Nov 252008

I do not enjoy Fallout 3‘s Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System, because I know what it does. I understand the goal of its slow-motion, dramatic camera angles, and sound distortion. The fountains of blood and gore, arms and legs and heads flying off from precision bullet strikes, speak to the worst excesses of action movies and gladiatorial combat. Death becomes entertainment for the hooting savage; the moral weight of murder disappears in the antigravity of bizarre ragdoll physics. In short, V.A.T.S. makes killing awesome.

But killing is not awesome, not ever, because each time it happens somebody dies. I know this, and so I do not like V.A.T.S. — on occasion I could go so far as to say I find it revolting. Nonetheless, I appreciate the system. Because of its staging, V.A.T.S. is more than a method of fusing real-time and turn-based combat — it is an integral part of the moral arguments of Fallout 3.

In Fallout 3, as with many other “Western” role-playing games, the player is an agent of moral choice in a world defined by the developers. In order to succeed, such a game must provide an engrossing context, compelling choices, and legitimate (not necessarily positive) narratives for the spectrum of available moral attitudes. It is not enough simply to have options. A game of this kind must have reasons, and a world worth making decisions in. In this regard, Fallout 3 largely succeeds.

Among other things, Fallout 3 is about war. The player character emerges from a sheltered Vault into the blasted wasteland of the D.C. ruins in search of his (or her) father. The world above ground has been shattered by a nuclear war; most of the buildings are burned-out shells or crumbling hulks of rubble. In the concrete jungle of D.C. proper, the debris has grown so thick that the only reliable way to move around town is through the old metro tunnels, and even those have mostly collapsed.

The intact buildings you do find are often tombs. Tiny skeletons lie on ruined beds, clutching worn teddy bears; their parents lie dead in the next bedroom, or in a bloodstained bathtub. Security robots blindly patrol the hallways of crumbling factories and office buildings, oblivious to the fact that their creators have long ago passed on, and there is nothing left to protect. Even most of the vaults are rotting sepulchers, their inhabitants long ago fallen victim to Vault-Tec’s insane experiments.

The people who inhabit this world mostly live in shacks cobbled together from the metal hulks of the old world. They live off the barely-edible meat of mutated animals and the imperishable foodstuffs of the pre-war era. Some of them live off each other, some employ slaves. Their will to live is admirable, but the means by which they enforce that will are often less so. This is the Hobbesian state of nature in its full articulation, a small-scale re-enactment of the international chaos and resource wars that gave rise to the nuclear holocaust centuries before.

These features create a compelling context, true, but they also give the “good” character something to think about. None of it is pleasant, but it is war. Fallout 3 captures the lawlessness of the resource wars already occurring in places such as the Congo. There, children are even now being enslaved to mine valuable ores. In Afghanistan and other places, they are pressed into the service of armies and forced to fight battles they hardly understand. In these places the forces of order and government always seem very distant, even if their propaganda isn’t. Fallout 3 is especially effective because it puts one of the world’s great power centers on display as a shattered, irradiated shell, but the destruction of homelands and the ruin of societies are the universal products of war.

If that were all of it, man would never fight.

But that isn’t all. There is the desperate struggle for resources, yes, that makes men fight. But a man can fight for what he needs without being evil. Without being good, perhaps, but fighting for his daily bread, if he must, does not make a man a monster. It is power that does that.

V.A.T.S. is about power, about the character’s tremendous capacity to destroy. The bloody explosions and painful contortions of his enemies speak to the part of us that cheers when the gangsters get shot, when Arnie mows through a crowd of hapless soldiers. It is not a part of us that loves justice, but rather a part that loves strength. It is a part that loves the ability to mete out punishment, warranted or not. V.A.T.S. represents the seduction of power, and thus the draw of evil. Only a sick and twisted madman could love what war has wrought in the ruins of D.C., but anyone seeing V.A.T.S. could, just for a second, think that killing is awesome.

V.A.T.S., for all that I dislike watching it, represents one of the great strengths of Fallout 3, and may be its best articulation of the argument for war. V.A.T.S. presents killing as an empowering pleasure. The system is a constant seduction towards the joyous exercise of power, just as the elements of the game world are a constant reminder of the sorrow that comes from that exercise. And if the over-the-top gore and ragdoll physics turn you off, they give you something to think about nonetheless. Because even if you don’t like V.A.T.S., somebody does, and that attraction plays a significant role in turning a good world into a wasteland.

If you are curious where I got the screenshot, I regret to inform you that it is an actual photograph of Beirut taken in 2006. War never changes.

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