essay, video games

God of the Father: Fallout 3 – Killing Cannibals

Even since my post at the beginning of the year on the reading of Fallout 3 as being, fundamentally, about The Wanderer being, on the the one hand, living in the world of his/her father and, on the other hand, fighting against it,  I’ve been haunted by those ideas. I have wanted, ever since stumbling upon those ideas, to go back to the game and try to put some theory into practice. And, over the last few weeks, I have been doing that a couple hours at a time.

It’s been slow going because, as many people know by now, my schedule is not as accommodating as I would like it to be at the moment. While, last semester, I was able to find time to write every day, I’m finding it hard to get back into that. I’m actually fighting against wanting to sleep as I type this right now (and hoping this coffee I just drank kicks in soon too). So, I’m going to try, as I have time, to post some of my observations and how my opinion of the game has been utterly changed by twisting how I play it.

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If the first moment of the game is that of the father James shaping the outlook of the player — as the player — then all aspects of that world must be crafted, to flow from, the world of the father. In the moment of using the Gene Projector and choosing the race, hair style and even facial structure of his son or daughter, James is shaping the experiences of the child through the eyes of his culture and experiences. How James sees the world, what his ethics and values are, in that moment, reflected into the child and fitted forever by the actions, and judgement, that James sets on his child. In essence, the religion of the father is placed on the child.

In my second return to Fallout 3, I wanted to explore this to the extreme. If James is the role model for the player, as a fundamentally force of good in The Wasteland, then having a character that was as bad as possible should serve to subvert the premise and, hopefully, prompt the game to show me places where the Karma system was flawed or otherwise broken. In short, I set out to murder everyone.

That was how I saw the best way to push at the game. If, through dialogue, I can get quests and interactions then, I assumed, if I purposefully killed those same quest-givers and, as I came across people, killed anyone I happen to meet, then the game would be forced to judge these actions. The taking of life, I knew from my first time playing it, was the best, next to completing quests, for getting supplies and experience points. Other than coming across items which, outside of buildings, is hard to do anyway, I would need to defend myself against raiders anyway. If I trained my sights on all life, I should have all I need when I need it.

It both surprised and frighted me how easy it was to murder. Starting from Vault 101, to Megaton and further on to Tenpenny Tower, I could kill as many or few as I wanted. Every single person in the Vault can be killed, the nuclear bomb in Megaton can be set off and all residents of Tenpenny Tower can be gunned down. It was all a matter of triggering the action points necessary to take the shots and then unloading the bullets. While the death of these characters was expected, it was the other results that were more conflicted: killing lowers Karma, yet gives experience points.

For taking any life at any point, you get experience points. Player growth, as measured via the statistics in the game, improve when something is gunned down. Via plasma rifles, laser pistols or even shotguns, shooting both Super Mutants and innocent people gives experience points equal to the targets worth not their neutrality (or lack thereof). Yet, and this was part I was exploring, the game makes a judgement on if the action has an effect on player Karma.

Murder, the killing of innocent characters, lowers Karma. Yet, the knowledge that deems such innocence comes from a place outside the player. In order to judge the character’s actions, outside of the presence of the player, places within the fiction a deity or some other omniscient entity that knows the character. My realization of this ‘god of the father’ was cemented in my encounter with the cannibals of Andale.

Since I was already killing anyone who approached me, I started in on the people of the town of Andale after my first conversation with one of them. I gained Karma for it. Every time I gunned down another (which, after killing the first, was not hard as they began to attack me on sight), gained me more and more Karma. My actions, the game was telling me, were, on some cosmic-scale, A Good Thing. These people, the ‘god’ was telling me, were bad and I was taking a positive role in eliminating them.

It took some investigation for me to determine why this was. In the refrigerators in each of their houses, I soon discovered, was ‘Strange Meat’ (i.e. human flesh). In taking it — hey, free food! —  though I broke another rule: stealing is wrong. Even stealing from cannibals is wrong, it seems. No matter that the items in question were pieces of human flesh and that I killed cannibals to get to it. Any Karma I might have gained by ridding The Wasteland of these evil-doers was erased by small degrees by taking the items and ‘food’ they were no longer going to use.

James’ philosophy, as codified in the game’s mechanics, of “help everyone at all times” broke down in this encounter. The ‘god’ of the game could not make a difference between these ‘innocent’ people owning things and any other more neutral party holding items. If random raiders were killed and the same ‘Strange Meat’ found on them, the game would not judge it if I took it off their bodies. Neither would that action, the initial killing, invoke Karma either way.

Ridding The Wasteland of raiders is a good thing (and gets no Karma movement) yet, in taking out these cannibals, the game judges this a good thing. Stealing from said cannibals is bad. Taking from raiders is neutral. Never mind that either action, since it takes place away from other people, makes the case for the game in-fiction of a deity or, at the very least, mechanical omniscience on the part of other characters.

Something saw me kill and steal. A judgement was rendered. How and why these decisions are made, however, can only be considered as some mirrored version of James, reflecting back to some time not shown of telling his child, through the game in the current moment, that some actions are bad and others are fine. The ‘god of the father’ echoes on through the game even as the player makes choices both for and against it — both, in places, confirming and denying an identity as performed.