Morals and Murder

I actually thought it would get easier. The more I did it, the more I took lives. I thought it would be so easy. You use a blade, bow, maybe some magicka. You end their attacks on you. Stop a threat. It should be simple. I did it all the time in the others games, other worlds. I’ve probably committed genocide several times over. Thousands if not millions of virtual lives have ended because of my actions. Why then does taking a single life in Oblivion unnerve me so much?

I’m pretty familiar with taking lives in video games. You play any shooter longer enough and your personal kill ratio will rival that of any modern day killer in reality. Hundreds of lives have been extinguished during my various play sessions because of my bullets, my missiles, my fists. I’ve beaten people to death in games like Double Dragon and Streets of Rage. I’ve used explosions to end enemy advances in strategy games like Company of Heroes. In games like Modern Warfare, for example, I made the mistake several times of not pushing forward in sections only to pile up the bodies in houses and alleys. I’ve made my share of murder. Yet, no matter what or how I kill humanoids in Oblivion, it makes me feel bad.

It probably shouldn’t though. I’ve put sixty plus hours into Fallout 3. I’ve slaughtered Super Mutants, wanna-be vampires and the occasional bandit. I’ve marched across the Wasteland and wasted anything in my path. Enclave soldiers. Moles. Deathclaws. Ghouls. Fiends. Slavers. Nothing mattered to me in those sessions but my goal. I killed anything that was going to attack me, that was a threat to me and mine. A simple red blip on the compass and I was spurred into action, into taking out a weapon and adding some blood to the landscape. It was so good back then. I could trigger the VATS system and target body parts, even a head, and not even care. I could stand in front of an enemy and empty a clip into their head without feeling anything but annoyance at their arrogance in fighting me.

Fallout: New Vegas was a little different for me. It followed the same conventions that Fallout 3 did. I killed mostly the same the first time I played the game as I had in Fallout 3. I stepped through the quests, took lives when needed. Fought off some creatures, used my speech skills. I fired my weapons sometimes. But it was almost always someone else doing the work, doing the fighting. As I walked alone except for the very last hours in Fallout 3, in New Vegas I was always with someone.

Most of the time it was Veronica, a nerdy member of The Brotherhood of Steel, but there were others too. Boone, a freelance sniper, was there for part of the journey. So was Rex, a cybernetic dog. Lily, the friendly nighkin, came along for an adventure or two. Rose, a caravan merchant, had to be talked into going with me. But they all fought for me, in place of me.  They did almost all of the killing for me. The only time I needed to step in was when they were hurt, knocked unconscious by some foe. By that point though I was ready to hurt the enemy, kill the attackers. I fought off creatures occasionally but it was almost always some ally killing off the humans, taking lives of wondering thugs. When I came face to face with a fiend, Veronica would punch them, Rose or Boone shoot them or Rex attack them. I was left watching and to reap the rewards.

Such allies don’t really exist in Oblivion. Sure, there are points where you can hire people, ask them to tag along with you. You can even get people in your guild to take out threats to you in cities. Sometimes even the guards will fight off animals and bandits that have raised their swords against you, if you can make your way to the cities while also being attacked. But you don’t have friends, there is no extended narratives journey with you and another person. They is no process to get to know a party member or to setup relationships. It’s just you. You can, like I often play, summon creatures to follow you, to take out your targets. But they have no real presence in the world. They appear for a few seconds, maybe up to a couple minutes. They maybe groan. But they aren’t there in the sense that are part of your journey in any real way. It always you against the world.

That might be what I have been feeling in Oblivion: loneliness. I never really felt it in Fallout 3 or New Vegas. Even when I was alone, I wasn’t really by myself. There was always some music, there was a voice in the darkness with me. The voice might repeat and even get on my nerves but there was another presence in the world with me, some chatter from the radio. Be it Tabitha, Three-Dog or President Eden. There was always this other voice that was talking at me as I walked the world and challenged various people and places. There was a voice that, even though in all three cases they were a stranger to me, was speaking in a way that I could always hear them. They were something to depend upon, a ever present force in the world. Even when I walked with others, marched along with companions, there was always this additional person with me.

