I guess I ought to throw up some sort of disclaimer, though, right? That's what all the bigwigs do. I make no pretense of ownership of Mr. Rousselle's words here, and this guest rant does not necessarily reflect my own opinions and perceptions. That said, though, I wouldn't publish it if I didn't think it was at least worth reading and contemplating, so check it out.
A ‘Tranquility Lane’ to Call our Own
July 2, 2013
It was a warm day in January as I walked the grounds of the famed Fairmont Banff Springs hotel. I had driven up from Calgary to get away from the stresses of our so-called ‘modern life’, but was still very much preoccupied by them. I climbed up the stairs and on onto the deck of an Alpine-style chalet and took in the vista below; however, not even the stunning white capped mountains in front of me and the crackling fire inside could calm my nerves. Then it struck me that this place was reminiscent of Jacobstown in Fallout: New Vegas. The anxiety left my body and I was free to take in that moment and simply enjoy consciousness.
Within seconds it struck me: as Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now famously put it “like a diamond bullet right through my forehead”. I realized that in the game, once I got past the abject horror of running for my life and desperately chasing down supplies, the virtual world of the Fallout universe is a liberating one. It is a world where I don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on unwanted neckties or other crap I don’t need. There are no credit cards, only bottle caps; success is determined by merely surviving to see the sun rise once more.
More often than not in Fallout, the most successful characters are those in communities where their fellow members band together through reciprocal kindness to carve out a life in the harsh world around them. One need look no further than Nicole from the Followers of the Apocalypse in Fallout, or James, the Lone Wanderer’s father in Fallout 3. Seeing characters like these instills in me a sense of community in these games, which serves as a welcome reprieve from the never-changing war of the world outside.
This made me think: what’s so bad about our time that I feel liberated just thinking about the virtual, albeit deep and compelling, reality of this game series? I think we can all agree that the safety of our surroundings, coupled with modern medicine and basic amenities has added more to our quality of life than detracted from it. Despite this, I couldn’t quite get past the bizarre sense of peace I got when I immersed myself in what is supposed to be a post-apocalyptic nightmare.
It was at this time that I thought of Fallout 3’s ‘Tranquility Lane’. For those of you who don’t know, Tranquility Lane is a virtual world created by Dr. Stanislaus Braun to occupy those weathering a nuclear apocalypse in an underground vault. The problem with this already terrifying scenario is that Braun has absolute power over the other subjects of the vault: I’m sure we all know that famous Lord Acton quote about absolute power corrupting absolutely.
This chapter of the game is so strange that it seems out of place, but because it is a main quest we can reasonably assume that the developers had some sort of message in mind. This is Fallout, after all.
But what were they getting at?
I fired up the old Xbox and took a trip down memory lane to revisit Tranquility Lane. In so doing, my initial emotional reactions came back to me: the stifled feeling of being stuck in a 1950s-esque black ‘n’ white cheery dystopia. The concept of the place is quite morbid and disturbing: a reality created by by a vindictive monster masked in the face of an innocent child, intent on tormenting people for his own amusement. Despite the sinister undertones, the feeling one gets from this is that of security and, juxtaposed to the adrenaline-filled terror one often finds in the wasteland, this false-reality can seem quite comfortable. This is exactly what Dr. Stanislaus Braun was going for when he designed the program:
“There's beautiful irony with this particular simulation as well. The residents here are naturally at home, naturally safe. When I toy with them, when their suburban illusion is suddenly broken, its that much more satisfying.
I do believe we shall all remain here in Tranquility Lane for a very long time. A very long time indeed.”
-Dr. Stanislaus Braun, Vault 112 Terminal Entries
The allegory that most of us live in some version of tranquility lane is a palpable one. Tens of millions of us have been drawn into the comforts of seemingly the ‘tranquil’ suburban life: pressboard homes with tiny pristine lawns and a plethora of consumer goods. However, lurking beneath this apparently idyllic existence is something much more sinister.
For the condemned souls of Vault 112, this sinister element is embodied in the enigmatic Dr. Braun. As mentioned above, Braun enjoys taking advantage of the peoples’ apparent complacency by ‘toying’ with them for his own amusement. This involves creating conflict by playing on people’s insecurities and even orchestrating their simulated deaths through numerous elaborate plans. What is most important is that Braun always takes the form of the seemingly innocuous, which is in this case a little girl. While some may distrust her or even call her ‘mean’, the blame for these occurrences is never placed on Betty/Braun. The residents of Vault 112 are living in torment without a clue as to why these awful things are happening to them.
What can we derive from this situation? Though it is obvious that we are not subject to the sadistic whims of some hidden little man, but we are subject to our share of torment in our own ‘tranquil’ lives.
