Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Post-Apocalyptia: Fragile, Metro, and Fallout, Part 4 - A Sense of Place

Post-Apocalyptia: Fragile, Metro, and Fallout, Part 4 - A Sense of Place
Part 4

In the final part of this long-ass series, we're going to tackle the main point I was going to structure it around, back when I was envisioning a single post of maybe a thousand words. As I played through these games and read through the Metro books, it occurred to me that, sometimes without even meaning to, each one in some way embodied its country of origin. Yeah, every work of art is the result of a certain person living in a particular place at a particular time, and could have turned out radically different with but a nudge. But I still contend that Fallout is uniquely American, Metro is uniquely Russian, and Fragile is uniquely Japanese. I will now explain!

A sense of place

The town of Goodneighbour from F4
One of the coolest thing about Fallout is that everything in its world is based on the state of the world in the 1950's. Communism is still regarded as the greatest threat to world peace, although it's now China rather than the Soviet Union, or was right up until it and the United States wiped each other out. The science, too, seems to be based on what was generally understood back then, so wasteland denizens find radiation poisoning fairly inconsequential; it's true that they have spent generations building up resistance, and it's natural for any wasteland doctor to be well-trained in the matter of curing radiation poisoning, but on top of that, radiation was once thought to be far less dangerous than we now know it is, allowing your character to shrug off a dose of rads that would be fatal in our universe. Regarding the retro-futuristic laser guns, the physical appearance of alien grays, the focus on nuclear power to the detriment of computer development, and other relics, we can see that Fallout basically looks like how people of the 1950s imagined the future.

And it follows culturally, as well. Like any truly great work, Fallout draws inspiration from all manner of sources, but the little details of people's everyday lives, particularly as they were before the Great War, is clearly based on classic Americana: the attitude that America is Best and would only keep getting better, that the worst was over and it was only a matter of time before technology solved all of humanity's problems. I think that's probably an exaggeration of the American mentality of the time, but just comparing their media with our modern media it's pretty clear that we're a lot more jaded now. Well, considering how that worked out in the world of Fallout, you might be able to draw some interesting parallels with our own disillusionment...but anyway, the point is, the series could not have been made anywhere else but America, or more accurately, it would look very different if it had been. That is, it wouldn't be Fallout.

Fallout is as American as cultural imperialism or gross ignorance. F3 takes place in Washington, DC, for Christ's sake. It's not just window dressing, either. The theme of what is America and how do we find it runs thick throughout the main storyline. The Enclave, the remnants of the American government, still claims to hold jurisdiction over the original borders of the United States, but in reality, they're fooling themselves, as their authority has long since been supplanted by new governments such as the New California Republic, the state of independent Las Vegas, and small groups of humans long cut off from civilization who have reverted to tribalism. Hell, even the military swore off its corrupt parent and reformulated itself into a neo-knightly order, the Brotherhood of Steel. But while the United States may be gone, America and the values it believed it stood for may still be hiding somewhere out there in the wastes. Ulysses, a tribal whose people were forcefully absorbed into the expansionist Caesar's Legion, stumbled upon an old US flag and decided to dedicate his life to resurrecting the country, and while I think it's a fool's errand, I can't help but admire his principles.

And while Ulysses's story is the only one that's fleshed out properly, others aspire to rebuild the United States as well. The Enclave's Colonel Autumn wishes to restore it because he believes in the righteousness of the cause, and is willing to go to despicable lengths to achieve this goal. Part of this entails wiping out all mutated beings in the Capital Wasteland and presumably the rest of America after that, but everybody has been affected by radiation at this point, so his plan seeks only to garner his organization a greater share of nothing. Van Buren and Fallout Tactics both introduce us to AI protocols designed to take effect should the worst happen, but both go terribly wrong.

Metro, too, derives a sense of place from its set pieces. It does a good job of painting the city overhead as a sort of Necropolis, frequented only by well-equipped adventurers and the sometimes literal ghosts of its former inhabitants. And, at least in Metro 2033, it's encased in ice and snow, which, you know, tracks with my understanding of Russia.

I somehow feel like there's something uniquely Russian, and Moscovite, about Metro's metro. The defining feature is that the Moscow Metro was explicitly designed during Soviet times to double as a massive nuclear shelter. It is so much deeper underground than similar systems for this exact reason. It also has its share of legends owing to this, most notably D6, an even deeper, most likely fictional secret line that supposedly connects important points of interest such as the Kremlin and the national theatre, should high-ranking political executives ever need to be evacuated while at a function. And I only say “most likely” fictional because it's totally absurd, but a) it would make perfect sense, and b) if anybody could keep a construction project of that magnitude a secret, it's the Soviet government. By the way, Metro 2035 was first published in Metro, a free magazine distributed only in the Moscow Metro. I was just thought that was amusing, and kind of brilliant marketing.

The character of each station is evoked beautifully, whether it's a local station with a handful of tents scattered across the platform or a relative metropolis built throughout the shell of a former transport hub. From what I can tell, each station was realised by a different architect rather than a team of city planners, giving each one a distinct flavour (here's a sample). The creator might have slapped some ornate columns or controversial murals up in there. Even those that were the result of a Soviet-era relentless pursuit of function over form end up being unusual simply by comparison to their neighbours. The result is a series of stations that stand as works of art – or maybe the entire Metro is one big work of art. (Oddly enough, thanks to constantly referring to the maps while reading the books, I now feel like I know Moscow's public transit system better than some places I've actually lived in.)

Much of this beauty has been lost by 2033, but history is a continuum, and new traits have popped up to replace the old ones. Some stations have had their art preserved, to the ambivalence or even derision of those who pass through them, where others have come to stand for something else entirely, like the city of Polis, a conglomeration of four different stations now dedicated to the preservation of knowledge and nobility. And, generally, the reason for the evolution of a particular spot is clearly explained, and somehow rooted in its past.

