'The Water of Life Freely': Water and the Wasteland in Fallout 3

No comments
'I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely'.
King James Bible, Revelations 21:6

'Shantih shantih shantih'
The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot (l. 433)

T.S. Eliot's The WasteLand ends with the ancient Hindu incantation for peace repeated in triplicate. In Hindu ritual, the chant of peace is always accompanied by a sprinkling of water from the river Ganges. Water has always been of vital importance in the sustenance of the threefold virtues of fertility, purification and peace. At the same time, however, it is also the cause of death – in Eliot's poem there are many allusions of drowning and death. Like The WasteLand, the videogame Fallout 3 brings to us yet another tale of water and wastelands. Set in an irradiated wasteland roughly located around a nuclear war-ravaged Washington DC, Fallout 3 is all about water. Water is seen as the panacea for the restoring the badly damaged values of humanity. The wasteland landscape, like Eliot's, seems to be crying out for the ritual sprinkling of water and the consequent restoration of peace.

Fallout 3, despite its high popularity ratings, has not received the critical attention it deserves, arguably by gamers and non-gamers alike. On reading it as a wasteland narrative and focusing particularly on the game's implicit preoccupation with water, it is evident that Fallout 3 brings a further complexity to the treatment of similar themes in current Humanities' genres. Connecting the game's narrative with literary genres such as nuclear-holocaust fiction and SF or to literary classics reveals a deep exploration of a wide range of themes, which, cross-link with each other in relation to the protagonist's quest for purification, peace and of course, water.

The Lone Wanderer, as the protagonist is called, is the subject of legends after he brings pure water to a world partially destroyed by nuclear war where almost all the water is irradiated. However, the legends may vary given the multiple endings of the game, some of which have darker associations of selfishness, cowardice or even racism. Water, for all its associations with purity, is after all only a resource and as such, a way of wielding power. Another close association, already indicated, is that with religion. The key argument of Fallout 3 comes from the book of Revelations: 'I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely.' The other and more obvious connection between water and the vast area of the Capital Wasteland (roughly present-day D.C and outlying areas) is, ironically, the absence of water in the stony rubbish reminiscent of Eliot's poem. There is, obviously, a section of the game that features the Potomac river and others that show areas submerged in water. This, however, is 'dirty' water – deadly, irradiated and often the home of dangerous mutants appropriately named Mirelurks. Pure water, although in extremely short supply, is available in small quantities throughout the game and before the Lone Wanderer manages to fulfil his quest, the only source of purified water in the game is seen in the town of Megaton which is fighting a constant battle to maintain its water purifying plant in working condition. Indeed, one of the minor quests that the player finds in Megaton is to repair its leaking water pipes. It is not clear whether the other large human habitations in the game, such as Rivet City (an erstwhile aircraft carrier) and the Citadel have any store of pure water.

The player's / Lone Wanderer's journey begins, not far from Megaton, in an underground vault built to protect humanity against nuclear destruction. The vault is a hermetic area where the self-contained society is cut off from the wasteland outside. Even here, although not too obvious, there is a mention of the game's key water theme: the text of Revelations 21:6 is framed and displayed in the Overseer's office. The protagonist's father is a scientist who almost perfected the research for purified water and much of the game is a quest to find him after he has escaped the Vault – unknown to the player, this also implies that he or she is now on the quest for pure water.

Water is used to highlight a gulf between pure and impure. As a game, Fallout 3 is a shooter and it also corresponds to many generic criteria such as those of survival horror games and roleplaying games. As such, it is game fraught with the need for violent survival strategies. The latter, are employed against those who are morally placed as 'impure'. The game also has a moral aspect where there is a penalty for committing some actions using a system that awards or deducts karma as points in the overall score. There are often situations when the categories of pure, impure and evil become problematic. For example, there are various mutated creatures in the Wasteland that are dangerous but their violence is often not a reasoned-out evil action but rather a territorial instinct aimed at survival. The ghouls, or humans who have been horribly mutated by the nuclear fallout, are a case in point. As the player enters Megaton, he or she might come across Gob the ghoul bartender at Moriarty's pub. Gob, now ill-treated and insulted by his master, will reminisce about the city of Ghouls where he comes from. Gob is good-natured, hardworking and in all respects save his mangled features, he is human. In much of the Wasteland, however, the ghouls are wild and feral. They have lost their capacity to reason and will attack on sight. They are the zombies that one encounters in most first-person shooter games. The super-mutants in the game (with the possible exception of Fawkes, if you have him as your friend) are hostile and deadly creatures and although they seem to have more intelligence than the feral ghouls, their badness definitely does not exceed that of humans, such as the technologically advanced humans who form the Enclave or the marauding groups of raiders who roam the Wasteland. The boundaries, however, are constantly maintained even though who is pure and who is impure is a problematic decision. The human residents of Tenpenny Tower want to keep the ghouls out of their building because they are disgusted by their physical appearance. This decision-making between pure and impure is carried to another dimension when the scientist Dr Zimmerman wishes to terminate an android who perceives that he is human. Reminiscent of Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the game merges the dichotomy of impure-pure with that of human-machine. In all of the above cases, the impure-pure problem takes on the aspect of racial superiority and selection.

