Separated by the Father: Identity in Fallout 3

Sometimes all it takes is one person to say or phrase an idea in a certain way and then everything clicks for you. I’ve had it happen several times in the past with things professors have said in classes and, is often the case, with many blog posts too. I build up various frameworks in my mind from researching various ideas and then, at the moment of serendipity, I see how they all fall into place to define something. In a singular instant, it becomes very obvious. The most recent case was just a couple hours ago when I read Tanner Higgin’s Fallout 3′s Curious System of Race.

In the description of the Gene Projector, the in-fiction justification of the character creation process, Tanner says the following:

“Rather than making character creation an unexplained event prior to the game’s narrative, Fallout 3 embeds the process diegetically. The player begins the game as a newborn baby. The doctor, the main character’s father, first asks, “Let’s see. Are you a boy or a girl?” prompting the opening of a dialogue box presenting the two choices to the character for selection. The socio-medical gendering and sexing of children is modeled in this moment, forcing the indeterminacy of the newborn and all of its possibility into the politicized rhetorical structure of boy or girl, which, quite fittingly, is conflated with a sexual distinction.” (emphasis added)

Of course! That’s it. That was the clicking point for me. The initial definition of the character identity in Fallout 3 is set by the father! In the process of character creation, the player becomes James, The Wanderer’s father, and sets the initial identity of the character. It is not the player via some divine processing but the point of view of the father that first “calls forth” the identity of the character.

Let me step back a moment and explain why this is so important: Fallout 3 is the only open-world game where the player-character has family. In New Vegas, you do not exist in the world — much to my lament — before the game story starts. (This was retconned somewhat by the DLC “Lonesome Road” later.) In Oblivion, you do not exist at all unless you are interacting with something. You are not seen, heard or even wanted unless you first provoke a response. In Morrowwind, you start off on a prison ship, freed for some unknown reason. And, although I have still not played Skyrim, I doubt it is much different.

You spend your time in these games refining your identity through your interactions, your choices and how you deal with problems. You are, in all other games listed except Fallout 3, started in a state of tabula rasa as the player breaths life to the character, plays the role of this person as they learn about the world. The player and character learning curves run parallel, as the player gains mastery over the world, so too does the character. Even if, in the cases of Oblivion and Morrowwind, this does not quite make sense — aren’t the characters familiar with the world they were born into? — they are put into a new culture and land, some learning would be necessary. Even New Vegas‘ lack of character in-fiction knowledge could be explained by the initial shot to the head that starts the story.

The difference with Fallout 3, then, is that it starts with not some character creation process that is outside the canon of the syjet but part of the fabula of the player. For just a few moments, the point of view of the game shifts away from the player-character, The Wanderer, and into that of the father, as he defines the gender, race and even facial structure of his child. In the past, I have made the case that the syjet of Fallout 3 is essentially that of James’: it is his work that starts, defines and even ends the story of the game (prior to the patch). This degree of control confirms that idea. 

This was the one hurtle I have had with using performativity in game identity, who is the authority who “calls forth”, as Judith Bulter expresses the idea, the initial identity? I had thought the player was the one. After all, the player is bringing something to the experience that influences how they play. They must have some knowledge of the symbols, mechanics and be able to process the feedback of the experiences in order to play the game, to continue the interaction beyond the initial contact. Information asymmetry must be resolved. Yet, how are they changing the initial state? Are all characters tabula rasa before the player touches them, changes them through their performance of playing the game with the limited understanding and information as presented to them?

In this case, the answer is simpler: since all identity is performance against and within cultural contexts, the initial authority in Fallout 3 is the player as the father. The player, in effect, calls themselves forth and into existence. The player sets their own initial identity that they will then spend the rest of the game either rebelling against or confirming. As Tanner notes, Fallout 3 “[forces] the player to identify with one of four rigid and institutionalized racial identities inside of a retro-futurist pre-Civil Rights world associated with segregation and nuclear annihilation.” That is, as seen from the father’s point of view and as expressed against the child, both of which are player-controlled.

How can the player make informed choices within the cultural context of the retro-futurist world of Fallout without some information about the world? This is solved by having the choice made not by the player-character during the predominant playing time but in the simple, quickly missed moment where the father changes the child according to his will. Says Tanner:

The player assumes the medicalized gaze of power, forcing the player character’s body into an established frame of meaning. She’s framed in the projector’s screen, locked within the boundaries of the code, and fixed within the ideological perspective of the game’s setting. The informatic and ideological layer upon each other infinitely, like a video camera pointed at a TV. We participate in the forced insertion of a body into a schema of cultural intelligibility divided up into clear racial categories and their expected phenotypes. We, the institutional force, assert our influence in projecting the player character’s future. In light of this diegetic frame, the use of racial categories to orient character creation makes more sense: we’re born into an ideological grid. Both the sex/gender and physiognomic differences are revealed in this process as supposed inner biological truths which, through the clever diegesis of the game, function more as deterministic choices shaped by the logics of the game and the player’s desire.” (original emphasis)

Not only is the player introduced to the rigid identity choices that the game presents, but they are, in effect, also presented a view of the world through the eyes of the father. We see not the world’s choices, a set of all valid identities, but, with the choice being done via the father’s hands, the world according to the father, as seen by the father.

I do not know if Bethesda meant it this way, but it introduces ideological lines very quickly while also, simultaneously, giving the player choices to express agency. We start tabula rasa and then are immediately changed by the world, told an identity. This is so close to what Judith Bulter has expressed, it’s scary. We are, as she explains and Fallout 3 enforces, under a constant oppression of our initial state, our changed innocence. We are born into a world we do not understand, cannot hope to fully understand and can only, once we realize this truth, hope to express ourselves through acts that show own identity as it is performed in the world. Our very existence is a series of subversive acts against an initial identity that demonstrates who we are to others around us — our actions are ourselves.

Fallout 3’s limited phenotype expression, as Tanner Higgin suggests, might have some redemption through looking at how it introduces the player to the world of Fallout in the choices that it presents to the player, that it forces the player to choose from for an identity. However, even the very moment of choosing is anchored in the point of view of a character within that world, is biased with knowledge that the player does not have. All future actions, choices and player-expressed identity moments are based in this moment, are subject to the father separating the player-character from total freedom and into the world where the range of identity expression is a struggle — the more distance from the father’s (world’s) social norm, the more work needed to maintain the identity.