Return To New Vegas: Kleptomaniacal Ethics On The WastelandS

When I play Bethesda's open-world role-playing games, I steal. A lot. I know I'm not alone in this—in fact, I'd wager that almost every single human who has played Fallout 3 or Morrowind or Skyrim has stolen something or other.

After playing so many hours of Skyrim over the past year, I've noticed something odd during my extended return to Fallout: New Vegas—the Karma System. It changes everything.

I noticed immediately how every time I stole some (necessary! important!) piece of ammo or health kit, the game would play that oh-so-disappointed "You've lost karma!" sound effect, and I'd feel bad about myself. Even when I was robbing someone like The Silver Rush, the one place in New Vegas that absolutely demands robbery. It's run by a crime family, and they're all assholes. But nope, Karma lost.


I'm not the only one who feels that way—in this thoughtful essay over at Extra Credits, Daniel Starkey recently posted about how New Vegas' predecessor Fallout 3 made him confront his real-life stealing. Upon meeting and interacting with the hardscrabble survivors on around the Capital Wastes, Starkey realized that he felt bad about depriving them of their much-needed supplies.

In Fallout, as I encountered different enclaves of people with their own strategies for survival, I was asked to critically consider their lifestyle, understand their perspective and finally judge the rectitude of their actions. It forces us to answer, both from observation and through play, how far we'd be willing to go to survive in the wastes. Fallout: New Vegas takes that core narrative one step further, with more nuanced mechanics and a greater number of "morally gray" agents, the questions posed are both more realistic and more disconcerting.

Who we are isn't always easy to understand. I stopped stealing long before I played Fallout 3, but I only did so to save face. It wasn't until I experienced, in a very real way, the effects of my own actions, that I was able to truly come to terms with what I had done. And in 2008, I began to apologize to all the people I stole from.

An interesting analysis, to be sure. I wonder, though, how much it the Karma system factors into this sort of thing, consciously or unconsciously? In Skyrim, I steal until I'm blue in the face (or rather, red in the hand), and as long as I'm not spotted, no one cares. I do enjoy that kind of loose moral approach, as it makes it much easier to change playstyles halfway through the game.

But then, Karma has been a part of Fallout for as long as the series has existed, and it'll doubtless always play a role. Surely I'm not the only one wandering around New Vegas at this point, so I'm curious if any of you guys think twice about stealing from some folks in this game, or if anything goes? And if you do have second thoughts, does the Karma system play into that?

Games are falling fast and hard this time of year, but there's always time for a little bit more wasteland wandering. We'll have more Return to New Vegas posts up this week.