Fallout 4 and My Ethical Shitstorm

Graygarden Homestead

So, I finished Fallout 4 recently. There’s at least one more post I’ll be writing about it — also on the subject of ethics — but if you’re curious as to my opinion: it was pretty great. A bit of a mixed bag, as in some senses it represents Bethesda’s best work on the series, and in other senses it represents far and away their worst.

But there are plenty of discussions about the game’s quality going on right now, and I really don’t care to join them. I left game reviewing for a reason, not least because it allows me to actually have fun with games again. If they’re lousy but I still find them enjoyable, I can spend my time with them. If they’re technically great but not really up my alley, I’m free to ignore them.

In short, I can get back to what I like to play, and play it when I want to play it. That’s good, because I’ve read in some history books that video games used to be a source of fun for people. How nice to catch a glimpse of that distant past!

Anyway, one of the things that I’ve loved about the Fallout series, going all the way back to the first game, is the ethical wringer it puts you through. In fact, as much as I like to play a “good guy” character in those games, the first Fallout successfully stressed me into behaving badly. As the days counted down and I was running out of time to find a water chip, I found one in the ghoul town of Necropolis. But the residents there needed it to stay alive; their pump was broken. They offered to let me have the chip if I fixed the pump for them…

…which was something I couldn’t do. I could try to get my Repair skill higher or find the parts I needed, but I very likely wouldn’t live long enough to do so. My life, like the lives of everyone waiting for the water chip in Vault 13, was in danger now, and I didn’t have the time to spare.

So I stole their water chip and got the hell out of there. My problem became their problem, quite literally. I passed the hot potato and tried my best to forget that this ever happened. (The poor ghouls would have no such luxury of forgetting.)

Fallout 4, though, was pretty sadly free of ethical dilemmas. You always had the choice of who to kill or who not to kill, who to side with or who to side against, but those aren’t dilemmas; they’re just options. A true dilemma comes from something like my situation in Necropolis, when I could let one group of innocents stay alive, or sabotage their survival to keep a different group alive.

There’s no right answer. There’s a moral answer, but not necessarily a right one.

Toward the end of the game, though, Fallout 4 stranded me in a situation I didn’t expect. It may not even have been intentional, as I only ended up in it because I failed to talk my way into an alternate solution. But for the first and only time in the game, I felt genuinely conflicted. And I still do.

Spoilers follow, but they’re pretty minor ones. This is your warning.

Years ago I took The Moral Sense Test after reading about it in The Three-Pound Enigma. I recommend both the test and the book strongly.

In the years that it’s been refined since, the Moral Sense Test might be a lot different than I remember, but its objective was to place the test-taker in situations of increasingly complex ethical obligations, for the sake of studying their reactions.

For instance, in one situation you’d see a train about to crash into a boulder on the track. You’re operating the switchbox, and can throw to lever to cause the train to change tracks, missing the boulder and saving the lives of everyone on board.

Do you throw the switch?

Well, yes. Clearly you do. Ethically, that is your obligation.

So the test ramps up the complexity from there. Let’s say that if you throw that switch, the train will hit a cow on the other track. The lives of everyone on the train will be saved, but the cow will die.

Maybe the solution is still easy, so let’s say it’s not a cow, but a human child whose foot is caught in the tracks. Now do you throw the switch?

Let’s say it’s not a boulder, but it’s a group of 20 people. Throwing the switch saves them, but at the cost of the lives of the 10 people who are standing on the other track. Sure, 10 is fewer than 20, but can you ethically kill 10 people who would have been safe otherwise to save 20 who were naturally in danger?

…and things got even hazier from there. It was a great test. If you enjoy being driven insane, take it. (Oh, and you’d also be helping the researchers out a great deal, as well.)

Fallout 4, through a quirk, plopped me in the middle of a small-scale Moral Sense Test. And I still don’t know if I made the right decision.

At one point in the story, you discover an organization known as The Institute. Up until this point you’ve heard horror stories about them. You’ve seen the damage their technology has done. You’ve seen the fear in the faces of the people you meet. You’ve heard the rumors of The Institute’s enemies disappearing…and innocent people being replaced by robotic substitutes. Deliberately or not, The Institute has become emblematic of everything the residents of the Wasteland fear.

Then you find The Institute yourself, and you can hear them out. Their methods are flawed, certainly, but you may conclude that they’re also necessary. Many friends of mine played the game and chose to side with them, deciding that the ends justified the means, with The Institute being a terrible force that was still humanity’s best hope.

I didn’t decide that. I threw my hat in with The Railroad, a small, underground (literally) group of agents working to take The Institute down.

No real ethical issues here; just a choice. Do you think The Institute is humanity’s best hope? Side with them. Do you think it’s not? Side with The Railroad. Simple.*

I sided with The Railroad. And since I had visited The Institute and lived to talk about it, they had a great asset in me: I could work undercover. Whatever they needed done within Institute walls, I could come and go as I pleased. It was a win all around, so I kept doing quests on behalf of The Railroad, bringing The Institute down piece by piece. All I had to do was follow Railroad instructions while paying Institute lip service.

Again, a choice; not a dilemma.

Then, all at once, The Railroad had nothing for me to do. Or, to be more clear, they had plenty for me to do, but they had to bide their time. It was important that I stay in the good graces of The Institute, so they told me to keep working with it. That was my only mission; keep helping The Institute until I received further instructions.

