Fallout 4, or How I Learned to Embrace Chaos

Aaron Hynds

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At this moment, I am torn between two worlds: in one, I am sitting in a busy coffee house listening to Sting on hidden radio speakers, drinking from the biggest glass of cold brew that I could buy. In the other, I am a scavenger prowling through the irradiated wastelands of what used to be Boston, picking up toy cars and rolls of duct tape for the precious raw materials they possess. In one world, I am a black woman with an ironclad will and a slight drinking problem, and in the other, I am a white male with looming deadlines and a slight coffee addiction. But they are both me, and both worlds are governed by systems upon systems upon systems. One of these collections of systems is called the real world, and the other is the open world role playing game Fallout 4.

As of the writing of this article, I have put ~70 hours into Fallout 4, with most of that time being dedicated to wandering the wastelands of the greater Boston area and building out my own private settlement. The game is designed so that the player is encouraged to build settlements and attract other survivors of the nuclear apocalypse, but I have chosen not to do that. Nestled into the ruins of a dilapidated gas station is my own private abode, complete with a dog and multiple automated sentry turrets (it is a wasteland, after all, and not every survivor you run into has your best interests in mind). The first thing I did after finding the gas station was to completely wall in the perimeter, for increased security. After that came the personal touches—a tastefully placed bureau, a private bedroom with matching rugs, a recliner in the garage next to the weapons bench. This place is mine, and only mine. Millions of people have put possibly billions of hours into this game, but only one person has a house like the one that I have built. Systems upon systems upon systems—the chaos of Fallout 4 can lead to wonderfully private and personalized experiences, far beyond what the designers and engineers of the game (all 100+ of them) [1] could have possibly imagined.

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While meditating on the immense and chaotic multitudes of Fallout 4, I had a sudden revelation about the nature of the game—the key in many ways is the influence of chaos. Chaos is woven into the background of our existence, a “science of surprises” [2] that constantly shapes the way that we experience the world. The discipline of chaos theory, once limited primarily to its birthplace of theoretical physics, has infiltrated everything from video games to art, engineering, and music (more on this in a bit). A key component of chaos theory is the notion that the initial conditions of a complex system are inherently unknowable in perfect detail, leading to an infinite variety of results. The smallest deviation in the execution of a system can lead to dramatically different results. This concept is widely known and respected in the world of computer programming, where something as small as an errant bit of memory can cause an entire system to come crashing down. In the case of Fallout 4, there is an immense plurality of complex systems at play: the game engine, the renderers, weather systems, dynamic memory allocation, friend/foe AI systems—they all contribute to an inherently unstable and immeasurably complex system. Add to this the input provided by the player, who is themselves a plurality of complex organic systems, and the ground is set for an infinitely personal experience. Systems upon systems upon systems, each of which permanently changes that which comes after.

The complexity of Fallout 4 became apparent to me the more I played it, and it soon began to make its presence known outside of the game world. Around the time that I started to log some serious hours in the game, I happened to attend an enlightening concert by the duo Patchwork, consisting of Noa Even on saxophones and Stephen Klunk on drum set. [3] The highlight of the concert for me was a new work by Eric Wubbels, entitled Axamer Folio. The work is described by Eric as a “self-similar labyrinth of possibilities,” [4] navigated by the performers in a way that is truly unique to each interpretation. The experience of the work and performance, although awe-inspiring in its immediate impact, lay dormant until I became cognizant of the role that chaos plays in art. The chaotic nature of Fallout 4 served as the gateway, allowing me to feel the influence of chaos in a way that was truly personal and private. Art turned into life—one minute I was in my apartment listening to Anthony Braxton recordings, and the next minute I was in a firefight with bloodthirsty raiders in the bombed out ruins of MIT. Things began to shift, and the systematic nature of the world became just a little more apparent.

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From Axamer Folio, by Eric Wubbels

To bring it back to Eric Wubbels’ composition, it was this growing realization of the transformative power of chaos that led me to truly grasp the awesome power of the music. The work itself is composed of several interlocking works, a “modular network of 24 pieces.” [5] The performers of the composition navigate their way through this web of material, creating their own version of the work in the process. The work is a system whose initial conditions are entirely unknowable in their immense complexity. Added to the compositional system are the complex systems known as the performers, each of whom is wholly unknowable except to themselves. The work is borne from this complexity and chaos—the smallest change in conditions leads to widely divergent realizations. The performance that I witnessed on April 29th of this year was only one instance of the web of systems known as Axamer Folio, an infinitely-varied entity of possibilities.MEDRAZ pic edited.png

From Axamer Folio, by Eric Wubbels

I am not being hyperbolic when I say that the growing realization of this infinitude greatly changed the way that I view music. Each performance is an utterly unique event in and of itself, perfect in its chaotic instability. And this all came about because of my time spent scavenging in the wastelands of Fallout 4. From the endless chaos of this game came a recognition of the complexity of all life, and along with it, the realization that video games, new music, and all other kinds of art are ultimately a reflection of the chaos of life, in all of its limitless possibilities.

Axamer Folio by Eric Wubbels, performed by Patchwork.

1. http://www.techinsider.io/inside-the-fallout-4-development-team-2015-12
2. http://fractalfoundation.org/resources/what-is-chaos-theory/

3. https://soundcloud.com/patchwork-duo
4. http://www.wubbelsmusic.com/pieces_AxFolio.html
5. Ibid.