The Otherhood of Steel

MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD (Main quest complete, Railroad questline complete, major BoS spoilers)

I love paladins.  Always have. Even in my early AD&D days, I felt drawn to the morally righteous, sword-and-board style of the paladin, and I routinely find myself defending them in gaming debates.  The charges against their class, which range from “paladins are OP” to “paladins are boring,” demonstrate a failure to appreciate the beauty of a heavy-armor damage factory who wades into the most desperate battle with a clarity of purpose known only by the pure of heart.  Paladins are the sine qua non of RPGs.

Not that I run them that often.

I mean, I try, but as much as I love paladins, they never feel like a natural fit for me.  My primaries (the character with whom I most identify) almost always, whether I intend them to or not, end up as Neutral Good rangers.  Rules sometimes need to be broken in order to do the right thing.  And why should I charge the enemy camp with my banner unfurled when I could reduce the chaos by picking raiders off one-by-one?

Furthermore, most of the games I play make running a true paladin difficult.  Oblivion: Knights of the Nine, of course, was written with paladins in mind, and I was able to run a pretty satisfying Imperial paladin in Skyrim, but even in those exceptions, there are some obstacles to the class (it’s hard to justify daedric quests, for example).

Still, I love paladins.  When I started play Fallout 3, I knew very little about the game, and so I was pleasantly surprised to discover a literal paladin faction in the Wasteland.  Even though I hadn’t planned on running a paladin, when my primary met up with the Brotherhood of Steel, I made it a new goal to join them, and retconned my backstory appropriately.  For most of the main quest, I was happy with my decision, but there were a couple of things that stuck in my craw:

  • The way the BoS hoards technology is worrisome.  In fact, if I remember correctly, one of the more trustworthy NPCs warned me about telling them too much, which I ignored for RP reasons.
  • Their treatment of non-feral ghouls is, at best, bigoted, as evidenced by the statements of the residents of Underworld.
  • While I’m well aware that super mutants are a problem, the BoS really seems to enjoy killing them, which is disconcerting when one recalls that every super mutant was once a human. After Vault 87, I took a perverse pleasure in visiting the Citadel with Fawkes in tow.
  • The entire plot of The Pitt is problematic, starting with the fact that the BoS took it upon themselves to pass deadly judgement (“the Scourge”) on an entire city.
  • In a random encounter after the main quest (with Broken Steel installed), I witnessed a tense encounter between a BoS Aqua Pura caravan and some Megaton residents. Even though I managed to defuse the situation, I was troubled by the fact that the BoS soldiers did not seem to share Elder Lyons’ altruism.

The presentation of the BoS in Fallout 4 is even more troubling.  As I have considered elsewhere, the attitude of the BoS towards synths is downright genocidal, even when presented with “ideal” synths like Paladin Danse. Even worse, they have no moral qualms about wiping out the Railroad simply because they disagree with their position on synths. It also didn’t help that the BoS immediately opened fire on me when I entered Mass Fusion to find the beryllium agitator — no dialogue, no parley, just shoot-to-kill — which is hardly the kind of chivalrous behavior one would expect from Knights and Paladins.

So, why is it that the paladin — ostensibly the class with the greatest potential for moral greatness — so often devolves into a kind of myopic bigot, especially in non-fantasy settings?  The answer might lie with the confusion between loyalty to a standard and loyalty to a tribe.  The Knights of the Nine, while certainly beholden to a kind of chivalry, are an extension of their icon, Pelinal Whitestrake, who helped to free man from Ayelid slavery.  Whitestrake, however, was no paladin; he was a ruthless warlord who was given to extraordinarily violent fits of madness.  He fought against human enslavement not because slavery is wrong, but because it was his people who were being enslaved.  That the Knights of the Nine were able to transcend their tribal origins (their subsequent fall from grace notwithstanding) is a testament to their valor.  The fact that the player ends up joining the KotN in defending temples and priests of the Divines against Umaril the Unfeathered’s outslaught is suggestive of the chivalric call to defend the helpless, regardless of the chauvinism of the order’s forebear.

The Brotherhood of Steel, on the other hand, represents a dark reflection of the paladin class.  The unity of purpose and shared ideals of the Knights of the Nine separates the world into an us-and-them dichotomy of power and need: the Knights have power, the citizens of Tamriel have need of that power to defend them against their would-be oppressors.  The BoS uses an analogous dichotomy of power and need, but to a different end: the Brotherhood is strong, civilians are weak and therefore not worthy of consideration.  “Shield yourself from those not bound to you by steel, for they are the blind. Aid them when you can, but lose not sight of yourself,” says the Codex.  Even when providing protection for the wastelanders and settlers, the BoS see those outside of their order as “other.”

