essay, video games

Instant Karma

Ever had the experience of putting something into words that you had been thinking about but, before typing the phase, had never thought to put the concept in the mold of those words? Let me put this another way. Have you ever been considering an idea and then suddenly — serendipity! — the perfect phase for it comes about? Anyway, this happened to me in my post last week about Fallout: New Vegas. I had been talking about my journey with the game and how I wasn’t ‘living up’ to my character’s ideals and then I said this:

“…no one but the game’s God-Engine judging my actions even when no other NPC saw me.”

I’ve been thinking about that phrasing for a few days now. “God-Engine” is a great way to put that concept, the idea that the game constantly judges all the actions you take and renders immediately a decision — good or bad — on what you did. No intentions or thought on the part of the character or player is taken into account, it is just judgement, immediate and without the ability to take it back, or find redemption, on what you did.

In my experiences with the the Fallout series — just Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas — I have run into the idea of Karma, a measurement of how good or bad your character is on a fixed scale. All the actions you take are taken as input into the game’s algorithms and judgement, as I said, is told to you in the upper left-hand corner. Given the action, you will either lose or gain Karma. And in the all the time I have played both games — couple hundred hours in total — I never thought about how strange that idea is. The game is judging me?

I can understand the need to have the game keep track of the player’s actions. After all, the games in the series are Role Playing Games and one of the tenants of that genre is the idea of a role. You have to become a character in the world of the game and act out, for the good or bad, that role in the premise of the world — ideally. I think that is where I have a problem with this idea.

If you accept the idea that the player is supposed to be acting out a role in the game then any action they take should be right, assuming they are following the will and acting out within the in-character thought process. That, in and of itself, is incredibly hard to determine though. How can you judge what the player is thinking? What the player intended?  Hence, the karma system: a quick and dirty way to give the player feedback on what they are doing morally.

But it creates an interesting verisimilitude problem. In order to give the player feedback on their actions and yet let them act out a role, should they choose to do so, there needs to be a way to monitor the player and allow the NPCs in the world to react to the choices the player may take. One of the options, in my own thinking on it, would be to allow all the NPCs to be omniscient. And, in a way, that is what both games do.

How did one quest giver on the other side of a wasteland know that I did something? The in-game narrative reason might be that there were spies watching or that something visually happened, yet that doesn’t make since given the in-game clock. Using the Quick Travel options, I can move about the world in little to no in-game time. In what would normally take an hour to walk from one end of the world to the other, the character can travel in just a few seconds and a loading screen. To make sense then, the omniscience of the NPCs must be limited to just certain reactions and branching paths. Adding more than that creates an odd situation of a quest-giver telling you to do something and yet also being able to tell when or if you did it regardless of location. If that character has that much power, why did they not just do the task themselves? So, having everyone in the world but the player have full knowledge of the player’s actions seems really odd. Give that, what is the solution? Why, it is to create a god, some deity to judge and, in a very strange way, communicate to certain people what actions the player took through their character.

Think about it. From the player’s point of view, the character takes an action, the game tells you the judge and then, in many cases, other in-game characters react to the action without them being present. The only way for that to make sense in a narrative way, excluding the obvious fact that is a mechanic of the game, is that there is a silent force within the world that watches over the player and whose only two and simultaneous actions are to tell the player what happened to their Karma and to then communicate to select others what the player just did.

In a way then there is an ever-present deity keeping watch over the character. A god that watches but doesn’t speak unless the player takes an action that deserves an opinion and only then in a way that would affect the world in some way. If you kill certain people, your karma in the game might change, but if you kill others, maybe even a few feet away, you will not be judged by that action.

Given that idea of a god, I went about trying to define what the commandments of this god might be to the player. Unspoken rules remember, rules that are ever-present but are never defined in a strict sense. They would go something like this:

  1. Do not steal
  2. Do not attack anyone unprovoked

Put in a very basic way: do not rapere. That’s a Latin word. It means to “to take, to grab, to carry off”. It’s the root of the English word “rape”. To use it is to say that a willful action was taken in which the result was to acquire something in a way that is against a cultural, lawful or universal custom. In the way I mean it in this context it to conspire in such a way to take an action that is morally wrong. So, the commandments of the god of the Fallout universe is to never take something that is owned.

Interestingly, in the basic way it would mean that the lives of some NPCs are not owned, that they are in some way meaningless. Manslaughter, in some contexts and especially when provoked — identified in the game as a red mark on the compass —  is fine. It is not morally wrong to kill someone who is shown to want to take your life. Anyone who wants to kill you can be killed. Anything found in any place where people who are ‘meaningless’ are can be taken as well. If they are ‘meaningless’, their stuff cannot be owned.

To my mind, as a player and someone who leans toward passivity anyway, this is very strange. How can some lives be worth more than others? How does this god judge such things? Are they irredeemable in some fashion? Have they committed acts that make them forever marked as Cain where they are forever “good” in some cases yet “bad” in others? Even more more importantly, can the player-character ever be marked in such a way? Is there is a time when trying to hurt the character will bring about the wraith of the god?

The idea that the game renders judge, instant karma, for all actions is, while a usable mechanic, actually quite troubling in a profound way. The narrative reactions to such feedback leaves the player in the position of being either forever trapped by some frequently silent god or stuck in a world where omniscience is not only common but nearly universal to everyone but the player.  Either there is a major conspiracy which no one is telling the player about or there is a deity at work. For there to be a mechanic that is so intertwined in the gameplay of the game but not be based in some in-game fiction is the most probable answer but is also the confirmation of there being a god, albeit in this case an algorithmic one that is not only uncaring but cold and calculating. In any case, instant karma is terrifying.