Post-War Disjunctions in Domesticity

Posted by Stuart Lindsay on April 19, 2010 in Blog tagged with

Post-War Disjunctions in Domesticity: America, and the Family and Gothic in the Bioshock and Fallout Videogame Series

The distinctly American notion of Homely Gothic has been the subject of constant revision, adapting to the shift in where and how people live, and the way in which they defend this bastion of safety and symbolism. From Nathaniel Hawthorn to Cormack McCarthy, the American family has always been the subject of assault, invasion and violation, from both without and within. The modern American family, a symbol of the nation’s purity and assured future, has its origins in the Post-War era of nineteen-fifties suburbia, a time of re-settlement and socio-economic optimism. Videogames, in their re-staging and transplanting of historical period, have returned to the aesthetics of this era, creating imagined horrors with which to superimpose upon the American family: its evacuation of a disaster-ridden area or its substitution by a monstrous double.

The architectural elements of nineteen-fifties Post-War America have been rendered by these game series as a paranoia-inducing Gothic plan. Fallout and Bioshock selectively recycle telltale period imagery and ideas: retro-futurist town planning, a fanatical fear of both Communism and U.S governmental intervention, taking these recognisable Post-War problems and placing them within the games’ own unique post-disaster science-fiction settings. Both games suggest, through their presentation of purposefully antiquated in-game soundtracks lifted from the jazz and music hall of the twenties and thirties, a loss of social innocence found in these earlier times: where the now Post-War America cannot shed the spectre of war and warfare, where the persisting military-industrial complex now influences the technology of the home and its role in serving the family. Fallout 3 suggests a world where before its nuclear catastrophe, miniature tank-like robots operate household electrical machinery: sweeping carpets and mixing cocktails, draining the human capacity for self-rule and instead promising housewives an almost Stepfordian existence. The technology of war is endlessly reconfigured, finding an outlet in every aspect of Post-War family life: from Bioshock’s finger-pointing fire Plasmid useful for lighting cigarettes and gas hobs, to Fallout 3’s simulation of a Chinese Communist invasion of the U.S, which presents instructions on how to survive such an attack. Similarly, Bioshock’s underwater world of Rapture consists of the exploratory ideals from the twenties and thirties, corrupted by the Post-War need to suburbanise its population through military science. The architecture of Rapture, a combination of Art Deco and Jules Verne-inspired Steam Punk has been ruined by the military industrial regulation of the family, producing monstrous role models through the combination of advertisement and its Plasmid economy (a sort of period version of Deus Ex’s biomod system), disrupting the normative relationships between family members through genetic augmentation.

Are you as good as my daddy? Not if you don’t visit the Gatherer’s Garden you’re not!”

In Fallout 3, the American family has been substituted by the products of the military industrial complex entirely. Set in and around the iconic American city of Washington D.C, familiar locales such as the Library of Congress, the White House and the Washington Memorial stand amongst a city abandoned in the aftermath of nuclear war. The suburban home, endlessly idealised and romanticised by the in-game television and radio broadcasts is itself left in similar ruin, the irony of a dream undone by the very promises of symbolic and economic safety it offers. Into Fallout’s disjunction between family ideals and realities is the player, a wasteland wanderer in search of his father. Beginning in the womb-like safety of the underground Vault 101, the game’s ultimate task is to venture topside and reunite with your father, to reclaim the family you were once part of. The first years of your life, played in a flashback of sorts, document defining family events: your first baby steps, your twelfth birthday, and the bonding of American father and son over a game of baseball. After leaving the vault, it is revealed that other topside survivors are doing the same: attempting to re-establish the ideal family upon the wasteland surface. The Brotherhood of Steel, suited in wartime metal suits, but with the superhero optimism of Post-War children’s fiction (think Superman or Buck Rogers), have carved out temporary safe-zones in D.C through military domination and occupation, as interim bases before full topside re-colonisation can begin. Lacking both the protection of the mother and the instruction of the father, the Brotherhood of Steel are an unguided force, childlike but with immense power, a monstrous double of the American family they are attempting to re-create. This rapid and often violent sense of re-creation and re-attainment is only partial: the stitches in the social network reveal its monstrous omissions. Democracy, the system which elects the leaders of the nation, is now not regulated by the electorate, the family members whom it supposedly represents and serves, but instead by a full-blown militaristic uniform, devoid of the hierarchy of these very family members themselves.

Fallout 3

, much like Bioshock, demonstrates how the excesses of America’s wartime Military Industrial Complex overflow into Post-War family life. These videogames show how militaristic science, in its social and commercial guises, either distort or double the family. Through their use of the first person perspective convention, they put the gamer in the shoes of the orphan, the figure with the absent father and the mother that died before they knew her, representing the violation of American domesticity through technology.

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