subsuming the ego: fallout 3 and the road, by cormac mccarthy


as i recently posted, i have been playing Fallout 3 a great deal lately. Currently, i’ve logged about 20 hours and have leveled up to a 13 (there is a level cap of 20 in the game). one of the things i love about this game is that i have been playing for 20 hours and i haven’t even started on the main quest yet. i have completed several side quests (power of the atom—i disarmed the bomb; blood ties—no, didn’t become a vampire!; tenpenny towers—apparently i insulted roy white one too many times, had to kill him; and i killed all the slavers in paradise falls—couldn’t get into the slaving thing; oasis—i stuck the heart with the growth serum). being able to play through the game without feeling constrained to move along the main narrative has been a very cool gameplay element, but it also makes it interesting to view the game as a text instead of just as a series of random battles versus super mutants, radscorpions, and mad max style raiders. in this sense, the textual nature of the game is relatively in line with traditional rpgs, but also an interesting example of a post-modern decolage of narrative.

fallout 3

even with the introduction of the karma system (to which some of the leveled in game perks are tied) the game retains its sense of moral ambiguity. players are certainly rewarded with items, goods, or reputation if they act a certain way, but this is true across the board—as a villain or a paragon. i have yet to meet up with dogmeat, the in game pet one can acquire, so i don’t know how that gameplay mechanic fits into the overall scheme of the narrative, or how it skews the isolationism of the game, either.

yet i can say this, for certain. i went into the game expecting there to be a more communal sense to survival and this is not the case at all. while you will meet up with npcs quite often, you don’t really develop a bond with any of them in any fashion. not only that, but there is nothing, so far, that is compelling the player character to continue along with his/her (her in my case) search for her father.

to put it succinctly, the apocalyptic vision of the world of the capitol wasteland is initially unnerving; it becomes a world that is intimately familiar; and finally one in which you are amazed by its unreal beauty. the world, in essence, becomes your companion. even though you have been in the world for a relatively short time, compared to the npcs who have been in the world for over 200 years, it is a world that has a familiar enough landscape and a unique beauty in its destruction. it is one to which the player character immediately clings after becoming used to its spaciousness.

This is one of the principal differences between cormac mccarthy’s novel, the road, and fallout 3. to those who have played fallout 3, the scenario of the road is a very familiar place. i’ve only just started rereading it now that i have advanced significantly into the game, but i was immediately struck by the similarities between the two. from the destruction, to the remnants of what essentially amounts to a lost empire, the two landscapes both share a karmic sense of possibility as to what could possibly happen in some future of horrific consequences. humanity has had longer to rise from the ashes of its destruction in fallout 3 than it has in the road, but it is essentially the same place. it even takes place in a similar local (virginia and maryland of fallout 3, versus tennessee the Carolinas).

the road

the main difference between the two worlds (other than the relative lack of trees in fallout 3) lies in isolation. as I stated previously, even though you do not play with other characters very much in fallout 3, the sense of isolation is alleviated relatively quickly as you become accustomed to your environment. in the road, the characters, and the reader who identifies with the father and son as a textual ego, never become accustomed to the world in which they find themselves.

even for the boy, who has no real memory of a world that existed before the cataclysm, the world remains a strange and unfamiliar territory, hostile in almost every way. the boy learns, he accomplishes tasks, he watches his father, he engages in what is essentially, in the video game model, a process of leveling up. in the video game world, leveling up does not make you that much stronger, or that much faster. it gives you new skills, but they are skills that are acquired through practice. you don’t gain any kind of serious mutated abilities. but those skills let you feel at home in the world. in the novel, no skill will ever teach the boy to trust. no skill will ever replace his father. what is essentially an emotional connection in the road also becomes a visceral sensation.

in essence, as texts, fallout 3 describes an arc of world in which we would want to exist. the road describes the world in which we will exist. in the road, we know that the isolation for the boy, no matter what family he finds, no matter who carries the fire, will be final. in fallout 3, we know that the vault dweller will find her partner in the world around her.

why is this? primarily, i think the reason is because of the principal difference between the novel as textual narrative and video game as textual narrative. in the novel, we must be removed from ourselves. in the video game, we bring ourselves into the world. for all of the strangeness of any world encountered in the video game reality, the ego is subsumed into the world—in freudian terms there is a transference of id. in the novel, the world devours the ego, giving the id no place to play out its desires. we regain ourselves when we leave the novel’s world, but until then, the world controls us.

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5 thoughts on “subsuming the ego: fallout 3 and the road, by cormac mccarthy

  1. Jay Witt says:

    Nice post! I thought of “The Road” when playing the game too, but primarily because of the father/son relationship in the book and in the game. Once (or if) you start along the narrative track you’ll understand.

    • Well, with me it’s quite the opposite, i played Fallout 3 with it’s DLC’s for about 300 hours, then i watched the movie The Road, and i almost thought it was a movie about Fallout3…
      the friends i went to the movie with, also saw a lot of similarities in the two…. almost scary, as one friend described it.

      i really loved the movie, and sure want to read the novel, (downloading it as PDF right now).

  2. Jesteraron says:

    Hi. Thanks for the post. I too felt very similar. I played about 150 hours in Fallout 3 earlier in 2009 and just finished reading the book “the Road” in April 2009. Right away I saw lots of similarities with bandits, marauders, cannibals, etc. Also the relationship between the boy and the father was similar and scavenging for things and just the overall condition of everything felt the same. Very interesting the similarities both of these media’s hold.

  3. Ive just seen The Road film and i couldn’t help but to continually compare it to Fallout 3. Its resemblace is uncanny. The most reminisant thing is the relationships between fathjer and son. If you like Fallout 3 go and see the film!

  4. Tim says:

    I am in a very similar place with respect to both the Road and Fallout 3. I started engaging both almost simultaneously, and am not surprised to find that other people have discovered their similarities.

    My experiences with the text and the game are incredibly similar; content aside. Both works require exhaustive and repetitive searching through the medium, the narrative space and the self. It is not boring by any means, as you learn that you must keep moving / reading / playing to survive.

    I believe that the reader / interactor experience is what is so powerful. Yes they are aesthetically brilliant, yes they are thematically engaging, but the experience /atmosphere they create is what gives them an immense gravity. With (very little) respect to Ebert’s recent justifications to his claim that ‘video games are not and never will be art’ I believe if he actually took the time to engage the interactive media format by being a user rather than a stubborn surveyor we would perhaps come to know whether he is a true critic or just a stubborn old man.

    I thought your recognition of McCarthy’s ‘son’ as ego is immensely helpful. His character does not read like a child at all.

    These works deserve to be respectfully and formally inspected, because whats happening here is a really incredible synergy of literature and interactive media.

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