'Fallout' Can't Adapt to Your Morality and That's a Problem

The politics of whether looting a corpse is worse than looting a sleeper.

As I replay my way through the Fallout series, I’m struck by how intricate and deliberate the complicated internal systems become. Each game almost never stops adding new elements, even after thirty or forty hours, and some only come to light through replays or alternate character paths. As a fan, I’m repeatedly rewarded for exploring the detail with which these world systems are created. As a player, I’m pretty goddamned sick of the ethics system. (Actually, it is about ethics in wasteland journalism.)

For a game series that lets you adjust every inch of your physical and emotional representation, how is it possible that Fallout doesn’t adjust to my morality?

Oops. Guess I'm living in Tenpenny Tower in this play-through.

Sure, there are some huge universal choices you can make that can and do effect how everyone in The Wasteland interacts with your player character, but more often than not the Karma system is balanced around much smaller, and often poorly defined, moments.

New Vegas eschewed the system, in favor of a localized readout on how different factions were responding to your activities, but so much of this world is built on the back of the numerical system laid out in Fallout 3 which ranged from pitchfork devil to savior angel.

There’s something almost inviting about the comically simplistic math of good vs. evil. For many first time players, this was itself a hurdle to overcome, as you began to slowly understand that “evil” wasn’t “wrong” in a gamified notion, and often opened up new quests, perks, or even companions that saintly protagonists would never have access to— and a third, more bizarre, neutral path for those who needed to keep their options open at all time.

Unfortunately, this offers no opportunities for moral relativism. It becomes kind of a drag to see how the game never grows with your choices when it comes to non-quest specific activities. The practical application is most clearly visible when it comes to theft.

While game worlds are littered with objects, both useful and junk, some are clearly marked by the game as belonging to another character and just by opening certain doors or looking at a coffee cup you can turn entire settlements into murderous revengers with burning torches, calling for your destruction. In some cases it makes perfect sense — of course a shopkeep should take a shot at you if you just grab all of the stimpacks and make a run for the door. Elsewhere, it’s not so cut and dry.

Most Fallout players have a memorable story of offending the game’s prudish code of conduct. Sometimes, your Karma will remain unflinching as you execute an entire town, but the moment you take a little cat nap in one of their beds, the morality klaxons begin to sound. Sometimes you loot a corpse of precious weapons and food, but the moment you side-eye the dead man’s earnings clipboard— that’s when you’re a nefarious no-gooder.

If this theft system were an independent system, that might be fine. But I’ve had companions walk away from me mid-quest because my desire to replenish supplies went against their strict moral code. How? I’m stocking up on irradiated food I found on a centuries old corpse in the depths of a Mirelurk cave. Who am I hurting? What if I need to give this medical equipment to a dying child? Just because it technically belongs to a slaver warlord doesn’t mean that my needs and the Greater Good shouldn’t be taken into consideration.

When I posed questions about the lack of setting your own personal moral system to Twitter, I got a lot of fascinating responses.

We had some discussion about why you couldn’t set your personal moral standing at the start of the game when you’re customizing an entire human flesh body to inhabit. I understand the desire to avoid creating a preconceived play-style right out of the gate — Obviously, this world would be a lot less fun if a menu simply asked you “Straight up: are you a capitalist or a bastard?” Of course a lot of this is supposed to be murky and organic, but nothing pulls you out of that immersion like a world without rules suddenly imposing a glitchy value-system that is easy to circumnavigate with a bucket and a dark room.

Of all the systems that attune themselves to who holds the controller, why can’t Fallout learn a little more about how I see the world — or at very least have some perspective on how the ideas of “ownership” change once gigantic radioactive scorpions take control of the planet.

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