I’m not sure what to think of those rare moments of quietude when the game’s music and visuals work in tandem to create a rich atmosphere of loneliness, the background threat of the wasteland intermingles with the strange beauty of the desolate landscape, and the imaginary ruins of Washington D.C. become a solemn, dignified capriccio. Whilst these moments are all constituted from Bethesda’s deliberate design, they feel at odds with the main storyline of killing successive Bad Army Men and the traditional RPG (capitalist) narrative of player progression as detailed in Stephen Beirne’s essay here.
They could be accidents, or maybe I’m not giving Bethesda nearly enough credit and it’s all meant to add to the experience of occupying the space of the Capital Wasteland, alternating the adrenaline heights of combat with the nadir of exploration.
I know that this is something that everybody else realised upon or shortly after release, but it’s just coming to me now so bear with me.
The problem with morality in Fallout 3 isn’t so much that it’s built around this dichotomy of good and evil, but the way that this dichotomy is expressed through violence. In Fallout 3, an evil act is the killing of a good person, and a good act is the killing of an evil person. As a result, killing itself has no inherent moral property. What makes an act of good or evil is to whom the otherwise inert act of killing is directed. To put it another way, the game treats good and evil like opposing teams. One dead Evil Person is a point for Team Good, and vice versa.
If they’re just teams, then your alignment is a choice where all else is considered equal. This implies that, in this setting, an evil person chooses to be evil and is basically okay with it, that nobody is evil as a result of circumstance, forced to do unsavoury things to get by in the harshness of post-apocalyptia. This is because being good is as easy as being evil in Fallout 3. You blow up the bomb in Megaton and get a penthouse apartment. Alternatively, you defuse the bomb and get a house. There are companions who will only follow you if you have good karma and others who will only follow you if you have evil karma. What’s difficult is maintaining neutral karma, at least without deliberately aiming for it on a decision-by-decision basis. Otherwise, the game tries very hard to maintain as much parity as it can between good and evil in terms of their material consequences. This makes good and evil inert at best, and feels disingenuous at worst.
One caveat: stealing always nets negative karma. If you slaughter a band of raiders, the game considers you a good person for it. If you loot their base after, that’s crossing a line. The act of theft has an inherent moral property that the act of killing lacks. That’s at least an inconsistent morality system.
To vaguely and tenuously connect a wide range of disparate works for a moment: the settings of post-apocalyptic fictions serve to remember.* They remember the pre-event status quo – the “Old World” as Fallout calls it – through the ersatz representation of recognisable landscapes and objects.** But the Capital Wasteland is filled with people who have forgotten the Old World, or are struggling to remember.***
Abraham Washington, who gives you the quest to find the Declaration of Independence, is a clear example of this. As you talk to him about his museum, where he archives what’s left of America’s pre-war history, he tells you about the importance of the document, but his dialogue is riddled with historical errors. It’s a piece of dramatic irony; the player knows (hopefully) that Abraham is getting the details of America’s history wrong, but the character they’re playing can’t object because they presumably don’t know any better. As a museum curator, Abraham has tasked himself with the preservation of history, which makes his ignorance all the more significant. The game plays this off as a joke, but it’s worth thinking about how this reflects on the game’s ideas of history-making. The idea of Abraham essentially making up a history of a nation based on false ideas ties in I think with the concept of the branching RPG story – especially as seen in Fallout: New Vegas – which gives the player the power to forge the narrative of the setting they are playing in. In the Capital Wasteland, unyoked from its original state by the devastation of the Great War, finds history to be malleable.
Whilst the Old World still exists in the Capital Wasteland, taking the form of the very space that the post-apoc population occupies, this past is inaccessible to the people, being forgotten even as it remains present. History in Fallout is like all history: not what happened, but what is remembered.
*- Just to emphasise that I’m brushing with broad strokes and not just ignorant, I’ll mention an exception here: Mad Max.
**- I’ve written about post-apocalyptia, space and memory in SHOOTER. Buy it here! Buy it now!
***- It’s worth pointing out that this is made much more complex by the fact that the Fallout timeline diverges from our own at some point between 1945 and 1961.