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?


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