Fallout 3 and the failure of imposed morality

Spoilers ahead.

Fallout 3 attempts to implement a morality system that ultimately fails to provide satisfying gameplay and in many ways undermines the game’s freedom in a frustrating way.

For instance: every action can be neutral, bad, or good. Stealing is bad. Killing people can be good or bad.

Let’s say I head to Paradise Falls, with an aim to wipe out the slaver camp. This is a weakness of mine in role-playing games: I will go out of my way at the first mention of slavery in a game like this, find where they are, and kill everyone involved before I go any further. I (personally) consider slavery humanity’s cancer, to the point where I’m unwilling to play evil characters in some cases. Anyway.

I go to Paradise Falls and start shooting up the place. Wheee! When certain slavers are killed, I receive good karma. Yay! I can loot their bodies for their weapons and ammo, no problem. When slaves attack me, which poses a creepy moral dilemma, the game is neutral on killing them in self-defense. But if I look at (say) the boss slaver’s stuff, it’s red — stealing. If I steal his stuff, it’s a bad thing.

What? It’s a net positive to go in and slaughter everyone involved with the operation. I’m encouraged, as a good character, to turn slavers into corpses and ruffle through their personal effects. But cracking open a locker is bad?

Similarly, there are stretches of the game where the game’s morality determines what a good character should do. For instance, you’re sent to go find a kid. You find the kid’s disappeared from a village, and you go to find him. You may, in trying to hunt him down, find where he is and be denied entry. Forcing or sneaking in can turn the people there hostile and spark a fight. And then you’re shooting up people trying to prevent you from rescuing a kid, and when you start popping them, you accumulate negative karma.

Which, if you’re trying to play good, will probably cause you to think back through the story and maybe even reload from a previous save and try it again. If they’re good, why can’t I see the kid?

The game, by giving you clues about what it considers good and bad, forces your character to take a certain course of action even though that path can seem illogical for a character making decisions that seem good or bad at the time. Poor scenario design is bailed out in a way by the overbearing red/green morality markers.

There are two things that go wrong here: if every situation has a good and a bad karma outcome and you get feedback immediately when you make a decision, you’re being tipped off to the game designer’s opinion of your actions. As a result, you can’t go down ambiguous paths without knowing what’s happening right there. If I had carved through the settlement to rescue the kid and then realized I’d done something horrible, that’d be a great moment in mindfuck gaming. I would have played the rest of the game more considerately, doing more investigation in each situation.

Instead, I shot up the place, furrowed my brow with every cue that the game considered what I was doing wrong, then loaded from a previous save. The next time I spent a long time to figure out how I make friends and influence people for fun and profit.

Here’s the kicker, though — the people I shot up were the Family, who
a) liked to shoot up and generally harass an innocent settlement
b) were cannibals. Reformed, sort of, in the Terry Pratchett Discworld Vampire Temperence League way, but cannibals.

Throughout the game, if you defend innocents from attack, it’s a good thing (or at least, non-penalized). But given a chance to go end a specific group threatening someone, that’s evil. Why?

Or to return to the slavers: the game clearly endorses murdering evil people as evil. Killing bad people is a greater good than the toleration of their human trafficking. That’s an ambiguous moral situation where the game’s karma system makes a clear determination of which choice a good person would take.

And to some extent, rewarding individual actions results in deeply unsatisfying conclusions. Early in the game, you can nuke a town for fun and profit. This results in a huge amount of negative karma. In various game locations, there are people desperate for purified water, which you can give them for a small amount of positive karma. Then they want more, and you can collect the reward again. You can eventually balance out and overcome using a nuclear weapon on a settlement for money by handing out bottles of water.

That’s lame. Your reputation should be forever stained. There’s no going back from that. No one’s going to think “that guy killed a couple dozen people in one of the only established holdouts of civilization to make a buck, but that’s okay because he’s sure generous with the purified water!”

It’s tough to fault the game in some ways: any implementable system that tries to track good and evil which also presents a plot of any complexity is going to get people like me arguing relative morality, or utilitarianism, or universal non-violence, or something that views game decisions differently or otherwise breaks morality. It doesn’t seem right that the game would reward a player for *not* killing evil people (1 point for every 10m of game time without shooting at anyone!), and at the same time, the system does explicitly endorse that some people need killing.

The natural solution seems to be to remove universal morality and instead let the game world react. You might have good reasons for killing civilians (say, you think you can put their guns to better use than they can). But the world’s going to react badly. If you shot up a community of cannibals, the town they were threatening might be happy, while wider opinion could be divided. And so on. In a way, this is where a limited open world like the Grand Theft Auto games succeeds where Fallout 3 disappoints. God doesn’t award you points for being a taxi driver, and doesn’t hand out demerits for carjacking. But people around you when you do these things will react realistically.

It’s an interesting design choice then to implement a universal morality scale that introduces all of these problems. It posits that there is right/wrong, that a higher power (in-game, the designers) can determine the rightness or wrongness of actions, and that power will reward or punish players based on their actions and cue them which is which as they confront their choices. In so doing, it puts the people who came up with the system in the place of god, arbiter of morality, robbing the player of free will and the ability to stumble and fall in a game largely based on freedom.

2 thoughts on “Fallout 3 and the failure of imposed morality

  1. Evan

    It’s for reasons like this that BioWare (excellent RPG maker) has stopped implementing objective morality in its games. They’d much rather have you face realistic consequences for your actions that get a metaphysical pat on the back for being a nice guy.

    That said, there’s no reason why you can’t just ignore the morality meter in Fallout 3. You do what you think is best, and if some objective standard disagrees, so what?

  2. DMZ Post author

    You can ignore it for the most part. There are in-game things, like who will travel with you, that depend on the game’s evaluation of your morality. And there’s also a perk that requires you to have neutral karma to be effective.

    But take the example of Paradise Falls, with the looters. If you’re in Paradise Falls with a good sidekick, and you kill all the slavers, they’ll happily participate. But if you *steal* something off a counter-top, they’ll go batshit. One is a postive-karma act, the other a negative-karma act, which (again) makes no sense to me.

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