Monday Musings: The Morality of Megaton

What's the Monday Musings? It's a new regular column designed to get you thinking and talking about game design or an industry topic. I'll be tackling a specific subject each Monday, but today we're looking at Fallout 3 and the idea of morality in games.

In lieu of any worthwhile new releases this week, I've returned to Fallout 3 with the imminent launch of the Broken Steel DLC. My goal: to have a different experience.

When I first played Fallout 3 last year, I was - as I tend to be in any game that marks a binary divide between good and evil - something of a saint. I disarmed the Megaton bomb, befriended ghouls, freed slaves and gave purified water to the desperate and downtrodden. For my deeds, I earned the Ambassador of Peace achievement for reaching Level 14 with Good Karma.

For me, making these types of decisions and taking these types of actions is the most natural and immersive way to play.

Playing the game again to explore the huge tracts of wasteland I ignored in my previous rush to find my Dad and finish the main quest, I figured it would make sense to try a different approach. After all, what's the point in playing it in exactly the same way?

So right from the off I opted to be a brat. I was rude to the adults at my birthday party. I was eager to get my hands on my first BB gun. I took the first swing at Butch when he was hassling Amata. I even persuaded my teacher into letting me not take the G.O.A.T. exam. As a child and teenager, it was pretty easy to see these actions as those of a snotty, mischievous kid and I was happy to play the role.

But then I hit Megaton.

Part of the reason why I chose to disarm the bomb on my initial playthrough is because there is no sense in doing otherwise. In offering you the quest to blow up the town, Mister Burke fails to offer any reason at all why you would want to do this. Sure, he offers you money, but his motivation is clouded in vague utterings of the town's worthlessness.

So, although I accepted Burke's mission, I couldn't immediately bring myself to follow through on it. I wandered around town for a while. I couldn't bring myself to insult Gob, the ghoul bartender at Moriarty's Saloon. I started helping Moira with her research. I repaired the leaks in the water system. I told Lucy I'd deliver her letter. I didn't betray Leo's confidence, although I did steal some of his supply.

Megaton is full of regular people. They may have their share of problems, but I didn't view them as any worse than my own. The more I thought about it, the more I realised: the only reason to blow up Megaton is just to see what happens. And even though I had set out to deliberately experience something different, that reason didn't strike me as sufficient.

Later, after being screwed over by Moriarty when seeking information about my father's whereabouts, I decided to do some snooping around. I picked Moriarty's pocket and broke into his back room. There I found his computer terminal and, on it, incriminating dossiers on every major Megaton citizen. The dismal portraits he'd painted of his fellow townsfolk were a revelation to me.

For the first time, I found myself capable of seeing Billy Creel, Jericho, the Stahls, Doc Church and the like as the sleazy losers Burke had no doubt thought them to be. And Moriarty himself was the most despicable of all.

I went down to the bomb and armed it in the dead of night, feeling not pity but disdain for the Child of Atom still reciting his empty worship in the radioactive cesspool. I walked back to the saloon and blew Moriarty's head off.

Then I ran.

I ran all the way to Tenpenny Tower, not even daring to look back once to see if Lucas Simms or Gob or Nova had decided to chase me far enough to be clear of the destruction I was about to inflict upon their home...

In retrospect, perhaps I was too harsh on Bethesda. Perhaps they didn't fail to provide a compelling reason to blow up Megaton. Perhaps in not doing so, they succeeded in forcing me to examine my motivations with far greater scrutiny. If Burke had told me, "Everyone in Megaton is a child molester", then that choice wouldn't have been interesting. Instead, by framing the morality of the decision so ambiguously, it's allowed me to fill in those gaps with my own response and, with that, introduced feelings of guilt, remorse, and soon - if the ghoul invasion of Tenpenny Tower succeeds - revenge that I'd have otherwise not encountered.

I'm interested to know what you think about morality in games. What are some of the best - or worst - examples of ethical or moral dilemmas you've encountered? And how do you think developers could do better in handling such situations?


