Fallout 3 and Regret

(This is also posted at my personal blog here.)

Early on in Fallout 3, you escape Vault 101, essentially a massive bomb shelter, where you have spent the first nineteen years of your character’s life. Your quest to find your father, who also escaped, leads you to the town of Megaton, a small town built around an undetonated atomic bomb. While trying to find information about your father, you run into Mr. Burke, who offers you a rather large sum of money and a suite in Tenpenny Tower, a penthouse that somehow survived nuclear Armageddon. In exchange, he wants you to detonate the atomic bomb in the center of town.

I felt some attachment to the town, so even though I took the detonator, I disarmed the bomb and immediately went to the sheriff, Lucas Simms, and told him about Burke’s offer. I followed the sheriff as he confronted Burke, who reached for his gun. Before he could pull the trigger, I shot and killed Burke, saving Simms. As thanks for disarming the bomb and killing Burke, he gave me ownership of a house in Megaton.

Fast forward about 25 hours of play time, during which an empty Megaton was my hom., I had taken a turn towards “evil”. At this point, all that mattered to me was my own gains – I picked pockets, I broke into houses and stole everything that I could get my hands on. I did all of this through stealth, almost never being noticed by the inhabitants even if I stole something off their nightstand while they slept. If I failed at being stealthy, I killed the person to cover my tracks. As part of my spree of theft, I broke into the Megaton armory.

I found myself face to face with Deputy Steel, a robot whose job was to protect the armory. I couldn’t simply take damage, so I attacked and destroyed him, looting the armory. As I left, the entire town attacked me. I couldn’t simply run because they did too much damage, so I shot my way out, killing most of the town. Getting high on the amount of loot I gained, I proceeded to kill every single resident and loot their bodies. No one was left alive, and I sold all of their possessions.

Fast forward another 10 hours of play time, and the main quest in the game was over. I was forced to make a decision: I could activate the water purifier, finally giving people clean, non-irradiated water, or poison it. I could not doom all those people, so I didn’t use the poison I told someone that I would use on the purifier (as you can tell, I don’t have any problems with lying to people who I consider enemies). I’m wandering in the world after my actions have changed everything in the wasteland, and I’m back in my home in Megaton. As I walk outside to begin traveling, I think about the town. Everyone is dead. And not only are they dead, I killed them in a combination of greed and adrenaline rush. I keep thinking that I wish that everyone was back in the town.

Sure, I could just reload an old save, but I’ve accomplished so much in the intervening time that I don’t think I could go back. It would not only cause me to lose progress in the game, but it would also feel like I’m invalidating my character and my experience with the game. To go back now would be cheating, causing my actions to have no meaning, taking away one of Fallout 3’s greatest strengths. I’ve gone through a character arc in the course of the game, and taking that away would be to give my character no identity. In my game, The Lone Wanderer (official name for your character) was a man who was corrupted by greed, causing him to kill the people he once protected, until he realized how much harm he had done.

The truly fascinating thing was that, even though I used third person up there, all of these things didn’t just happen to my character – they also happened to me. I felt regret for having betrayed my self-anointed responsibility for the people of Megaton, which has caused me to have a lot of difficulty with playing the game further. No matter what else I do in the game, I can’t bring back the people – not characters, people – that I killed. All that I’ve learned about identity in video games was easy for me to understand – I’ve already lived it. I’ve felt just how much events in a game can affect you, and how your character in the game is not only affected by you, but how that character can also affect you.

That leads to where I am with the game right now. I’ve run into a dead end – The Lone Wanderer’s first story is done – so I have started the game again from the beginning, trying to create a new story, seeing if I can live as another character in the same world. I’ve been distracted by other games, but another part of me thinks that I can’t really stand to part with my first character in that game, even though his story is mostly over.

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. sriera
    Jan 26, 2012 @ 00:31:02

    This is an interesting example of identifying with your character. I don’t think I’ve ever played a video game where I felt that connected with the characters and setting that I felt remorse from my actions (then again, I haven’t played a lot of RPGs). After reading so much on how games desensitize people to violence, it’s interesting seeing a case in which this was the opposite.

    Good post. =)

    Reply

  2. hansmd6
    Jan 28, 2012 @ 02:34:44

    I DID blow up Megaton. I justified it by believing that the town was full of disillusioned fools, prostitutes, junkies, and religious fanatics. However, I never had solid proof of this. That is, until one day I was really bored and decided to compile a list of all the people in Megaton (thank you Fallout wiki…):

    Andy Stahl – BAD – Actually wants to blow up megaton, angry with you even after you help his brother
    Billy Creel – Good – Fends off Megaton attack, took in parentless girl
    Colin Moriarty – Bad – Keeps tabs on citizens in order to blackmail them, requires money in order to get information on your dad
    Confessor Cromwell – Bad – Cult leader of Order of the Atom
    Church – Good – Came to town when they needed a doctor
    Gob – Good – Generally nice to player
    Harden Simms – Neutral – Child
    Jenny Stahl – Neutral – Businesswoman
    Jericho – Bad – Possible rape
    Leo Stahl – Bad – Drug addict
    Lucas Simms – Neutral – Semi-stole city from Moriaty, obsessed with old west (man-child)
    Lucy West – Neutral – No background
    Maggie – Neutral – Child
    Manya Vargas – Neutral – Gives key to armory to you if you’re evil
    Micky – Neutral – Homeless
    Maya – Bad – Cult creater
    Moira Brown – Neutral – Asks you on dangerous missions
    Burke – N/A
    Nathaniel “Nathan” Vargas – Bad – obsessed with Enclave
    Nova – Bad – prostitute
    Silver – Bad – ex-prostitute, junkie
    Stockholm – Neutral – town guard
    Walter – Good – repairman

    9 Bad
    4 Good

    You might not agree with all of them, but I say blow it to hell. The bomb is perfectly safe…

    Reply

  3. ryankaput
    Jan 28, 2012 @ 02:46:12

    Fallout 3 really does a great job of creating a connection between player and character. You get to determine the so many aspects of your character, The Lone Wanderer, from his game play modifying attributes such as luck and endurance, to what he wears and his physical appearance, to his moral values through what actions you choose to carry out. The Lone Wanderer can even become addicted to drugs!
    Fallout 3 is very open ended, and the actions you choose to take early on can have magnified effects throughout the world of the game later. Your connections to different non-playable characters in the game can draw out real emotions. I recognized this myself later in the game. Like Hans, I too blew up Megaton, and certain characters much later in the game expressed their deep disappointment and frustration with my decision. I felt remorse after I witnessed these reactions of other characters. Few games connect with the player as much as Fallout 3 does.

    Reply

  4. bricejurban
    Jan 31, 2012 @ 23:59:18

    Like the OP, Hans, and Ryan I enjoyed the morality aspect behind Fallout. I too, found myself breaking into the Armory, but it was more out of curiosity than greed. After the entire town agro’d me and I defended myself, I took the opposite approach of zkandell and reloaded an old save. Similarly, I had another incidence in Skyrim (which runs on the same engine) where I punched a cow and everyone went nuts and started to attack me.. In these circumstances, I do not experience remorse in my decisions, but attribute them to strangeness on behalf of the developer. But in other aspects of the game, I do feel bad when I go down the wrong path and reload to save my character from the repercussions it will entail. For instance in Mass Effect. It’s hard to figure out what is the best path to take sometimes!

    Reply

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