There is also the fact that Ghlukovsky wrote Metro 2033 as a veiled evaluation of Russian society. Knowing this, the portrayals of, say, the Hanseatic money-grubbers, Communists driven mad by ideology, and exaggeratedly naiive and illogical Christians, suddenly seem a little less gratuitous. And the Nazis aren't really Nazis, but anti-immigration conservatives and racists. Maybe some characters and their motivations could do with a little more nuance, but at least it makes sense as an allegory. Dissecting all of modern Russian culture would be a mammoth task, but the author brings it down to a manageable scale. The Metro is a microcosm of Russia itself.

F3's Meresti Station, where, if I recall correctly, your
character murders a troublesome journalist by
pushing her into the path of an oncoming train.
Of course, other cities certainly have their own metros, so could you do a Metro-alike in another city? Sure! In fact, the wider Metro universe includes books set in locations like St Petersburg, elsewhere in Eastern Europe, and even as far afield as London, which is, after all, known for “the Tube.” Paris and New York come to mind as well. For that matter, both Fragile and Fallout 3 spend significant spaces of time in their cities' subway systems! (Shinjuku Eki is a major location in Fragile, and in F3 much of DC's streets are impassable due to rubble, making many downtown areas accessible only through the subway tunnels.) Vancouver might not work, since a SkyTrain station is a little less insulated, but you get the picture.

Speaking of Fragile's subway, the first real level takes place within Shinjuku Eki, famously the largest and busiest in all of Japan. Except, of course, that it's now deserted, save for a smattering of wild dogs and other monsters. Not saying that train travel is unique to life in Japan, but it's definitely an inextricable part of it, and one of the things I noticed most when I did my high school exchange.

After exploring a platform and concourse, the stage moves farther underground, to the 地下商店街 chikashoutengai, literally “underground shopping district.” I have no idea if they have these in countries other than Japan (surely China and Korea at the very least?), but I love these places. Narrow, crowded, and confusing, in another post I said that navigating them is like trying to play Pac-Man in first-person. The steet-like halls are lined with restaurants, clothing stores, all kinds of stuff really. The shops are densely packed and it's impossible to find what you're looking for. You might think that they cater to people in transit, but that's not true at all. Actually, it's just that their accessibility makes them terribly convenient. It's not uncommon for someone to head for a major station just to shop, then head on home. I've always loved train stations because they are the intersection of so many lives, shared alone; chikashoutengai are all of that PLUS the socializing of a mall. The energy is infectious, and I always end up leaving with that feeling you get when haven't accomplished anything of any great consequence, but you have experienced a slice of life.

But even if these aren't found elsewhere in the world, they are all over Japan. So, sure, Shinjuku Eki puts in an appearance, but it could be replaced with any other major station in Japan with little impact; for the most part, the city of Toukyou does not assert herself. The exception here is Toukyou Tower, an omnipresent neon presence off in the distance, not to mention your ultimate goal and the site of the final battle. It demands your attention when you first leave the observatory, it frames the background when Ren first appears, and whenever you venture indoors, almost forgetting about it, it's the first thing you notice when you reemerge, slowly but surely drawing closer.

Does it say anything that Fragile includes an amusement park level? Probably nothing significant about Japanese society, but the fact that the developers picked this as a stock setting (alongside the more universal train stations and hotels) might. I could be wrong, but I feel like not a lot of Westerners would.

For what it's worth, the choice of art style is undeniably Japanese. I mean come on now, it's freaking anime. If you were deliberately trying to make something Japanese and you picked an anime art style, people would tell you it was too on the nose. Flat cells, detailed textures, bright colours, exaggerated features – yup, that's Japanese animation.

And then there's the themes. Whether or not I'm right about the global warming angle, we have the scenes of nature to go off of. There's the northern lights scene we talked about earlier, visible through a smogless sky, and of course the hotel, slowly being reclaimed by the forest. The moon, as beautiful as it is cold and implacable. No less a person than Miyazaki Hayao has based many of his works on environmental themes, and he's regarded as one of the finest creators in Japan. Plus, what's the overriding emotion throughout the game? Loneliness. Various characters complain of the pain. Humanity is nearly destroyed in trying to eliminate it forever. Seto loses one person after another until he finally finds one who sticks around. Even the player may share in his distress, wandering a hostile environment without company. To paraphrase Hitching Rides With Buddha: “In the West, people fear irrelevance; in Japan, people fear loneliness.”

As with Fallout and America, I have to conclude that Fragile could not be made anywhere other than Japan – or that if it had been, it wouldn't be Fragile as we know it.

(Additionally, I resisted watching the Mad Max movies until after I'd completed this post, because I didn't want to be influenced except by the works I was actually writing about. There were a few reasons for this, number one being that the Mad Max game hadn't come out yet, and I thought I'd keep things consistent by following the gaming thread. Three is also a nice number. But more significantly, while I'm far from an expert on Russian or American culture, I know next to nothing about Australian culture. I've since watched the films and can safely say that – unsurprisingly, since it invented half the tropes that Fallout, Metro, and Fragile are drawing on – Mad Max would have been a good fit for this series, so expect an update eventually.)


By now it's probably pretty clear why I play these games and read this books (and watch these movies, and...), and why I wrote this post: I love thinking about this stuff. That, to me, is the real heart of philosophy: Taking extraordinary situations or seemingly impractical thought experiments, and finding a way to relate it to your real life. By asking us to confront questions about technology, the place of humanity, and what you the reader would be capable of in exceptional circumstances, Post-Apocalyptic fiction not only succeeds in provoking contemplation but delivers it in an entertaining package to boot.

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