It is this focus on “otherness” that ultimately corrupts the paladin fantasy.  Consider again the origins of the KotN: an anthropocentric order that, by the time the player encounters them, accepts anyone of valor into their ranks, regardless of race (Sir Ralvas is a Dunmer, and the PC may, of course, be of any race).  The BoS, on the other hand, began as a version of the real-world U.S. Armed Forces, but in the post-apocalyptic world of Fallout, it has devolved into a chauvinistic, paranoid gang that that will not countenance outsiders (ghouls, synths) — even outsiders who embody the best of their original values (Danse).

This KotN/BoS juxtaposition provides an important insight into the narrative functions of their respective genres.  The Elder Scrolls series leans toward the epic, the ideal, and the romantic, as the fantasy genre tends to do.  The Fallout series, by contrast, favors cynicism, as post-apocalyptic literature usually does.  The fictive past shows us how great we once were, and the fictive future shows us how far we’ve fallen from that greatness.  This dichotomy is crucial for understanding the role of Paladin Danse in the discourse of “otherness.”

Danse personifies the best of the Brotherhood of Steel — nobility, bravery, chivalry, self-sacrifice — yet he is expelled (and possibly killed, depending on PC choices and persuasion checks) for being a synth, which is something he has neither prior knowledge of nor control over.  Arthur Maxson — whose name combines the Arthurian legend with a kind of hypermasculinity — simply will not tolerate the presence of a synth in his ranks. Synths, he argues, cannot be trusted; you can never really know what they’re up to or whose side they’re on.  They infiltrate the normal human world and wreak havoc, and therefore must be destroyed at every opportunity — Nick Valentine et al notwithstanding.  As Maxson himself puts it, “This notion that a machine can be granted free will is not only offensive, but horribly dangerous.  The PC’s “winning” option with Maxson is to convince him to let Danse live in isolation and exile.  There is no hope of inclusion.

The parallels to the current controversies regarding Muslims and trans people should be obvious.  The “otherhood” of these groups makes them suspect, and when a society is organized around fear and aggression, that which is suspect cannot be tolerated.  As a synth, Danse becomes a potential stand-in for any “other” in the real world, and the way a player deals with him provides an opportunity for a robust conversation about tolerance in our own society.

The question of where the Lawful Good paladin-phile can find a place in Fallout 4 will be discussed in the next post.


Love in the Time of Perk Trees

Video games have long struggled to incorporate romance into the player character’s experience.  The wildly variable results attest to the difficulty of approximating intimate human interaction in a gaming scenario. The earliest examples were limited to either a “rescue-object” or a “press A to activate sex” paradigm.  Later technological developments allowed greater depth of romantic story-telling, but were usually confined to cinematic cutscenes.   Even though RPGs of the current generation have been able to provide players with more variety and richer interactions with NPCs, the romantic landscape in gaming narratives is still fairly circumscribed.  Nevertheless, there is still much to say about morality at the intersection of ludus and eros.

One truth that seems to emerge from studying games like the Witcher, Mass Effect, Elder Scrolls, and Fallout series is that the more open-world an RPG, the more difficult it is to create romantic storylines that are simultaneously engaging and flexible.  For example, while Mass Effect features several romantic options, but most of them take place at prescribed points in the narrative and are dominated by cinematic sequences; the overall effect is that of a choose-your-own-adventure movie: lots of compelling dialogue and action peppered with occasional choice points.  On the other hand, Skyrim presents many more romantic options which can be explored at any point within the game, but these interactions are often reduced to a handful of dialogue options, which requires the player to imagine much of the relationship. Regardless of which model a game employs, the moral dimension of these romantic interactions leads to some fascinating considerations both inside and outside the game.

Allow me to pause here for a disclaimer.  The assertions I am about to make must not be misconstrued as a attempt to describe a causal link between the depictions of romance in video games and some of the “hot button” issues in gender relations in the real world. The limits on in-game interpersonal encounters are often the by-product of the gap between the sophistication of current game engines and the complexity of human interactions. Nevertheless, there are some fruitful connections to explore.

The first element to examine is the level of agency of the romantic object.  The earliest romantic inclusions are little more than rescue-objects that exist only to be kidnapped by the Big Bad (think Princess Peach).  Later games provide NPC romantic partners with some level of agency, but the courtship process is reduced either to a series of cutscenes with idealized words, bodies, and actions or to a fetch quest for which the player is rewarded with romantic companionship.  Each of these three models deserves some attention.

