Welcome back to Philosophy and Ethics in games, where I discuss the deep side of game worlds and what they mean. Today, we’re returning to the world of Fallout 4 to talk about the Institute and how good people can wind up doing bad things in the name of the greater good.
Let’s start with a quick primer on what the Institute is for those who may be unfamiliar.
Fallout 4 is a role-playing game set in the future where the world has experienced a nuclear apocalypse. You play as a character deemed the sole survivor, finding yourself being brought into an underground vault as the first bombs drop near your home. You are shuffled into what winds up being a cryogenic freezer, with your husband or wife (depending on who you chose to play as in the opening) being put in one across from you with your baby boy, Shaun, in their arms.
It turns out, the vault you were assigned to was part of an experiment on the effects of cryogenically freezing subjects without their knowledge or approval and you find yourself blacking out as the freezing takes place. This experiment is part of a series of different experiments being done by the owner of the vault, Vault-Tec, and I’ll probably be making a whole video about them at some point, but that’s the set-up for what happens over the course of the game.
See, you wake up from this cryo-sleep twice. The first time, you witness someone in a lab coat stealing your child from your spouse’s arms. The lab person is accompanied by a man with a gun who shoots your spouse and then refers to you as the “backup” before walking away as you drift back off to sleep. The second time you wake up, the cryo-pod opens and you stumble out to find your spouse dead and your son missing. Vowing revenge and assuming it’s only been a short time since the murder/kidnapper was there, you wander through the vault until you make it back to the elevator that takes you to the surface.
The world you find above is much different than the one you saw prior to entering the vault, and you learn that you’ve been sealed away for a little over 200 years. In that time, remnants of society have held on, with small settlements even starting up, full of people just trying to survive. This new wasteland is full of threats, from super mutants to feral ghouls and giant monsters that used to be a thing only found in movies and books. Of all the terrors the wasteland holds, however, you soon learn that the people of the commonwealth fear one thing above all else, The Institute.
The Institute is very clearly a kind of boogeyman for the denizens that call this new world home. Rumors swirl about kidnappings of innocent people, murder and total control over the lives of unsuspecting townsfolk. As you search for Shaun, you start to uncover things that sound like wild conspiracies. The biggest one of these involves The Institute replacing people with some kind of machine called a Synth. These Synths are supposedly so human-like that no one can tell the difference between them and the person they replaced. Families and communities have been torn apart, and no one knows what’s real and what’s not.
Before long, you track down the man responsible for taking Shaun. His name is Kellog, and he works for The Institute. Before you kill him, he reveals it’s been a lot longer than you realized since the boy was taken, and you aren’t looking for a baby anymore.
To make an even longer story a little shorter, we’ll skip over the bulk of what happens next, but you eventually wind up making it into The Institute and finding Shaun. It turns out, it’s been about 60 years since he was taken and he’s now an old man and actually in charge of running The Institute. As the story unfolds, you have decisions to make about who to side with and what you want to do, but no matter what you do Shaun eventually dies and you either wind up in charge of running The Institute in his place or you blow the whole thing up.
So, now that you know the context, let’s dive in a bit and talk about why the institute is evil.
That’s the motto of this supposedly scientific facility. It was founded shortly after the bombs dropped, dug out by some researchers who had taken refuge in the remains of the Commonwealth Institute of Technology and their descendants. Over time, they built out more and more of the facility, eventually carving out a rather futuristic looking space and beginning work on android-like robots. These androids would be refined over time, with each new iteration showing improvements until they would become synthetic humans, Synths.
These Synths contain DNA from a pre-war individual, the player’s son, and are indistinguishable from humans. The Institute treats Synths as nothing more than androids, robots with no feelings or ideas of their own that are meant solely to serve humans. If a Synth tries to escape, they send a specialized kind of Synth called a Courser to capture and return what is deemed as a defective unit so it can be “re-programmed”.
As you explore The Institute, you can read through terminals that reveal bits and pieces of the inner workings of the departments, talk to the department heads and see first-hand how Synths are created. It’s clear as you learn more that most of the scientists that live and work there seem to think they are doing work that will help those on the surface. At a glance, it seems like they truly are trying to make the world in general a better place.
You can find specialized plants, being cultivated in such a way as to grow better in the wasteland. There is some really advanced looking medicine and new types of food, and if that was all, it might be believable that they were preparing to go to the surface and help rebuild.
The first couple of missions you are sent on after having the chance to look around the facility involve helping to recover Synths who have gone astray. The first is one who was re-programmed by a group called The Railroad. He runs a group of raiders who have been causing trouble for settlers. After meeting up with a courser, you make your way through the base made up of boats in a harbor, finally reaching the gang leader. Using the recall code for the Synth supplied by the Courser, the boss is taken down and returned to The Institute.
Now, this first mission seems to be building up the idea that The Institute is there to help. After all, this Synth was doing horrible things as the leader of this gang of raiders, taking it out means settlements and caravans will be a little safer.
Before we go any further, I feel it’s prudent to talk a bit about how you get good people to do bad things. On the whole, most people would probably agree that one human doing harm to another is wrong. We wouldn’t want someone to harm us, so it only makes sense we would see that as a bad thing. But when does a bad thing become a good thing?
For instance, locking someone in a small room with barely enough space to move would be seen as a bad thing. But we have no issue with putting someone in a jail cell when they’re accused of a crime. So, all we need to do then is find a justification that enough people will accept.
