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Perception of Time in Fallout 4

Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.

This is the cover art for Fallout 4. The cover art copyright is believed to belong to the distributor of the game or the publisher, Bethesda Softworks or the developers, Bethesda Game Studios.

This is the cover art for Fallout 4. The cover art copyright is believed to belong to the distributor of the game or the publisher, Bethesda Softworks or the developers, Bethesda Game Studios.

Fallout 4 engages in several unique manipulations of perspective. For instance, in one sequence, the protagonist is forced to revisit the murder of his or her spouse and kidnapping of his or her child from the point of view of Kellogg, the man who perpetrated those crimes. As a result, a villainous character is humanized, and players have to reconsider their judgment of everything that has taken place so far.

Another perceptual twist is the way the Sole Survivor of Vault 111 deals with the change in time. In effect, Fallout 4 presents a protagonist who is the closest to Steve Rogers, aka Captain America. It achieves this effect by toying with the passage of time and the way the protagonist perceives the social and personal traumas.

Captain America's shield

Captain America's shield

War Never Changes

In the prologue of Fallout 4 the player and protagonist witness the nuclear attacks that effectively destroy the world. With no time to spare, the player is whisked into Vault 111 as the atomic blast directed at Boston causes catastrophic devastation. Before any questions can be asked much less answered, the protagonist is tricked into being cryogenically frozen, preserved for the future or whatever amoral experimentation Vault-Tec has devised. Following the crimes that set the game’s plot in motion, the Sole Survivor exits the Vault only to discover an unimaginable gulf of time has passed. Codsworth is the first of several NPCs to confront the protagonist with the information that he or she has been missing for over two centuries, Rip Van Winkle style.

Witnessing the conditions in and around Vault 111 and the greater Boston area confirms this knowledge, and the Sole Survivor must reconcile with being adrift in time. This temporal unmooring is most closely paralleled with Captain America. Steve Rogers is de facto frozen in suspended animation near the end of World War Two, only to be thawed decades later. For him, World War Two and the Holocaust just happened. In what seems to him to be the blink of an eye, the war is over, Nazis are defeated, and he must adapt to a radically changed society that his efforts helped create. The Sole Survivor is in a similar situation. What seems to the protagonist like minutes before—a world of helpful robots, coffee, door-to-door salesmen and suburban bliss—is annihilated and replaced by a world of mutants, war machines, ruins, and radioactive storms. Everyone else has had centuries to acclimate; aside from a few Ghouls, they don’t even really know the world before except through scavenging. To the Sole Survivor, though, this apocalypse just happened. This seismic shift and being cut off from a world that was perceptually real and tangible just moments ago is a powerful technique to make the protagonist seem perpetually off balance no matter how skillful he or she is.

No Statute of Limitations on Murder

More compelling than this environmental jump in time, though, is the personal one. Helpless to prevent the personal tragedy of spousal murder and child theft, the Sole Survivor eventually stumbles from the cryo pod, sets out to find out who has committed these crimes, and tries to set them right. Notice, the central quest is personal. The protagonist doesn’t try to find out who caused the nuclear apocalypse. That task is fruitless, but the Sole Survivor believes there is a chance to recover Shaun, his or her son. After all, the murder and kidnapping just occurred, or so it would seem.

This is another trick of perception. What seems like it just happened to the Sole Survivor is in fact a decades’ old occurrence. The first hints of this come in tracking and confronting Kellogg, but it is not until meeting the mysterious leader of the Institute, Father, that it becomes clear that Shaun has aged, while the protagonist has not. This personal trauma, just like the worldwide apocalypse, seems like it has happened in the immediate past, but it is revealed that the Sole Survivor is much more distant in time from the source of these occurrences than he or she believed. In both cases the player and protagonist are tricked by how they perceive time rather than the actual chronology.

Photo of Kurt Vonnegut from an appearance on WNET-TV

Photo of Kurt Vonnegut from an appearance on WNET-TV

Unstuck in Time

When talking to the Sole Survivor, both Mama Murphy and Piper use the phrase “out of time,” to describe this paradox between how much time has gone by versus how much time the protagonist thinks has gone by. It is no coincidence that the name of the mission that begins the game once the apocalypse has occurred is also called “Out of Time.” The player and the Sole Survivor are meant to feel as though they have been misplaced in the ordinary sequence of events, and now they are forever playing catch-up in circumstances they could never have imagined. Again, the comparison to Captain America is merited. Whatever Steve Roger’s abilities are, he’s thrust into a world where everything he knew is in the distant past, but he remembers it as though it just happened.

In Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut uses the phrase “unstuck in time” to describe what happens to Billy Pilgrim as his consciousness moves backwards and forwards through time completely without his volition. Captain America and the Sole Survivor of Vault 111 are similarly victims of jerky movement through time. Billy Pilgrim learns to adapt to a non-chronological life, predicting and meeting his own inevitable death with an enlightened outlook. Captain America and the Sole Survivor are less easy-going about their circumstances and become actively engaged in an inherited different time by trying their best to make the world better than they found it in either time.

What sets Fallout 4 apart from these other characters is that the player takes the role of the character rather than passively follows the adventures of such a character. By playing as the Sole Survivor and being forced to reconcile with differences in the passage and perception of time, the audience of Fallout 4 must choose the actions that seem best to them even while second-guessing whether what they’re doing has value in the setting or to themselves.

© 2017 Seth Tomko