Comments

    I misread this as 'The Morality of Megatron' and was all set for a Transformers debate. Disappointed :(

    Hey, this was an awesome read and very well written. I almost forgot that this all happened in a game, so well done.

    The thing with this situation in Fallout 3 is that from the outset, it didn't seem like there was a compelling reason to blow up Megaton, so most people would have just opted to dismantle the bomb, finish the game, and let that be that. You yourself only discovered these revelations about the people from Megaton in your second play-through, and I don't know how many people have the time to play the game a second time, especially when -- if played properly -- Fallout 3 can take almost a hundred hours of your life.

    I think it's a bit of a flaw in game design if there isn't a remotely compelling reason presented to me to do something in the first play-through. While it is important to be curious when playing games, I don't think it's smart game design when making a decision as big as whether or not to commit genocide is based on how curious you are.

    The hardest decision I have had to make is, do I drop the Tetris block now for 3 lines or wait for the next one and get a full Tetris.

    I found the Ghoul invasion of Tenpenny Tower to be an extremely difficult moral decision. The Ghouls wanted shelter from the Wasteland, but the bigotry of some key members of the Tower would not allow it. I initially sided with the Ghouls because of that apparent bigotry.

    Then I got to know some more of the Tower citizens. They weren't ALL bigots. I began to wonder exactly what the Ghouls' plan was. Could an agreement be reached whereby the bigots could be cast out and those more tolerant members of the Tower could stay with the Ghouls?

    And so I spoke more with the Ghouls. It became apparent that their leader had but one method of entering the Tower: violence, if not massacre. Yet still my decision was not clear. The Wasteland is a violent, kill-or-be-killed place. Perhaps it was right that the bigots in their Tower should be dealt with fatally so that, perhaps, the Tower could become a beacon of hope and tolerance.

    I returned to the Tower once more in a final attempt at diplomacy. It was not successful, but I did have a chance to talk more with the tenants. Did some of them deserve to die for their intolerance? Perhaps. Did all of them? No. I could not allow it.

    And so I returned to the Warrens to inform the Ghouls of my decision. I would not help them invade the Tower; although given the chance, a part of me might have said, "...but I won't stop you, either." Alas, the true nature of the Ghoul leader was revealed as he attacked me for denying him aid. I killed him and fled, leaving his few followers to mourn him and, perhaps, realise that his methods were not the path to acceptance.

    I felt confused about the situation. Should I exact the same righteousness upon the more morally bankrupt tenants of the Tower? If the Ghoul deserved to die, they surely did also... but he didn't deserve to die. I was forced to choose between two camps of people who, for all their misgivings, were really only looking to survive in a harsh environment.

    Did I make the right decision? Was there such a thing? This is exactly the kind of quandary developers looking to include morality in their games should present gamers with. There was no clear "good" or "evil" path here, instead I was forced to spend at least an hour going back and forth between the Ghouls and the Tower, trying to understand their motives and make the right decision. Reflecting on it now, I'm still not sure whether I did or not.

      @Steve

      Firstly, your thoughtful comments are much appreciated.

      I haven't yet given the ghouls the opportunity to invade Tenpenny Tower, so I'm not quite sure how things will pan out. I see the decadent, bigoted Tenpenny and the envious, bloodthirsty Phillips as equally vile. So my plan is to let them loose and see who survives. And, hey, if no one does, then I get the Tower all to myself...

      To be honest though, any sane person would leave them to it and distance themselves from the conflict. Yet because it's an RPG and because RPGs reward us with XP for taking action, we feel obliged to do something. I just don't want to find myself doing something "just to see what happens".

        Thanks, and I forgot to mention how much I love this idea for a weekly column. I look forward to more thought-provoking topics.

        You raise an excellent point there about feeling obligated to do something because it will net some sort of reward. There were points during my time with that quest where I considered just walking away because it was such a difficult decision. I wasn't entirely sure I wanted to help either group.

