You Say Apocalypse, I Say Retro Chic

In the future, the ’60s never happened. Or at least, that’s what we are led to believe in the alternate history of Bethesda’s Fallout 3. While set in a post-apocalyptic America in the 23rd century following the events of a devastating war in the 21st century, curiously most of the post-war artifacts of Fallout 3 look and sound an awful lot like the artifacts of a post-World War II America, as if American culture somehow became frozen in time around 1959 and maintained a seemingly cheery and idyllic image of the ’40s and ’50s up until that great disaster.

Of course, this notion of creating a static image of post-World War II America is not exclusive to the Fallout universe. The underwater city of Rapture in 2K’s Bioshock literally finds its progress halted on New Year’s Eve 1959, and the similar images of a ruined society juxtaposed against the relics of a culture of the ’40s and ’50s also make up the bulk of 2K’s game.

Both games seem to revel in this juxtaposition of an idealized American age with the ruin of society. The soundtracks of both games jarringly counterpoint the brutal actions of scavengers in the Capital Wasteland and Rapture. Inhumanity and desperation is hauntingly accompanied by songs by songs by Billie Holiday, Cole Porter, Ella Fitzgerald, the Ink Spots, and the Andrews Sisters. That both soundtracks are comprised of songs, which almost exclusively belong to a time associated with values, decency, and decorum, is, of course, intended to be ironic and also serves as a means of emphasizing just how rotten the world has become since a time so idealized in the American imagination.

The effectiveness of this kind of contrast really can’t be overstated. Much like telling an erotic story within a Victorian backdrop seems ever so sexy (it is so much more fun unbuttoning something that seems to be so very buttoned up), human depravity juxtaposed against a seemingly golden age of good, moral values is darkly comic and that much more disturbing. For instance, Bioshock‘s art deco architecture and retro advertisements serve to heighten the horror of what Rapture and its citizens have become. A scene in the game in which the protagonist comes across a woman who seems sharply dressed in 50s fashion cooing over a “baby” in a perambulator is one of these moments of horror. The image of motherly concern straight out of an issue of the Saturday Evening Post is disrupted by the knowledge that something isn’t right in the world of Rapture, where art deco columns crumble and the paint is peeling off the image of an enthusiastic woman selling cigarettes on a nearby poster.

Fallout 3‘s opening sequence, which begins with the flickering of cathodes on a retro seeming radio and the strains of the Ink Spots’s “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire”, demonstrates this commitment to suggesting the “wrongness” of the world in contrast to that which we assume must be “right”. The camera pans back and reveals the interior of a bus, in which the radio and a schmaltzy bobbling, plastic hula girl are mounted. It continues to pan back to reveal that the bus lays on a heap of torn metal and glass. A crumbling Washington monument is revealed and then a gas-masked and heavily armed warrior in black emerges in the scene to complete the image of the decimation of an American mythology. This image depends on its audience’s sense of the initial images representing a kinder, gentler America and doesn’t simply replace that image with one of a grimmer vision of American decay. Instead, it allows the images to coexist with one another, perhaps, suggesting a commonality or a causal link that exists between these two images, ideal and decaying at once.

Which returns me to my initial observation, that it might seem that in the universe of Fallout that the 1960s never existed. One can’t help but wonder though, given the lingering images of post-World War II America in the Capital Wasteland if this isn’t the image of the transition between 1959 and the future. This 23rd century America with its rotting Washington D.C., full of scavengers and mutants, may be the equivalent of the ’60s, a cartoon image drawn just as large as the cartoonish Vault Boy that represents the stasis of ’40s and ’50s values throughout the series.

Likewise, that Rapture is fallen as of 1959 in Bioshock‘s alternate history is seemingly appropriate. In 1959, the first wave of Baby Boomers were 13 years old, the next decade was to be theirs, the dominant years of their coming of age. The sweetness of “(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?” would give way to the melancholy and ferociousness of Joplin, Hendrix, and the Doors. Suits and ties, pencil skirts and embroidered sweaters would give way to jeans and sandals, tie dye and love beads, long hair and dirty feet. Moral certainty would give way to Vietnam and Watergate.

Truthfully, neither game fully idealizes post-World War II America fully. The plasmid advertisements of Bioshock reveal a sinister animosity between men and women of this “more moral” age as they frequently feature cartoony images of buttoned down husbands using plasmids as a way of combating their rolling pin wielding wives. Fallout 3 includes some songs on its soundtrack, which reveal a less than ideally modest vision of sexuality from that era. The thinly veiled sexuality of the lyrics of “Butcher Pete (Part 1)” (a real “lady killer” in more ways than one) or the inclusion of “Let’s Go Sunning” (a song from the soundtrack of a nudist film from 1954) reveal that this age was a less prudish and genteel one than it is often imagined. However, while a dark sense of humor underlies these comic revelations of a less than innocent culture, Fallout 3 and Bioshock‘s post-1950s worlds are anything but funny. Brutal and violent, the citizens of the Capital Wasteland and Rapture are selfish, cruel, and frequently driven by unchecked desire and drug addiction.

In these futures, the world transitions into a future that looks more like the present. In that sense, Fallout 3 and Bioshock may be less forward looking than they are about critiquing the now.