- ['Chewing Pixels' is a regular GameSetWatch column written by British games journalist and producer, Simon Parkin. This time, a look at Fallout 3 and morals.]

Washington D.C. is a bleak and difficult place to eke out an existence. From the moment you exit the relative safety of Vault 101 and take your first lungful of radioactive breeze, it’s clear that Fallout 3’s development team has created a post-apocalyptic capital wasteland of grim authenticity.

Indeed, if a player harbours any sort of perverse attraction to the idea of living in an anarchic, rubble strewn, radiation-soaked America, Fallout 3 soon dampens it. These streets, or what’s left of them, are relentlessly hostile. Every can of coke requires a chemotherapy chaser, every rival scavenger you meet while traipsing over the endless debris would put a bullet in your eye sooner than look into it.

This is an America whose dream died a long time ago; whose selfish, writhing instincts were revealed in full when the blanket of social responsibility and respectability burned up in nuclear fire. But while Fallout 3’s America is a bleak place indeed, it is still very much the land of the free.

You see, with anarchy comes a giddy sort of liberty. Despite the hostility of its geography and inhabitants, Fallout 3’s world is pregnant with opportunity. As with all contemporary open world videogames, you are free to be the kind of person you want to be. Should you so choose you can steal from the poor or help them; you can speak with unshakeable politeness or unflinching rudeness; you can make friends and share resources or make enemies and take them. Post-Christian as well as post-apocalyptic, the sum of your moral choices in Fallout’s world is then represented by a karma stat.
But, as with any open-world videogame, the opportunities, while wide and not always binary, are subject to their own limits and boundaries. These are the restrictions imposed by both technology and premise. Technologically, you cannot build a plane from scrap metal in Fallout 3 and fly away to a new, radiation-free existence as a sheep farmer in Australia, for example.

And the boundaries of the scenario mean that you could never be a pacifist in this world. Instead, the choices you have are whether to sneak past the shotgun-wielding leper or to take his head off with a fat boy missile. The basic need to survive in a city whose inhabitants’ existence depends on depriving others of resources is common to every player, whoever they want to be. To play Fallout 3 is to embrace violence: it’s a dog eat dog existence where cruelty and murder are an inescapable reality of the setting.

There is also a third kind of restriction on player freedom in the game, one that forbids a particular action both technically possible and narratively plausible.

In Fallout 3, you cannot kill children.

Writing for Edge Online this week, the game’s lead designer, Emil Pagliarulo, explained the decision to restrict murder to men, women and animals in the game, forbidding the use of violence against children, something that was present in the previous Fallout titles.

“We began to think, really what benefit would there be in killing the kids?” he says. “It just seems gratuitous, unnecessary and cruel.”

Pagliarulo states that killing children using Fallout 3’s impressive engine is not something that would have passed ESRB checks anyway. That some violent games have grisly features cut or dulled in order to secure a specific rating is news to no-one, so why the need to elaborate on and justify the decision in the public sphere? Because, says Pagliarulo, the decision to self-moderate was a moral and ethical one.

Problematically, in singling out and self-censoring one particular type of ‘crime’ in his game Pagliarulo by implication justifies all the others as being non-gratuitous and necessary. Last night I blew the head from a homeless scavenger girl, one who’s barely into twenties. The slow motion camera tracked her head’s explosion before lingering on the crimson fountain spurting from her neck stump. Is this kind of interaction and feedback ‘socially responsible’? And so then what’s the difference to killing a minor?

Is the life of a make-believe child really worth more than that of a make-believe adult?

Pagliarulo states at the start of the piece that the decision was born out of a “heightened sense of social responsibility”. If the decision to restrict the player’s freedom in this respect was to in some way serve players with moral instruction then it sends players a dangerous and mixed message.

Bethesda has implemented half of a legitimate real-world law into a virtual world defined by its very lawlessness and anarchic freedom. In this sense it’s a decision that hurts the integrity of Fallout 3’s setting. Take away the freedom to commit atrocities within an open word game and you undermine the impact and power of the good, philanthropic choices a player makes.

This is not to say that a game designer should not seek to communicate moral values via their game. Videogames are all too often all about the ends and not the means. But self-censorship in this way removes all possibility of communicating moral worth through cause and effect, neutering the power and potential of the medium in doing so.

Self-censorship was the least effective course of action open to Bethesda if they are looking to morally instruct their players. Why not take the route less-traveled and try to implement some meaningful consequence, something beyond an essentially meaningless ‘karma’ stat?

Of course it is the route less-traveled for a reason: it’s a whole lot more work. The framework of systems and rules that govern Fallout 3 serve the setting: a place of lawless anarchy. As such it’s difficult to introduce a potent enough disincentive to murdering children. And, in more general terms it’s hard to make any game talk to a player in true terms of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, when the medium’s primary vocabulary is one of ‘success’ and ‘failure’.

In real life, if you kill a child you will be imprisoned and, depending on where you live, killed for the crime. Not only that but, insanity aside, there will also be heavy physical, mental and emotional repercussions to your action, things that will stay with you throughout the rest of your life. How can these kinds of severe, complex outputs be communicated in a videogame? Do you, as in Steel Battalion, kill the player and wipe their save game to teach a lesson? Or do you, as in Fable 2, let the player’s evil shape their character’s physical appearance, making them more unpleasant and ugly for it?

Videogames will always struggle to provide deeper, more nuanced consequences. Try to provide multiple narrative routes through your experience and costs will sky-rocket into the implausible. Restrict the player’s abilities in order to impede their progress and you have a weak compromise that offers little in the way of persuasive or realistic moral instruction.

These are difficult questions with few satisfying answers. But no matter what, in removing the opportunity to kill children in their anarchic game, Bethesda has admitted videogames’ ineffectiveness in providing meaningful disincentives and negative repercussions for in-game atrocities. That the team chose to carve the issue out of their game rather than attempt to engage it head on, speaks volumes.