Oblivion doesn’t have that. It has some good music, don’t get my wrong. It really does. I like the introduction music and much of the world music. I like the fantasy feel of the tunes, the way it swells in places and drops in others. I like that there is battle music. But there is no radio. No other voice is with me while I am deep in a cave or within some ruins. There is no speaker telling me of what other things are happening in the world, of what actions I have taken in the world. It’s obvious why, radio are high technology and they would not fit into the world. Oblivion is a place of magic, of fantasy. It is Medieval of even Dark Ages equivalent, not contemporary. Not after the nineteenth century. But without the radio and the speakers, without that constant chatter, I feel like I am always alone. When the summoning fades and the torch runs out, I am standing in the dark. Alone.

It makes sense then that I feel that every action I take, I take purposely. I chose that action, I made that attack. I killed that person. No one stepped in to take that life, no creature came into the battle through their own means. I summoned that attacker, I initiated the fight. I drew my sword. I swung it. And I ended the threat. I even ended someone’s life because another character told to me to kill.

I’ve done that several times. Through passing through the Dark Brotherhood and Mages Guild quest lines, I have had to go to a place and start a fight. They weren’t fighting me. They might have been a threat, says an in-game character, but I had to bring the violence to them. I was not helping out some person, I was driven not because I was trying to help some companion but because I had to take the step to start an encounter. For those actions, for that voluntary initiation, I must accept the responsibilities. It was me and me alone that has done this thing.

There was no one else. It was me. I might have summoned a creature, used my sword or bow. All are the same first step. The tools might be different but the outcome is the same. The responsibility of the action falls to me. So when the guards run up to me, and they always will, they know who committed the crime. When I kill in the city, they know it was me. When I steal and they catch up to me, they know what I did. I think it is that too. The difference between Oblivion and its future progeny: there are rules and enforcers.

Fallout 3 and New Vegas have rules. You aren’t supposed to steal things from people. You aren’t supposed to kill people who are neutral to you. But if you do, if you decide to steal or kill, most of the time only your Karma will do down. You will increase in infamy throughout the world. Some people may not like you anymore because of it. In New Vegas, some towns or factions maybe not talk to you anymore if you steal from or kill too many members of their forces. Sometimes just finishing certain quests can condemn you.Other than the problems inherit in the omniscience of the that system, you don’t really have people react to you that much for minor crimes.

It is, in both cases, a wasteland. It is a ruined world, places that are starting over. The rules of the society are only in effect when people with power enforce them, people with weapons. The world has ended, the apocalypse can come. And gone. Those that live function in what remains, what has been left behind from before. Few new technologies exist or are invented. The rules of society are inherited, handed down. They are not an iterative thing, an evolution, but a stolen piece of the past manifested in the present. Society is a loose noose around the necks of the survivors, most see it as necessary but too many roam with their own rules.

But Oblivion is not ruined. It has history. The houses and cities have been there a long time, as the game’s narrative would have you believe. The rules have settled into practice via years and years of feedback between the people and the government. The Imperial City has taxes! There is a basis for the system and most people, in most cities, don’t even carry weapons at all. They know, as is the main difference between the Fallout and Elder Scroll universes, that the enforcers of the rules are not each other but seated in the guards. The enforcers exist as a separate, government controlled force. They monitor the cities and watch its citizens.

When I attack someone in a city, be it with a weapon or via magicka, there is a reaction, a response. The enforcers of the rules of the society come after me. When they catch up to me, they are mad. I have broken the contract of society and city. I have transgressed. Even if I am not aware of it, there is a link between the people and the place and, by stealing or murdering, I have broken that link. I have taken a step that is out of the normal routine of the place and must be punished.

For anyone that has gone against the flow, has acted in a manner of self-interest, their must be a way to pull them back into the fold of following the rules. If I have tried to be narcissistic, to put my own greed over the rights  of the others in the area, I must be reprimanded, to have to pay a cost that prevents me from doing the crime again.  I have to pay or even go to jail.

When some number decreases in the Fallout universe, I don’t much care most of the time. Karma up for giving battles of water. Karma down for killing. I can change how people feel about me through trivial actions. In New Vegas, I can give drugs or scraps of metal to certain factions and gain favor. I can but my way out of them hating me in most cases. The numbers go up, the numbers go down. There is little in the way of being responsible for my actions. But in Oblivion, when a guard runs up to me, threatens me, tells me that my personal, my individual, actions have broken the contract and that I have committed a crime, I as the player feel bad. This world has strict rules, I learn quickly. I guess I won’t try to break them anymore then.