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Ethics in Fallout 3

01/13/09 | by Adam | Categories: Games

Fallout 3 is a rather violent game which has the interesting addition of a karma system. This is a rough way of tracking how good or bad your character is. I say rough as it's really rather hard to say what's good and bad within the constraints of the game world. The discussion below involves a fair number of spoilers so don't read on unless you either have finished the game or don't mind finding things out.

Some of the karma modifying choices are pretty blatant: blowing up Megaton for example is clearly a evil thing to do on the grounds that you're harming a friendly group of people simply on the say so of a remote money-grabber. Disarming the bomb on the other hand is a harder one. In the end I did it simply because I felt leaving an active and armed atom bomb in the middle of a town was a bad idea, and the local -- but harmless -- bomb worshipping cult might as well have something better to do with themselves. One could argue though that it hadn't gone off and there was no need to intervene. Only one citizen in Megaton ever expresses a preference as to disarming the bomb so it's not like there's an overwhelming civic preference towards doing so.

There are other easy choices like giving water to beggars, refusing to take payment for goods or freeing slaves and captives. For the most part though, it's not that simple. Within the game, various items are marked in red text. This usually means that touching them, either to take or use, will result in a karma loss as it's either stealing or intruding. More than a fair number of these are doors, computer terminals or safes. I'm an information hound and there's a lot of story and background in the form of data tapes, notes, recording and so forth. I love finding out this stuff, even if it's hidden away in someone's private stash. The game considers this sort of investigation a karmic no-no. Different acts engender different levels of karmic loss so I took the view that I could do this sort of poking around so long as a gave water to beggars or scrap metal to Walter in Megaton to balance it out. That seemed to work as breaking into safes doesn't appear to rate as strongly as, say, blowing up an entire town.

There are small ethical dilemmas, some of which open up quests. Rivet City, a former aircraft carrier converted into a city, has a lot of them. You can convince a small and disagreeable boy to run away based on comments about his father; you can kill the political aspirations of a merchant based on a former and disavowed association with slavers; you can inadvertantly kill a junkie by giving him a drug he craves; you can give a weapon to a runaway slave to kill an active slaver; you can encourage or prevent a suicide. You can even forment or destroy a romance where the "best" option involves lying to a parent. Sometimes you can get better results out of conversations by being an asshole. One of the larger quest sequences of the game can be averted by telling the author of a book that it's too dangerous and will result in people's death if they try to follow its advice. Ethical, not ethical?

It's possible to kill people by proxy and avoid in-game karma loss. For example, there's a quest that involves killing four people. A bit of investigation shows that really only one person is wanted dead while keys are the only wanted things from the others. When you get those keys -- you really don't need to kill that fourth person -- the quest giver runs off to retrieve one of the best items in the game, a suit of power armour. Probably the karmic best option is to say "Thanks for the job" and move on, but, darnit, I wanted the armour for my henchman. Characters in Fallout can be killed in random encounters and generally those encounters occur most often around the player. After handing in the keys to get my reward and complete the quest, I then tailed the quest giver to his destination. The Fallout map is huge and the route he took to get to a location on the other side of the map was wonderfully byzantine. It also meant that there was a lot of option for encounters with raiders, super mutants, radscorpions and other extremely dangerous denizens of the wasteland. I just stayed at the periphery while he fought his way through one attack after another, never offering help but being close enough to spawn the encounters that he would then run into. Eventually, just before reaching the destination, a radscorpion attack took him down and I was able to retrieve the loot with no karmic downside. It certainly felt like a crappy thing to do though.

In Arefu, there's a quest to rescue the brother of an inhabitant of Megaton. When you get a certain way through it, you find he's actually a borderline cannibal who's been taken in by a bunch of hardcore Anne Rice fans who believe they can counter his urges before he crosses the line. The ethical dilemma here becomes whether he's better off with them than living back in his hometown where there really isn't much in the way of support. I decided at the time that he was better off at his home -- the cult was just a little too freaky -- but in retrospect that might have been the wrong choice. Karmically though -- in game terms at least -- they both weighed the same.

As part of the "Those" quest, the conclusion is a discussion with a mad scientist who has destroyed the town of Greyditch with his fire-spewing giant ants. His plan was to slowly breed the giant mutant ants back into their smaller predecessor but he messed up and generated even more lethal versions. The scientist demonstrated not a hate of humanity but a total lack of empathy towards it; to him the ants were all important and had to be "fixed" while the dead people were merely collateral damage. The decision on the part of the player is whether to destroy the ants and end his experiment or permit him to continue. Here my rationale was to let him continue as by this point all of the inhabitants were dead or moved elsewhere.

Towards the north east of the map is the Republic Of Dave which is having an election when the player arrives. Given that the total list of eligible voters is Dave, his two wives, his son and one hanger-on, Dave expects to win by a landslide. It is possible to get one of the wives to run and, by rigging the voting box, win. Since the wife in question appears to be more competent than Dave, this initially appears to be the best option. The downside -- other than cheating a fair election -- is that Dave takes losing poorly and leaves the republic. This then means that the various children are Dad-less, I figured it was best to left Dave win so he sticks around, theorizing that his wife could at least advise him.

