Criticism

Notes on Fallout: New Vegas

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If Fallout 3 is a game about spaces, then Fallout: New Vegas is a game about people.

This can be seen in the way that it informs the world design of both games. The Capital Wasteland of Fallout 3 is a vast, sprawling space with huge distances in between points of interest. The game wants the player to forge a relationship to the Capital Wasteland itself as they navigates its reaches. The Mojave Wasteland of New Vegas, on the other hand, is a lot smaller. There are several points of civilization in the wastes that are (almost) all connected by a singular road that loops around the map. In fact, this is how the game structures the first act of its main questline: you start in Goodsprings, head south to Primm, then the NCR outpost, then loop round and up to Novac, and finally New Vegas itself, all following the I-15/I-95. The distances between these pit-stops is shorter than the distance between any two locations in Fallout 3, especially without any train tunnel mazes to meander through, and there’s not much scenery in these interludes. It’s all wide, indistinct expanses of desert and the occasional valley. The Capital Wasteland always has the Washington Monument visible in the distance, drawing the player continually back to that frame of reference and forging a relationship between player and space. Not so in the Mojave.

What this does mean is that greater emphasis is put on the interactions that the player has with those pockets of civilization when they do reach them. The player is encouraged to stick around for a while and seek out all the Stuff that the developers have packed in. This is achieved through the quest design itself, which makes connections between settlements for the player to tap into. There are lots of side quests in New Vegas that simply entail bouncing between settlements to talk to different people.

Ranger Ghost in the NCR Mojave Outpost asks the player to go to Nipton to check out smoke coming from the town. When they get there, they find it has been sacked by the Legion, and Vulpes Inculta gives the player a separate quest to spread word of the Legion’s actions to strike fear into the NCR. Back at the Mojave Outpost, the player tells Ranger Ghost about Nipton, and in return get some dialogue explaining the significance of this event in terms of the conflict between the NCR and the Legion. They can also talk to Sergeant Kilborn in the Outpost to complete the quest given by Inculta.

These are quests that overlap, establish relationships between individuals, factions and locations, and also involve only travelling, observation and conversation in terms of gameplay. Rather than emphasising the movement of the player through the space of the Mojave itself, these quests ground the player in the geopolitics of the Mojave that they then become a part of. There are shades of this in Fallout 3, especially in the Broken Steel DLC, but they aren’t as well realised, nor are they as integral to the way that the game is structured as a whole.

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Technology is the driving force of the main questline. The plot itself revolves around three pieces of technology: the Platinum Chip, Mr. House’s Securitrons and Hoover Dam. In each case, they hold the key to victory for the main factions who seek to shape Vegas in their own image. The Platinum Chip in particular is the Macguffin-par-excellence, becoming narratively obsolete about halfway through the game.

I wrote before about how Fallout 3 treats history and history-making, especially with regard to the quest to retrieve the Declaration of Independence. Hoover Dam, like the Declaration, is an Old World relic, but this isn’t why it’s being fought over. The NCR and the Legion wage war over the Dam because it’s a source of power, both hydroelectric and political.* Throughout the game, the player is made to see the Dam in these terms: not as a reminder of the nations of old, but as a tactical focal point in the creation of new nations. Hoover Dam doesn’t beckon to a forgotten past, but stages the birth of an uncertain, malleable future.

There’s also the story of the Helios One power plant, now controlled by the NCR after a war with the Brotherhood of Steel that totally devastated the latter. The Brotherhood wanted control of the plant because they are obsessed with the history of Old World technology which they seek to preserve or destroy, like super-soldiers-slash-curators. The NCR want to hold onto it because if they can get it to work and provide power to the Mojave, they believe that the people of the wastes will come to them for a piece and aid their expansion efforts. Indeed, the story of the Brotherhood that plays out in New Vegas is an exploration of the idea that they need to start using technology like the NCR do – proactively, as a means of expanding power and influence – before they become irrelevant in the wastes and die out.

New Vegas is about the birth of new nations through technology, and the turning of otherwise benign, even benevolent, technologies towards political advantage. Given the history of the Great War and the role of the Fallout timeline’s technological divergence in the making of war technology, the Battle for Hoover Dam foreshadows the repetition of history’s mistakes. This interpretation is encouraged by the fact that each of the prominent technologies in the game is pre-War. There have been no significant new inventions that allow society to start over and free itself from the trappings of the Old World. Instead, the societies of the wastes cling to what they can salvage from the time before the apocalypse that doomed them in the first place.

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The problem I’ve always had with the revelation at the end of Lonesome Road – that in the past you delivered a package which led to the total destruction of the Divide and the death/ghoulification of everybody there – is that it merges action, reaction and consequence into one.

It gives the player some backstory for their own character: this is who you were, this is what you did. But the moment that you are told what you’ve done is the exact same moment that Ulysses wants you to face the consequences of those actions. This clashes with the rest of the game’s efforts to allow the players to see the consequences of decision they have made. Here, not only was it not a choice that the player made, but the player isn’t even aware that they didn’t make it until the last moment. And the player’s responses to Ulysses’ accusations are effectively variations on “I had no idea!” My thoughts exactly.

It would be different, I think, if this previous delivery job had been mentioned or seeded prior. But instead, it ends up feeling like the Macguffin has been revealed at the same time that it’s discarded.

Notes

*– In Fallout 3 there’s the water purifier in the Jefferson Memorial, but in that instance I feel like the Memorial itself is more a part of the game’s wider veneration of Old World architecture. For instance, when the purifier is turned on, the statue of Jefferson becomes visible, reminding the player of the presence of history at the literal centre of this world-changing technology.

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