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.