War. War never changes. Those are the first spoken words in all of the canonical Fallout games. Which is a bit odd seeming. The war is over. The nuclear apocalypse came and went, taking humanity down to the basic survival level– in many cases below it. Even in the story presented by the narrator, the war for the Hoover dam ended about 4 years previously.
The government was– all governments were– smashed to atomic rubble. In the absence of government, Hobbes tells us that we are left with “A war of all against all”. There are those who take this as a good thing, and those who take this as a warning. The inevitable, bloody war between those philosophies is the focus of the Fallout games.
As alluded to in the introduction cutscene above, your character is a courier. You’re not sure what you were carrying, nor it’s importance, nor why you were shot for possessing it. The main quest of the game is trying to track down the person who stole it from you, though your motivations for this are entirely dependent upon what sort of character you wish to play.
One of the interesting things the game does mechanically is to give players a reputation ranking with various factions. Do nice things for a town, and that town will like you. If the New California Republic (NCR) sees you as an ally, they will give you a radio with which you can call for help. When the NCR representative told my character “you are not alone out here”, I was moved; the Mojave Wilderness is a lonely place. Alternately, if you go on a killing spree, your reputation will greatly diminish and factions will be ordered to shoot on sight.
One way or another, a player will choose a faction. The game pushes players towards the democratic New California Republic. If you don’t like the NCR, but want to go the “good” rout, the humanistic Followers of the Apocalypse offer another alternative. Players who want to be rewarded for slaughter, yet align with a government can play nice with Caesar’s Legion– an organization which sees physical dominance as the just reward of the strong over the weak. And anyone who wishes to devolve into simple thuggery makes a de facto declaration that they are a raider.
It’s an interesting way of meshing game mechanics with an overarching philosophy. As a player, I only spend a small fraction of my time thinking about this in mechanical terms. As I gaze into the wilderness, seeing people with problems that need solving, I ask myself what kind of world I want to build. This has lead me to siding with the New California Republic. They’re doing their best to create an orderly society– but one grounded in some principles of justice and self determination. They can be a bit heavy handed and tone deaf, but where the NCR has control, people are free to live lives, trade, and be fear from slavery.
Naturally, because I side with the NCR, I’ve been trying to clean up their mess with the escaped convicts known as the “Powder Gangers”. My policy is simple: shoot on sight.
After seeing Powder Gangers storm into several towns, killing the innocent, I decided to get more proactive. My friend Boone and I wandered into their base and started shooting. Some of them tried to flee, but we chased them down and coldly murdered them where they hid. We were methodical, we were quick, we were merciless. Every last one of them died at our hands.
As I started looting their hovels, the game informed me that I had lost Karma. As the blood-fury left me and I finally looked around at the bodies of those I’d slaughtered, the full gravity of what I had done hit me.
How was I any different than them? For all my vaunted morality, for every notion of fair play, for all that I wanted to build up a society… I walked into these people’s homes and destroyed their society. I offered not peace, but the gun.
Is that all I am? Am I just a bulldozer hoping that someone will come along behind me to build a better future after I knock down the rotted old infrastructure? Must I become a monster in order to protect people from evil?
I’ve got dozens of hours left to go in this game; I don’t have answers. I do know that I won’t consider this game over until I get an answer to those questions that I like. War never changes, but I cannot believe that the memes that push us towards armed conflict are the strongest ones.