        But therein lies the problem: walking away is not truly an option from the game's point of view. There's no option to say, "I'll leave you all to sort it out yourselves" and still receive at least some reward. Worse still, in Fallout 3 (and many other similarly large RPGs) there's always the chance that walking away from one quest will prevent another, or many others, from becoming available. The potential loss from walking away becomes quite tough to accept, and so Bethesda has given us an ultimatum: make a decision, get the rewards and deal with the aftermath.

        I'm not entirely sure that this is a negative mechanic in all situations. It does force you to confront the situation and make a choice, but in doing so it removes that vital option to just walk away, which is quite limiting in itself. I think developers would be wise to look at that dynamic in game design and allow walking away as a legitimate choice in some quests while perhaps forcing you to confront others in a way that makes sense with regards to story, not just "there's no reward for walking away."

      Apparently there is a way for everyone to co-habitate but it involves 'evicting' those bigots you've mentioned of. Check it out on gamefaqs.

        Sort of. Spoilers ahead.

        I evicted the bigots, and the ghouls moved in and everyone was happy. I went back later in the game to see how things were going... I was expecting nothing to have changed (since game developers never follow through after quests), but instead, found that the ghouls had murdered each and every resident, and fed them to the feral ghouls.

        Annoyingly, there was no dialogue option to kill the ghouls, but I did it anyway. Absurdly I lost karma for 'stealing' the contents of the shop safes, despite the fact the contents were stolen by the ghouls in the first place... so half marks for the designers. They followed through, but they didn't incorporate you into it by letting you choose to not accept what happened.

    Well, my saint had no qualms getting Simms help and blowing Burke away before he could fire a shot. My Merc, on the other hand was dead inside and not only blew up Megaton for the money and lodging, but proceeded to then allow the ghouls to take over Tenpenny Tower...before killing them all.

    The most fun character so far is my neutral merc. He won't kill innocents, but he's not above using the Mesmetron to make someone "evil" before blowing them away (Moira's guard and Moriarty, for example).

    For me the big moral dilemma was with The Pitt. Whereas with my first run through of the main game I knew what was right, or what my character would do, the decision in The Pitt had me putting down the controller and sleeping on it for a few nights. You don't do that in GTA or Saint's Row.

      "You don’t do that in GTA or Saint’s Row."

      I did, after the special mission in Saints Row 2. The character's dealings with Julius were enough to make me stop and really think about who I was playing, and his utterly psychotic nature really hit home.

    I don't know about you people but when I am playing an RPG i often be evi and I don't mean "justify the morality of my actions evil". I mean down right dirty dont care what you think evil. I play as the fella who does things because he wants to. I bell up megaton not only to see what happened but to create a grave for those I had slaughtered beacause the sherif wouldn't give me his hat. Thats not to say I don't help people. I just only do so if i can get something out of it.

    Now, why do I play this way? Beacause I am not like that in real life. Lets just say I, Azza, was in Megaton. I found out about the bomb. I would go straight to the Sherif and let him know. I wouldnt try to steal his hat. I wouldn't have shot the begger for asking for water and I wouldn't break into peoples houses and pinch all there stuff.

    The moral to this story is being evil is fun. Its fun because you can do what you like.
    The upside in games like Fallout 3 is there are consequences to your actions. Sure you can blow up Megaton but now you can't trade or do the Reserch missions, or have a haven in that area of the map.

    ...and I am spent.

    If you really want to experience a different side of Fallout, impose a self restriction of not quick traveling. Then instead of heading straight to Megaton, head West.

    I did that, it was a good 12 hours of playing time before I had any reason to return. By which time I was a notoriously evil, ray gun wielding Slaver.

    This was a really good read for me and I have to say that you approach it quite well. I often feel the same way in these good/evil type games and when I actual try to reason myself away from good in order to have a totally different experience, I end up actually feeling bad and can't keep it up too long.

