At Bethesda, Emil Pagliarulo has worked on Morrowind and Oblivion and is now lead designer on Fallout 3. Before working at Bethesda, he was a designer on the Thief series, and worked at Looking Glass and Ion Storm Austin.
I often struggle with whether or not we as game developers should have a heightened sense of social responsibility when creating entertainment.
Fallout 3 is an M-rated game—made for adults. Its violence is over-the-top and has been a central focus of not only our game, but the entire franchise. This is a series that in previous installments allowed players to kill children, right? When Bethesda first started developing Fallout 3, we had early conversations about whether you’re going to be able to blow the kids’ heads off . (Let’s be clear, with the ESRB’s rating system, that’s not something that would fly anyway.)
But then we began to think, really what benefit would there be in killing the kids in the game? It just seems gratuitous, unnecessary and cruel. The reverse of that is some of the great stories that have been told that involve kids. Look at George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books. Kids play an important part in that series, and violence to those kids is an important part of those stories.
You really have to balance out and consider if doing violence to a child in a game is so important to your story that it outweighs any kind of social responsibility you might have.
And here comes the struggle again: At the end of the day, I feel like I’m an adult and I’m conscious of my buying decisions. I’m not making a game for an eight-year-old; I’m making a game for a 38-year-old like me, so I’m okay with the content. It’s really tough for me because I am an adult who likes to play M-rated games, and so are many of the people reading this article, as well as many of those who’ve been following the development of Fallout 3 since day one.
Maybe it’s arrogant to think this way, but damn it, it’s my god-given right to blow guys’ heads off if I want to in my videogames!
Nevertheless, I still think there is a certain social responsibility to not make things too violent. Fallout 3 is very violent, but the violence is cartoony. Sometimes you’ll shoot a guy in the head and it won’t explode; it takes the whole head off. Is it realistic? No, it’s funny, and it becomes cool because of that.
Of course, I think that kind of “humor” is open to interpretation. We’ve gotten so used to (maybe even enamored with) the game’s violence. Actually it sometimes surprised us when we’d show the game to a spouse or someone outside of the studio, and they’d respond, “God! What the hell is that?!” They’re really taken aback by it. We had been working so closely to the game, we would forget about the possibility of that kind of response. But then again, the reaction to it among others has clearly been, “We want this game.” They like it and enjoy it, so a lot of people are sharing the same mindset that we have.
We’re grown-ups, we can make and play something like this. We think it’s funny, we think it’s fun and people have been agreeing with that. We don’t want to cross lines like killing kids (we actually never got as far as even putting kill-able kids in any builds of the game). For us, that was a line we certainly didn’t want to cross, and we think that was the right decision. It wouldn’t have been socially responsible, at least in the case of Fallout 3.