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.

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5 comments

  1. Wolfsilver · March 13, 2016

    First, of all, good to see that you’ve expanded your horizon, so to speak, to other games. I gotta admit, the Ashur/Wernher problem really had me stuck for a while, though role playing made things a smidge easier, ultimately deciding that my character couldn’t bring himself to kidnap an innocent child, even if it meant potentially condemning hundreds-of-(likely)-thousands of slaves to the Pitt.

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    • rooneytodd412 · March 14, 2016

      Thanks for following me to my new digs!

      What do you make of the fact that the child will likely not remember her parents? Let’s assume (and this is a big assumption) that Ashur would never have followed through with the plan to give the cure to the slaves. If the child would not remember any of this, and the cure worked, would the kidnapping still be worse than the alternative?

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      • Wolfsilver · March 14, 2016

        I honestly don’t know. I may have understated how much I roleplayed. The guy I play as is a highly intelligent, but deeply sarcastic snarker with a a tendency to mouth-off when he should really keep his mouth shut. (He’s got a conscience, but it doesn’t come up too often). After James pulls the sacrifice at Project Purity, Nicholas (the name of my character) becomes emotionally dead inside, something that’s actually partially fixed by him completing the last vault 101 quest, giving him a strange sense of closure. Everything in his past is now effectively gone. After spending several weeks just building stuff and dismantling it as well (his way of coping), he goes to the Pit still fairly dead inside, but with the intent of trying to find a new purpose in life. At the end of the Pitt questline, he finds he can’t bring himself to kidnap the child and potentially kill her father, not after he himself lost his only weeks before. However, afterwards, he makes a vow: to make the wastelands a better place, and to prove Ashur wrong, that there are other ways to make the world better then the way Ashur has constructed.

        I myself would likely delay making the decision as long as was physically possible, as my mind tried to decide what was ultimately right while gathering as much information as possible, before ultimately doing one of several things: 1) Having a complete and utter mental breakdown 2) possibly commit suicide from the overwhelming stress of it all 3) flip a coin and try to follow that path only to backtrack as I immediately began to second guess myself or 4) I really have no idea what I’d do. Morally, it’s too gray for me to really make a decision without doubting myself the instant I made it – far more serious than the occasional bit of doubt I experience whenever I go over the Skyrim Civil War in my head.

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  2. Wolfsilver · March 14, 2016

    In terms of the kidnapping itself (sorry for not really addressing this), that really is hard to debate. I mean, speaking purely in terms of logistics, it’s the old “what one life compared to one thousand” scenario. On the other hand, the lives of newborn infants do tend to be valued more then the lives of adults, and what impacts us in childhood tends to hit us harder at the time, and hits us even harder as adults once we realize the full consequences of our actions. There’s also the factor that Wernher and his partner didn’t really seem to care about the life of the child in question, just so long as a cure could be obtained, meaning that, in addition to the kidnapping, there’s also endangerment to the infant and possible indirect (on the lone wanderer’s part) child murder as an accomplice. Ultimately, I think this one is left up to personal feelings on the matter.

    HOWEVER, If the cure can, indeed, be procured, then one could argued that the life of the infant in question is significantly more valuable than the lives of all the slaves, and that keeping it safe and healthy (as opposed to the very risky operation that Wernher seems intent on performing on the baby) while the cure is researched takes priority.

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  3. Pingback: The Otherhood of Steel | moralityplays

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