Thou Shalt Not Kill Radroaches

I tried everything. I tried leaving and found the doors locked. I tried waiting it out. I tried scaring the thing away. I unloaded every last round into a wall. Though his fatherly pride was clearly strained by my apparent lack of skill, Dad would always provide more ammunition, joking that we need to get the sights checked. Even turning the BB gun on the old man would only evoke a stern lecture. Nothing was going to get me out of shooting that radroach.

My goal was just to keep two numbers static -People Killed: 0, Creatures Killed: 1.

I can’t blame Dad though. It’s a big, bad world out there that he was trying to prepare me for. After all, in the post-nuclear wasteland of Fallout 3 it’s kill or be killed. Or is it? After I had finished the game normally, with all of the wholesome enjoyment that comes from sending super mutant skull fragments soaring gracefully through the air, I decided to try something different for my next character: Could I get through the game -and reach the highest level- without killing anything?

Considering the radroach of the tutorial a write-off, my goal was just to keep two numbers static -People Killed: 0, Creatures Killed: 1. Judged by in-game karma or otherwise, I was not concerned with morality. Just because I wouldn’t step on an ant didn’t make me into the Buddha, and I was no pacifist. Survival sometimes meant sticking enemies with a crippling poison. Sometimes it meant hacking a turret or paying someone else to do my killing for me. Tracking the deaths for which I was indirectly responsible became an amusing diversion.

For some of the early quests, rather than actually attempting to skirt the hazards I simply slept off the afternoon and returned to the quest-giver with a convincing lie. Thankfully, the game doesn’t have many “kill X monsters” quests, and when it does, the NPC couldn’t magically tell if I had bludgeoned enough mole rats to deserve a reward. She had to take my word for it.

And lying was something I could get good at, along with sneaking, lockpicking, hacking, bartering, repair, and first aid. Foregoing combat skills altogether left me with a lot of points to work with, and since I wasn’t lugging around an arsenal, I could instead carry various stat-boosting pieces of clothing; a different suit for each job. Need a couple more skill points to hack that computer? Throw on a lab coat for instant nerd-power.

Although I could take advantage of these boosts, it certainly didn’t make things easy, at least not at first. RPGs like Fallout 3 often have something of an inverse difficulty curve: Limited skills and poor equipment can make even the most basic enemies pose a threat at the beginning, then you power up and eventually outmatch entire platoons. This effect was amplified by my self-imposed constraint. Fleeing from wasteland critters was easy enough, but if I wasn’t careful I’d run headlong into a band of armed raiders. And unlike slaying beasts, even the most daring escape resulted in no experience gained. Besides, it wasn’t enough just to survive; I needed to complete quests, I needed to level up. I needed to make up for all the experience points I had shunned by refusing to kill.

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As early as I could, I chose special abilities (perks) that provided bonus experience, up to a max of 30% extra. I also made sure to get my beauty sleep. Being well-rested provided another 10% boost, but because it was added after the perk bonuses, it worked out to 13% of the base value, so every 100 points earned netted me 143. Better still, it always rounded up. Walter, a mechanic in the town of Megaton, became my best friend in the world because he couldn’t get enough scrap metal. I didn’t need the cash (all the ammo I found became currency), but each piece garnered five points of precious experience. With perks, sleep, and favorable rounding, I haggled that up to eight points apiece -a 60% increase! If this doesn’t seem that significant to you, you need to consider just how much scrap metal is lying around the capital wasteland.

I couldn’t be satisfied with being just stealthy enough to earn critical hits, I needed to play this as a stealth game proper.

The perks that came with each level also allowed me to specialize in non-lethality. I took a robotics perk that let me disable a mechanical enemy if I could sneak up on it. I became an Animal Friend, which caused mole rats, wild dogs, and, most importantly, mutated bears to see me as “ally” instead of “meat.” This didn’t just reduce the amount of hostiles I encountered; it also saved my skin. In just one example: Out in the wasteland, with limited cover, I ran afoul of a super mutant grunt with an assault rifle. It was broad daylight, and he would have had a bead on me for quite some distance if I had to run. But before I needed to start up a steady stream of pain meds, a powerful Yao Guai mutant bear leapt from a nearby cliff. With one claw swipe, the grunt’s assault rifle went flying. With the next, his arm came off. Through savage violence I was saved, but my hands stayed pristine, blood-free.

