The week of April 5, 2015

Love and hate in New Vegas

By Dennis Scimeca

I stared long and hard at Mr. House and thought: “I’m going to have to kill him now.”

In the video game Fallout: New Vegas, Mr. House is the protector and owner of New Vegas, the city rebuilt from the ashes of a nuclear war with China 300 years ago. I was his employee, hired to pursue his interests by nullifying the various armed factions fighting for control of the Mojave Wasteland around New Vegas. Mr. House had used cryogenic technology to keep himself alive and a computer interface to interact with the world.

I’d been ordered by Mr. House to destroy the Brotherhood of Steel, an order of self-styled medieval-type knights descended from the remnants of the U.S. Army. The Brotherhood had hoarded some of the most devastating weapons left available to humanity: guns, lasers, power armor, and miniature nuclear bomb launchers. The Brotherhood was sometimes overzealous in its mission but ultimately sought to provide a better future for humankind.

It was also the closest thing I had to a family in the Mojave Wasteland. I had found them hunkered down in a bunker, licking their wounds from a prolonged battle. I helped them repair their damaged machines and traveled the Wasteland with one of their scribes; in return, they made me a member of their order in full standing. I’d also convinced them to stay out of Mr. House’s business, and the Brotherhood had agreed.

I believed in Mr. House’s mission to rebuild humanity from the ashes of nuclear war. New Vegas was a paradise, a place where a person could walk down the Strip and not be killed by drug-addled raiders or forced into servitude by slavers. I’d been trying to play all sides against the middle that was Mr. House, brokering peace with factions that were amenable to it, the Brotherhood among them.

Mr. House wanted the Brotherhood gone regardless. He wanted me to bury my friends alive in their underground bunker, and I was going to kill him for it.

• • •

I enjoyed that Fallout: New Vegas presented me with this moment. I had to weigh my allegiances and consider the costs of my actions. The way I was enveloped by this decision, the way the outside world faded around me for just a few seconds as I realized what had to be done—that’s the kind of effect that makes me treasure video games.

I didn’t have to kill Mr. House. I didn’t even investigate whether it was possible to finish the game without resolving the conflict between him and the Brotherhood. I decided instead to rip him out of his cryogenic chamber and blow him to bits with a shotgun at close range. I was irritated that Mr. House had put me in a position where I had to contemplate my choice, much less carry it out. He got what he deserved. Fuck him. What’s stuck with me, however, is how quickly I decided to execute him.

I didn’t have to kill Mr. House.

My favorite scene in The Godfather is when Sonny Corleone beats the living shit out of his brother-in-law, Carlo. Carlo had been hitting Sonny’s sister, Connie. When Sonny hears this, he finds Carlo on the street, punches him into bloody submission, and threatens to kill him if he ever lays a hand on Connie again.

Carlo runs when Sonny shows up; he knows exactly what he did. I smile every time the scene plays out because what I’m seeing is justice, immediate and decisive. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that Carlo deserves every second of it. Sonny is defending his younger sister by making sure Carlo never, ever hits her again. It bothers the hell out of my wife that I adore this scene so much. She thinks it glorifies violence. I think it glorifies justice.

I am a firm believer in corporal and capital punishment, even as I realize that neither are or ought to be realistic options for the society we currently live in. That philosophical position requires a precursor thought experiment, the assumption of a world where the innocent are never wrongfully found guilty and men like Michael Brown and Eric Garner find justice. And a world where the mentally ill get treated such that violence owing to mental illness no longer exists.

Maybe I’m naïve for thinking such a world could exist, but I think that between scientific advances, a better class of law enforcement officer, and breaking down the stigma of mental illness, humanity can get there. Maybe the idea of justice can actually mean something in that future. It certainly doesn’t seem to mean anything right now.

I believed in Mr. House’s mission to rebuild humanity from the ashes of nuclear war.

• • •

I didn’t think about why Mr. House wanted the Brotherhood killed, what the greater good might have been, or whether the Brotherhood might someday threaten New Vegas. All I thought about was that someone had threatened my friends, that it was wrong, and that I had to mete out the only effective punishment I could. And by “effective,” I mean “permanent.”

Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers bears almost no resemblance to the gonzo film adaption. The novel is a treatise about the use of force. When humanity discovers the insect-like Arachnid race, it becomes an “us or them” scenario. Heinlein suggests that any species unwilling to use force doesn’t deserve to exist because use of force is the essence of survival.

In his story, a trainee goes AWOL from an army unit and kills a little girl. Months later, the trainee is captured, and the military hangs the trainee. What follows is a lengthy examination of corporal and capital punishment. Heinlein argues that human beings have no inherent moral instinct and that it must be taught. Corporal punishment helps this along by drawing and immediately enforcing fair boundaries.

No one in their right mind believes that theft, rape, and murder are acceptable. Where we differ is in how we react to these crimes, how much sympathy we feel for the criminal, how much we blame the system, and how much we’re willing to look for reasons why we shouldn’t blame the thief, rapist, or murderer.

What has stuck with me the most from this conversation of ethics is when Rico goes to sleep the night of the hanging. “The one thing I was sure of was that he would never again kill any little girls,” Rico says. “That suited me. I went to sleep.” I think I understand that. I am sure Sonny Corleone slept soundly the night he beat up Carlo.

I am a firm believer in corporal and capital punishment, even as I realize that neither are or ought to be realistic options for the society we currently live in.

• • •

It was easy to pass summary judgment on Mr. House. He wasn’t real. I still didn’t enjoy making the decision to kill him, however, and I think that’s an important lesson about capital punishment. It should never be easy.

I live in Boston, where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been on trial for the Boston Marathon bombing. The night of the running firefight between law enforcement and the Tsarnaev brothers, the elder brother Tamerlan was killed. As the police cornered Dzhokhar, hiding in a boat in someone’s backyard, wounded and losing blood, I wished that he’d been killed during the firefight, as well.

That would have been easy, immediate justice. Like when I catch someone in New Vegas trying to kill an innocent. A quick pull of the trigger, and rightful sentence is carried out.

Back in the real world, I wonder if I’d be able to push the button or pull the trigger that would lead to the death of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev by the state, if he is found guilty. I’d like to think that I could. We profess not to believe in cruel or unusual punishment. Sentencing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to a life sentence in solitary confinement, because he likely wouldn’t survive in gen pop for very long, sounds more cruel to me than execution.

I killed Mr. House because it was just. I made sure he could never threaten anyone—especially just for getting in his way—ever again. I’d had faith in Mr. House, trusted him, even grown to like him, but I knew it was the right thing to do even as I resented having to do it.

I can’t make the world a better place, but at least I can save New Vegas.

Photo via Simbach/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed