War never changes
War, war never changes. It is one of gaming’s best-loved catch-phrases. But what does it mean? In what sense does war never change? Certainly, warfare — the ways in which a war is fought — has changed dramatically in the millennia leading up to Fallout’s fictional 2050s. Weapons, tactics, scale: every aspect of conflict has undergone transformation. Fallout’s world is not that dissimilar to our own and we can safely know as much.
Death and destruction are a staple of war but their scale differs vastly from conflict to conflict. Even the most advanced of energy weapons found in the wasteland is a relic from a past that is being forgotten and a far cry from the nuclear war that caused all the desolation. The game’s primitive, back-to-basics setting also suggests that the presumably constant factor may lie much deeper and closer to the roots of conflict than something as superficial as tools and means.
Why do people go to war? Perhaps there is a single fundamental reason underlining all conflicts.
Let’s examine war in the Fallout universe. (And let’s not go into wondering why a world that has perfected nuclear energy to the point where it is used to power armour suits and mini-guns should be quarreling over petroleum; let’s just accept the “facts” as they are.)
It all begins with the Great War, which in turn is the culmination of a prolonged conflict known as the Resource Wars. Having consumed oil voraciously, the superpowers of the Fallout world compete for the last remaining drops of it. Tension escalates until the inevitable dramatic resolution: in two brief hours of nuclear bombardment, the world is changed forever. So far, so straightforward from a textbook on classic economic theories of war. Then, things get more nuanced.
There is no dominating conflict in the first half of the original Fallout, but in the second half events unfold against the backdrop of a threatening super-mutant invasion against which the last remnants of humanity must defend. Gone is the economic pragmatism of the war for resources from a century earlier. It is replaced by an aggressive ideology: the belief that super mutants are a superior life form and deserve to dominate Earth. The analogy with Nazism is quite crude, but real life does not actually provide us with a better reference than that; and super mutants are too intelligent, purposeful and organised to be classed in the same category as other non-human threats, such as predators.
In Fallout 2 there is no organised large-scale conflict to provide the setting for what boils down to a personal war waged by the Chosen One against the Enclave. While having lots of similarities with organised wars, personal wars are a separate beast as individuals are motivated differently than nations or organisations.
Fallout Tactics sees the Midwestern Brotherhood of Steel, a more liberally minded and open split-off of the secretive technology-obsessed faction, pursue territorial expansion out of Chicago with the ultimate goal of capturing Vault Zero where hi-tech is believed to be at its pre-war best. On their way, they battle all sorts of adversaries, from rag tag bandits to robots.
Moving the set to the East Coast, Fallout 3 tells about a three-way war between the super mutants, the Brotherhood of Steel and the Enclave. While the inter-species conflict is framed in the same terms as the one in the original Fallout, the rivalry between the two human factions is about clean water, which has become a scarce and dear resource.
Another change of scenery later, Fallout: New Vegas is again a tale of a three-way struggle. This time around, however, it is the New California Republic and Caesar’s Legion who are at war with each other, while New Vegas, led by the mysterious Mr. House, is struggling to retain independence from either. The roots of the conflict are ideological, with the pro-democracy NCR fighting the slavers of the dictatorial Legion. In an apt reflection of real-world war theory, the NCR is much less hostile to New Vegas, supporting the claim that democracies, even if they are rivals, do not go to war with each other. To be fair, New Vegas is not exactly a democracy; but it is vastly more liberal than the tyrannical Legion.
So in just the two centuries framed by the series’ narrative the motivation for war meanders between deeply and substantially diverse options. What is the elusive constant?
It is nowhere to be found, it appears, other than in Ron Perlman’s unfalteringly brilliant delivery from chapter to chapter. If the Fallout series is good at one thing, it is its ability to hide obvious discrepancies behind emotionally fraught narrative, oh so casually creating pop-cultural icons along the way.