By Merricks 4 Comments
The year is 1998 or so and I am a dumb kid standing in a video game store, holding a box in my hand and waiting in line to pay for it. I don't know what the game is, really, but I picked it up because it looks cool and like I said, I am a dumb kid. They say you should never judge a book by its cover, but sometimes that's the only thing you have to go on, and the cover of this particular box looks cool okay, so give me a break. I must have done something awesome in a previous life because boy did this act of randomness pay off.
The guy behind the counter takes it from me and turns it over in his hands.
"Are you with your parents?" He says.
"You can't buy this without your parents permission."
"Oh." I said. "My dad's over there." And then I pointed to some random guy I'd never even met before in my life.
The checkout guy cashes up the game and gives it to me, and unlocks the world of Fallout 2 and a love affair that I've not been able to shake since. Then I got minus one karma point for lying.
Let's talk about what karma is.
Life is tough and bad things happen. Well according to the fundamentals of Hindu philosophy; tough knuckles, buddy. Your suffering is deserved based on your previous actions, as is the suffering of everyone else. It explains the cause and effect mentality of Fallout 2 based on the moral decisions you make within the game. Despite beginning the game as a fully grown adult male or female, you are a blank slate; a true neutral karma parchment. I guess Fallout 2 was the first game I played with open world elements. I finally found myself in a world that would let me plumb the depths of depravity without any real world consequence. This is a game where you can dig up graves, become a porn star, drug addict, slaver, even child killer. You can turn your character into a nihilistic force of random destruction. In a more spoiler free anecdote, when entering the city of Modoc it is possible for you, as the player, to encounter an injured Brahmin (The sickly mutated two-headed bovines of the Fallout 2 universe.) and if you are so inclined, use your doctoral abilities to nurse the sick creature back to health, no doubt gaining yourself a mad number of karma points for your altruism, at which point if you are so inclined, you may now lead the grateful cattle into a nearby slaughterhouse and have it burst into meat jerky and negative karma. These are the tiny actions you make that add up to the way people perceive you in the world of Fallout 2.
Something a little more brutal. There are children in Fallout 2, and for the most part when you encounter them, they are thieves, because that is the nature of the post-apocalypse that is being portrayed. Steal to survive. If you want your items back, you either have to pay to buy them back, be particularly persuasive, or pull out your gun and blow half the town to reincarnation. Option 3 of course will land you with a huge amount of negative karma, but is it really negative? If you tally it all up, you've regained your lost items, plus all the additional vital cash, weapons and ammunition you can loot from your pile of fresh dead, and on top of all that you've got experience for doing so. Fallout 2 actually rewards bad doings. Stealing gets you items you would otherwise never have been able to afford, and valuable experience. As does killing. As does lying and intimidation, and for the most part in the game as an evil player, you never have to go out of your way to do something you don't want to do. You want the guard to let you into the building without doing his stupid fetch-quest first? Pick-pocket the key from him and let yourself in. While you're there, drop a dynamite in his back pocket and take the rest of his junk off whatever remains you can find. The evil prosper.
In Hindu philosophy, that's where reincarnation kicks in. Karma is not just a combination of your good and evil deeds in this life; but in all of your lives. Which makes it all the more confusing how you were able to start this game at a flat zero. The evil prosper, but oh man, in the next life you are so coming back as a bot fly, or a maggot, or a tree, or something. Last time you stepped on a slug, you probably killed Hitler again. What's worse, according to the principles of karma and reincarnation, if your karma is particularly bad, you will probably come back destitute and diseased, and you have nobody to blame but yourself for it; in a previous life.
Of course Fallout 2 never lets you live long enough to see these real negative consequences of your actions. Sure, you might get a cold response from the odd NPC, or you might end up with a number of bounty hunters on your head, but that's not really Karma is it? That's just life. If I punch you in the face, you are going to punch me back. There are no cosmic forces at work there.
Fallout 2 never lets you see the real consequences of your karmic actions, because unlike a lot of games, Fallout 2 actively shuns the concept of reincarnation. Death is death in the Fallout 2 universe, there are no second lives or continues. If one of your companions falls to a stray bullet in combat, there are no phoenix downs or smelling salts to bring them back. In that sense, your decisions are final. If you fuck up and something bad happens as a result, you have to live with that. When you die, you are dead. The only option is for you to reload your save and in doing so you cleanse yourself of the negative choice you previously made. The karma doesn't carry across universes.
Depending on the way you look at karma, this can still make sense. Maybe karma is not a cosmic force of punishment and reward, but a real life explanation for cause and effect. If you are an asshole, people will treat you like an asshole. The fitting consequence of child killing in Fallout 2 is that within the game world, people will treat you like a child killer.
Taking a few steps back, what about games that actually do employ principles of reincarnation. Maybe it's not true reincarnation, but the concept of extra lives. This has been a staple of so many video games, particularly platformers, since the days of Pac-Man, Kong, Asteroids, etc. Almost safe to say now, a staple of video games since before you were born. Maybe that didn't land, but statistically I had a good chance.
Except, in these games there is no way for you to accrue positive or negative karma in any real sense. Consider that stomping on the heads of a thousand Goombas is in effect negating any karmic impact it would have on you. Minus one karma for killing. Plus one karma for saving the princess. This leaves you stuck in an endless loop of karmic limbo, reliving the same life over and over again, to die at the last jump of the level. Still, this isn't reincarnation. Reincarnation doesn't provide you a retry of actions you have already taken. Reincarnation doesn't helpfully deposit you at a convenient point in history to relive your life and provide a second chance to fix your mistakes. The concept of lives in video games is more applicable to the concept of parallel universes. Each death is a sidestep to the left, picking up from a split in time. Sure it is possible you could have died here by stupidly running into this hole in the floor. You lived that universe; now let's see what the alternative is.
Back on the subject of karma to finish. It is becoming a more and more appealing outlook on life. There is no true need to subscribe to any sort of cosmic force of justice, but it is comforting to think that overall, people will get what is coming to them, good or bad. That evil can't really win because karma will balance all that shit out in the end. If not in this life, then in the next. But that presents a pretty damning criticism for Karma too. To say that when I pulled the trigger in Fallout 2 that sent that thieving child into nonexistence will land me with negative karma, is to say that the thieving child deserved to die. That in a previous life he did something so terrible that he deserved to be born into destitution, that he did something so bad that karmic justice had to step in and take control of my trigger finger in order to lay vengeance upon him, and if it is karma pulling the trigger, then do I really deserve to be burdened with that negative karma point? Is that not something that is then out of my control?