In my last post I argued that the V.A.T.S. represents Fallout 3‘s most compelling argument for a life driven by violence and the exercise of power. It’s important to have an argument in that vein, because the mass media, including video games, have a pronounced tendency to represent evil people as purely unbalanced or crazy. This is unfair to the mentally ill, to be sure, but it is also unfair to evil. The wicked life has attractions beyond sheer gibbering insanity, which is why so many perfectly rational people are heartless and cruel. The problem with Fallout 3 is that V.A.T.S. is its strongest argument for evil because it is essentially the only argument for evil.
For a wasteland that has been scavenged by survivors for hundreds of years, the D.C. area in Fallout 3 is surprisingly rich in resources. Everywhere you look you can find guns, ammunition, medical supplies, and money just laying around as if D.C. got nuked in the middle of an NRA convention. Your supplies are likely to be tight just after your emergence from the vault, but unless you make stupendously bad choices you should be able to rapidly police up enough weapons and ammunition to get by and, eventually, dominate the wastes. This makes the game, perhaps, “too easy” but that’s not the point. The real problem with this, from the standpoint of the character’s place as a moral agent in the game world, is that the character is not engaged in a desperate struggle for survival. He has to shoot things that want to kill him, sure, but he is never in danger of starvation, dehydration, or running out of bullets or bottlecaps (the game’s currency).
This becomes a problem in the moral calculus because the reward for maleficence in a world like that of Fallout is usually material. Killing a man means you can steal his resources, and getting them is in some way worth killing that other guy. If those resources are valuable, then this assessment of worth is cold-hearted and evil, but at least understandable. If their value is trivial, however, then you are treading dangerously into the territory of the madman. Killing a scavenger might net me a couple of bullets for my hunting rifle, but if I can find just as many laying around in the next abandoned office building or buy them for a trivial number of caps it hardly seems worth it. Besides, that wastelander can’t repair my gun if he’s dead.
Even mercenary ambitions seem to be thwarted by the game’s relative abundance of goods. In the late game a player who has devoted even a modest effort towards exploration should have a tremendous abundance of caps, enough to buy almost anything one might want. Unfortunately, there’s nothing much to buy at that point. In the face of such an enormous surplus of money, it hardly seems worthwhile to demand payment for favors. Sure, you’ll get more caps, but there’s nothing to do with them.
Fallout 3 gives you the option to be evil, but it doesn’t do a very good job (outside of V.A.T.S.) of giving you reasons. The resources you can gain through theft or murder have so little value that killing implies that you view human life as having almost none. The caps you gain from behaving as a mercenary rather than a generous protector can’t buy you anything you need or even want. Evil isn’t an easier route to your goals, even though the capital wastes don’t have any law and order to hunt you down.
This isn’t to say that the evil character has no place in the game. What Fallout 3 lacks is a compelling narrative of evil. The main character emerges from a sheltered existence with a loving father and enters a vast, dark wasteland. The ultraviolence of V.A.T.S. may be an attraction towards the dark road, but that’s not enough to build my character’s story.
The game’s own characters can’t construct a compelling narrative of evil either. Soon after escaping the vault, the character encounters the sinister Mr. Burke, who wants you to detonate a bomb in the middle of a settlement. Burke’s dialogue is laughable, the sort of thing a 12-year-old would say if he were trying to be a suave villain. If you take him up on his offer you can eventually probe his reasons further, leading you to the revelation that the town will be blown up because Mr. Burke’s employer one day mentioned offhand that he thought it unsightly, even though the place can barely be seen from his balcony. Detonating the bomb doesn’t gain anybody anything; it’s just wanton destruction. This is worse than cartoonish, it’s practically mindless.
If you choose to go ahead and detonate the bomb, you are treated to the sight of a nuclear explosion. Awestruck, Burke mutters that he thinks it is beautiful, and as you watch the lush animation, you can, just for a second, agree with him. That’s as close as Fallout 3 comes to giving you a reason. Is that really compelling enough for Burke?
Is it compelling enough for you?