The “rescue-object” model suffers from the same limitations as other forms of storytelling that depict women (and usually only women) as objects of rescue, such as medieval romances or early serial films.  These works reinforce (intentionally or not) several problematic tropes: women are helpless, romantic love is a reward for heroism, and so on.  Still, few people would ever hold up, say, Super Mario Brothers as a model of realistic human interaction.

The “cinematic cutscene choice” model intersects more complexly with the real world.  In these models (think The Witcher or Mass Effect), the writers have the ability to create engaging characters and interactions with a certain level of fluidity.  The limitation is that these interactions tend to reinforce the same unreasonable tropes as other forms of media.  Putting aside for the moment the issue of the idealized bodies and interactions, we still have to contend with the fact that these romantic interludes only exist at certain scripted points in the game, thus adding to the common misconception that romance happens at dramatically appropriate times (at The Big Dance, before The Final Battle, etc).

While the “open-world fetch quest” model features greater flexibility and choice, and does lend itself to marginally closer approximations of human romance (such as those depicted in Skyrim, especially with the Hearthfire DLC), it tends to reduce romance to the successful completion of a minor quest and/or positive disposition levels.  Taken at face value, this model reinforces the comical “nice guy coins” trope often seen in anti-MRA arguments: You brought me a mammoth tusk AND you’re wearing an Amulet of Mara? Of course I’ll marry you, Almost-A-Stranger of Black Marsh!

Of the three models detailed above, it is the third, even with its limitations, which possesses the greatest potential for moral role-playing.  With sufficient imagination, a player can devise a believable headcanon that incorporates and contextualizes even the nonce dialogue of romantic companions.  Once these extraludic factors are in place, a player can then begin think morally about romantic interactions.  Consider these examples from Skyrim:

  • In Hearthfire, one can marry, establish a home, and adopt children.  What, then, is the PC’s level of responsibility in balancing time spent at home with time spent adventuring?  Does this answer change if the main quest (in which Alduin is threatening to end the world) is not complete?
  • What are the moral implications of choosing a spouse who is also an adventurer, given the possibility of being killed in battle?  Does this answer change if you have children?
  • If you are running an obviously “evil” PC, does that mean your spouse is also “evil,” regardless of his or her own actions?

Perhaps the best example of an “open-world fetch quest” model that actually provides some depth is the one presented in Fallout 4. I should qualify the remarks that follow by saying that I’ve only had Dogmeat and Piper as companions so far, so my experience is a bit limited.  Nevertheless, I have had sufficient time to explore the romantic possibilities in the game.  As with many games of this type, companions become available from a combination of quest completion and adequate disposition.  The element that makes Fallout 4 so rich, however, is the slow introduction of romantic possibility; as a companion spends time with you, they react to your actions depending upon their own values.  In fact, the game includes a “Relationship” dialogue option, which allows the PC to ask the companion about the status of their relationship.  Piper, for example, seems to admire actions that suggest a kind of Chaotic Good principled roguishness.  She likes it when my PC picks locks, but also when he takes stands for underdog characters.    Eventually, dialogue options appeared that allowed for flirtation, but were being run as persuasion checks — in other words, you can flirt with your companion, but there is no guarantee that your flirtation will be appreciated. Furthermore, a “successful” flirtation doesn’t end with a marriage proposal; at some point after you pass the flirtation check, your companion will initiate a fairly deep personal conversation that will end with a dialogue option that allows you suggest a romantic relationship.  However, even when you are given this opportunity, you still have to pass another persuasion check in order to begin a love affair.  In other words, your NPC companions have some level of agency, even if it is represented by a random number generator.  Even if you do everything “right,” your companion may still not be interested in becoming lovers.  If your proposal is accepted, then the customary “Lover’s Embrace” perk becomes available, but beyond that and few pieces of new occasional dialogue, gameplay does not appear to change much after this point.  Unlike Hearthfire, there are no options for setting up a home with your companion (headcanon aside), and there are no non-companion romantic options. Still, Fallout 4‘s romance system comes closest to replicating human interaction with its slow pace, uncertainty, and possibility of failure.

In most action RPGs, romance and human interaction is, at best, beside the point; maintaining a lover or spouse is not much different from decorating one’s home — an entertaining diversion from killing mutants/aliens/raiders. But for the moral agent, an engaging romantic relationship can not only flesh out a character, but it can also help to put one’s actions into a larger moral perspective.

