While it is interesting to note how the various factions of the DC Wasteland treat their tech, or how self-aware technology upholds itself morally, the truest test of the idea that technology in Fallout 3 is without an inherent ethical standpoint is how the player interacts with it. The player’s choices represent the moral possibilities the creators of the game offered the human interacting with their technology.
The first location the Lone Wanderer is likely to discover after leaving the vault is the settlement of Megaton. This town is literally built around the bomb. The centre of the settlement is an unexploded nuclear warhead left over from the war in 2077. People began gathering around it, and not only a city, but also The Church of the Atom came from this specific bomb.
The player has the neutral option of leaving the bomb alone, and going on with their life. The town will remain as it has always been, and Megaton stands as one of the most important settlements in the Wasteland. The bomb is safe. If the player stands close to it, it does bleed radiation, but it is not hard to avoid the limited radius of this effect. The status quo can be maintained.
The player is offered a reward by Lucas Sims, the local sherif, to disarm the bomb. While it is stable and safe, and can be left alone, the town would be even safer if the bomb couldn’t go off. The player is rewarded with some cash, karma, and a place to live in Megaton. The community completely accepts the Lone Wanderer if the bomb is made into an irradiated decoration.
Even in the atomic ravaged DC Wasteland, there is someone who wants to use the weapon. Mr Burke, a representative of Alistair Tenpenny, will offer the Wanderer 500 caps, five times what Lucas offered, to set off the bomb. He can be talked up to 1000 caps. If the player agrees, they are also given a suite in Tenpenny tower. the house in Megaton offered for the good karma solution is a corrugated metal shack. The Tenpenny Tower suite given to the evil character is one of the nicest places to be found in the Capital Wasteland.
Destroying the town is one of the most evil actions that a character can take in the game. If you meet James, the Lone Wanderer’s father, after either disarming or setting off the bomb, he will comment on this action. It is the only quest he will comment on, indicating the importance of the quest. The negative karma gained from setting off the bomb is exceedingly difficult for the player to overcome, and will generally set a character permanently down the road to evil if the town is destroyed.
It is very easy to apply moral judgements to a nuclear weapon. The real world implications let us know that using a bomb of that magnitude is generally an evil, if not questionable action. Considering the character will only have the option to set the bomb off for economic gain, there is no question that it is wrong to use the Megaton bomb.
Interestingly, even in a postapocalyptic nuclear wasteland, the Megaton bomb is not the most powerful force of destruction.
The main quest-line in Fallout 3 involves assisting James in rebuilding Project Purity. This is a water treatment facility which will provide clean water throughout the Wasteland.
As always, the player has the neutral choice to ignore project purity. The world is rich and varied enough that the Wanderer can explore the remains of Washington without assisting James. At any point, the Project Purity quest can be abandoned, and there is no push to return to it. The game will allow the player to explore its world and partake in its other quests. Dialogue does not suggest the character needs to work on the Project. There is no counter ticking down, or penalty. In fact, before the DLC was released, completing the Project ended the game, so anyone wishing to see more of the game needed to leave it alone.
The character can use the water purifier to clean the radiation out of the DC basin. As the DLC reveals, this is not instant, and it takes time. However, clean water is delivered to everyone throughout the wasteland by the Rivet City Security and the Brotherhood of Steel. Slowly, the water is being cleaned, but for the time being it needs to be siphoned off bit by bit and delivered. Eventually, people will no longer need to drink irradiated water.
Project Purity is also the most terrible weapon in the game. As the player attempts to escape the Enclave at Raven Rock, President Eden will provide the character with a vial of modified FEV virus. This can be inserted into the purifier. If the player chooses to do so, the virus in the water will attack any non-human or modified cell in anyone who drinks the water. The water will kill ghouls and super-mutants. Eden reveals it will attack any irradiated cells. The wastelanders, who have been exposed to radiation all their lives, through their environment, their food, and their water, will die from drinking it, just more slowly than the ghouls and the super-mutants.
The purifier is designed to clean the entire basin, so all the water in the DC Wasteland will be effected. While the Megaton bomb can destroy one of the largest settlements in the area, the purifier will wipe out all life. Eden ensures the player that because the Wanderer was raised in the vault, they will not be effected. However, in the DLC, drinking the tainted water lowers the stats of the Wanderer. Too much exposure to the outside world has made the player’s character susceptible to the FEV.
If the player uses it, only the residents of Vault 101, who have never been outside, will survive.
The destructive power of Project Purity is the most important part of the statement. All technology can be used for the wrong purposes. Any item can be a force of destruction, and more important than the intended effect of the original builder is how the item is used. The Megaton bomb, a weapon designed to destroy a city, instead had one built around it. Project Purity, designed to save the Wasteland, can be used to eradicate all life.
It’s not the technology that is responsible for the good or evil of its use. It waits to be used. It is the people who use it, to amplify their own wants, to increase their own scale, that determine the moral capacity of any human invention. In Fallout 3, technology amplifies human potential, and human choices, but those choices always remain with the individuals in possession of the tech.