo-like state without progress or change.
In the end, this isn’t such a bad thing. Once we accept (however begrudgingly) that the real world must remain somewhat intact for us to experience satisfaction in our games (even if they are post-apocalyptically themed) we can ditch the pessimistic model of ‘escape’ and see gaming as something entirely other: a fun activity that can help us loosen up and give our existences—and what we do with them—an additional layer of meaning. As human beings, if we don’t like how our lives are going, it’s usually possible to change them. We don’t have to escape reality for a few hours just to return and resume being miserable—we can keep levelling up once we put the controller down.