At a crucial stage of the game, the player is given a choice (and indeed, made to promise) by the supercomputer/President of the United States, President Eden, that he will inject a virus into the supply of pure water that will be lethal for all forms of life that have been mutated by radiation. What Eden is suggesting here can be read as a way in which the pure water would be an instrument of a different kind of 'purification': an ethnic 'cleansing'. Eden suggests a selective virus which will work to destroy all creatures with mutated genes. The transmitter for this virus would be the purified water. In a way, the 'purification' is subverted because the water is made impure by the addition of a lethal agent. The question now arises as to how far the promised 'water of life' can be a panacea for the Wasteland in the game and the wasteland as a concept.

Despite the problems of deciding on the way to make the wastelands fertile again, water is still most commonly seen as the solution as perhaps embodied by Gerald Manley Hopkins's famous line, 'God, send my roots rain'. Hopkins is speaking of the wasteland of his mind and he places himself in the tradition followed by many others (including Eliot), where the wasteland is an allegorical device. In a way, Fallout 3 is an allegory as well as a literal chilling reminder of a possible physical wasteland that might be the result of our failure to keep peace with each other. In one of the side-quests, the player comes across a region known as the 'Oasis', which, perhaps, is the only green area in the whole game. The sudden appearance of foliage after having constantly seen vast stretches of the treeless wasteland makes one assume that this is where one finds pure water. However, here too, the water is as radioactive as elsewhere in the wasteland and the Oasis is revealed to be just another distortion of nature. The people who inhabit the Oasis, however, believe that they live in an area purer and better than the rest of the wasteland: it is only when the player performs the side-quests in the area that he or she finds out that the so-called 'pure' zone is only another aberration.

Water is connected to other examples of promise (and its subsequent frustration) in the game. If the player comes across the McClellan Townhome in Georgetown West, he or she will meet a Mr Handy robot that reads aloud the post-apocalyptic poem, ' There Will Come Soft Rains' by Sara Teasdale (Ray Bradbury uses the title for a short story set in a world destroyed by nuclear war).* Rains symbolise hope; however, even in Teasdale's poem, the promise brought forth by water is ambiguous. In her poem, nature remains as pristine as ever even after humanity dies out. That hope, however, seems ironic if the rains come as part of nuclear fallout. Nevertheless, in Fallout 3 and in the other texts, the 'soft rains' are connected to purity and a return of fertility.

In Eliot's Waste Land, the thunder leaves us with a promise of rain to the 'endless plains stumbling in cracked earth'. The thunder's speech is a threefold utterance of the syllable 'Da' (similar to the ritual utterance of shantih): in the Hindu Upanishads it stands for datta, dayadhvam and damyata – 'Give, sympathise and control', which rings as the final message in Eliot's poem.

The Waste Land
also has strong associations with the Grail legend and in this sense, it also employs the quest motif which, in Fallout 3, is of even greater significance as the Lone Wanderer's entire story is that of a quest that branches out into further quests. The end of the Lone Wanderer's quest can be manifold. It might end in failures in the many instances of incomplete gameplay or in-game death. When the player succeeds in reaching the water-purifying mechanism, a multitude of options open. It is possible to inject into water supply, the virus that will kill all but genetically 'pure' humans and in the penultimate scenes when the player is required to sacrifice his or her life to start the purifier, it is possible to avoid this by sacrificing a friend's life. The ideal ending is where the player has good karma throughout the game, destroy's the evil army of the Enclave and then sacrifices himself or herself for the good of all. In this ending, as long as the player manages to activate the purifier in time, pure water flows out into the wasteland and the narrator tells us that the 'waters of life flowed at last – free and pure, for any and all'.This echoes the promise in Revelations 21:6 where it is said, 'I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely.' The promise of water, in some sense or other, is fulfilled and the wasteland is fertile again. However, as the narrator tells us, ' the tale of humanity will never come to a close, for the struggle of survival is a war without end, and war – war never changes'. Whether there is another nuclear war we are not told but it is clear that the promise of plenty and purity that water brings to the wasteland is one that eludes humanity even as it is being realised. Like other narrative genres that speak about wastelands anf fertility, Fallout 3 also makes this point. Finally, because of its way of saying this in various permutations of the narrative events, it presents this message in manifold ways.

* I would like to thank Dr Dan Cordle of Nottingham Trent University for bringing this to my attention.

No comments :

Post a Comment