I was just reading the Wasteland 2 kickstarter page thingy, and found inXile’s vision document. Two paragraphs really struck me:
The survivors of the cataclysm have banded together into small frontier communities. Not unlike the Wild West hundreds of years prior, the world of today is an age of rugged individualism; a society where the ties between individuals are loose and everyone is expected to look after himself and his own.
Shortly after the cataclysm began, the [Army] Engineers, seeking shelter, took over the federal prison and expelled the prisoners into the desolate desert to complete their sentences. As the weeks passed, they invited the nearby survivalist communities to join them and to help them build a new society. Because of each community’s suspicions towards one another, times were difficult at first. But as time nurtured trust, this settlement – which came to be known as Ranger Center – grew to be one of the strongest outposts. Ranger Center even proved powerful enough to repel the hands of rancorous criminals who repeatedly attacked in attempts to reclaim what was once “rightfully” theirs.
This is not a ‘proper’ post about the genre so much as some tangled thoughts reaching toward a theory.
(1) There is, or ought to be, a conflict between ‘small frontier communities’ and ‘rugged individualism’. There is a tension between the mythical West of isolated masculinity, the ideal of the isolated settler community, and the reality of the frontier as the bleeding edge of administration and technology in the form of barbed wire, six shooters, railroads, telegraph, and the efforts of the U.S. Army in creating infrastructure and exterminating opposition.
(2) Post-apocalyptic games generally emphasise the ‘rugged individualism’ part. Freedom of action is the whole point of a game like this: the player wanders the wasteland and dispenses justice (or just death) in his or her own fashion, while surviving without help from the outside world. Depicting the heroic cowboy as the stooge of ranchers, government or Pinkerton would rather tarnish the allure.
(3) The apocalypse is therefore necessary for the heroic individual to exist. This is true for formal reasons as much as thematic ones: if the player/protagonist were realistically constrained by a complex division of labour including legal, bureaucratic and economic hierarchies, the freewheeling agency of the post-apocalyptic survivor would obviously disappear. The apocalypse is a way of creating an ideal individual by annihilating modernity.
(4) This tabula rasa can then be complicated by the introduction of polities which the protagonist can encounter as a fully formed subject, sprung Palladian from the wasteland. In formal terms, naturalism (in which people are embedded in larger processes beyond their control) is bypassed in favour of realism (in which people are defined by their choices, albeit constrained ones). The Fallout games tend to do this a lot: even when the protagonist is given a community, his or her ties to it are weak and quickly severed.
(5) Other genres perform the same trick by creating an ulterior, ‘reduced world’ (in Fredric Jameson’s terms) of danger and intrigue: vampire fiction is a good example. What, then, are the attractions of the apocalypse?
(6) The second paragraph (AFAIK describing events of the first game) suggests one possibility via its use of the old action movie trope of felons as dehumanised, ‘legitimate’ enemies: ressentiment. I suppose the conscious intent may have been more philosophical: there is definitely a lot of Hobbes versus Rousseau in the Fallout games, for instance (a topic for another day!). Nonetheless: childish glee at breaking things, combined with morbid revenge fantasy in the name of justice and a creeping hatred of modernity and the masses (cf. every zombie fiction, ever), seems to be part of the allure.
(and yes, the title is a paraphrase of Ken MacLeod)