Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Fallout Series's Madison Li's Worth

Doctor Madison Li of Fallout 3 and 4 sure does seem to draw a lot of ire from players. Really, it seems like any time the character is brought up in a discussion of the games, someone or other is going to jump in and talk about what a douchebag Dr. Li is, and/or how they’re glad she blows up with the Institute at the end of the game, and so on. And honestly? I don’t think it’s fair to find her so dislikable, nor take glee in her (uncertain, but likely) death at the end of the game. She may be kind of a pill to the player every time we see her in Fallout 3 and 4, but that doesn’t make her a bad person deserving of scorn, and it’s not hard to sympathize with the reasons for her attitude. Much like Edward and Cait Sith, Madison Li is a character who doesn’t deserve the scorn that the audience is all too eager to fling her way, and I want to use today’s rant to mount a bit of a defense for her.

Let’s start this post by looking beyond her admittedly negative personality for a moment (we’ll go back to it, no worries), and just look at her as a person overall. Doctor Li is actually quite a good person. In fact, I would say that Madison Li is unwaveringly moral, which is certainly difficult in the world of Fallout. Every time we see her in the series, she is devoting all her time and energy toward research for the sake of humanity. Early in Fallout 3, our first encounter with Li in Rivet City finds her researching ways in which fresh fruits and vegetables can be grown in the Capital Wasteland, which I would argue is a noble pursuit for her as a scientist, one which is aimed solely at the survival and betterment of all the people around her. While many scientific minds in the Fallout series pursue their fields for a variety of more self-motivated reasons (curiosity, personal survival, empowerment of themselves over others, etc), Doctor Li works with the intention of improving the lives of all.

This fact is only further cemented as we learn more about her in Fallout 3, and discover that before she was forced to take up her experiments in Rivet City, Li’s focus was on Project Purity, a grand scientific endeavor which aimed to find a way to purify the drinking water of the Washington D.C. area, providing clean, free water to all. I’ve always found Project Purity, the centerpiece of Fallout 3’s plot, to be a respectable, in fact inspiring concept...in its noble simplicity and the purely good and selfless intentions behind it is an intangible majesty, an undercurrent of the epic and deeply moving. James, the father of Fallout 3’s protagonist, is subtly but clearly put onto a pedestal by the game’s plot and characters as a paragon of virtue and nobility for his dedication to his wife’s dream, the dream of providing clean, free water, the foundation of life and civilization, to all...and yet, laudable though James certainly is, even he, the man that Fallout 3 uses as an icon of morality against which the protagonist measures her/himself, is not perfectly good and magnanimous. After the death of his wife, James gave up on Project Purity, and left so that he could raise his daughter/son in the safety of Vault 101. His decision is, of course, quite understandable as one made in grief and fear for being able to provide safety for his child when he could not even guarantee the life of the child’s mother, but nonetheless, the fact is that James, for all his generous ambition and noble belief in his wife’s dream of giving clean water to all, gave up on Project Purity. He made a decision to put his child’s welfare above that of the rest of the world’s. That’s not an act which I can decry...but at the same time, it is an act that also mars his otherwise iconic charity and overall goodness.

A marring act which is not true of Madison Li. Evidenced through the implications of her dialogue and the lore of Fallout 3, Doctor Li wanted to continue work on Project Purity, and she only stopped because the project didn’t have the expertise it needed without James’s presence, and because the Brotherhood of Steel, recognizing this fact, pulled its essential support from the doomed project. So ultimately, Li is actually a person of demonstrably greater morality than even James, the character whom Fallout 3’s plot designates as the icon for what is good, right, and noble, because she was forced to abandon their grand project of goodwill. And when she was forced to move on, she went right to working on another project whose goals were for the benefit of all people.*

And of course, it goes without saying that, when it is brought back to life during the events of Fallout 3, the fact that Madison Li resumes her efforts with Project Purity is just further evidence that she is a person who devotes her entirety to the benefit of others. Hell, she’s willing (albeit reluctantly) to drop the life that she has built for herself in Rivet City during the years of James’s absence to come and assist the project once more...and if anything, it’s all the more impressive and praiseworthy of her and the other scientists to do so this time, because this time the Brotherhood of Steel isn’t around to provide security. Madison Li and her team are willing to leave the ironclad safety of Rivet City and hole up at the Jefferson Memorial with absolutely no armed backing whatsoever, for the sake of this noble scientific endeavor. And more than any other region of America we’ve seen in the Fallout universe to date, the Capital Wasteland is NOT the kind of place you want to be out and about in without heavy armor and fire support. Super mutants and raiders are absolutely everywhere, and being surrounded by water, the Jefferson Memorial is prime territory for mirelurks (giant, highly aggressive mutant crabs, for those who aren’t in the know regarding the Fallout bestiary).