Scenes like that, all the more memorable because of their unscripted nature, made me appreciate the value that this play style brought to the game. Sure, in a normal playthrough you can stumble upon a bear mauling a super mutant, or witness a deathclaw obliterating a Protectron bot with one slash, but it means so much more if the Yao Guai is your ursine guardian angel, or if you activated the clunky Protectron strictly to serve as a diversion (and useful scrap metal!).

The apex of this no-killing experiment came around the middle. Quests were frequently sending me into heavily-infested areas, and the option to lie about completing them was becoming a rarity. Getting out alive required some serious sneaking chops. In a normal playthrough, stealth in Fallout 3 is primarily to facilitate killing -bonus damage to enemies caught unaware- and if sneaking fails, no worries, just start shooting. For me, getting spotted was much more problematic.

But, dammit, the troops stranded on the roof of this hotel weren’t going to rescue themselves, so if this quest was to be completed I had to get up there. I couldn’t be satisfied with being just stealthy enough to earn critical hits, I needed to play this as a stealth game proper. This meant watching enemy patrols, being aware of lines of sight at all times, and enduring some nail-biting moments when I had to leave a “safe” spot without knowing where the next one was.

I was surprised and impressed by how well the game supported this kind of play. The enemy patrol routes were well designed to leave no key passage unwatched for too long -but just long enough for someone to slip by. The broken walls of the hotel meant that I couldn’t rely on the sight-lines of the next room matching the previous one, keeping things tense. Fallout 3 doesn’t contain many of the trappings of a stealth game; there is no alarm system to call in more foes when you’re spotted, no overhead map overlay to keep track of enemy positions, and you can’t hide inside or under things. Yet any of these elements would have made the experience worse. All it needed to create tension was an appropriate layout and an enemy force that was (with this play style) extremely dangerous in open combat, but slow, lumbering, and easily fooled.

Part of the fun was in the willful subversion of the game’s focus, akin to the thrill of disobedience.

Some areas were not as supportive of the never-knew-I-was-here approach. In an underground vault, with straight corridors containing locked cells and overrun by brutes armed with all sorts of death, it was obvious that my play style was a subversion of the developers’ goals. With no place to hide, I was supposed to fight my way through. Instead I relied on the stockpile of stimpaks I had amassed, binding it to a quick-select slot and button-mashing myself full of painkillers as I dashed through a hail of bullets. Occasionally all enemies needed to be dead before the game would move on, but I had no qualms about hiring a support character to act as exterminator so long as I could keep my own kill counts at zero and one.

When each expansion DLC was released, I played through with another character first to scope it out. I had to pass on The Pitt, for example, because I would have found myself thrust into a cage match with no help available, needing to climb over a few fresh corpses to earn my freedom. (It didn’t occur to me at the time, but perhaps with enough patience the mild radiation would eventually claim the lives of my opponents. This warrants investigation.) Operation Anchorage takes place inside a computer simulation but kills are still tallied and were therefore restricted. With suitable elocution, though, the enemy commander can be compelled to fall on his own sword, allowing completion with an unsullied record.

This experiment set out to answer two questions: “Will it be possible?” and (perhaps more importantly) “Will it be fun?” I am happy to report that the answer to both is “Yes.” If we cast aside the radroach, it is possible to get through the main game and reach the original level cap without directly murdering anything. In doing so I discovered a side to the game I likely would not have noticed otherwise. New and interesting paths were opened by completely shifting the focus of character-building choices away from becoming the most efficient killing machine.
Part of the fun was in the willful subversion of the game’s focus, akin to the thrill of disobedience. So when I tried the same style in New Vegas I found myself disappointed -not because I would have been forced to kill but because the game more easily supported me. For me, the enjoyment came from finding a new challenge in doing something unexpected. Did you ever climb up the top of a covered slide in the playground? Wouldn’t be much fun if they put a handrail there.
I had gone a long way since leaving my father’s protective care, and I had managed to survive the trials of the Capitol Wasteland without taking a single life. But perhaps that forced radroach execution permanently traumatized me. I had lied, cheated, and stolen. I had abandoned friends in their time of need. And at the end, when it came time to choose between delivering the salvation of the wasteland or condemning virtually all of its inhabitants to death, I chose the latter. But don’t blame me: I was just loading the gun and giving it to the firing squad. It’s not like I pulled the trigger.

Jeremy Peets has actually ended more digital lives than he cares to count. When not committing acts of (virtual!) genocide, he teaches English in South Korea. You can email him at [email protected]

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