The odd amorality of Tenpenny Tower

Since I’m still playing Fallout 3 almost exclusively, I thought I’d see if I can use it to reflect on WoW and the individual some more.

Fallout 3 is, as I’ve already written, very focused on the individual: as the single player character in the world, it’s as if the world is there to cater to you much more than in WoW: it responds to you, stuff and other NPCs are there for your interaction and manipulation. True, other NPCs will fight each other (i.e. ghouls and raiders), but 1) I suspect that they don’t do so unless you’re nearby, and 2) so what. The game is constantly giving you the illusion that it’s a world, and that the characters in it are going about their lives regardless of what you’re doing, but buying that is a matter of suspension-of-dis-immmersion (what’s the antonym of immersion?) than it being really true: the world stops and starts when you turn it on, and as I’ve said, everything in it is pretty much there for your taking. There are consequences to you of your actions: you gain or lose karma based on doing good or evil things, like helping people, giving water to beggars; vs. stealing, committing murder, etc. So: the game’s designers want you to care about what you do to the NPCs.

(However, sometimes there are odd consequence-free actions or times when something I do has an instant effect that the game doesn’t show – i.e., I turn in a quest, the NPC was supposed to go somewhere afterward, but they really were just standing there in front of me the whole time; but when I go somewhere they’re automatically there. Non-real-time stuff.)

But: the ludic setup of the game oftentimes makes me as player feel like the NPCs are little more than world resources, there to provide me with stuff and money and services. I don’t typically think of them as people, or characters, unless I choose to “get immersed” in the story.

Viz.: Tenpenny Tower. The prettiest location in the gameworld, without a doubt – a beautiful twenty-story hotel in the middle of nowhere. How’d it get there? Presumably, the ego/chutzpah/intelligence of Alistair Tenpenny, a rich old dude who lives at the top. I’m sent there to kill him by Mr. Crowley, a ghoul who claims that Tenpenny’s a ghoul-hater – which is true, though Crowley’s motivations are somewhat more complex and less retributive.  At any rate, Tenpenny is living in this fancy tower, as are a whole bunch of other people – his tenants. They have kind of a separatist elitist thing going on, and when I rolled up, there was a ghoul named Roy Phillips trying to get in to trade and being denied because he was a ghoul. He’s mad. The Tenpenny tower head guard will pay me to go kill the ghoul, which, when I arrive in his shitty tunnel, he gives me the option of turning around and doing the same thing back to the tower’s residents by letting him and a bunch of feral ghouls in through the basement. So there’s an interesting classism/racism story here.

The bigotry thing is part of a larger theme in the game story about ghouls and humans: the ghouls are humans who’ve been exposed to a shit-ton of radiation, and thus they look like hell, but they’re still human. Many humans, however, fear and despise the ghouls, treating them like monsters or even zombies (sometimes evoking old zombie myths, like having to shoot ghouls in the head – hilarious). The ghouls are persecuted and rejected and sometimes enslaved.

The way this affects the player is that a Good player will side with the ghouls – be nice to them, recognize their humanity, not be a bigot. The game makes this pretty obvious, though Crowley and Roy Phillips present interesting wrinkles in the cleanliness of the theme.

So the Roy story involves letting him and a bunch of truly wild “feral” ghouls into Tenpenny Tower. Feeling the sting of the Tower’s residents’ classism/racism, I decided to do this. The instant I had done it and re-entered the tower, the place was totally trashed, looking just like every other shitty, ruined setting in the gameworld. Corpses were everywhere, though many of the residents and guards were still alive, fleeing from and fighting the ghouls, respectively. I let the ghouls do their work, and they eventually killed every one of the humans. I felt a little bad about this – a lot of the people had been fairly nice to me, though there was certainly an air of snobbery amongst them. Most of them were elderly, which I’m not sure what to make of.

It was the first really evil thing I’d done in the game; otherwise, my avatar is Good, generally. But here’s the weird thing: my responsibility for all these murders netted me no bad karma. I got bad karma for stealing from their apartments and shops (which has made me ridiculously rich – so much for going through this game without more money than I know what to do with, like every other single-player RPG) but I got no bad karma for their deaths. True, I didn’t directly kill them, which would have earned bad karma, but I consider myself pretty damn responsible for their deaths. Killing Alistair Tenpenny had given me good karma, for some reason, too.

So what am I to make of this? Fallout 3 is, in general, full of moral choices and is consistent about their consequences. But I regard this sequence as a very strange lapse. And apparently, the designers made it this way on purpose. Here’s what I make of it:

  • Killing people directly is Evil, but getting them killed doesn’t matter.
  • However, stealing from people – even if they’re dead – is Evil.
  • The ghouls may be persecuted by bigots, but that doesn’t mean they’re all virtuous. Roy’s actions basically fall into the theme of, “hold low expectations of people and they’ll live down to those expectations.” Presumably, all he’d wanted to do originally was be a member of the club: live in the tower, trade with people, etc. But their rejection of him makes him want to kill them all, and he does so without remorse and with gusto.  So is he a monster after all? Or, is the game telling us that the Tower’s residents’ bigotry makes them deserve death? If that’s the case, why is it acceptable for the player to engineer their death but not to kill them him/herself?

There’s more to chew on here on the broader issue of racism in this game, but I’ll leave that for another post.


  1. chomeister says:

    so, i’m in this theory class, right, and they’re all like, “like, what IS subjectivity anyways???” (silly MA’s), and i wonder, isn’t this question sort of central to your project in some way? it strikes me that in order for a game to rely on racism for its structure, it is implied that the creators of the narrative AND the design are constructing the player in some way too. so… discuss. or, rather, how are you constructing the gamer and/or the game, and whose theoretical exploration of subjectivity might help you with this question you may or may not (but i think should) take up?


  2. c.ritter says:

    Ooh. I have to chew on this one. (Thanks, Cho!)

    Got any suggestions for theoretical explorations of subjectivity? That area’s not my forte.

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