Of Super Mutants and Suicide Bombers

Super mutants have been a staple of Fallout since 1997, and in the almost twenty years since their introduction, they have served as the game’s primary “savage” NPC group.  Often brutal, sometimes comically stupid, super mutants provide fertile ground for discussions of “humanness.” Because they are former humans who were mutated by the FEV, super mutants are often judged by the degree of humanity they retain in their mutated state.  Marcus, Lily, and Fawkes are “good” because they they can still think, communicate, and behave in recognizably human ways.  In fact, these “good” super mutants often blatantly reject the trappings of mutanthood; consider, for example, Fawkes’s exclusive use of the term “meta-human.”  The “bad” super mutants, on the other hand, consider themselves superior to the weaker humans, despite their reduced intelligence, primitive technology, inability to procreate, and habit of eating humans and keeping “gore bags.”  [NOTE: There is a side conversation to be had here regarding dominance by consumption and how it intersects with veganism, but that idea deserves its own post].

As interesting as some of the individual super mutant NPCs are, perhaps the most fruitful for a conversation about “savageness” are the denizens of Black Mountain in Fallout: New Vegas.  The “State of Utobitha” is the only real example of a super mutant community beyond the scattered nests that are completely indistinguishable from raider camps when viewed through a moral lens (i.e. they are invariably hostile, and therefore may only be avoided or destroyed).  The Nighkin leader Tabitha, while clearly delusional and initially presented as an enemy, maintains a fairly stable isolationist society — even going so far as to preach tolerance of non-hostile humans who keep their distance — and can be influenced to a peaceful resolution of her relevant quest.  The State of Utobitha, therefore, represents a society that, while presented in a condescending manner, still offers the possibility of rational interaction, and by extension, creates a moral decision point for the PC.

Even so, the Black Mountain super mutants do not present a philosophy beyond a kind of hermetic self-interest.  To find something more transcendent, we have to look to Davison’s Antlerists (also in Fallout: New Vegas).  The Antlerists represent the only real example of a super mutant ideal beyond chauvinism.  Their worship of the brahmin skull demonstrates a religious instinct similar to that of early human religions in the real world. Despite the heavy implication that this worship springs from a Stealth Boy induced schizophrenia [NOTE: Yet another post will be devoted to Fallout‘s habit of equating religion with insanity], this religion suggests that it is at least possible for super mutants to develop a moral framework based on metaphysical considerations such as a transcendent deity.

It is this religious possibility that brings us to the problem of the super mutant suicider, a new hostile variant in Fallout 4.  In the real world, suicide bombers typically subscribe to a transcendent ideal that justifies (in their own mind, at least) both their violence and their self-sacrifice.  Even those who are coerced into the act are often serving something beyond themselves (the safety of their families, for example).  This lack of self-interest is an obvious prerequisite for the suicide bomber; after the act, the self no longer exists in the physical sense.  Therefore, the presence of suiciders in Fallout 4 suggests that the super mutants in the Commonwealth have developed some kind of violent idealism.

From a moral perspective, this development has very little impact on gameplay so far — always hostile means avoid or kill.  However, the fact that the game has as yet not revealed a new super mutant ideology means that we are left to imagine one or wait for a previously unexplored quest or future DLC.  Otherwise, the suicider makes no sense; if super mutant goals are limited to “KILL, LOOT, RETURN,” then the suicider is merely the dumbest of the dumb because he will never benefit from his act.

On the other hand, if an unrevealed ideology does exist, then a new moral dimension arises.  Ironically, the presence of the suicider, despite its atavistic brutality, indicates a level of thought beyond material gain. Higher-level thinking, in turn, suggests the possibility, however slim, of peaceful resolution (e.g. the State of Utobitha).  If there is a goal worth dying for, then there exists the possibility of attaining that goal without dying. There might even be a way of stopping the suiciders all together.

By now, the real-world parallels should be obvious.  Jihadist suicide bombers are not super mutants, nor are they products of a video game algorithm; nevertheless, their presence indicates the counter-intuitive possibility of resolution.  Of course, this possibility depends entirely on the goal in question.  In the Fallout universe, there may be a way to create a safe, peaceful, self-governing super mutant society — if that is the ideal the suiciders have in mind.  If, on the other hand, the ideal is to eliminate the “inferior” human race, then there is no resolution is to be had.  The difference between the two scenarios creates the moral distinction between killing super mutants at will (and, perhaps, through stealth) and only killing them in the self-defense or defense of the innocent.

