Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Fear and Loathing in the D.C. Wasteland

A curious duplicity comes into focus with the release of Fallout 3; the game’s timing was imprecise but close enough to real events. As the world's eyes were turned towards the concept of a new America freed from the ills of the Bush era, so were those of gamers fixated on Bethesda's microcosmic version of the same. Well-known subway stations, memorials to long-dead presidents – all are present and accounted for in both iterations of D.C., all shelter the mistakes of the past, and offer the vague hope of a society free from oppression.

For reasons both too numerous and too readily apparent to mention here, I wasn't able to attend the inauguration of the new U.S. President, Barack Obama. Instead, I attended an altogether different ceremony, in a landscape of a lower resolution – albeit a more idealised one – and thus better suited to recall.* Touring the D.C. Wasteland of Fallout 3, one can avoid the pitfalls of reality, the discomfort of crowds, while still cashing in on the ‘I-was-there-when’ veritas of the magical moment.

In the real world, crowds of adoring democrats, republicrats and assorted hangers-on cried and proclaimed their love for fictive political constructs, tiny paper flags and standing outside in the cold; in the wasteland, crowds of ghouls, Glowing Ones and the inevitable supermutants appeared rather annoyed that I had disrupted their unending search for human flesh, and promptly triggered an instanced attack. Despite the skirmishes and constant search for stimpacks, I decided I had the better deal than those who made the journey to the real Washington – warmth, maps, and haptic feedback being infinitely preferable to biting winds, jingoism and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Shepard Fairey, a man whose idea of creativity is to watch three scenes from John Carpenter’s They Live. (The PS3’s loading times being what they are, however, the idea of a four-year wait to reset a bad situation may not be inconceivable.)

Exiting at Foggy Bottom station in my ideal version of D.C., there was a wasteland wanderer begging for purified water or bottlecaps (the local equivalent of money). The U.S. News’ Robert Schlesinger would later write of running into a homeless man outside Foggy Bottom on inauguration day, a man with the audacity to ask for change. “Even the homeless have talking points,” Schlesinger quips, before fighting against the tide of humanity to watch the inauguration from the safety (and warmth) of his office.

Parallel structures abounded that day. Was the version of the inauguration I ‘attended’ any less real than that version Schlesinger avoided? Certainly we both saw the same television coverage, but the version of Washington D.C. I've spent so much time in is simply more real than the other place. I know the tripwires around Arlington Cemetery, the difficulties in navigating the trenches in front of the Capitol building, the inadequacies of defending the Lincoln Memorial. Why, then, would I really need to go to Washington, if not to destroy my memories of the city as I know it?

* When John Key stepped up to become our own nation’s new Prime Minister last year, however, I didn’t feel the need to find some next-gen version of the ceremony I could pretend to attend. A bootleg copy of Dig Dug and a damp towel perfectly emulated both the self-congratulatory Parnell house-party and Key’s speaking ability, respectively.

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