David G. Schwartz is the Associate Vice Provost of Faculty Affairs, Professor and Gaming Historian in the University Libraries, and an Affiliate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas who writes mostly about gambling, gaming, and games.
As a Western set in a post-apocalyptic Mohave, Fallout: New Vegas demonstrates that the big questions that drive Western history are durable and malleable enough to survive even the (fictional) nuclear demise of the United States itself. The fourth iteration of the Fallout franchise is set approximately 200 years after a civilization-ending nuclear war but is valuable for teachers of American history because several major themes of real-life Western historiography are embedded in it. In fact, as I will demonstrate in this essay, the game, and particularly the Honest Hearts DLC, can be used to not just demonstrate, but to allow students to feel why the questions that underlay the study of Western history have real resonance.
The West: Place or Process?
The game’s potential utility as a class resource can be summed up by its answers to a question that has long engaged scholars: what is the American West? For generations now, historians have argued over whether the West is a process or a place. Frederick Jackson Turner, and many after him, considered the West more a process than a place, as settlement spread westward into “free land,” evolving from a rustic backwoods life to a sophisticated manufacturing civilization (Worster 24). In contrast, in 1957, Walter Prescott Webb declared that the West was “no longer a shifting frontier,” but “a region that [could] be marked off on a map” (Worster 24-5). Namely, the West began in the second tier of states west of the Mississippi River, i.e., North Dakota through Texas. This region, though geographically diverse, was mostly arid. Since then, the argument between process and place has been contested, though “place” seems to be winning out.
The divide between “process” and “place” echoes the rise of the “New Western History,” approaches towards writing Western history that are non-triumphalist, embracing, in the influential words of Patricia Nelson Limerick, “continuity, convergence, conquest, and complexity” (Limerick 18). The story of the West is no longer the tale of Anglo-Saxon heroes replacing the land’s previous inhabitants and making the West safe for profitable resource extraction and the expansion of American democracy. Instead, it is a place where many cultures converge; where might, not right, has determined winners; and where meaningful change still continues. This was in reaction to Turner, who famously announced that Western history ended with the “closing” of the frontier in the 1890s. As I discuss in this essay, Fallout: New Vegas, as a Western set in the future, offers an intriguing exploration of the “place vs. process” debate.
The Burdens of History
The Honest Hearts DLC provides a particularly good vehicle for exploring whether the West is best viewed as a process or place. This add-on adventure, set in the former Zion National Park, sees a proxy war between the game’s chief rival factions threaten to destroy the paradise that has been built in Zion. Three groups of “tribals” (a combination of Native Americans, other U.S. citizens, and Europeans who were visiting Zion and nearby national parks when the bombs fell, who speak a pidgin of Navajo, English, German, and Dutch) are brought into conflict, paralleling the difficulties visited upon many Native American groups after the encroachment of European colonists.
One in-game interaction can focus a class discussion about whether Follows-Chalk, a young member of the Dead Horses tribe who accompanies the player for part of the adventure, is eager to learn yet completely naïve about the world outside Zion. The player can choose to encourage his desire to see more of the world or discourage him from leaving his family. The game’s creators entitled this questline “The Civilized Man’s Burden,” a play on Rudyard Kipling’s ode to Anglo-Saxon magnanimity, “The White Man’s Burden,” with knowing irony. The player takes on the “burden” of instructing the “savage” Follows-Chalk, though it’s debatable whether “civilization,” which destroyed itself two hundred years previously, has any claim to superiority.
Is Honest Hearts, then, just a way of flipping imperialism on its head, of saying that “civilization” isn’t inherently superior to “savagery?” In other words, is it in line with the New Western History? In some ways, the answer is yes, but the creators were more interested in personal stories. According to lead designer and director Joshua Sawyer, the add-on was created to showcase a beautiful natural setting and deal seriously with religion. Drawing from the Brigham Young quote, “Honest hearts produce honest actions,” the DLC explores how “Joshua Graham, Daniel, Follows-Chalk, and Waking Cloud are all in the midst of personal crises and navigating them requires them to be honest with themselves and each other. Centrally, Joshua Graham is not being honest with himself about why he’s fighting” (Sawyer).
The narrative complexity that Sawyer alludes to—earnestly portraying religious faith, major characters conflicted with themselves, and a final battle which echoes an infamous episode in real Western history, the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre—places Honest Hearts, and by extension all of Fallout: New Vegas, into the New Western History/West as Place camp. Sawyer, though his degree is in early modern European history, specifically says that in Honest Hearts, he aimed “to reflect some of the most troublesome aspects of Mormon/European expansion into Utah and how it caught up local people in the Mormons’ conflicts with outsiders” (Sawyer).
Is Zion Worth Fighting For?
True to the older style of Western history, the native tribes do not have much agency; rather, it is outsider New Canaanite missionaries Daniel and Joshua Graham who are fighting for the soul of Zion. Daniel believes that the tribe’s geographical home is less important than its spiritual one. “Throughout our history, we have called many places Zion,” he tells the Courier. “This valley is full of God’s beauty, but it’s just a place. Zion is more than this.” To protect “some water and a piece of sky” would destroy the tribe they are hoping to save, the Sorrows. “If we sacrifice grace for a piece of land,” he says, “we may live in this valley, but we will no longer dwell in Zion. It’s better for us to leave now” (“NVDLC02Daniel.txt”). The player has to decide whether to assist Daniel in evacuating the Sorrows to the Grand Staircase, or to help Joshua Graham fight the invading White Legs.