It’s worth noting that her exit from the Brotherhood of Steel between games and her work with the Institute are not any sort of black mark against her, either. Between Fallout 3 and 4, the deaths of Elder Lyons and his daughter Sarah allow for the Brotherhood of Steel’s east coast branch to transform from a proud, worthy order of tech paladins that embody the true intent of their order, into a tyrannical, self-important superpower of paranoid, xenophobic bigots who completely misunderstand the purpose of their collective. The fact that Doctor Li recognized this transformation as it occurred and got the hell away from the organization is nothing but a credit to her character.

Her subsequent acceptance into the Institute was, as with all things she involves herself in, done with only good intentions. Li was led to believe that the Institute’s single minded scientific pursuits were for the good of the human race, and you can hardly blame her for that, as most of the Institute’s other members also genuinely believe this. Hell, the Institute’s mouthpieces on the matter are convincing enough that there are even plenty of players who buy into this backwards logic that ignoring, abusing, trivializing, and replacing human lives can somehow “save” humanity (quotation marks because the nature of this salvation is laughably vague). In fact, even as she works for them, Li has enough presence of mind and healthy suspicion that if you find evidence that the Institute’s higher ups have been misleading her, she’ll leave it.

Of course, these exits from the BoS and Institute have, ridiculously enough, led some people to criticize Dr. Li for her lack of loyalty. Uh...yeah, okay, guys? Girls? All others? Being loyal to an employer/benefactor/country/whatever is a good thing, definitely. But that loyalty should NEVER, EVER trump your loyalty to your conscience. The idea that people would criticize Li’s lack of loyalty for leaving an organization that she can see is doing wrong is, no joke, terrifying to me. That is the kind of mindset that leads to whistleblowers being punished rather than praised by the very people whom they’re protecting. Anyone who turns against their corporation, social club, country, or any other kind of group for the sake of the people is a hero, to be respected. Criticizing Li for her lack of loyalty to the Institute and the emerging Fallout 4 Brotherhood of Steel...this is the kind of thinking that paves the way for fascist regimes, people!

Anyway, getting back to my first major point, her actions in Fallout 3 and 4 show beyond argument that Madison Li is an exceptionally good person. There is simply no time, save when she is outright deceived by others, in which she is not pouring herself into an effort to benefit all of humanity. She is one of the most uncompromisingly moral, virtuous individuals in the entire Fallout series. And that’s something I think deserves some respect.

But, of course, I suspect that what irks so many gamers and makes them despise Li is not a misunderstanding of her good work so much as it is her attitude. And...well, yeah. She’s kind of a pain in the ass! I mean, it seems like every time you meet Li in Fallout 3 and 4, she’s in a bad mood. She’s standoffish at best, and just plain rude the rest of the time. While I never found her attitude enragingly annoying, I can understand why it would put a person off.

But, y’know...I think that to judge her so harshly for it, to decide that you actively dislike Madison Li for the fact that she isn’t especially friendly and inviting whenever a protagonist comes across her, is really unfair. First of all, I think it’s just unfair from a general standpoint; people seem to have less enmity for many characters who outright attack or undermine the games’ protagonists than they do for this character who simply isn’t very nice. More importantly, though, I’d argue that Madison Li really has every damn right to be moody and unpleasant.

I mean, when you think about it, what exactly does Li have to be happy about? Everything, EVERYTHING in her life goes wrong. Fallout 3 implies (and for what it’s worth, the Fallout wikipedia backs this up) that Li was in love with James in her youth, but since James was married, she couldn’t act on her feelings. Then, when James’s wife Catherine died, he up and abandoned the project that they’d all put so much work and hope into. The man she loved just left the team behind, and she got to watch Project Purity fall apart before her eyes, forcing her to find a completely new life at Rivet City. She manages to make a life for herself there and finds a new way to work towards the good of humanity, and then, 19 years later, James shows up out of nowhere, and expects her to just drop everything to come back to the project that he abandoned. Whether for love for James, respect for Catherine’s dream, or simple goodwill toward humanity, Dr. Li does so, and puts her life at risk to make Project Purity happen.