In the real world, the distinction is similar in kind but very different in complexity, as we should expect.  Religious extremists often express the desire to eliminate all other worldviews, which provides fertile ground for the development of suicide bombers.  History teaches us, however, that the more the needs of oppressed groups are addressed, and the more peace and prosperity they experience, the less attractive religious extremism becomes.  Ultimately, the elimination of the suicider will have to come from redressing the conditions that create it, not by V.A.T.S.-ing every one we encounter.

Information and Uncertainty in Moral Decision-Making

Spoiler Note/Primary Character Current Progress: Completed main quest (“Institutionalized” complete; minor Brotherhood afilliation, but not locked out of other factions yet; extensive exploration of the Institute.  Some Skyrim spoilers as well)

In order to function as a moral agent in a given game, a player must have access to a certain amount of information.  The careful attenuation of information, however, can often create moral dilemmas that are more engaging than those which provide all necessary information right away.

Consider the question of Megaton in Fallout 3perhaps one of the most frequently debated decisions in the game.  The player can disarm the bomb (good karma), detonate the bomb (bad karma), or ignore the bomb (no karma).  Arguments about this decision tend to revolve around what kind of character the player wants to play, rather than attempting to justify the choice to detonate.  I find it difficult to imagine anything other than a kind of Social Darwinist defense for detonation, so from a moral perspective, the decision is a simple one.  The reason for the relative ease of this decision stems from the completeness of the available information; there is no mystery about the results of the two opposing choices, nor are there any indications of a “dark secret” in Megaton or  “higher purpose” for Tenpenny that would justify destroying the town.

A more engaging example of a fully-informed decision is the fate of Paarthurnax in Skyrim. While there is some question of the his true intentions, the debate typically centers on issues of justice and mercy: do we punish him for his past crimes or spare him for his crucial help in defeating his brother?   We already know everything we need to know to make an informed moral choice, so we end up with a true clash of values.

But what about the quests that require the player to navigate a moral dilemma without all of the required information?  I’m thinking here of quests like Skyrim’s “In My Time of Need,” in which the player must choose to believe Saadia or Kematu without ever being able to verify either NPC’s story.  On my previous blog, this quest was second only to “No One Escapes Cidhna Mine” in comments generated, mainly because of the lack of certainty about the decision.  If Saadia is telling the truth, then she is a brave whistle-blower, and protecting her becomes a moral obligation beyond preserving one woman’s life.  If Kematu is telling the truth, then Saadia is a traitorous Thalmor collaborator and must be brought to justice. Here the absence of information actually creates the dilemma; if the player were to discover a Thalmor dossier naming Saadia as one of their assets, the moral dilemma would evaporate.

Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas also create uncertainty, but in most cases, the lack of information stems from the speculative nature of the attendant decisions.  Will Ashur ever be able to forge a just society out of the brutal dictatorship he has reluctantly established?  Is the NCR really the best choice for creating democratic order, or will it succumb to its imperialistic tendencies?  These decisions require more prognostication than information, and are therefore beyond the player’s reach.

Fallout 4, however, seems to make greater use of discoverable information as a tool in creating moral conflict.  At the end of “Institutionalized,” for example, I was seriously considering joining the Institute.  Having created a soft alliance with the Railroad and a more pronounced association with the Brotherhood, I was prepared to destroy the Institute from the inside.  Upon meeting Father and listening to his philosophy, I was moved by a number of factors.  First, and least defensible, because Father is Shaun, I was immediately inclined to believe him and to join him.  Second, the stated project of the Institute is to improve life in the Wasteland for everyone, so there are legitimate utilitarian arguments to be made for their practices of secrecy and even kidnapping.  Therefore, when Shaun suggested that I explore the Institute, I entered into the process with a far more open mind than I had before the relay.

I took it upon myself to find out as much as I could about the Institute, both by observation and by hacking terminals, and in doing so, further complicated the moral landscape.  In a previous post, I discussed the unnerving parallels between synths and slaves — much of that came from observing random encounters between NPCs.  Furthermore, each terminal I hacked (or otherwise read) added to the picture of the Institute as a dangerous expression of scientific hubris.  Perhaps the best evidence came from my completion of Virgil’s quest; the FEV-related disaster and the subsequent cover-up spoke volumes to me about the true nature of the Institute.  Even worse, it became increasingly clear that I had been a pawn in Shaun’s plans, which was as heartbreaking as it was enlightening; his retroactive endorsement of his mother’s murder as “collateral damage” was bad enough, but to realize that he did nothing about it when he assumed control of the Institute, and even went so far as to pit his own father against synths, coursers, and Kellogg himself was just too much.  I still haven’t fully decided on the proper course of action, but I am reasonably certain I will not be aligning myself with the Institute.  The role of information in that decision is critical, and I suspect it will continue to be as I move forward with the Brotherhood and/or the Railroad.  The more I learn about each faction, the more difficult the decisions become.