Take another questionable act. Up in Paradise Falls, a former shopping mall, are a group of slavers. They're a distinctly nasty bunch without whom the world would indeed be a better place. However, the shopping mall is also in a prime location for trade and if they're wiped out, no trader or more acceptable group takes up residence. I chose to leave them be for the majority of the game. Within the slaver camp, there are some child slaves. Although rescuing them is a quest from a location I hadn't yet visited, I decided that I would free them anyway. My solution -- based on the need to leave a functioning "safe" zone at Paradise Falls -- was to buy them from the slavers. No one died but there's a good argument to be made that this would merely encourage future depredations on the part of the slavers. In fact, there actually is a future quest that gets the player to do exactly that; try not to take it as it mucks up other quest lines like "Those" in addition to a not insignificant karmic loss.

The slavers also serve up another ethical question: is it better to slaughter bad guys or enslave them? I do mean slaughter: over the course of the game I generated a body-count that the most blood thirsty warmonger would envy. There is a quest which is given by the slavers that obliges you to place an exploding necklace on several named characters, thereby enslaving them. One of these is a hostile sniper who cannot be negotiated with. Rather than kill him while conducting another quest that ran past him, I decided that the slave collar would be an better solution. The intent was to later rescue him from the slave pens; what I found from doing that was that he would then just go wild, shooting his fellow (former) slaves. That wasn't really an improvement. In addition, throughout the game, there are various unappealing groups like raiders or Talon Company. These groups are unremittingly hostile and in the case of the former are cannibals to boot. The easiest way of dealing with them is to simply kill them when encountered. In the case of the raiders, they can usually be skirted around, but Talon Company will go out of their way to hunt the player down. To kill or enslave?

Is it even ethical to avoid the question? If you know that these cannibalistic raiders are preying on the innocents of the wasteland and you have the ability to do something about it, shouldn't you be a vigilante? After all, with no centralized or active government, it's not like anyone else is in a position to do this. There's even a perk, Lawbringer, that encourages the role.

But it gets even more grey. In Tenpenny Tower, there are some ghouls (mutated humans) who wish to gain access -- if you listen to the radio, one of the good guys, Three Dog, is pretty insistent that humans and ghouls can live together and that they should be permitted entry and can co-habitate. You can negotiate with the current tenants to let them in. Shortly afterwards however, the ghouls wipe out the existing occupants. Within the tower is another one of the slavers named targets. If she's enslaved, she actually survives the massacre. The best option I could find was to just let the ghouls stay outside where at least no one died. There is a ghoul encampment elsewhere just off the Washington Mall where a thriving ghoul population more or less welcomes visitors, so without knowing what's going to happen at Tenpenny Tower it seems like an ethical no-brainer to let them in.

One of the quests that gave me the hardest time making a decision involves Harold up on Oasis. The background is this: wasteland is exactly that. There's basically no flora left. In Oasis however, there is a thriving forest, all due to a mutant-like creature called Harold who produces exceptionally fertile seeds. Harold used to be human but is no longer; he's actually a sympathetic and recurring character from the first two Fallout games so it was nice to see him again. For years he's been rooted to a single spot by his symbiotic tree and asks the player to end his suffering by destroying his heart (literally.) Complicating the decision for the player is that there are two factions within his caregivers. One set wants to preserve their anonymity by preventing Oasis from spreading outside of their hidden location while the other sees Harold as a way of causing a rebirth of the wasteland. So, who does the player support? In the end I made my decision on two points. The first is that Harold is unique and would be the only way of re-greening wasteland. Based on all three Fallout games, what was consistent was that the Earth was not recovering from the Sino-American nuclear war, even 200 years on. The second and the clincher though -- and this felt a bit manipulated -- was that Harold liked talking to a small child from the minder's group and that she liked talking to him. I decided that so long as he was kept company, rooted to the spot as he was, that life would be preferable to death. Talking to Harold after making decision suggested to me that it was the correct one as he didn't seem to be too bothered about not dying so long as the player came and visited him periodically.

Further on in the game, there's an VR simulation wherein the player is encouraged to make increasingly bad (in a karmic sense) decisions. The only way out of doing that is by locating a failsafe that allows one to escape from the simulation. Doing so kills several other inhabitants in their pods. Is it better to leave them alive and tormented or kill them and by doing so put them out of their misery? Needless to say, if your wish to to take no life and not be the cause of the taking of human life, this is a stunningly hard game to play through. This is the closest the game gets the the current bugaboo of torture, and even then there's none of the "ticking timebomb" concept. It actually surprised me that in a game with as much moral uncertainty as Fallout that the developers opted to avoid torture as an information gathering tool.

Once you get past the first person shooter aspect of Fallout, there's a wealth of conundrums to sort through. For the most part, there aren't any easy answers, and that the developers have provided the ability to perform evil or nasty actions can be enticing. That periodic urge to do something negative because you've got a save game to revert to is almost overwhelming. And that in itself is an ethical choice.

 

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