Casting Shadows

written by Alastrom

 

For fans of the Fallout series, you may be familiar with a group called The Brotherhood of Steel, or “The Brotherhood” for short. The Brotherhood is a technological military organization with quasi-religious overtones. For a game that features all manner of mutant creatures, the Brotherhood of Steel takes a strong opinion on “mixing” with these other species, blood purity being an important trait to them. They conquer in a military fashion, often inserting themselves into conflicts and using technological superiority to dictate the flow of combat. The members of this Brotherhood are typically lead by a highly charismatic leader who commands complete respect among his troops. In addition, they’ve got a fantastic uniform design that hearkens back to a World War aesthetic. They’re a potent group and by definition, the Brotherhood of Steel matches many of the characteristics of a real world counterpart that we commonly view as our enemy in gaming. The Nazis. Yet in the Fallout games they’re a valuable ally and for some, the only allegiance your Vault Dweller would ever consider. So how can we side with a collective that most of us find morally repugnant? Perhaps we’re more capable of sympathizing with our enemy than we once thought. Perhaps to fight monsters, you must also be a monster.

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We’re fast approaching the release of Battlefield V, yet another game set in the World War II timeline where we’ll be treated with a four to six hour campaign where you fight Nazis. There’s no shortage of games out there that feature Nazis as the main antagonist, either historically or as a represented ideal. From Star Wars to Wolfenstein, the Nazis make for an easy to identify enemy. They allow the player to project a heroic vision upon an ultimate evil. Sadly, from a story telling perspective, it’s just too easy to do. A writer that opts to put “Nazis” in their game as the enemy has chosen a simple expression of good versus evil and is no doubt writing a very predictable story. The “Nazis” in these games could be replaced by any other enemy and have the same effect, roughly speaking. A true hero should fight evil wherever they go, but they don’t do it because they are the moral counterbalance to evil. No, they do it because they know that mankind is always one step away from becoming that evil themselves. Your character and their allies in these games all have a name and a backstory. The enemy does not, instead being replaced with the image of “Nazi.” If you were placed in the same situation as the faceless enemy you so willingly cut down to reach your next objective, you’d most likely be a Nazi yourself. Ignore the extreme circumstance of heroic action, because such things are rare in the real world. If you had the choice between being a guard in the death camps or being an inmate, which would you choose? We’d all like to think of ourselves as the liberators but the reality is that most of us are never given that opportunity. If you have any measure of self preservation, there’s a clear answer but even now you might be unwilling to admit it.

 

It’s important to note who the Nazis were and who they weren’t. More important is the use of past tense as any modern paradigms are not as axiomatic as the reader may hope. The Nazis, or National Socialist German Workers Party, rose to power after failing social and economic conditions in the Weimar Republic led to a shift in power. The German people felt largely betrayed by the Treaty of Versailles and the Nazis utilized that as a staging point to continue their growing political campaign. The people, desperate to end the economic crisis that had followed the first World War, gave their affiliation to various political parties and by 1932 the Nazis held a large portion of the vote in the Reichstag. After the death of President Hindenburg in 1934, Hitler assumed the role of both Chancellor and President under the new title of “Führer.” For a time leading up the the second World War, Germany would surpass its former accomplishments and experience a golden age. This had been one of the greatest economic recoveries the world had ever seen and for the German people, it meant salvation. There are very few of us that wouldn’t welcome that same fortune regardless of what it took to get there.

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To contrast the Brotherhood of Steel from the Fallout series saw their rise when a military leader, Roger Maxson defected from the United States military shortly before the apocalyptic events that begin the series. Maxson lead his people into the desert with the intent to rebuild civilization, no matter what the cost. The Brotherhood quickly evolved their technological mastery of the new world and eventually expanded their influence to the surrounding areas. Much like Germany of the 1930s, the alternate world of Fallout saw a drastic collapse and the people turned to whatever leadership they could to reestablish order, absent of prior assumed moralities. Mankind always seeks to return to order and our nature is not so elusive that this has become a reoccurring theme in our story telling. The Brotherhood makes a sensible choice in this situation. They have a noble goal in the reconstruction of society and the experience to make it a reality. In terms of morality, a person would have to choose between going it alone in this new world or joining one of the various raider gangs that had sprung up. So in some sense, the Brotherhood holds the moral high ground. The newly discovered “Super Mutants” have a vendetta against mankind so it makes sense that the Brotherhood would seek to violently oppose them and if the survival of mankind is to be ensured, it may even be necessary to wipe them out. Most of this is not contrary to our own beliefs. When an “us versus them” scenario is proposed, you’ll look for the place you fit in. If, for example, aliens were to attack earth it’s very unlikely you’d side with the aliens. Trial has a way of unifying a people and that’s exactly what happens in the Fallout universe. It is logical that the Brotherhood exists and in some cases, justified that they act.

