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Vol. 2, Issue 3
November 23, 1999
Pixel Obscura:

Broken Earth

by Josh Vasquez

"earth must have got stuck,
one sunless day"
- samuel beckett

The idea of apocalypse and the turning of the millennium run hand in hand.

The two represent a kind of dark ideological evolution: "apocalypse" is scrawled on a door at the end of the millennial hallway. What seems inherent in the concept of apocalypse is a radical (read final) disruption of perception, a point from which nothing can be easily translated.

Following this definition, the artwork of M.C. Escher is apocalyptic, the starkly "biological" designs forcing a new revelation of seeing on the viewer. Escher's work, however, has the necessary disorientation but not the symbolic wiping away of the blood from ones eyes. Apocalypse is not mere annihilation, but rather a wounded awakening.

Artists throughout time have made much of an apocalypse's adumbrating "violence." Where "the composer" of the Epic of Gilgamesh saw a king running from the shadow of death, Pamela Smith and Arthur Waite saw a deck of Tarot cards, where Medieval painters saw skeletons cavorting at the hour of judgment, Alfred Hitchcock saw James Stewart standing on the edge of a bell tower staring down at the shattered body of the woman he loves in Vertigo. It's quite a varied experience...all coming down to the same thing: the revelation of the past laid waste and the future forever changed because of it. The time between the eye closing and the eye opening is the apocalyptic moment. The creators of Fallout, developed by Black Isle and published by Interplay, approach it with a surprising amount of grace.

The game is set in the year 2077, after a two hour war in which most of the planet has been destroyed. Life struggles to thrive on the surface, while deep below, buried in the womb of a mountain, massive Vaults house families spared the ravages of the nuclear aftermath. The player is asked to identify with one of these sheltered survivors, released back onto the broken earth for the first time.

Fallout's cinematics are divided into two sections, a rather lyrical (in its own way) evocation of the build-up to the disaster and a more narrative guided tour (a quick note: having already reviewed Fallout 2, I find myself in the awkward position of referring back to that game in comparison to the first one). The narrator is the requisitely gruff cataloguer of man's downfall, sounding like a cross between Clint Eastwood and Krusty the Clown. "War...War never changes," he stoically laments, almost whispering as grainy black and white snapshots fade in and out. Most post-apocalyptic films have this: the VOICE with the omniscient perspective of God and the cracked vocal cords of a survivor. The technique veers dangerously close to cliche but unlike in Fallout 2, it doesn't overstay its welcome.

In Fallout 2, the role of the narrator was expanded to include recapping the first game. As a result the voice, by having to drone on, only served to drill into the viewer just how overused a tool it was...Fallout needs no elongated introduction. The creators limit the use of the narrator to add just the right amount of atmosphere. Underneath the voice, photographic stills punctuate the story, tortured black and white prints as silent evidence. In one painting, a nationalistic poster, Uncle Sam stands, shirt sleeves rolled up, huge American flag billowing out behind him like a manmade cloud, in front of an armada of planes, all flying in formation in the aesthetics of war.

We see cities and tunnels, burning ships and wrecked oil fields, antiquated machines and massive structures. In these images scale becomes a horrifying thing, like when looking at people standing next to the base of a ship in dry dock fills you with an unexplainable fear. There is a sense in these images of industrial projects designed to negotiate a teetering earth, ghosts leaking out of its bending axis. The images appear taken from the 1930's, and perhaps it's appropriate considering that the third decade of the 20th century was a time when the future seemed to reach back and pierce the present. The Depression and Flash Gordon, pagan rituals as politics and airships docking with the Empire State building...2077 might as well be 1939 in these snapshots taken just before an apocalyptic opening of our eyes.

We've seen things fall apart many times; in Fallout the world ends to the tune of a 1920's pop song.

"Maybe you'll think of me, when you are all alone," a melancholy voice sings while, on a television screen, newsreel footage records the coming end. Animated characters, straight out of Disney Studios, make the idea of having to live in underground vaults more comforting as soldiers shoot civilians in the head, laughing and waving to the camera. The image slowly pulls back, revealing a burnt out city in the distance. The television is playing to a dead world, the very house it's in shattered to a ruined wooden iceberg. The song, a lament for lost love, becomes a mass for a broken earth. "Maybe you'll sit and sigh, wishing that I were near..." but there's no one left

One can only hope that the team working on Fallout deliberately crafted this opening to their game with full intention of leaving the player with a slightly haunted feeling. Fallout 2 seems proof of this as it continues the same basic structural ideas. In both Fallout games, the creative team at Black Isle has shown commitment to maintaining a sense of humor and style in presenting a darkly graceful vision of the end.

- Joshua Vasquez is the resident film critic here at loonygames. He also writes for the Internet film site Matinee Magazine.

(Editor's note: the preceding is a revised version of an article that originally ran in Volume 1. Josh requested this revision, as he felt the piece to be one of his best. A brand new edition of Pixel Obscura will run next week.)


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