    A situation springs to mind from KOTOR 2 where you give a poor man some credits to help him out; however, once you return to speak with Kreia she gives you a bit of a wake-up in telling you that although you think you are doing good you may have just caused more trouble. Subsequently you see that man get mugged BECAUSE you gave him the money. That made me really curious as to any action you take in these games, are you ever helping/hurting or is it all just interference? most game developers don't put in a system where you can be rewarded for keeping the peace and leaving a situation to itself (however I'm sure some do), but it's always another option to either fixing or breaking it.

    I found the often highly touted morality in Bioshock to be far more binary that I expected. There didn't seem to be any shades of grey at all.

      If you are looking for a game that allows you to leave NPC's to sort themselves out you can't really go past the Witcher there's a constantly recourring choice whether to aid the marginalized elves and dwarves or the bigoted humans, then there's the option to simply stay neutral an option I found quite appealing. And your choices in each decision you face come back to haunt you at later stages in the game in unexpected ways with real consequences that can change the narrative entirely and all 3 options have equally good rewards, if you read the books ther's also a recurring theme of neutrality in the face of impending conflict and I think the Witcher is the best game so far not for dealing with good and evil but for dealing with neutrality and why people would choose it.

    David, please tell me you stole the Bobblehead from Lucas Simms home before you blew it up?! Your Bobblehead collection won't get completed without it!

      @Trent

      I'm playing Fallout, not Pokemon!

        Sounds to me like someone is a bit upset about losing the Bobblehead!

        In the event that you do try to steal it, I recommend NOT doing it dressed in Simm's coat and hat. Breaking into his house only to discover he had a kid who took one look at my character and declared something to the effect of "wearing his clothes doesn't make you my dad" was one of the most awkward gaming moments I've encountered.

        Simm's body wouldn't even have been cold by then, so I felt like a bit of a jerk, and I wasn't even the one who had bumped him off!

    Oh and I imagine you have already read it yourself David but John Walker from the excellent Rock, Paper, Shotgun did a piece for Eurogamer were he played KOTOR as a evil bugger against his general inclination.

    Linkage to part 1 of "Bastard of the Old Republic":
    http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/bastard-of-the-old-republic-article

    This was really interesting...i played the good guy too, except i did kill the ghouls...they did not seem like good guys to me....and little kid slaves was pretty sad and ended up shooting the slaves as soon as i saw the slaves

    btw really good editorial

    On the question of good and bad moral dilemmas in other games:

    GTA IV really annoyed me in how arbitrarily it allowed you to choose whether or not some people lived or died, but then forced you to kill other, seemingly less deserving people in order to progress the plot. I can choose to kill or spare the two-bit Russian con-man, but I'm forced to kill the lawyer trying to fight political corruption? It just made all the times where you could choose seem totally pointless to me.

    On the other hand I thought the PS3/Xbox 360 verison of Splinter Cell: Double Agent had a couple of far more interesting moral dilemmas. Instead of just choosing to be "good" or "evil" it was more a choice of doing a bad thing to serve the greater good/protect your cover/save someone else. Sadly some of the choices seemed to have little to no real effect on the story, though a couple of them did have a significant impact. Those are the ones that stood out.

    I think it'd be nice to see more situations in games where it's not just picking whether or not you want to be "good" or "evil".

    I loved the Role playing aspect of F3, I played thru as the nice guy cos everyone knows thats the main quest line and where all the content is. the second time thru (yes i have no life) i tried it as the bad ass, to see all the "token" content that wasnt there for the goody two shoes. (that seems critical but seriously you miss more by being bad than good because you are supposed to be the hero according to the narrative). I blew up megaton the as the evil char. I was the ruthless tool of tenpenny out for advantage but it was my resentment of being a tool of the bigots that made me destroy them in turn. I let in the ghouls. There rlly is no honour among theives.
    I found it a lot harder and more complex than i expected to be evil!. being an old school roleplayer in an RPG game i couldnt stop making excuses for why i shouldnt blow the mother away or searching for excuses why i should (moriarty's comp.) and just take their stuff. I actually felt compassion for these 1's and 0's. do i need help? undoubtably, did bethesda make what was to me a rlly immersive world which evoked on at least some lvl an emotional response? MOST definitely.