Uncertainty, of course, plays a role in these dilemmas as well.  Maxson’s hatred of the synths is problematic for me, given my experiences with Nick Valentine.  Is there a chance that I can convince him to relent?  Not knowing the answer to this question further complicates the prospect of advancing in the Brotherhood, and it is not the kind of information that can be readily provided by hacking a terminal. Though I don’t know for sure yet, I think I can safely assume that all of the factions will provoke similar questions.

I am reminded here of the concept of non-attached work as presented in the Bhagavad-Gita.  It might be helpful for the player who, like Arjuna, finds himself caught between conflicting moral obligations, to focus on one’s dharmic obligation rather than the possible results of one’s course of action.  If I am part of the Brotherhood, then perhaps I should consider the true purpose of the Brotherhood and be loyal to that concept, regardless either of consequences or of the intentions of those around me (like Maxson).  After all, I might not be able to uncover all of the hidden information, not can I predict future results.

In a more direct sense, these kinds of information-dependent dilemmas provide a potential testing ground for similar quandaries in the real world.  For example, the Syrian refugee crisis presents a moral dilemma with both information gaps (are ISIS agents hiding among them?) and uncertainty of results (can we provide for them adequately without neglecting our own people?), but political and cultural biases make it almost impossible for Americans to discuss this issue rationally. If a similar dilemma were to be presented in a game scenario, and therefore without stakes or prejudices, the player might be able to focus on the problem itself, and perhaps even have a better chance at arriving at a solution that is both rationally and morally sound.

The Ashur/Wernher Problem and the Decline of the Karma System

Spoiler warning: Fallout 3: The Pitt — complete

One of the most criticized aspects of Fallout 4 has been the absence of a karma system, which was both a Fallout 3 fan favorite and a source of significant analysis.  In my experience, however, I have found that the karma system, while certainly an enjoyable gameplay enhancement, actually preempted more nuanced considerations of morality in the game.  Furthermore, I would suggest that Bethesda’s decision to drop the karma system for Fallout 4 represents a natural and beneficial consequence of the moral ambiguity introduced by the Fallout 3 DLC The Pitt.

“Into the Pitt,” as you might recall, places the player in the ruins of Pittsburgh and forces the PC into a moral dilemma regarding the fate of the infant Marie, whose unique biology represents a potential cure for the disease that has ravaged the area. What makes this particular questline so ethically wrenching is that neither side can make an unproblematic claim to the moral high ground – a reality that the DLC reveals slowly over the course of the questline, thus challenging the player to repeatedly reconsider her actions at crucial points, even after the questline is complete.

At the core of the dilemma are several competing claims:

  • Although Ashur promises that the cure his daughter’s singular biochemistry will produce will be distributed to everyone in The Pitt who needs it, both slave and free, his history as a brutal autocrat makes it very difficult to trust him. The fact that he regards his tyranny as a necessary and temporary evil may seem at first like a redeeming character trait befitting his background as a Knight of the Brotherhood of Steel, and certainly carries some weight given the atavistic chaos he found when he arrived, but when the player finds that siding with him means helping him violently put down a slave rebellion, his promises lose some of their credibility.  Even if the player believes that Ashur’s intentions are noble, it seems very unlikely that he would be able to navigate an orderly transition to a just society; he can’t even bring himself to admit that his “workers” are, in fact, slaves.  Furthermore, the game never resolves the question of the cure, even after quest completion.  The player never knows if the cure is successfully developed and distributed.
  • Although Wernher is initially presented as the roguishly heroic resistance leader, a pair of troubling traits emerge as the player advances through the objectives. First, Wernher does not seem to regard the infant as human; her well-being only matters insofar as it concerns her use as a source for the cure — nor is Midea, her ultimate caretaker, that much better.  Second, the more success the PC brings to the rebellion, the more ruthless and power-hungry Wernher becomes.  Here again, the questline ends without resolving the cure question, but Wernher becomes disconcertingly interested in viewing himself (or the PC, depending on dialogue options) as the new “Lord of the Pitt.”  I was reminded in particular of the point in Collins’s Mockingjay at which the reader becomes aware the Coin is beginning to demonstrate many of President Snow’s dictatorial proclivities.
  • Beyond the leaders of the opposing sides, the player is also being asked to weigh the fate of an infant against the needs of an entire society.  To side with Ashur is to place the welfare of a community of slaves in the hands of the man who has been oppressing them for nearly 20 years.  To side with Wernher is to kidnap a baby from her parents and allow dubious characters to experiment on her until a cure is produced.