The player’s decision echoes Mormon history; driven from community to community in antebellum America, the group finally settled in a land they called Deseret, that evolved into a state called Utah. This group found no place worth fighting for, and their successive moves across the West spoke to Turner’s rolling “frontier.” For a player siding with Daniel, the West is a process. The settlement of Zion will be repeated at Grand Staircase, and life will go on.
And yet, even should the player assist in the flight of the Sorrows to a new home, it is clear Zion remains a special place. In the closing narration, it is revealed that Daniel, though happy with his family, still has nights “when he awoke with sadness to find he had been dreaming of Zion” (“Honest Hearts Endings”). Daniel argued that Zion as a place was not special, but for the rest of his life he grapples with its ghost.
Joshua Graham, coming from the same tradition and seeking redemption for his role in the rise of the murderous leader Caesar, knows too well that faith alone is no protection in a violent world. After waxing poetic about the successive loss of Zion and his desire for vengeance, he asks the player to help him repel the invaders. Graham’s own backstory is complicated—he is complicit in the rise of Caesar, and struggles with mastering his own anger. But in siding with him, the player declares that Zion is a special place that cannot be duplicated in Grand Staircase.
Players who know real-world Western history might be quicker to side with Joshua, as they are aware that Native American tribes, from the 17th century onward, repeatedly offered “land for peace” and were ultimately pushed onto the most marginal lands and stripped of their sovereignty. None of this history is explicitly stated in the game, but it is a quite natural connection to make, and a good starting point for a class discussion about Anglo-Native relations.
Honest Hearts Produce Honest History
In the end, the contrast between Zion and New Vegas highlights the New Western concern with questioning myths that suffuses Fallout: New Vegas. Sawyer explains that:
The overarching theme of Fallout: New Vegas is about trying to recreate a new world in the image of the old world. Honest Hearts is about how the New Canaanites are following in the footsteps of their Mormon ancestors, bringing Mormonism (or trying to) to the wasteland. It’s also intended to contrast the Mojave Wasteland both visually and in character. So much of what we see in Fallout: New Vegas is damaged, corrupted, or worn down by the war and the centuries of misery that have followed. Zion remains untouched. Both Daniel and Joshua see an unspoiled purity in it that they cannot let be ruined. Daniel sees something similar in the Sorrows, which hearkens back to Noble Savage myths. (Sawyer)
The game’s central theme—recreating a new world in the image of the old world—speaks to Turner’s concept of civilization conquering wilderness on the frontier. The ghost of the past overhangs the entire game; its soundtrack is mostly made up of music recorded from the 1930s to the 1960s, making it nostalgic not to the game’s players, but their grandparents. One add-on adventure is called “Old World Blues,” a condition which “refers to those so obsessed with the past they can’t see the present, much less the future, for what it is” (“Old World Blues”). In-game, there’s an undercurrent of contempt, and possibly pity, for those afflicted with Old World Blues. That’s a very Turnerian disregard for the customs of the past. But it also speaks to contemporary obsessions with the idealized narratives that the New Western History has complicated.
The New Canaanites’ faith in the redemptive power of the West’s purity (epitomized in Zion) would seem to make them Turnerian heroes, but no ending is truly happy. Help the Sorrows evacuate, and the White Legs turn Zion Valley into “a polluted cistern.” Defend the Sorrows, and the White Legs are ultimately destroyed. In his “best” ending, Daniel regrets the loss of Zion as a place, not a state of mind. Joshua Graham’s “best” ending, on the other hand, still sees him fighting fiercely against his enemies, his demons not extinguished, but perhaps appeased (“Honest Hearts Endings”). The native tribes and lead characters, likewise, end with final fates that recall Limerick’s appeal for complexity in the New Western History.
The Honest Hearts DLC, in particular, encapsulates the ways that students can seek to answer one of the driving questions of Western historiography for themselves: is the West a process or a place? What makes this piece of Fallout: New Vegas such a marvelous vehicle for exploring the question is that no clear answer is given: instead, both players and students must find one for themselves. But, as Benny tells the Courier in the opening cutscene, just before he fires the bullet that nearly kills the character, “the game was rigged from the start.” While it is possible to cling to the notion that the West is a process with a beginning and end, the game makes it clear that, to those truly honest with themselves, Zion is a special place, perhaps one worth sacrificing innocence for. Finishing the circle, this focus on continuity—Zion has been fought for in the past and will be battled over in the future—links back to the first line spoken in the Fallout franchise, repeated multiple times since: “War. War never changes.” There is no end to fighting, no closing of the frontier. From rocks to arrows to rifles to missiles and back to rocks; where, we can ask, is there progress? It is only, it seems, a continuing story of fighting over resources, over ideology, and over places.
“Honest Hearts endings.” Nukapedia.
Limerick, Patricia Nelson. Something in the Soil: Legacies and Reckonings in the New West. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2000.
“Old World Blues (add-on).” Nukapedia.
Sawyer, Joshua. Personal interview. 1 May 2019.
Worster, Donald. “New West, True West.” Major Problems in the History of the American West, edited by Clyde A. Milner II. Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath and Company, 1989.