    Yeah. I got another one of those "is-this-really-right?" quests. Arefeu when you deliver the letter from the Wests to the family. When you arrive you find the parents dead at the hand of their son due to a "hunger". Of course I only knew this for sure when I rescued him from his vampire captors and heard him recount his tale.

    I went back to Megaton and found the sister dead (never found out why). I killed several "vampires" who were only trying to live with their problem away from the accusing public. I also freed the murdering brother back into the home (the place he killed his parents). There did not seem to be justice to this solution when I looked at it at first... but I could justify it to myself by acknowledging that I'd saved 4 herders in Arefeu from the "vampire" taunting/threats.

    It depends on how you perceive the problem/resolution I suppose.

      @Jonathan B

      How did Bethesda dole out the karma and XP in this situation?

    Great read.

    I too spent a lot of time with this decision in Fallout3. Though my deisicon was kinda different...

    I was always going to blow up that hole. But it was a question of "when" rather than if. In the end it all came down to the sandman perk and a scoped magnum. I carried on with the game inflicting massive amounts of evil outside of Megaton but kept good with the people once inside the gates. As soon as I'd ranked up enough to obtain the sandman perk, i returned to my old friends and methodically picklocked my way through every single home cutting their throats in their sleep.

    Morality?

    If I wanted morality I'd of gone to church.

    Unfortunately for them, I don't subscribe to the whole child of the atom text so nothing was going to save them. It wasn't long before my relentless bloodletting had raised alarm amongst those light sleepers so that's when the magnum got to work. I perched on a rooftop and rained down high calibre hatred on everyone. And i mean everyone. Even Mr. Burke would pay for his evils that night.

    An eerie silence soon descended on Megaton. I spent the rest of the night searching corpses and looting from the homes of the dead. The sun was beginning to rise as I flicked the ON switch on the bomb and made my way up the steep hill toward the exit. I smiled at as I passed Lucas Simms twisted body on the way and rejoiced in a hard nights work achieved.

    I made my way to Tenpenny Tower and disposed of the evidence, and then disposed of Tenpenny too.

    In reference to Fallout3, I played both sides... the Good side had more involving story... the bad side was merely for the money.

    Another guy I thought was deserving of the debate of morality was Shadow of the Colossus. I want to save my girl, so I obey a voice that tells me to kill these giant calm and beautiful creatures... I'll be honest, everytime I killed one of those amazing beasts, I felt a huge twinge of guilt.

    I suppose the ending of the game is the Moral of the Story... what goes around comes around...

    I think it was *very* lame of the Bethesda team to make it so you had to be evil to get some of those achievements, I would have been fine if it had made me play the game through twice as a good character. I hate to say it, but the only reason I didn't blow up Megaton was that it appealed to my RPG nature, the hoarder. I'm the kind of guy who double checks bodies, goes to vendors with fountains of stuff that is worth next to nothing. I'm also a lazy gamer, if the bomb is right in front of me i'll disarm it, over the hour-ish trek to the tower. The proposed room in Tenpenny tower takes ages to get to, even if you quick travel, so it was easy to me to decide to spare the town, which is a shame considering how good the sequence is if you blow up the town (saw it on youtube).

    This issue has plagued me for some time.

    I'm sorry to say it, but speaking to the hardcore gaming public about these things scare me. I don't often think that games are bad for people, but hearing people I would normally be friends with say "Yeah, I play evil, because evil is fun" just makes me feel awful. I sometimes feel like we've raised a generation of gamers to be amoral and childish. I think games with "moral choices" like Fallout 3 or Bioshock are actually more worrying for their social implications than more violent games.

