The video game industry is a business environment where projects rival the cost/reward structure of motion pictures, and the consumer demand is commensurate. For one example, consider the dystopian novel The Hunger Games (2008). It was on the New York Times’s bestseller list for over 100 consecutive weeks and had sold an impressive 800,000 copies by February 2010.
The post-apocalyptic video game Fallout 3 (2008) sold 5.21 million copies in the same period.
I mention this only to impress the reader with the commercial/cultural value of video games, in the hopes of raising sufficient interest regarding my assessment of the science-fictional content in this popular game, “America’s First Choice in Post Nuclear Simulation” (as the advertising tagline had it).
The first two games of the franchise, Fallout (1997) and Fallout 2 (1998), created a world of humans, mutants, and monsters by using a wide range of generic post-apocalyptic tropes (including but not limited to irradiated “ghouls,” psychotic raiders, and furtive cannibals). The biggest specific reference is to the post-apocalyptic movie Mad Max 2 (aka The Road Warrior, 1981), but even this is limited to a couple of cosmetic points (a dog companion of a certain breed, and the hero’s signature armor, a leather jacket with the right sleeve removed). Fallout 2 added traces of geek culture, including such diverse touchstones as Star Trek (a Guardian of Tomorrow mini-adventure and a crashed shuttlecraft encounter with a few phasers as treasure weapons), Monty Python and the Holy Grail (a reenactment of the bridge scene, and elsewhere the Holy Hand Grenade is a treasure weapon), and Little Shop of Horrors (a talking plant creature). In fact, while geek culture has more representation in the two games than just Mad Max, the overall adventure plots are drawn from general Spaghetti Western/noir fiction genres (e.g., A Fistful of Dollars  is the template for the adventure in one town).
Fallout (hereafter FO1) quickly became infamous for its graphic violence but even more so for the questionable morality it exhibited. This darkness increased in Fallout 2 (FO2), where a player-character (PC) can receive temporary ability boosts through taking performance-enhancing drugs or having sex with a prostitute. While stealing, fornicating, and pimping exist in the game’s moral “gray area,” the game comes with a Karma system which awards the PC positive points for a few good deeds (completing good karma quests, or killing many bad karma people) and negative points for certain evil deeds (robbing graves, killing many good karma people, killing children, or selling people into slavery).
Ten years after Fallout 2 came Fallout 3 (2008), a reboot of the franchise by a different company. Where the first two games are set on the West Coast, Fallout 3 (FO3) is set in the “Capital Wasteland” in and around the ruins of Washington D.C. The karma system is expanded so that stealing results in bad karma. There is also an additional feedback mechanism in the form of a radio announcer who comments on the good or evil solutions that the PC uses to complete quests. For example, in one adventure the PC comes across a recent orphan at a destroyed settlement. If the PC refuses to find the child a new home, then when the DJ refers to the episode, he ends with, “God . . . do you have no conscience?” In general, if the PC has performed a good karma solution, the DJ will say something like, “Nice going, kid!” If the PC has committed a bad karma solution, the DJ will say, “Not cool, kid. Not cool at all” or “What’s with that, kid?”
FO3 possesses a fairly standard game structure of having a Main Quest (a series of sequential adventures that form the primary thrust of the story) and a larger number of Side Quests that can be taken in any order. While the Main Quest builds upon tropes established by the previous games, for the first time in the franchise the game shows a strong influence from a distinctive outside source, that of the film The Omega Man (1971). The two most contentious adventures in the game are side quests that are drawn from this movie, so a brief synopsis of the original is in order.
The Omega Man has a scientist hero as an archetypical “last man on Earth.” He lives in a fortified tower under siege by a cult of mutant vampires known as “The Family,” led by a charismatic leader. The scientist hunts them by day, and they attack his tower by night: two sides locked in a race war of extermination, but the vampires have numbers on their side. One day, the hero discovers a woman, and, after a plot complication, she leads him to her group of survivors. The scientist tells her he is immune to the mutant plague due to a vaccine he made, and they take a sick child back to his tower for experimental treatment. The kid gets better, but the woman gets the plague and joins The Family, whereupon she treacherously lets the vampires into the tower. A climactic battle ensues in which the cult leader is killed and the scientist is mortally wounded. The next morning, when the other survivors find the dying scientist, he gives them the last of the serum and urges them to take the children away to a better place.