And what does she get from doing so? She watches as the man she loves/loved is murdered before her eyes by the Enclave, and is forced to escape and go crawling to the Brotherhood of Steel, another group that had abandoned her in the past, to provide shelter for her and her team. And yes, by the conclusion of Fallout 3, Project Purity has finally come to fruition and the Enclave suffered retribution for their crimes...but that doesn’t bring James back, and the events surrounding the success of Project Purity give the Brotherhood of Steel a massive amount of technological power and regional success, and Li gets to watch as the changing leadership and priorities of this chapter of the Brotherhood begins to use that power and success for ignoble ends. And even when she finally finds another group that seems to be working toward the same goals as she is, the Institute, she finds that their lack of transparency is distressingly suspicious.

So let’s just summarize here: Loved a man who she could never be with. Got abandoned by him, and forced to give up on her life’s work. Spent 19 years building a new life only to be asked by the same guy to drop that life as though it didn’t matter at all, to take up the project that same guy originally abandoned. When this project finally succeeds, it comes at the cost of his life, and it led to the rise of a bunch of fascists. And when she finally joins the Institute, and rises up its ranks, she finds that its leaders are dodgy and don’t keep her in the loop about things.

Madison Li’s life, as far as we can see from the major relationships and roles she’s had in Fallout 3 and 4’s events and lore, is incredibly depressing. Her life is a story of a man she cares about making her feel unimportant, being used by others, and of paying for success with terrible tragedy.** And all of that is the reward she gets for attempting to do good for the world. So you know what? I think that it’s okay if she’s not all that cheery. Maybe it would be nice if she could rise above the lousy circumstances of her life and be nicer to people, but is it really fair to hold it against her if she can’t?

Doctor Madison Li is a woman who tirelessly works her ass off for the good of others for all her life, and she never gets rewarded for her unflagging dedication to doing what’s right. I think it’s high time that the Fallout fan community took a better look at her, and realized that her character should not be loathed and disparaged, but rather respected, even admired.

* You can make the argument that, as James himself says, he never really stopped working on Project Purity, since he continued his research in Vault 101. And that is a fair point. Nonetheless, with the project proper, he had more and better minds to help him, and greater time and resources to devote to it It’s good that he stayed devoted to the project as his daughter/son was growing up, but that’s definitely not an equivalent devotion to it as staying with his team would have been.

** And not that she knows it, but that life story doesn’t have a great ending, either. After all, with the end of the Institute in Fallout 4 (assuming that Nora/Nate is a decent person and doesn’t side with those self-important monsters) being an underground nuclear explosion, there’s every chance that Li perishes by the game’s end. I personally hope that she’s 1 of the Institute’s people who manages to escape (the game does give you the choice to sound an evacuation alarm), but even then, that just means that she’s once again been torn from a life she’s set up and left with nothing, which ain’t exactly a happy circumstance, either.

It’s no better if you convince her during Fallout 4’s events to return to the Brotherhood, either. I mean, either you’re a complete asswipe and sided with the Brotherhood, meaning that she’s now stuck working for a group of tyrannical, prejudiced asswipes because you lied to her about them having changed, or she’s dead, since if you don’t side with the Brotherhood you’re required to blow them the hell up. No happy ending for Doctor Li, no matter what. It really sucks.


  1. People usually find "good guys" boring and generic most of the time, so maybe that's why people dislike her? Not that I agree.

    I saw http://planescape.com/ somewhere (it's probably on RPGCodex) and https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/poeticstudio/sacred-fire-psychological-rpg-about-revenge-and-lo?ref=dcpn0d might interest you.

    1. Well, I agree that there's a strange tendency for people to incorrectly assume that outright good people make for boring characters, but no one complains that Dr. Li is boring; everyone's aggravation with her is far more hostile.

      Thanks for the link! I'm actually already a backer for Sacred Fire, so you obviously have a good handle on what kind of projects I gravitate toward. Spread it to others! I really want this one to succeed.