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Fast forward to the current year in this fictional universe, the Brotherhood has gained significant power and they are able to exert more control over the Wasteland. The player is now given the option to join or ally with them and adopt their ideals upon themselves. While everyone is free to make their own choices, an alliance with the Brotherhood brings with it access to powerful defenses like The Citadel, a veritable castle where outsiders aren’t permitted. Or technological marvels like the Prydwen, an airship that serves as a mobile base. In addition, Brotherhood of Steel Knights go into battle wearing the signature “Power Armor” with their allies firing off a barrage of laser blasts at their side. Strength, order and companionship. All that’s required of you is strict adherence to the collective and the willingness to terminate mutants wherever you go.

 
For a player simply looking to place themselves in the best condition for victory, the Brotherhood makes a lot of sense. Add in the aesthetics of castles, airships and power armor and it almost begins to feel like you have a place in this otherwise foreign world. It’s no mistake that you play a “Vault Dweller” who has been divorced from the events of the Fallout world. Bethesda excels at turning the player character into a Tabula Rasa and letting them make their own decisions in the wasteland. Imparting a persona on your characters is part of the joy of the Fallout games but one has to wonder how you, the reader, would actually survive in this wasteland. We don’t have the luxury of viewing ourselves as blank slates and instead we’re a people that reacts to situations that present themselves to us. Wandering alone, hungry and thirsty with no way to protect yourself, you may take the first help that comes along. A raiding group, for example that decides you’d make a better slave than a corpse. Perhaps they’re a man down one day and they can’t raid a nearby village of innocents without your help. Success means you’d become one of them. Failure means death. Deny them and it’s back to being a slave in worse conditions than before. The price of morality in that world is high and it’s much more difficult to pay when you have no other options. Ask yourself who you’d really ally with? The bandits? The Brotherhood? The Nazis? Remove the “good guys” from the equation and you realize that it’s a much more difficult stance to count yourself among them.

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Our culture is filled with stories of good versus evil. Consider the main characters in the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or Star Wars. Each of them strives for the ideal that we understand as “good” but through their journey they must first face the terrible evil within themselves. This isn’t a mistake. Carl Jung referre d to it as the archetype of “the shadow.” It’s that thing that we least want to acknowledge about ourselves, a lingering darkness in the deepest recesses of our minds. There’s a truth about shadows; the closer you get to the light, the longer your shadow becomes. Harry has a piece of Voldemort in him and it corrupts the people around him. Luke Skywalker could become as powerful as his father, if he embraces his anger. Gandalf denies the One Ring because he knows he couldn’t use it for good, regardless of his intent. The idea that a force for good can also be a force for evil is present is a great deal of story telling but seems to be a missing component in gaming. Where it has been used, the effect is magnified because its player cannot deny that their actions progressed the story. There’s a strong example in Bioshock’s “Would you kindly” plot line, a twist I have so much respect for that I can’t bring myself to spoil it here. Suffice to say, it forced every player to examine their actions instead of just blindly following them.

 

It’s not the role of game designers, or anyone for that matter, to encourage dangerous ideologies. Unfortunately, these traits exist in all mankind regardless of if we want to acknowledge them or not. The Nazis are gone, our grandparents fought to defeat them before most of us were born. These people played a very familiar game which too many people these days disguise as good and evil. The truth, like all things, lays in the middle. Games like Fallout certainly suggest that it’s simple to fall into this mindset. It’s easy to think that through our actions we’re doing good but all too often we’re actually just serving our own interests or those of others around us. A person that understands this nature through a game is more likely to be aware of it in the real world. So much of our modern political turmoil relies on encouraging the same strife that we see in video games. Members of opposing parties might assume they’re fighting for survival against an opponent that means them harm, when in fact they’re only doing what the party leaders want them to. Examine it for yourself. If at any point you’ve thought “I’m doing good and fighting evil” through your political or social actions then you must ask if you’ve done evil to justify that good. If the answer scares you, it’s a good indication that you should be asking the question.

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Video games are a powerful story telling medium yet we’re so comfortable using them to tell the same stories over and over again. Fighting the Nazis makes sense in the World War II setting but we’ve experienced that time and time again. Perhaps people aren’t looking for a self reflective story in their modern shooter but there are plenty of outlets that could provide the same experience. You can’t claim to fight evil if you don’t understand evil. So many games assume that you’re the “good guy” right from the start but they give you little to no context to understand why that is. The true moral choice system in gaming should get you half way through the story before you realize that you only thought you were the good guy. Not in the “surprise!” sort of way where your leader turned out to be a mustache twisting villain all along, but in the “oh god what have I done” revelation that comes after you’ve just mowed down the people you consider to be the enemy with a smile on your face. You want a game about the Nazis? How about a story where you go into a city being ravaged by monsters and only after you’ve triumphantly captured or killed the last one do you wake up to realize it’s November 10th, 1938 and the crowds cheering you on are all still asleep.

 

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