The FO3 side quest “Blood Ties” begins when the PC enters the village of Arefu, a settlement established on a ruinous highway overpass for defensive reasons, making it a sort of poor-man’s tower. The PC learns that the place is under siege by unseen raiders who have slaughtered all the cattle of Arefu. Looking around the settlement, the PC finds the shack of the West family and discovers that the two adult residents have been savagely murdered with knives—or teeth. In addition, there’s a symbol drawn in blood on the wall, and the boy, Ian West, is missing. The village leader tells the PC that a weird group calling themselves “The Family” was hanging around by the river, and Ian had talked to them. Then he offers the PC the quest to find Ian.
After some searching, the PC finds The Family living in the underground area of a nearby train station. They turn out to be human rather than mutant, but they are members of a vampire-like cult led by the charismatic Vance. Their secret is that they are cannibals who keep their impulses in check through ritualistically drinking blood and otherwise acting like vampires. Further investigation reveals that they were the ones who slaughtered Arefu’s cattle, for the blood. Vance admits it was a mistake.
So it was all a “misunderstanding.” As for young Ian West, he has joined The Family on his own, having realized he is a born cannibal.
The twist is that Ian was the one who killed his parents before escaping to join the vampires. Thus, Ian is the most monstrous of the bunch.
Cannibalism in the Fallout franchise goes through a bit of a change in FO3. In the first two games, there are a few incidents involving cannibalism, and the cannibals are all bad karma people. There is a case in FO1 where the PC can earn a monetary profit from one cannibal’s “mystery meat” business, but this results in bad karma for the PC. In contrast, FO3 offers the PC the option of becoming a cannibal, but eating dead humans gives bad karma each time, and should witnesses spot the PC in an act of cannibalism, they immediately become hostile. So cannibalism is a shameful, sinful secret in FO3. Comparing The Family to the cannibals from the early games, it seems that the main difference is that The Family is trying to modify their inalterable nature in an attempt to “go mainstream,” as it were. Their intentions are good.
“Blood Ties” has two basic solutions. The good karma solution is to negotiate an agreement between the two groups, whereby Arefu donates blood and The Family either leaves them alone or actively protects them from raiders. This is worth +300 karma. The bad karma solution involves killing any or all of the vampires, a penalty of -100 karma.
There are a number of problems with this. The symbiotic aspect of the human/vampire solution is run through with the strong suggestion of extortion. As video game reviewer Shamus Young points out in a review of the title on his blog in 2008:
They seek “understanding” from the player, despite the fact that their survival depends on a steady supply of victims to keep them alive . . . the right/wrong karma arrow points sideways, and it’s wrong to kill them but right to convince a nearby village to supply them with blood in exchange for being left alone. I guess it’s okay to hold a village hostage and enslave them if you’re very polite and claim to be misunderstood.
Young shows the exploitative nature of the favored solution and how the game’s moral compass seems to go haywire. Again, killing cannibals in the previous games would give a karma bonus or be karma neutral, not a karma penalty. Finally there is the disturbing fact that Ian West is still guilty of patricide and matricide, a problem that is never addressed.
These strange details make it seem as though “Blood Ties” begins the work of rehabilitating the villainy of cannibalism within the Fallout universe. In fact, there is another FO3 side quest, “Our Little Secret,” that involves a squeaky clean community that is practicing quiet cannibalism upon unsuspecting travelers, and if the PC elects to keep their secret, he will be rewarded with a “strange meat pie” every time he visits without suffering bad karma (contrast this with the bad karma a PC gets for profiting off the cannibal entrepreneur in FO1).
Obviously “Blood Ties” takes a lot from The Omega Man. One element is that the vampires are in a cult called The Family. (Though based loosely on Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend, The Omega Man drew on recent events, such that “The Family” is clearly based upon Charles Manson’s “Family,” a group who committed the grisly murder of Sharon Tate and her guests. FO3 highlights this Manson connection with the blood-written symbol left on the wall of the Wests’ home, similar to graffiti found at the Tate murder site.) There is also the presence of a child to be saved: in The Omega Man the kid is cured; in FO3 he cannot be cured but he can be accepted (without his murders coming to light). In The Omega Man, the scientist’s tower is guarded by high-tech traps; in “Blood Ties” it is the vampires’ lair that is protected by ingenious devices, showing their high intelligence.
