As the light fades, two games mosey out of town, six shooters on their hips, hats tipped low against the setting sun. Behind them, a ramshackle town; before them a desert, harsh and unforgiving. In each game they will face danger in the wilds, from bandits to vicious animals. In each they will come to the aid of others on a quest of exploration and vengeance. Despite the similarities, however, their stories will have a crucial difference: one will tell us a tale of civilization and safety rising from chaos, the other of the end of freedom at the hands of civilization. Both games will do so not only with moral choices but with the structure of the game world itself.
The games are Fallout: New Vegas and Red Dead Redemption, respectively, and their contrasting mores reflect an ethical discussion at least 200 years old and still going strong. From each game’s first location, through the chance encounters with strangers, to their final, bloody ends, both games create a strong, moral picture of the world. Beyond that, both games further reinforce their world with game mechanics. So saddle up, partner, and come with me on a ride through gaming in the state of nature.
Before we hit the trail with John Marston and The Courier, however, permit us a small detour to 17th century England to find out more about the aforementioned discussion. Thomas Hobbes, a political theorist, proposed a concept called the “state of nature.” The state of nature is the “original” condition of mankind, stripped of any laws or institutions: put simply, the “state of nature” is what you would get if society had never existed. In such a state, Hobbes argued, life would be “nasty, brutish and short,” believing that only civilization and society kept us from a life of pain and suffering. The story of Fallout: New Vegas is a story of humanity dragging itself out of the state of nature and into civilization.
About a century later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau constructed an argument largely in response to Hobbes’ state of nature, claiming that “man is born free, and everywhere is in chains.” Rousseau argued that, contrary to Hobbes’ ideas, man in the state of nature is a moral being, honorable in the fashion of a noble animal. According to Rousseau, society and civilization created artificial inequalities and encouraged barriers to be placed upon man’s free will. The encroachment of the state into life was a thing to be feared, not welcomed. In Red Dead Redemption‘s story we see the final moments of the old, “free” West before it is consumed by civilization, and are asked to mourn its loss.
Both Fallout: New Vegas‘ Courier and Red Dead Redemption‘s John Marston begin their tale awakening after a near-death experience. They are tended to by a friendly community of rural folk, (the town of Goodsprings and the people of MacFarlane’s Ranch, respectively) and shown the ropes of day-to-day survival. Each community is proudly independent, but both face troubles ahead; it is here we first see the signs that the games will be taking different journeys through the state of nature. Goodsprings is a small town, off the beaten track but getting by. Getting by, that is, until the wider world rolls in: as the Courier is preparing to leave, Goodsprings is attacked by a gang of violent convicts.
Without outside help, the town is easy pickings; Goodsprings is too small and too weak to survive on its own. In contrast, MacFarlane’s Ranch is a haven of peaceful, normal life. John Marston may defend it against rustlers and predators, but the ranch is always a stable, comfortable location. The MacFarlanes are independently-minded ranchers, but not so weak as to be seriously threatened by the wider world. Their inherent kindness starkly contrasts the cruelty of the “civilized” quest givers such as Federal Agent Edgar Ross.
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.