Hum-drum Morality

I’ve been replaying Fallout 3 with its DLC and along a different moral path (the first time was as a good character, which seems, for me at the very least, the easiest path to choose from a narrative stance). This time I’ve concluded that it’s a very different game; the character I’m choosing to play is a feminist who is very neutral about her stances on various factions. Most of them are run by males, most of the main NPCs are males, and she’s already been referred to as a ‘chick’ who is disposable in Operation Anchorage (in which she was also referred to as a he by a subordinate).

The problem with it all is the term neutral. Fallout 3 has already come under scrutiny for its morality system (Justive Keverne illustrates how the game judges us, whereas both Shamus Young and D. Riley explicate the problems with the Tenpenny Tower quest). Thus far, however, most of the complaints have been from the extremes of good and evil (see also Michael Clarkson’s explanation of how evil is ultimately a worthless choice). There does appear to be Nick Dinicola’s comparing Fallout 3 and GTA IV, but I have yet to come across the Oasis quest (which saddens me, as I’ve seen Harold in both prior games). In this, Dinicola argues how the neutral option still wasn’t quite neutral, because it based itself off moral judgments of what the other two choices were.

The main problem with the morality system in Fallout 3 is that to really be neutral, you have to game the system. At the same time, the developers saw fit to give achievements for attaining a neutral path, obviously wanting to encourage people to use it (along with a perk that allows a plus to the speech skill if you remain neutral). To complete most quests, Oasis seemingly an exception, requires choosing either a good or evil option–or walking away. To be neutral is to remove yourself from making decisions and giving up quests.

This is not what I’ve done in the game, so the character has taken to stealing from innocents and eating corpses.

This leads to problems, as Jorge Albor told concerning what type of evil he wanted to play. I cannot play a neutral character that solves most quests in a neutral, judging manner. There is no room for me to judge and influence, there is only room for me to choose.

Which is how morality systems in games seem to go. Perform an action. We will now judge you.

There is no room for you to judge, only react. Which is the problem to which Dinicola alludes, as long as there is a judgment being placed on my actions, and a moral system to encompass it and blare its signals at me, I cannot make a real choice that has an impact or any consequences I cannot foresee.

Gamers themselves seem frustrated by this lack of a neutral playing field, despite assumptions that we all want empowering gameplay. The original ending to the game saw much backlash and crying out at how simplistic the choices were, and how there was no way to choose the neutral option of having Fawkes enter the chamber in your stead–the one character who would not be affected by high doses of radiation.

When constructing a moral system, it appears the extremes are mapped out quite early, giving no thought to how one would navigate the situation in a more neutral manner. A binary system is automatically put in place, even if the system allows for movement in between. Neutral factions or alignments are seen as not desirable for the most part, even by the mechanics presented (the evil and good-specific perks allow for a mini-quest of sorts and direct benefit in terms of earning bottle caps, as opposed to the earlier speech benefit).

Seeing as no neutral space is ever given room to be explored by itself, without vacillating constantly between what the game sees as ‘good’ and ‘evil’ acts, the entire morality system ends up feeling hollow and flat. In truth, without the middle space to occupy, ‘good’ and ‘evil’ choices merely become status quo, displacing them to opposing stand points without any real argument for either option beyond self-interest in what you wish to see come of the game, or which one allows you to power-game the best. Think Bioshock.


About Denis Farr

Writer interested in intersectionality, games, comics, nerdy stuff in general, theater, and how it all mixes. Graduate of Wabash College, with studies in Theater, English, German, and Gender Studies.
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4 Responses to Hum-drum Morality

  1. Jorge Albor says:

    I like the judging angle a lot. Which is one of the reasons I really enjoyed the Oasis quest line. I think its isolation from the rest of the wasteland made it seem as if it followed its own rules of morality. I don’t want to spoil it, but it felt to me like I made a difficult choice rather than a pro/con choice.

    (ps: That role-playing piece I wrote, not Scott. Just FYI.)

  2. Denis Farr says:

    Apologies, Jorge, I should have checked the source material. I was using the Critical Distance Fallout 3 compilation, which I now see is incorrect (and will subsequently go and credit it duly).

    Yeah, so far all the quests remind me that they have two options, typically. Along with the slate of games like inFamous we had recently, it seems we’re stuck in the pro/con binary.

  3. Sinan Kubba says:

    Interesting piece, and I do agree with what you’ve said. But which solution would you prefer? Would you want Fallout 3 to incorporate more neutral choices to give more meaning to the good/evil choices, or would you prefer it to ditch its morality system altogehter and let the player be the judge of his or her actions? I know what my answer would be, but I wonder if I would actually like it in practice.

  4. Denis Farr says:

    Sinan, while I know I’d vastly prefer the latter, I’d also be pleased with the former option you suggest.

    Honestly? I’m just tired of a black and white morality system that locks me to an either/or model. We haven’t had many games that challenge such, so either would be a refreshing change of pace.

    And, again, the latter is more interesting to me, but feel it would require us to train the gamers more than the designers. As it stands, when the word RPG pops up, we expect to be told how we are faring, and be judged for our actions. Whether that be something fairly benign like you leveled more so this boss is easier, or you did bad things so you are a bad person.

    For the Fallout universe? I’d prefer a faction system, sort of like the reputation system in the first two games. Ditch the Karma system and work solely by that. The actions of a character would change based on the faction, whose views on things would change based on a worldview they hold.

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