My mother shows enough passing interest in my gaming habit that when she pays a visit she’ll sit down on the couch and crochet while I play videogames. So it was that mom was a spectator for a session of Fallout 3 and one of the vilest displays I can act out in any videogame I own. My character, Vault Boy, laid into a human raider with his combat shotgun, a shotgun with a drum barrel that required no pumping action and had a deep ammunition magazine.
When the raider fell, Vault Boy walked over to the corpse and reloaded his weapon. Vault Boy then proceeded to blow off the corpse’s head, arms and legs, in that order. The coup de grace was a barrage of shells loosed into the chest of the deceased. The body exploded into bloody chunks strewn on the ground. And my mother asked me “Why are you shooting someone who’s already dead?”
I laughed a laugh that would have made The Joker proud. I was destroying a corpse because I was Vault Boy, the evilest motherfucker I’ve ever portrayed in a video game, born from the depths of my neuroses and other psychological maladies and standing tall as the character I’ve had the most fun portraying in a videogame, ever.
And I find that a little disturbing.
The Fallout franchise takes place in an alternate future in which the United States and China engaged in full-out nuclear war in the late 21st century. The world is an apocalyptic wasteland filled with mutated monsters, Super Mutants (an experiment in creating human beings who could survive radiation which went awry and created a race of 10-foot-tall green humanoids who eat people) and the ubiquitous human bandits we can expect of a world without laws, not to mention the determined survivors attempting to rebuild society.
The player in the Fallout franchise almost always portrays a character that was born in a Vault, an underground, self-sufficient survival shelter that houses entire communities of human beings. Generations are born, live and die within the hundreds of Vaults buried throughout the United States, and the overarching plot of each game usually involves some poor Vault dweller who is thrown out into the wasteland by circumstance.
During the prologue of Fallout 3, which takes place in Vault 101, our character happens upon a would-be gang called the Tunnel Snakes. The Snakes wear leather jackets and have greased-back hair a la Fonzie from Happy Days, and we find them tormenting our friend Amata. The choice of whether to defend Amata or join in with the teasing is one of the earliest moral decisions a player has to make in Fallout 3 and it potentially results in a fistfight with Butch, the gang’s leader.
In Fallout 3, you can kill the characters as long as they’re not children. And I mean all the NPCs.
Eventually, events transpire that send Vault 101 into chaos and force you to leave your home – to remain is to court being lynched by a mob of angry residents. In the course of the escape, you encounter security guards fighting giant, mutated roaches and you later encounter Butch, who begs for your help. His mother is being attacked by a radroach and he is terrified of them. I followed Butch to his mother’s room and found her screaming in terror as she was attacked by the giant insect. Then I killed Butch’s mother right in front of him.
I knew I was going to kill Butch the moment he asked me for help, but I decided he should see his mother die first. It was payback for the fight we’d had earlier and no one would know who had done it. People would blame the radroaches. And so, as Butch cursed my character for his crime, I laughed uproariously and proceeded to beat Butch to death with my bare fists. I left the bodies for the radroach’s supper. This was Vault Boy’s baptism in blood.
You can save your game in Fallout 3 whenever you want and I had saved mine just before making my escape from Vault 101. After Vault Boy murdered Butch and his mother, I seriously considered taking back the crime by loading that save file.
I didn’t because it felt too good to be evil.
I was raised by devout Roman Catholic parents in a middle-class suburb that was something out of Edward Scissorhands, sans the pastel colors. Our lawn was green and lush, our summers idyllic with backyard barbecues and Little League. I passed time exploring the forests that were all around my neighborhood. I went to good schools filled with good kids and never got into any trouble worth mentioning. However, my Catholic upbringing ensured a healthy dose of guilt whenever I did anything which was “wrong” by the most liberal definition.
Growing up is the process of learning how to abandon the lies of our childhood and accept the world for what it is, to not ruminate on what could be but to make peace with what is.
I was also reading at a second-grade level when I was two-and-a-half years old, which was freakishly young for the kids in my small town. With the word gifted hung around my neck like an albatross, I was raised to believe that I truly was bright enough to do whatever I wanted to do in life and to be successful at anything I put my mind to.
Growing up is the process of learning how to abandon the lies of our childhood and accept the world for what it is, to not ruminate on what could be but to make peace with what is. Trying to be good all the time is a fool’s errand. We all have limitations to deal with. One of mine was the debilitating mood disorder which kicked in during my early teens, didn’t get diagnosed until I was 23, and didn’t start to get under control until my early 30s. And so, egging on the violent clash between the ideals I was raised with and the reality they crashed against was the constant challenge of not allowing that anger and frustration to erupt into violent rages.