It had to seem like I was siding with The Institute, which raised, gradually, the question of how long you can pretend to be something without becoming that something…a question of well-intentioned infiltration that Kurt Vonnegut explored beautifully in Mother Night.**

How thoroughly can you aid the Axis without becoming a villain yourself, even if you’re doing so in the name of the Allies? How is leaking intelligence to the good guys more important than the fact that you’re gathering it for the bad guys?

It’s a deep and impossible question to answer, even though it’s a fascinating one to explore.

My ethical dilemma came when The Institute asked me to track down a scientist it wished to draft for their cause. Easy enough, except that when I got there, there was a standoff in progress. The scientist was holed up in the destroyed shack you see above. Institute troops were there, ready to drag him off kicking and screaming.

Ethics check: is it worth forcing this innocent man into the hands of the enemy in order to stay in the enemy’s good graces? Is his happiness — and potentially his life — worth my chance to win this war?

To my mind, yes. It was worth it.

Sadly, it wasn’t that simple.

Another group known as The Minutemen showed up to protect the man from The Institute. The Minutemen were a small militia that existed because I helped it to exist. I built it. It was a defunct organization that I resurrected; a loose group of armed survivors who traveled the Wasteland, responding to calls of distress, and helping those who needed it the most.

My precious Railroad — my ethical compass — was far away in a basement somewhere. It was a choice only I could make, and I had to make it now. I could side with The Institute and not only drag this guy away but make enemies of The Minutemen, or I could side with The Minutemen, protect this guy, and make premature enemies of The Institute.

The game offered me a peaceful solution. It almost always does, if you can pass a speech challenge. Fortunately I’d built a character who was great at weaseling his way out of things, so I tried to convince the scientist to go peacefully with The Institute.

The speech challenge failed. He was terrified. He didn’t want to go, and The Minutemen were there to help him.

Then I tried to convince The Minutemen to stand down.

That speech challenge failed, too. My silver tongue meant nothing to them when compared to the terrified scientist’s screams for help.

There wasn’t another way out. I could fight The Institute’s troops, or I could fight The Minutemen. If I fought The Institute I’d kill a bunch of bad guys, but lose the chance to defeat them for good. If I fought The Minutemen I’d kill a bunch of good guys — the exact same good guys I’d inspired to become good guys — just to keep up appearances.

I had a robotic companion with me. Codsworth; one of only two characters in the game that remembers you from before the war. From before the world changed. From when you used to be another person entirely.

I tried everything to find another way out.

There was no other way out.

It was a standoff. There was going to be gunfire. I had to choose a side.

I pulled out my pistol and killed The Minutemen. They weren’t even hostile to me. Their names were in green, signifying that they were friendly. They saw me as an ally. And why wouldn’t they? I’d inspired them to fight for truth, justice, and the American way…and then I killed them because I had to keep up a lie.

A little notification appeared on the screen. “Codsworth hated that.”

I hated it, too, Codsworth. I still do.

The Institute dragged their scientist away to his new fate. At my feet were the bodies of good and brave men who died at my hand, for doing what I told them it was right to do.

I’ve played a lot of video games over the years, but never before had one made me feel so alone.

* There are other factions to choose from, so I’m deliberately simplifying things here, but, ultimately, the choice is to side with or against The Institute. The other factions all take an oppositional role.

** Read it if you haven’t. It’s Vonnegut’s best, and one of my favorites.

3 thoughts on “Fallout 4 and My Ethical Shitstorm”

  1. Man, taking some of the tests on that Morality Tests page… When it shows me as basically average on the scale, that makes me feel kinda shitty. Like, I thought I was better than that. But then, extreme on both ends – especially on the Morality one – isn’t necessarily better. And I feel like each of those questions should have a comments page for afterwards to helps us all discuss the reasons why we picked our answers.

    But as for video games making us pull hard choices, I haven’t done many (I did play Fallout 1 though). As for having a visceral reaction to making the choice. though? Bioware’s Star Wars MMO got me real good when I played as a Bounty Hunter. An early quest has a mother ask you to make sure her son is sent to the Sith traiing academy. There he has a chance of becoming powerful (and by extension making her powerful too since they’re kinda poor right now). When you find the boy his Dad is trying to take him away. The Dad has BEEN to the Sith academy and tells you it’s a shit place full of shit people doing shitty things, and he doesn’t want his son to go through that. He offers to PAY you to let him take his son, and then you can just TELL the mother you put the son on the ship and he’s off to become a Sith. And I did just that on an earlier character. But THIS time, I’m a Bounty Hunter. I’m trying to roleplay as such so my contract – my word – is all I have to represent myself. I’m a business person. So I kill the Dad – in front of his son – and put the boy on the ship to the Sith academy, quite possibly destroying his life (as well as emotionally damaging the boy who just watched me gun down his father who was just doing the right thing by his child). I tell ya, for a crappy MMO, that bloody decision made me feel like utter shit. It really is the most harrowing experience I’ve ever had with a game and it didn’t even have any ramifications for my character. At all. (In fact, I got paid LESS because of my decision not to take the guy’s bride, so it was inherently negative).

    I think with Fallout 1 I was too young to really empathise with the Ghouls of Necropolis. I didn’t really understand what I was doing. I was a dumb kid.

  2. Well shit Phil, now I actually want to play Fallout 4. Why do you do this to me?

    Also, I’m going to be an arsehole and create a complete diversion to the main theme of your article (mostly because I don’t actually have anything to add to that); what you just wrote is totally a piece of criticism, or a “review.”

    Need more of your kind maaaaan.

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