Bottle Caps in the Capital

I’m really excited for Fallout 4.  The game has topped my anticipation list for ages, long before it was announced in June of this year.  I even pre-ordered the game, something I haven’t done since a disastrous experience with Dragon Age 2—although this pre-order was mostly to avoid a predicted $10 price increase resulting from the weakness of the Canadian dollar (which happened on October 15th, for anyone keeping track).

To help kill the less than two weeks until Fallout 4’s release, I decided to venture back into the Capital Wasteland of Fallout 3.  And to help justify this extravagance, I’m writing a series of articles exploring design choices in the game.

I’ve played every major game in the Fallout series, and then some, most recently spending an absurd amount of time with Fallout: New Vegas.  For those unfamiliar with the franchise, the majority of the games (including Fallout 1, Fallout 2, and F:NV) are set on the West Coast of a post-apocalyptic United States.  The most notable exception to this is Bethesda’s first foray, Fallout 3, set in the ruins of Washington, D.C.  This change of venue gave the studio some degree of creative freedom as they breathed new life into a series that had lain dormant for almost a decade.

Nice kitty...
Nice kitty…

Similarly, Fallout 4 will be set around nearby Boston, keeping Bethesda’s efforts firmly rooted in Fallout’s East Coast canon.  I was first reminded of this East/West distinction while watching an early trailer for Fallout 4.  It featured a beast called a yao guai, prompting me to think, “What the heck is a yao guai?”

After a little browsing on the Fallout Wiki, I discovered that the yao guai was an invention of Fallout 3—a deviation from the pre-Bethesda canon, and a beast that has only appeared in the wastes of the East Coast.

This was part of what prompted my return to Fallout 3, a desire to brush up on Fallout’s East Coast lore so that I wouldn’t be caught off guard by the appearance of yao guai, or miss any nods to Bethesda’s earlier game.  But it also got me thinking about the idea of canon, and some of the choices Bethesda made when reviving the series.

At a certain point in my current replay, I started to wonder how the currency of the Capital Wasteland, bottle caps, managed to migrate from the West Coast to the East.  Because I’m a giant nerd, I know that caps in the Fallout universe originated in a major trading center in Southern California, The Hub, as a currency backed by the value of water.  This is plausible.  Bottle caps, we are told, are a relatively scarce pre-war artifact, and since they are backed by a valuable wasteland resource, and guaranteed by a group of reliable merchants, it makes sense that locals would come to trust caps as a local currency.

In Fallout 2, set 80 years later in 2241, caps have been abandoned as currency on the West Coast.  After the New California Republic gained regional power they introduced the NCR dollar, backed by gold, which serves as the standard currency in Fallout 2.  Again, this is plausible within the fiction.

I had actually forgotten this piece of trivia until I started researching this tiny detail of the Fallout universe.  It’s strange to realize that in 1998 only half of the Fallout games used bottle caps, while in 2015, caps as currency are an intrinsic part of the Fallout brand.  Caps are now an indisputable True Fact™ of life in the post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Yet unlike the first two games Fallout 3 never attempts to explain the East Coast’s usage of caps.  While several groups migrated from the West Coast, the Hub merchants were not among them.  And even if they were, by the time Fallout 3 starts in 2277, the Hub has been a part of the NCR for almost a century.  Additionally, there is no regional power in D.C.—trading or governmental—with enough power and prevalence that we could reasonably believe they are supporting the currency.  And with hundreds of pre-war bottles of Nuka Cola available in the ruins of D.C., caps are not the relative rarity they were in California.  The constant influx of new caps from these bottles would, in a real economy, lead to inflation, and destabilize the wasteland economy.  And with no guaranteeing authority, it’s hard to imagine a rationale for East Coasters trusting the currency, and not reverting to a pure barter economy.

So how did caps come to be used in the Capital Wasteland?  As far as I can tell, the origin of caps in D.C. can only be attributed to what I like to call the Yoda Effect.

How does Yoda speak?  “Speaks like this, he does.”  Except in Yoda’s first appearance in The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda only adopts this speech pattern while testing Luke Skywalker, before he is revealed to be the Jedi Master that Luke seeks.  Once Luke’s training begins, Yoda largely drops this speech pattern.

"Learned to speak, I have not."
“Learned to speak, I have not.”

However, in all his subsequent appearances, Yoda has reverted to his initial, iconic speech pattern, no matter the circumstances.  This abandons the subterfuge rationale for Yoda’s speech pattern that is apparent in Empire, in favour of presenting an 800-year-old Jedi Master who was able to master everything except the English language.  Rather than a fully realized, three dimensional character, Yoda becomes a caricature—a slave to the True Fact™ of how Yoda speaks.

So where does this leave Fallout 3?  As far as I can tell, caps are in D.C. because Bethesda opted for a stance of illogical deference to an iconic component of the first game.  Caps are currency because the True Fact™ of caps in the wasteland made the short list of touchstones in Fallout.

It’s not an interesting decision.  It’s not a brave decision.  But it is understandable.  And in many ways, it’s been very successful.

While caps don’t make sense in the Capital Wasteland, it’s probably not something that many people question.  I don’t remember questioning it until this playthrough.  And this is partly because caps were an iconic part of the first game.  So while caps don’t fit logically into Fallout 3—their East Coast origin never even mentioned, let alone explained—they evoke the Fallout universe, strongly and clearly.

And when Bethesda bought the rights to Fallout from Interplay, it seems that they decided that the challenge would not be expanding the setting with a fully realized region, but rather evoking the original series in a new game which would not offend a rabid fan base.  In light of this decision, caps are perfectly logical, and have been a complete success.

But now Bethesda doesn’t need to worry as much about offending the fan base.  After the success of Fallout 3, the follow up can afford to take more risks.  A large portion of the fan base for Fallout 4 probably won’t have played anything in the series before Fallout 3.  Indeed, some of the biggest cheers during Bethesda’s E3 presentation this year occurred when weapons and other elements from Fallout 3—and only Fallout 3—graced the stage.

Now that Bethesda has established itself as a responsible curator of Fallout’s legacy, hopefully the upcoming game will feature a post-apocalyptic Boston that is fully realized, and not just full of True Facts™ about Fallout.  Their modifications to the SPECIAL system are a promising sign of this.  I just hope the world building delivers as well as the systems.  In eleven days, we’ll all find out.