Making Morality Matter

Making Morality Matter
The State of Gaming Nature

Andrew Bell | 31 May 2011 13:00
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Once the Courier and John Marston go beyond their starting locations the differences grow stronger. To begin with, the Courier walks the wastes while John Marston travels through plains and desert. Even this minor linguistic difference sets up the world we are going to experience: the Mojave that the Courier travels supports native animal life and farming (to some extent), but the very name "wastes" tells us that this is a savage, barren land that must be restored; Marston's world is one of natural features: Greenhollow, Stillwater Creek and even the town of Blackwater. We understand, on an unconscious level, that we are travelling through a rich, natural environment that may be dangerous, but is not in need of reclamation.


Once out in the world at large, the experiences of the Courier and Marston differ dramatically. In Fallout: New Vegas, quests are provided almost exclusively in "civilized" locations. If you see movement on the horizon while travelling you can safely assume that whatever it is, it's hostile. The people the Courier meets beyond the bounds of civilization are usually chem-addled bandits or heavily armed groups travelling (or patrolling) from one safe zone to another. The Courier's interactions in the wilds of the Mojave are usually undertaken by the business end of a weapon. Life in the wastes, after all, is nasty, brutish and short.

Marston, on the other hand, frequently encounters friendly strangers in the wilds of New Austen and Mexico. He may provide medicine for them, catch horse thieves or, in the memorable case of Sam Odessa, simply bear witness to a man's final few days. These "stranger" quests are examples of Marston's natural state of helpfulness and kind-hearted morality. Once he enters town, however, Marston is bullied by federal law enforcement, challenged to violent duels and bled of his hard-earned cash.

The town/countryside division is further emphasized in both games by the mechanics of the games themselves. Sleeping in a bed that you "own" in Fallout: New Vegas (only possible in towns or safe houses granted by factions) gives you an XP-boosting perk and reinforces the desirability of civilization. John Marston, in contrast, can make safe camp and save anywhere in the wilds for free, but must pay to rest (and save) in town.

Both games reiterate their points as they reach their bloody ends. No matter which side the Courier fights for at the battle for Hoover Dam, the winner is civilization. The NCR brings a (flawed) Western democracy to the Mojave, while Caesar's Legion, brutal and evil though they may appear to our eyes, enforces a modern day Pax Romana, ensuring humanity's survival. For John Marston, however, no such happy ending awaits. Eventually, after being used as a pawn to civilize the West, Marston, the last remnant of the old ways, is gunned down by the very society he has helped to secure. As he dies, so too does the Old West, with its harsh, honest freedoms.

Both of these games make us think about what we believe lies at the heart of humanity. Do we subscribe to the Hobbesian Fallout: New Vegas view of a nasty, brutal mankind, held in check only by civilization? Or do we side with Rousseau and Red Dead Redemption in the belief that man is born free but enslaved by society? As games, both New Vegas and Redemption provide a unique perspective on this debate by presenting an argument, allowing us to experience living in that world, and then making us think about it.

Andrew Bell reckons Thomas Hobbes would be quicker on the draw.

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