A Raider kneels over an open grave with a discarded shovel beside him and, near the road of the burial plot, a small lantern lights a wooden stool. At the head of the grave, a vase full of yellow flowers stands and catches the dim light of the lantern. I stand behind the raider and and the grave. My targeting system tells me this is an enemy, but, for now, he doesn’t look that way. Now, he is in mourning over someone he’s just put in the dirt. I think maybe this raider will be different. Maybe there’s an opportunity to talk to this Raider instead of just engage in open combat.
I decide to approach him to see if maybe we can talk. But I think about this for a little while, not because I don’t think I can defeat the raider, but because I know, even though this game goes deep, maybe it’s all in my head. Maybe it’s not that deep at all.
Now, let’s rewind for some background and what got me to thinking this way:
I’m in the middle of playing Fallout 4 on Survival Mode, a game that takes place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where it’s kill or be killed and your character must eat, drink, and manage radiation levels in order to survive. This adds a sense of realism to the game for me and causes me to think twice about engaging in battle when a more peaceful option will do. I’m infiltrating a Raider stronghold once again in order to create a more secure position for the side I’m on, the side of the “good guys.”
In Fallout, the Raiders make up a rather base faction. They’re in no way organized on a large scale, from what I can tell. They’re small bans of violent scavengers holding up in bombed out hotels and underneath overpasses. They loot, steal, murder, and terrorize. They’re the most obnoxious assholes in the wasteland. In this particular instance, I’m looking for a cache of some sort: guns or ammo, food or medicine. This is where the raiders live. And to secure the building and the cache, I’ll need to wipe them out. Typically, I enjoy this sort of thing. It feels like justice, taking back what was stolen.
But because I’ve increased my level to 36 and probably about halfway through the game, these raiders that used to give me a lot of trouble can now be picked off one by one in a matter of moments. Don’t get me wrong, I still have to be cautious when entering a Raider lair, but I’m much less intimidated. If you could smell the environment, it would smell like sweat and ash, battery acid and rotten wood. It’s blood and cold. Steel and burnt flesh.
So I sweep the room and take them each out with a silenced pistol. It’s almost sad, because some of them were sleeping. But the mission said “clear all raiders,” so I’m doing that. And I’m picking over their corpses, looking for my own supplies, my own loot.
And this is the part where things start to sink in:
Is an eye for an eye the best method? What does it mean to be the aggressor? The oppressor? And where do you draw the line of “self-defense.”
I’ve become the raider. I’m the powerhouse with all the right tools. I decide the fate of the wasteland and I need to survive, too.
But no, it’s just a game. It doesn’t go that deep. The Raiders are programmed and digital characters, as is the character I’ve been playing for countless hours.
And just like that I’m back at that grave site and maybe it does go that deep. Maybe the raider kneeling before me will want to talk, bury the laser pistol so-to-speak.
So I walk up to the lantern and into the light. I think if I get close enough without my gun drawn, he’ll just start talking to me and we’ll start a sentimental quest chain together.
But the moment he sees me, he stands, starts firing his gun, and says some scripted message I’ve heard hundreds of times over. Something like: “You’re going to regret that,” “I’ll mess you up!” or “Why you hiding? You scared?” And my knee-jerk reaction is to draw my weapon. So, I do. And put him down with two shots.
Maybe the story line doesn’t go that deep for the raider, but it does for me. And I know the developers of this game knew what they were doing with these scenes. Some writer put this sequence together to get some sort of beauty out of the game in addition to pure damage and death-dealing.
I stand over the grave, between the lantern and the flowers. I don’t loot the loved one and leave the body be. I want to drag my foe’s body into the grave, so he can be buried with whoever he was kneeling over, but the game doesn’t let me do that. It makes me leave the body in the bushes near the headstone.
I think about that exchange as I run to the next town. Maybe I should’ve avoided the whole thing altogether. What was I expecting from the game?
But I let those concerns slip away. I have a quest to turn in and I’m close to hitting level 51.
I keep my pistol out and reload it. Centuries of ash and gravel crunch underneath my feet.