Mostly, this is due to empathy. The ability to imagine what someone else is feeling helps us work well together in social groups, but it can also lead groups to do evil things in the name of the greater good. Basically, if you can convince people that another person or group is out to get them or someone they care about, you can convince them to do whatever it takes to stop that individual or group. The most famous example of this comes from Germany in the 1930’s and 1940’s, but even in the modern day we see some truly evil things done in the name of the greater good.
After September 11, 2001, there was an outpouring of hate crimes against Muslim-Americans who were seen as the enemy even when they spoke out against the horrible attacks on New York and Washington. Retribution against a perceived enemy was justification for beatings, shootings and other heinous acts. Normally rational people can be convinced to do wholly irrational things for emotional reasons. “You did bad, so you deserve to have bad done to you” is enough for a lot of people.
Bringing this back to The Institute in Fallout 4, we return from this mission of stopping a gang leading Synth to receive another quest to recover a group of Synths the Railroad is trying to help. This group of Synths is holed up in a location called Bunker Hill, and you have to fight through a group of Railroad fighters as well as soldiers from the Brotherhood of Steel to get to them. Bear in mind, you can work with either of these other groups beforehand, and you can even be on this mission for other groups.
But look at the set-up, especially if you’ve only been working for The Institute. You’ve just come off a mission where one of the reprogrammed Synths went off to lead a gang of raiders, and now there’s a whole group of them getting ready to be reprogrammed. Why take the chance? How many of these Synths might wind up leading gangs of their own?
See how easy it is to make the leap? If stopping one Synth who wound up killing innocent civilians is a good thing, then stopping a group of them from potentially becoming the same way must be good. The humans you had to kill to get to that group of Synths are just collateral damage.
Now, there are a couple of decisions you can make during this mission, one of them leading to the Synths escaping, but no matter the outcome, the next step is meeting Shaun, the leader of The Institute, on top of the ruins of the Commonwealth Institute of Technology for a conversation. During this conversation, you get to decide whether you want to continue down this path of helping The Institute or if you want to go against them. Talking to Shaun also reveals the intention of The Institute.
He not only tells you that the Commonwealth is dead, but confirms he thinks there is no future for it. From a game logic standpoint, this leaves you with the decision to work for or against The Institute, but let’s bring it out into the real world. See, the game developers limit the possibilities. But is that a bad thing?
This is where some people might argue that other choices should exist, but would those choices actually be there in a real situation? Shaun has just told you that for all intents and purposes, The Institute is giving up on the Commonwealth. For all you know, working with them means you will be stuck living and working in the confines of The Institute for the rest of your life. Knowing how the game ends, it’s easy to say you should have been given the option to use the resources of The Institute to help the people of the Commonwealth, but not having that context means the options appear to be “leave the Wasteland as it is” or “Go against The Institute and help the Commonwealth improve”.
And that’s the context that matters. In the real world, we’re often forced to decide on supporting things or going against them on incomplete information. You don’t usually have hindsight to rely on when it comes to moral choices. In Fallout 4, you might choose to stick with the institute, maybe hoping to have the chance to make a positive impact, change the way they work and use their resources to help the Commonwealth. Then, you get to the end of the story and find out you don’t get to do this, you’re nothing more than a figurehead who does the bidding of the department heads. This, either by intentional or unintentional design, mirrors real life.
If you stay with The Institute, you’ll wind up doing some morally questionable things in the name of “the greater good.” You might have the best of intentions, but people get killed, and you tell yourself it’s OK because you’ll be able to rectify it in the end. Then the end comes and you find out you never had the option you thought you had.
You see this with people in real world situations as well. They stay with a company or government organization that does horrible things, telling themselves they will be able to fix the bad things in the future. You have to be inside the organization to change it, after all, so it’s worth it in the long run. Maybe the company uses cheap labor, exploiting human beings in parts of the world where the protections for workers don’t exist. If you just work for them long enough and do your job well enough, you’ll be in a position to make a change some day.
Or so you want to believe.
Or maybe they think the atrocities aren’t as bad as they seem? Perhaps they are justified to prevent further atrocities like our example of The Institute sending you to Bunker Hill.
It’s important to always examine your beliefs and the ideas and people you support. Stopping to ask yourself why you support something or someone and looking at it from an outside perspective can mean the difference between doing what is right and actively participating in harming others.
Fallout 4 is just a video game, and you can go back and replay it multiple times, choosing several different endings with the hindsight from previous playthroughs to lead you to the “best” ending. Life isn’t like that.
Making the moral or ethical choice isn’t always easy and it isn’t black and white. There is a lot of nuance in the real world, and you won’t always know if you’ve done the right thing until after the fact. The best thing you can do is always keep learning, find out as much as you can about a situation before making a decision on what you support, and be willing to admit you were wrong.
I want to thank you all for reading. This is the second article in this series and I’m excited to keep it going as I move forward. I’m going to be covering things from Red Dead Redemption 2, Skyrim, Assassin’s Creed and many more as I play through different games over on Twitch. You can be a part of the discussion by Subscribing to my channel on YouTube, stopping by to say hi when I stream on Twitch Tuesday through Saturday evenings starting at 6 PM ET and leaving a comment down below to let me know your thoughts and what other topics you’d like to see addressed. You can also help support me over on Patreon. Patrons get some cool perks and insider information and help me continue doing things like this. That’s all I’ve got for this one, have a great rest of your day and I’ll see you in the next one!