The factors above are what make The Pitt one of the most morally ambiguous questlines Bethesda has ever written.  While “Paarthurnax” and “In My Time of Need” from Skyrim come very close, this DLC presents the player with a high-stakes moral conundrum that completely defies a simple good/evil breakdown.

Until you look at the karma system.

Side with Ashur = bad karma.  Side with Wernher = good karma.  Debate settled.

Of course, I’m oversimplifying; plenty of players have chosen to ignore the karma system and do what seems right by their own ethical calculus.  In fact, I have to wonder if the ensuing online debate influenced the design of Fallout 4.  Nevertheless, I applaud Bethesda for abandoning the karma system.  By doing so, they have created more space for players to argue the merits of at least three competing and incompatible worldviews without the interference of a digital moral arbiter.  Fallout 4, like many “karmaless” games, encourages higher-order moral thinking, thus making the gaming experience simultaneously more enjoyable and potentially more edifying.

The Synth/Slave Paradigm

Spoiler Note/Primary Character Current Progress: Completed main quest (“Institutionalized” complete; minor Brotherhood afilliation, but not locked out of other factions yet; extensive exploration of the Institute)

The question of the humanity of AIs has long been a staple of science fiction, even before science fiction was recognized as its own genre (think Frankenstein). If an artifcial entity achieves sentience, self-awareness, and agency, should it be considered a person? If so, what are our responsibilities toward these beings, given that we create them for our own purposes? Fallout 4 confronts these questions both directly and indirectly by presenting the player with synth-related dilemmas early in the main quest, and even earlier if certain side quests are completed.  While Bethesda uses synths to tell a number of morally complex stories in Fallout 4, such as the Invasion of the Body Snatchers-esque storyline in Diamond City, this post will focus on the role of synths as a metaphor for slavery in the real world.

Fallout 3 introduces this synth/slave paradigm overtly in “The Replicated Man,” a side quest in which the player must choose between helping Dr. Zimmer track down a runaway android or assisting “The Railroad” in allowing said android to elude his pursuers.  The parallels to the Underground Railroad and the American abolitionist movement are obvious, but Fallout 3‘s karma system makes it very clear that siding with Zimmer is evil and allowing the android to go free is good, so the moral question is answered before it can really be asked.

Fallout 4 continues this story, expands it, and, by dropping the karma system entirely, opens up a whole new set of possibilities for moral engagement. By way of preemptive qualification, I should point out that I have not progressed very far in any of the relevant factions, so my treatment of the attendant moral intricacies in this post will be far from complete.  I have already, however, experienced the tripolar tension among the factions regarding the “synth” problem:

  • The Railroad: All synths deserve to be free, even if that means that some will make terrible choices (like becoming raiders).
  • The Brotherhood of Steel: All synths are dangerous and must be destroyed.
  • The Institute: All synths belong to the Institute and are useful only insofar as they assist in the Institute’s goals.

Of the three, the Brotherhood is probably the least relevant to the exploration if the synth/slave paradigm.  While they certainly deny the humanity of the synths, they have no use for them at all.  They wish to eliminate rather than dominate.  If anything, their view of the synths is more akin to genocide than to slavery, and will be considered in a subsequent post.  Their contribution to this analysis has more to do with a productively unsettling pattern that emerges from the faction system in Fallout 4: namely, each faction appears to have some unsavory qualities that only become evident after the player has had an opportunity to “buy in” to the faction to some small degree.  In the case of the Brotherhood of Steel (who were almost irreproachable in Fallout 3), I have grown leery of Elder Maxson’s enthusiasm for killing synths.  His relative youth and brashness, combined with his lack of concern about military overreach, make me charry of progressing much further in that questline; more on that uneasiness later.

The Institute, of course, is more directly relevant to the synth/slave paradigm.  As the creators of the synths, they have an arguable claim to ownership.  Nevertheless, I noticed some very disturbing parallels to plantation slavery in the American South while I snooped around the Institute — the Coursers being a prime example.  During the main quest, the Courser is presented as a kind of super-synth: very tough and nearly indistinguishable from humans (in the manner of a Schwartzeneggerian Terminator). However, when I took the time to explore the Institute, I noticed several upsetting details, not the least of which was the way they interact with the other synths.

