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.

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