The thing about villains is they’re mentally disturbed. In The Avengers Loki has daddy issues which makes him seek to conquer the Earth, ostensibly to become the center of someone’s attention. In the graphic novel The Killing Joke, we learn that The Joker lost his pregnant wife to a malfunctioning bottle warmer which electrocuted her and the baby. That’s the underlying tragedy and pain which fuels every evil deed The Joker commits. Maybe he’s taking his revenge on the world.
Villains are fucked up in the head. They’re broken. And so they let go of whatever discipline makes the rest of us cling onto society and politeness and acceptable behavior, and they throw morality to the wind and say “Fuck it.” They murder and rape and pillage and burn and destroy to their heart’s content and damned if they don’t always seem like they’re enjoying it. They have a kind of freedom the rest of us deny ourselves because we know better. We can imagine the consequences and we have something to lose. We care about ourselves.
Villains don’t. Lord knows that sometimes I just wanted to be a villain in the real world, to let go of the constant struggle to keep a lid on all my disappointments with myself and the world and the people around me, and the constant self-hatred of berating myself for not being more than I was because that’s what I was supposed to be, and the desire to just lash out and let it all burn because, Fuck it, why not?
Vault Boy is an oil well that’s drilled down and tapped into the reservoir of fantasized evil that all my condensed rage dissolved into over decades. We all have our Shadow Selves in the Jungian sense and mine has been slowly dissected by psychiatrists and therapists for decades until he no longer bubbles near the surface in times of extreme stress or anger or pain. Vault Boy gives form to whatever is left.
Role-playing games make us actors, and actors often talk about the liberation that comes with portraying a villain. I understand precisely what they mean. Vault Boy is a homicidal maniac who could look any mass murderer in the real world, any Bond villain in the movies, or any comic book reprobate with delusions of world conquest in the eye and say, “I’ll do you one better.”
If you don’t give Vault Boy what he wants, he kills you. In the heart of the ruins of Washington is a radio station called Galaxy Radio, run by a DJ named Three Dog. Three Dog offered Vault Boy a deal. If Vault Boy helped him fix an antenna to boost Galaxy Radio’s signal, Three Dog would give Vault Boy the location of an old National Guard armory. Vault Boy asked Three Dog to give him the armory location without the favor being done. When Three Dog chuckled kindly and refused, Vault Boy blew him into a bloody mess with his shotgun.
If Vault Boy thinks it will be amusing, he kills you. When Vault Boy met a man named Harold who had mutated into a tree, Harold begged Vault Boy to put him out of his misery, but not by fire. Anything but fire. So, of course, Vault Boy immolated him immediately, because it was funny to listen to the man/tree scream as he burned.
If Vault Boy thinks you’re encroaching on his turf, he kills you. In Fallout 3 there’s a community of human slavers that holed up in an abandoned strip mall named Paradise Falls. They gave Vault Boy a stun gun called a Mesmetron and slave collars to go out into the Capital Wasteland and bring back choice captives. Vault Boy did so because it was funny, then freed all the slaves and murdered them, and then killed all the slavers on their own turf.
Vault Boy will kill you just because he loves the chaos that ensues. Vault Boy planned to detonate a nuclear warhead in the town of Megaton, but first he cleared the town out the old-fashioned way, with his shotgun. The townspeople fought back and Vault Boy waded through the gunfire, killing everyone he met. He had an evil henchman along for the ride assisting with the rampage, and when the last civilian fell, Vault Boy turned on the henchman and blew his head off. I laughed my ass off at the betrayal. It was the cherry on top of a sundae of slaughter.
One of the expansions to Fallout 3 takes place in The Pitt, the ruins of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. One day Vault Boy is going to take The Pitt by storm, and leave it devoid of a single, human soul, and it will be hilarious and gratifying and sometimes I worry about just how much fun that’s going to be.
It’s not real. It’s only a video game. But someday photorealism is going to be within our grasp. We’re going to have haptic interfaces and full-immersion rigs and maybe we’ll even have graphics that project onto our eyeballs for truly virtual realities. Maybe Fallout 30 will take place in that environment, someday when I’m in my late 60s and, if experience is any measure, my demons will have mellowed with age and I’ll be mostly at peace with my life.
There will still be a Vault Boy waiting to be born, because we all have a villain inside us. I’m just much more familiar with mine than you might be with yours. Maybe for you, in that virtual-reality world, committing acts of atrocious evil will be more difficult than ever. But my malicious sense of mischief – fed by years of wanting to do wrong for the sake of doing wrong, fed by a desire to abandon any pretense of trying to be something I’m supposed to be, fed by the frustration of finding that my mind can literally be my own worst enemy…
I’m always going to understand why it’s good to be a villain even if, by the grace of my wife and my family and all the good fortunes heaped upon me, I managed to resist becoming one when it felt like it was all I wanted to do. For that, I have Vault Boy.
Dennis Scimeca is a freelance writer from Boston, Massachusetts. You can enjoy his random excitations on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.