I recently had a “virtual” moral quandary that I found interesting. It involves the content in a video game I’m playing. Not the “graphic violence” or “coarse language” type of content (although this game contains plenty of both, ESRB rating of M for Mature, NOT FOR KIDS,) but a quandary of interactive storytelling and the choices I (through my in-game character) have to make.
The game in question is Bethesda Studios “Fallout: New Vegas,” developed by Bethesda’s Obsidian Entertainment. It’s the follow up to “Fallout 3” (which is also very good) and it puts the player into a rich, detailed, world on the edge of a disaster or two. Normally that would be a player’s (or character’s) call to be “the hero.” Fighting against all odds to save the world for the good of mankind. Which you can do in F:NV (as it’s abbreviated on the internet.) Or not. See, this game lets you make the decisions. You CAN fight against the forces of evil and save the world. OR you can join with those dark forces to conquer and enslave. OR you can go to every house in the game and put a teddy bear and a spork in every toilet tank in Nevada, it’s REALLY all up to you. A short set up of the game world… It’s a couple of hundred years after a nuclear war (mainly between the US, Canada, and China) devastated the earth and what’s left of humanity is rebuilding society, which resembles an odd cross between the U.S. South’s reconstruction era, the U.S. pre-Civil War frontier era, the Cold War nuclear scare era, and the great depression. All set to the music (and stylings) of Rat Pack crooners and the Big Band era.
Our hero (the character the player controls, in my case a character I gave a ridiculous handlebar moustache and the equally ridiculous name of Ezekiel Deschain) is a courier with a bad case of amnesia after being relieved of the package he was delivering via gunshot to the noggin from a gang leader named Benny. Story is simple at first. Track down Benny, exact revenge (or not,) retrieve the package, and finish the delivery. Along the way I became a kind of post-apocalypse white knight. Helping the people of all the little towns along the way, protecting the helpless, and making the wasteland safer for good, honest folk. I picked up a sidekick at a trading post on I-88, and she (Veronica) became the “Robin” to my “Batman.” Helping me do-good my way to New Vegas and I in return helping her and her tribe and family.
After fixing some of her problems, I urged her to spend some time with her family while I finally made my way on to “the Strip” of New Vegas. And that’s where “Zeke’s” story gets complicated. 3 factions are vying for control of New Vegas and the power produced by the Hoover Dam. The New California Republic (or NCR,) Caesar’s Legions, and Mr. House. The NCR isn’t so bad. A democracy (more or less) with more or less civil laws. But they are expansionist, and don’t give people much choice when annexing territory (join, leave, or die.) The Legion is a coalition of gangs and savage tribes trying to carve an empire out of the west, building it on the back of slave labor (these are the “bad” bad guys.) And the mysterious and reclusive millionaire Mr. House who currently runs New Vegas from his penthouse high atop the “Lucky 38 Casino.” The “good” choices are to either help the NCR or Mr. House. I chose Mr. House because although the NCR isn’t that bad… they are expanding by force. While House only wants to make New Vegas the shining city he remembers from before the bomb, giving the citizens and tourists back everything they lost to the war.
Or I was working for him, until he demanded I destroy Veronica’s tribe and burn their home.
Now that’s not any kind of moral dilemma. I can’t do that and still BE the good guy. And I can’t let Mr. House try and do it another way. And there’s no way to talk him out of it, he’s absolutely convinced they will oppose him. So… I made the decision to depose Mr. House. Killing him was an option, but I chose instead to just take away his authority over the police and defense forces of New Vegas. I suppose at that point I could have handed the keys over to the NCR. But with ME in charge… the strip is still independent and free. And I’M a “good guy,” right? I won’t abuse my position… right?
But my “good” intentions don’t change the fact that deposing (and or killing) Mr. House and taking authority over New Vegas was BENNY’S plan. It’s the reason Benny shot the player’s character in the FIRST place. Benny the murdering, loan sharking, crime boss I was bringing to justice in the first place. When that realization struck me… I was STUNNED. And then I was stunned a second time. This IS just a video game. None of it really matters, and even had I chosen to play as maniacal murderer who sided with the slave owners, it’s just a game and would say nothing about me “in real life.” Yet I was immersed well enough in the game, its setting, and its characters that I was concerned about the ethics of my character’s actions. IS IT RIGHT to take the same actions that a criminal was going to… just because my intentions are (in my judgment) more altruistic than that criminal’s? THERE’S the impressive moral quandary.
Well played Bethesda and Obsidian… well played. And even though it’s taken me way too long to get at the point… here it is. The interactive media of video game is the ONLY storytelling medium where that sort of reflection is possible. In movies, books, or tv you can choose whether or not to like or root for a character based upon THEIR actions in the narrative. You can wonder what your reaction to the scripted events says about you as a person. But only in a well-crafted game can the narrative that unfolds as the result of YOUR actions make you question the morality of YOUR OWN decisions.
It’s examples like this that make me remember why I’m such a pro-game advocate. I look at the popularity of the online MMS (modern military shooter) games like Call of Duty and Battlefield, and I wonder if those people who blame games for real life violence MAY be right. But then added to the fact that playing a game can’t actually instruct you how to use any firearm depicted in that game (unless of course the trigger is a button on the side of the gun shaped like a video game controller) is the example set by Fallout: New Vegas… a game (even a particularly violent game) can make you reflect on the ethical ramifications of your choices and actions.
Oh another plus for F:NV. There are a few in-game radio stations you can listen to. Music, then a DJ comes on. Maybe reads a listener letter, maybe does some news. My favorite is the “rat pack crooner” station called Radio New Vegas. When I heard it the first time I thought I recognized the voice of its DJ “Mr. New Vegas.” Yup, the character was voiced by Wayne Newton.
Yes… Danka Schoen… THAT Wayne Newton. Well played again Bethesda.