    That being said, there's plenty of areas where games just fall flat on their arse in terms of creating realistic reactions to things. Sex is one of them - it almost never happens at the right time, or in a believable scenario. Death is another - we rarely ever have to deal with the consequences of someone dying, and if we do, it just looks ridiculous next to the million faceless grunts we also killed.

    Even tiny decisions aren't handled that well. I've been replaying Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic recently, and it always feels odd that, when I'm so immersed in a game's characters and story, that they don't react to me never taking them out the Ebon Hawk, or to changing their weapons/armour and giving my character all the best stuff (even when one of the characters is supposed to be the leader of the mission).

    I appreciate that there's a technical limitation at stake here - we can't exactly record enough dialog to cover every decision the player might make, nor can we feasibly procedurally generate the conversation (can we?). I just think that the issue goes much further than we think - it goes right to the core of game design, and it has major social implications.

      @Alan

      Really interesting issue you raise here. What if a game such as Fallout 3 did present you with moral choices, but made the game more "fun" if you chose to be good? BioShock did it to a small extent in that harvesting even one Little Sister robbed you of the "Good" ending - and, to my mind, the *real* ending.

      Or alternatively, what if being good made the game *harder*? What if rescuing the Little Sisters didn't net you any Adam at all, thus severely limiting the growth and use of your plasmids?

      Does a game like Fallout 3 fail by trying to cater to both good and evil players in every quest? Should an evil player be able to complete every quest or should they be denied game content for the choices they made?

        I think its a question of morals - giving a realistic vision of the implications of your choices. The fact is that a life of "evil" isn't a life of fun. I might be a little less than impartial about GTA, given that I was a tester on the 2nd one, but I always felt that they weren't that immoral - yes, you could run people over, but the police would chase you. There were balancing issues - grabbing those police stars and hitting the spray shops - but a life of carefree killing and immorality quickly led to you being hunted mercilessly and being cut down - and this is a game that gives you no emotional interaction with its characters.

        A deeper game like Fable 2 lets you do what you want, with little more than a skelp on the wrists to get out of it. As an example: you could march into a town and slaughter whole families in front of their children. People would be scared of you, but merchants would still trade with you, and you could carry on playing as normal. To me, that puts it in the same category as rap tunes that glorify the gangster lifestyle and treat prison time and bullet wounds as badges of honour.

        Fable 2 featured a sleep system - wouldn't a character like that be unable to sleep, tormented at night by the faces of the children who watched their parents die at your hands? Wouldn't you be run out of town by lynch mobs before you could buy land or trade with people?

        I hate cross-media comparisons, but I have to make one to get the point across here: I'm all for allowing the player to express themselves, but imagine the outcry if you made a movie in which someone was utterly evil and sadistic, took over the world, and got away with it!

        If you want to see a game that lets you be horrid and sadistic - nay, encourages it - but deals with it and makes a very serious point regarding it, look at Far Cry 2. I would reccomend that if (like me) you played it without really pausing to think about the dialog or characters, I'd reccommend reading this: http://versusclucluland.blogspot.com/2008/12/seeing-africa-down-barrel-of-gun.html.

        At first, I thought the descent of your "buddies" into treachery and immorality was the result of poor writing. I thought "I'm supposed to like these guys, but even the ones who claim to be good do evil things ...". It turns out I was supposed to think that, because the game, by the end, drags you down to their level. The entire point of the game - which, perhaps, wasn't perfectly put across - was to make you, in the end, say "what have I become?" and beg for forgiveness.

        So to answer your questions about good/bad paths being easier/harder, I would say its a bit of both. For the most simplistic and realistic situation, the dark path should be easier to begin with, but verge on impossible towards the end as the game forces you to atone for your behaviour.

    GDAM post on a similar topic, for those who might miss it: http://gamedesignaspect.blogspot.com/2009/05/cloven-designer.html

    Wonderful and very cute. Can we put this in the auuraiqm. . But maybe they are more happy in the sea and not stock in the auuraiqm. Love to see this kind of exotic animals.

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