“Blood Ties” inverts the story, though, and does so in a way that proves to be problematic. If the people of Arefu had been threatened by a third group, for example the raiders that they initially thought had killed their cows, then their enlisting of the vampires would be akin to the villagers hiring tough guys in The Magnificent Seven (1960). But the fact that the vampires were the source of the cattle killing makes the whole thing more like a gangster protection racket where the opening move is to give the victim a taste of what he should be protected from.
Justice is missing here. By killing the livestock, The Family has behaved like raiders, a bad karma people. They should pay for the cows, and they certainly possess enough money and goods to do that. Such restitution would be the first step towards improving relations with Arefu.
The parent-killer Ian West deserves to be executed for his heinous crimes. If The Family wants him, they might pay off the village with blood money and then join Ian in a permanent exile. Or another merciful solution could allow him to be sold to the slavers with no karma penalty (each enslavement is normally -100 karma in FO3), with the money going to the village.
This pattern of establishing a class of villain and then inverting same in a sequel game is something of a tic within the franchise, the most egregious example being when some Deathclaws, the most fearsome monsters of the wasteland, show up in the middle of FO2 as a few cases of brain-enhanced nice guys. That is, the player has been trained through many hours of hard combat to shoot these frightful creatures at long range, yet suddenly here is a singular example where the PC should walk up and talk to them.
Aside from “Blood Ties,” the other FO3 side quest related to The Omega Man is “Tenpenny Tower”. In it, we find Mr. Tenpenny, an elderly white man who has created a secure tower community for wealthy humans, a spot of luxurious safety in the dangerous wasteland. When the PC first arrives at Tenpenny Tower, a ghoul named Roy Phillips is trying to gain admission, saying he has the necessary money, but he is refused because he is a ghoul. He storms off, vowing revenge.
The PC pays to get into the tower, where the chief of security offers the quest of killing Roy Phillips as a troublemaker. Still, it seems like Roy is a victim of bigotry, of the “We don’t allow their kind in our country club” variety. Thus there are two factions, and the PC must decide which one to support.
Fallout ghouls offer another example of rehabilitating a class of villains, but in this case a more successful one. In FO1, the PC first encounters feral ghouls, noncommunicative zombies that attack humans on sight, but later the PC finds a radioactive city of ghouls and meets nonferal ghouls, mutated humans who can talk and are good karma people (that is, killing them results in bad karma for the PC).
The thing is that any nonferal ghoul can become feral. So the humans of Tenpenny Tower have reason to be wary of ghouls moving in since they might go feral, resulting in a bloodbath.
There are further complications in the quest. Talking to Roy, the PC learns of Roy’s rabidly violent streak. The guy seems on the verge of turning feral. Roy wants the PC to help him and his army of feral ghouls into the tower through a secret passage, and then they will kill every human, who Roy refers to as “elitist wannabes.” So the three possible solutions are: kill Roy (side with the humans); help Roy sneak in to kill humans (side with the ghouls); or persuade the prejudiced humans to allow rich ghouls to move in (nonviolent compromise). The fourth option is to walk away from the whole mess.
But here’s the rub: killing Roy is bad karma. This makes sense since he talks about doing terrible things, but he has not actually done any of them yet. Still, the warnings are all there, enough for game reviewer Shamus Young to make a decision:
I chose to defend the misguided people of Tenpenny and take out Roy, which was an evil act in the eyes of the game. The guy on the radio—the conscience of the game—even called me a “scumbag” and said I “butchered” ghouls. Apparently killing a man contemplating mass murder made me a . . . racist?
This isn’t just a badly written quest. This is reprehensible. According to the moral compass offered by the in-game karma system (and, one assumes, the game designers) being a rich bigot (where “rich” is simply a label the game hangs on characters without context, and “bigot” is a charge that may or may not be fair, based on how dangerous regular ghouls are to people) is worse than mass murder and theft. The people of Tenpenny weren’t oppressing Roy by taking anything from him. They were just refusing to do business with him. And since he’s clearly a bloodthirsty madman, they kind of have a point.
Young chafes against what might be termed “the policeman’s dilemma,” that one cannot generally act against crimes that have not been committed. Still, let’s look at the numbers for each solution:
Killing Roy causes the PC a penalty of -100 karma in addition to the radio DJ’s verbal abuse.
Helping the ghouls sneak into the tower gives a steep penalty of -600 karma (one of the largest in the game), and Roy rewards the PC with a ghoul mask that, when worn, allows the PC to move unmolested among feral ghouls—they see the PC as “one of them.” (Over the air, the radio announcer does not criticize the PC for being an accessory to massacre, but he does say, “You look like a freak show in that mask.”)
Succeeding at the nonviolent compromise gives good karma, yet a few weeks later the ghouls have killed all the humans. At which point, adding insult to injury, the radio DJ says, “The ghouls finally got their luxury accommodations, and all it took was the wholesome slaughter of every other Tenpenny resident!” The use of “wholesome” rather than “wholesale” makes the killing sound justifiable if not actually an act of good karma.
In short, the solutions for “Tenpenny Tower” are really “bad” (-100 karma), “worse” (-600 karma), and “worst” (petty positive karma but the loss of a human settlement). So Young was right, in that killing mad dog Roy Phillips is really the “best” one. (Actually, my own solution of walking away from the whole mess is the very best.)
As in the case of “Blood Ties,” the quest “Tenpenny Tower” takes elements from The Omega Man. Naturally, there is the fortified tower itself, but instead of being alone, Tenpenny is the leader of a protected community. Tenpenny wears a red fox hunting coat along with the associated riding boots and trousers, an aristocratic attire that echoes the fancy dinner clothes worn by the scientist in The Omega Man. From the balcony of his penthouse apartment, Tenpenny often shoots at wandering ghouls with his sniper rifle, and the scientist of The Omega Man uses sniper rifles from his tower. The possibility of hostiles entering the tower by treachery is perfectly matched, to the point that, should the PC commit the deed, he will be accepted into the family of ghouls with the ghoul mask. The existence of a peaceful solution is different, seeming to be an inversion like “Blood Ties,” but it turns out to be just a cover for slaughter.
“Tenpenny Tower” is a nasty joke upon the player. “Blood Ties” serves as a perfect setup for it by suggesting that a “compromise” is possible between humans and monsters; “Tenpenny Tower” just pushes the ugliness a bit further so that it cannot be swept under the carpet. The moral of the quest might well be “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
It almost seems as though the entire sequence of three scenarios represents a formal construction of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. The Omega Man is the thesis (a race-war of extermination); “Blood Ties” is the antithesis (where a diplomatic solution is possible but problematic); and “Tenpenny Tower” is the synthesis (the lure of a diplomatic solution is a siren song to a surprise attack). In retrospect, the good karma solution of “Blood Ties” with vampires guarding their new blood-cattle from raiders might be just a slow-burn version of the ghoul-takeover of Tenpenny Tower. The plane of conflict moves from that of open warfare to a lopsided treaty of cooperation, and then to a desegregation of equals, and yet despite the changes, the “mutants” always win.
Strident, flat-footed interpretations often come when an analysis ignores the humorous aspect of a work, and the Fallout franchise has a strong tradition of gallows humor. Still, humor can be botched, and the higher the stakes, the greater the flop. “Blood Ties,” working on the high-stakes topic of race war, has an ironic twist wherein the rescued character turns out to be more of a monster than the monsters that are holding him, yet the scenario fails to address the problem of the revealed monster. The quest “Tenpenny Tower,” also dealing with race war, is constructed in such a way that it causes frustration rather than grim laughter. Rather than simply copying The Omega Man in a straightforward manner, both quests put significant twists to its story, and thereby expose “do-gooder” strategies to bitter ridicule.
Michael Andre-Driussi lives in Albany, California.
- Hodgson, David S.J. Fallout 3: Prima Official Game Guide. Random House, 2008.
- Young, Shamus. “Fallout 3: “Tenpenny Tower”” review, December 18, 2008. <www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=2010>. Accessed 10 February 2013.
A PDF or ePub copy of the NYRSF issue in which this article first appeared is available for purchase at Weightless Books.