While wandering around the Institute, I witnessed several exchanges in which the Coursers behaved like plantation overseers toward the “lesser” synths.  One of these encounters that raised alarm bells for me involved a Courser berating and threatening a maintenance synth for using a computer terminal without authorization; I could not help but think of the slaves would were punished for learning to read.  I also hacked into a few terminals and learned more about the “reclamation” process, which sounds a whole lot like the practice of hunting down runaway slaves.  In both cases, the synth/slave is treated as property owned by the master/Institute, rather than as a sentient being with real agency.

One of the strengths of Bethesda’s quest writing is the manner in which they are able to use fantasy or sci-fi platforms in order to engage players in conversations that would be far too politically and emotionally fraught to have in the real world.  Furthermore, unlike the more vehicles of novels, movies, and TV, the video game forces the player to actively participate in these dilemmas.  In this instance, the synth dilemma allows us to examine certain, more controversial aspects of slavery outside the tragic history of human trafficking and the Atlantic slave trade.  For example, consider the question of ownership.  Clearly, in the real world, one human owning another is detestable.  However, we are not that far from building the kinds of AI depicted in Fallout 4.  What happens when these creations become self-aware has been the subject of many apocalyptic imaginings, but we rarely consider scenarios in which we are the oppressors.  When we finally succeed in creating something like a synth, will we own it?  Will it be acceptable to abuse it if it is, after all, only a machine?  Even if it possesses autonomy, it wouldn’t really be human like we are, so would we be able to do as we please with it?

But there’s the rub: in chattel slavery, the slave is never seen as human.  It isn’t like us, so we can do as we please to it.  If we were, at one time, able to make that mistake with regard to our fellow man, will we do it again when the man is artificial?  And will even later generations condemn us for it?

So, it would seem that the Railroad is the only viable moral choice for one who looks upon the synth/slave as a person.  I have not as yet gone beyond talking to Deacon, but I have heard from other players that there are some troubling aspects of the Railroad that rival those of the Brotherhood or Institute.  I am intrigued by the possibility of seeing an unseemly side of an organization that is modeled so blatantly on one of the most unassailably virtuous groups in American history.  Is there a limit to what is tolerable in the service of freeing the synths/slaves?

I look forward to finding out.


Back in 2012, I began writing a blog entitled Skyrim and Morality because I wanted a forum in which to consider some of the moral issues that had arisen in my experience of playing the game. I enjoyed writing those posts, and I am grateful for the exchanges with the readers who took the time to comment on my posts. The high point for me was being contacted by one of Bethesda’s quest writers, who expressed his appreciation for my serious consideration of his work. It was gratifying to communicate with others who shared my view of gaming as a fertile field for moral experimentation.

As rewarding as writing that blog was, however, I realized after a couple of years that I had made a few critical errors. First, in limiting myself to Skyrim, I failed to anticipate the extended conversation about morality in gaming at large. Second, I had locked myself into a pattern of writing about each playthrough chronologically; while this strategy worked well for my primary character, I got bogged down during the posts about my second character, and the posts soon began to read like bad fanfiction. Third (and probably the factor that led most directly to my abandonment of the project almost a year ago), by sticking to a chronological format, I was never going to be able to “catch up.” Invariably, I would encounter something fascinating in Fallout 3 or Dishonored, only to sigh and say, “Well, I can’t write about that until I finish writing about the Dark Brotherhood questline.” My pastime had become a chore, so I approached it less and less frequently. Finally, a few months ago, I started getting notices that spammers had begun posting get-rich-quick links in my comment sections, and I was forced to admit that I had truly abandoned the project. I plan to keep the original blog open for anyone who would like to peruse it, and I may occasionally borrow some posts from it, but my primary focus will be the blog you’re reading now.

The main goal of moralityplays is to explore the moral, ethical, and philosophical dimensions of gaming. The structure and nature of the posts will be much looser than those I employed in Skyrim and Morality, which will allow both me and the commenters far more license to explore ideas without the limitations of quest order or even game title.

For the sake of sanity, however, I will be using a spoiler-avoiding device at the beginning of each post to inform readers where I am in the specific quest; in so doing, readers will be able to dodge spoilers, and commenters will (I hope) be able to avoid spoiling anything for me.

That said, I’m going to dive right in and dedicate the next post to one of my current moral dilemmas: the synth/slave paradigm in Fallout 4.