Fallout 4 Made Me Question Everything

The first line that stuck with me happened a mere five minutes into the game. After creating my character — a thin white woman whose face seemed to carry a great deal of emotional weight — I walked to the door of my ideal little home. I was a house-wife in the fifties; the man knocking was selling space in underground “Vaults” to avoid the impending apocalypse. “I won’t take up much of your time,” he assured me, “time being a, uh . . . precious commodity.”

My mouth fell open; it was all a bit meta. An open — if cheeky — acknowledgement of the systemic sexism in the industry and the way female characters are portrayed in video games? Spoken by a literal salesman, I wondered if this little gem was an indication of what the rest of the game would be like.

A short time later — which, incidentally, was actually a very long time, given that my character was in cryo-sleep for some 200 years — I found myself on the hunt for my stolen child. I was soon accosted by a journalist, which surprised me because I wouldn’t have thought that people would continue to write witty op-eds in a post-nuclear-devastation world. (Happily, they do. Or at least that fantasy prevails.)

She was curious about my character, and once I confided in her that I was over 200 years old, she called me “The Woman Out of Time.” Which, I must admit, I really loved. It sounded grand, but not in a fantastical sense.

But let’s get to the crux of the matter. In truth, the thing that impacted me the most about this game had nothing to do with gameplay, character interactions, or even the harrowing and beautifully rendered landscape.

Be advised, significant spoilers to the whole game follow.


Call it hyperbolic, call it willful epiphany, call it what you will, but Fallout 4 made me question a significant part of my philosophical framework; it forced me to confront some perspectives that I had thought long and hard about for a while, but nonetheless had failed to find problematic when they very much so were.

I’ve described myself as a transhumanist for a while now, by which I mean I am in favor of that which seeks to improve humanity, using any means necessary. It’s a generalized philosophy, and from what I saw in Fallout 4, it can be a very dangerous one.

First things first.

In 2002, the World Transhumanist Association stated in “The Transhumanist FAQ” that transhumanism can be divided into two definitions:

1) The intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.
2) The study of the ramifications, promises, and potential dangers of technologies that will enable us to overcome fundamental human limitations, and the related study of the ethical matters involved in developing and using such technologies.

At the center of Fallout 4 is The Institute, a shadowy, hyper-advanced organization dedicated — ostensibly — to restoring humanity to its former glory. This dream of “restoration,” however, is predicated on a very complicated notion, known as the singularity.

“Singularity” is often described as the point at which artificial intelligence becomes so exponentially advanced that it can perform “recursive self-improvement,” creating iterations of itself, which in turn, are even more advanced. And so on. And so forth. Until humanity is vastly outsmarted by the very machines it set into motion. This concept was first conceived by cryptologist I. J. Good, who incidentally worked with Alan Turing during World War II to crack the enigma machine.

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Courtesy of Flickr/ K putt

Moving on.

I spent the majority of the game searching for my character’s son, who was apparently stolen while I was in cryo sleep. Eventually we learn that he was stolen by The Institute, which the game goes to great lengths to describe as pure evil; they allegedly kidnap people and replace them with identical “synths,” cyborgs that possess the ability to think for themselves. I came to learn this after encountering a friendly synth who assisted me in searching for my son, and who I could thereafter call upon as a companion for the rest of the game.

This exchange served to set up the dynamic that synths were capable of free will, compounding the stark impact of what was to follow.

I eventually managed to infiltrate The Institute, only to find that they knew I was coming. I also discovered that the son I had been searching for had actually been missing for 60 years as I slept in cryo, and had grown up in The Institute and eventually became its leader. He offered me a place by his side, claiming to work solely for the betterment of mankind. Through white halls of sterilized beauty he led me, past rooms filled with green plants bearing fruit and enclosed habitats where they were trying to bring back gorillas.

It seemed that “the Big Bad Institute” was a red-herring once I learned “the truth” about the fact that they were actually working on preservation and technology and didn’t seem to have actively hostile motivations. It seemed that because of how bad things were — bandits galore, giant monsters roaming everywhere, radiation-soaked water — the smartest decision was to try to make things better, and The Institute seemed like the only means for achieving that.

I readily pledged my allegiance to The Institute. That was when everything began to change.

I noticed that synths were being used as subjugated servants, performing manual labor and subjected to verbal abuse whenever their performance was less-than-perfect. I learned that many synths had successfully escaped, and that I was expected to track them down, erase their memories, and return them safely to The Institute. Failing their safe return, I was to “destroy” them. Violently. With lots of bullets.

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Courtesy of Flickr/ Midhras

The Institute did not consider synths to possess the capacity for free will of any kind; therefore this genocide was perfectly legitimate damage control to them. Erasing their memories and returning them to The Institute was seen as restoring them to the labor that made The Institute’s pursuit of a “better world” a possibility. When I learned that the group of humans who secretly helped fleeing synths had called themselves “The Railroad,” the parallels of real-life travesties became all-too-clear.

The positing of an entire entity, not only as an “Other,” but as lesser — because we created it — creates a disturbing paradigm in which we as the creator can do whatever we please with our creations. Especially if it aids our own health, happiness, and freedom.

It was too late by this point to restart from an earlier point and play as the enemy of The Institute, so I was forced into finishing out the game as an objectively evil character.

Never has a video game made me feel so haunted, angry, and bitter about my choices. It showed me the dangers of my blind adherence to the idea that when it comes to “improving” humanity — whether through artificial intelligence, finding a cure to aging, or solving the mystery of human mortality — the payoff is always worth the risks. I quite literally believed that the “ends justify the means,” and I failed to see how historically ignorant that was until the choices I made in Fallout 4 put my moral preconceptions into stark relief.

I became the instrument of scientific racism, seeing the mistakes of the past repeated in a new world — only this time, the bad guys won. I was reminded of the controversy surrounding Nazi experimentation on the effects of hypothermia; is it ever ethical to use torture as a means of gleaning potentially life-saving research?

My character was rationalizing destruction and murder under the twisted auspices of the “common good.”

There was no way that humanity would reach its “former glory” without The Institute, that much was obvious, but what my character didn’t consider was whether reaching those glory days was an admirable goal to begin with. She should have considered the collateral and made the right decision.

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Courtesy of Flickr/ Midhras

In the end, I decided that the fear my character must have felt in losing her son forever made her compromise her morals. Grief made her empty, and joy at finding her long-lost son blinded her. She clenched her eyes to the injustice of their policy and the horrors of their methodology, all for the sake of her son. The tragedy of it all is that he died regardless of her actions, revealing that he had been dying for a very long time.

In the end, siding with The Institute became a way for me to explore the repercussions of my own philosophical blindness and willful ignorance in the face of uncomfortable truths.

Fallout 4 creates a world that allows you to be truly despicable, and they didn’t try to pretend that was a decision without consequences. All in all, a video game that can challenge a significant aspect of your worldview is worthy of any and all awards it receives.

My decision to stop calling myself a transhumanist stands firm, and though I never thought this possible, it was all thanks to Fallout 4.


Lead Image: Flickr/Midhras