One need only look at today’s pop culture to see that we are pushed toward an ideal that encourages self-obsession, willful ignorance, and the exploitation of others. We are taught ‘magical thinking’ by revolting figures like Oprah Winfrey and Joel Osteen who say if you just believe hard enough, you can achieve all the wealth and prestige you desire. We are given mixed messages one minute saying we are ‘beautiful no matter what they say’, and the next are implicitly told that we need to look a certain way in order to be like one of the images we are bombarded with daily. If you think I’m making this up, I dare you to subject yourself to any of the number of mind-numbing reality shows or the latest celebrity gossip to see which young starlet we will push to suicide next.
While some media figures play superficial lip service to things like friends and ‘family values’ (whatever the hell that means), more often than not the message is clear: cash is king. When we don’t have wealth and nice things to demonstrate our largesse, we become insecure and are pushed to the brink of bankruptcy with credit card debt. When we do have wealth, we are taught to lord it over others because we are somehow smarter and harder working than those who have less. We perpetuate our own cycle of insecurity, and it is insecurity that makes men most malleable.
Eddie Bernays knew this better than most. A nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays is best known for his work as a pioneer of public relations, the principles of which were drawn from his book “Propaganda”. He drew on his uncle’s research in psychoanalysis and became a master of creating fear and desire for both corporations and governments. He used elements like jealousy, sexuality, and terror to make people rabidly fearful of communism and ready to line up and buy a new Chrysler and a pack of Marlborough’s in the name of freedom. At the core of his beliefs was the idea of control: complacency through comfort, compliance through fear (I urge you to watch the BBC documentary “Century of the Self” to gain a better understanding of this concept – please see below).
Aside from both being native German speakers, Bernays and Braun have commonality in their desire for control. The difference is that Bernays saw his work as inherently altruistic: his 1928 book Propaganda states that manipulation and control are necessary for democracy in order to have society led those who know best. However, Braun’s two centuries in the vault seemed to have left him without a shred of altruism, only hubris.
As credit runs dry and American workers are getting squeezed continually, the illusion of their idyllic lives epitomized in 1950s sitcoms like Leave it to Beaver is being ‘suddenly broken’. What happened? Was this ever part of Bernays’ dream for an ideal democratic society?
Bernays’ principles have been used by our elite to effectively manipulate our behavior under the auspices of ‘freedom’, but his desire for good governance has been ignored. It has been conveniently ignored in much the same way Adam Smith’s call for regulations to prevent oligarchies in The Wealth of Nations has been ignored by plutocrats like the Koch brothers who espouse ‘free market principles’ while being among the greatest beneficiaries of corporate welfare in the country. The idea that society must be in the hands of our elite is reinforced with images of the stereotypical ‘unwashed masses’: stupid criminals on Cops or the rabidly ignorant ‘Tea party’ protestors who remind us that we must never leave the country in the hands of the common man. We are taught implicitly trust these elites, if for nothing else than because Oprah Winfrey tells us we can all be rich just like them someday. We wouldn’t want someone else trying to tell us what to do, would we?
For Braun, the effects are obvious: simulated torture for his own amusement. With our own elite, it seems to take the form of greed and hubris: nickel and diming the public, stripping them of their rights, and uncaringly watching as nearly half of all Americans plunge into poverty.
In both cases, the powers that be play on our fears and insecurities. Is my husband cheating on me and why? What if we have another terrorist attack? What if congress passes Obamacare? What if my date doesn’t like my car or my clothes? What if Mitt Romney wins the election? In essence, these are trivial matters that distract us from the truth: the people of Tranquility Lane are getting screwed and so are we.
Most of us have probably found that suburban life, or modern life in general are not so tranquil. Somehow we find escape in games like Fallout, despite their terrifying settings. Perhaps we like the idea of being free of debt, free of thinking we need to buy new things just to get laid, free from the fake-tan douchebags in their entry-level BMWs, free from the persistant chipping away of our civil liberties by governments beginning the resemble the infamous Enclave.
Ironically, the most humane way to beat Tranquility lane is to not facilitate in Braun’s systematic torture, but to inflict catastrophic destruction in the form of a simulated Chinese invasion. With real climate scientists and real economists (not Lawrence Summers or Allen Greenspan) warning us of the potential catastrophic risks of living the way we do, the threat of some awful disaster freeing us of this illusion is a very real and terrifying one.
The good news is that we don’t have to be like the poor folks of Tranquility Lane: we just need to stop kidding ourselves. We need to stop being led by our insecurities and actually get to know those with whom we’ve been told to compete. We need to stop criticizing others for voting for one political party when and realize that the one we vote for is serving the same interests. We need to be like those brave pioneers speckled throughout the Fallout landscape that go above and beyond their own needs to commit acts of profound and selfless kindness in an otherwise brutally unforgiving world. It’s not convenient or glamorous, but I for one don’t want my grandchildren to have to walk something resembling the irradiated expanse of the Capital Wasteland.
For more on this subject, please see:
Bernays, Edward (1928) Propaganda
Documentary: The Century of the Self
Documentary: Human Resources
Smith, Adam (1776) The Wealth of Nations - Free online at: