Thursday, March 5, 2015

Fallout: New Vegas - 3/20 hours

Fallout: New Vegas is my favorite game in the series, but I have to admit - Fallout 3 had the better opening. New Vegas' isn't bad or anything, it's just very by the numbers. The voice-over gives you a brief rundown of the political situation in the Mojave, and then it cuts to a group of thugs standing around a freshly dug grave. Their leader, a swanky (I know of no better word to describe him) 50s guy gives you a little speech about the meaning of fate, and then shoots you in the head. You wake up in a nearby doctor's office, and you create your character by answering the questions of the medical evaluation. There's a certain charm - you assign your stats with a "love-tester" machine (Doc Mitchell might not be the most qualified health practitioner out there) and of course, the whole "shallow grave in the desert" thing is practically obligatory in any Las Vegas story - but compared to the absolutely brilliant beginning of Fallout 3, it feels somewhat lacking.

On the other hand, it does have the advantage of getting you into the action relatively quickly. There's a tutorial where the improbably named Sunny Smiles teaches you the basics of wasteland survival, which I always do for the easy xp, but it's completely optional. In theory, you could be out exploring the world in as little as five minutes after starting a new file. And to be completely fair to the game, it's not entirely clear whether your character is supposed to have amnesia or not. It would certainly explain why you don't know anything about the world around you (which is why it's such a popular cliche), but nothing you have to do actually requires that your character be ignorant. So I'm only deducting half a point for using such a hoary old plot device.

The town of Goodsprings is a pleasant enough rpg starting town. It doesn't have any hugely memorable landmarks or crazy, over-the-top characters, but perhaps that's for the best - the very nature of the game means you're going to leave it sooner rather than later. It only has one quest of note - a group of bandits, called the Powder Gangers wants to get revenge on a trader named Ringo, who shot one of their number rather than pay "toll" money. Because the people of Goodsprings won't turn him over, they intend to invade. You need to organize the townspeople into an effective resistance.

Alternately, you can aid the Gangers in knocking over the town, but I don't see why anyone would actually do that - the reward is not particularly good, and the Powder Gangers' Leader, Joe Cobb, treats both you, and people who have been nothing but kind and helpful towards you, with a massive amount of disrespect, so even if you're not the "noble hero" type, it'd be much more satisfying to stop the invasion than help it.

It makes me think about the nature of video game evil. It's an oft-noted problem of games with a "morality" system that the "evil" choices tend to be so ridiculously over the top that no reasonable person would choose them, and thus, rather than being grim antiheroes or self-serving villains, "evil" characters are cackling jackasses who go around spreading misery for no particular reason.

I think the reason for this problem is violence, specifically how deeply ingrained it is in the very structure of video games. In real life, the defining characteristic of antisocial people like criminals is their willingness to initiate violence whenever they're frustrated by a problem that resists being solved any other way. It's not that they have exotic motives ("I'm angry and upset because I feel this other person isn't respecting me" has got to be the most common feeling in the world), but the fact that they believe these motives justify violence that makes them "evil."

In this context, the problem with video game writing becomes obvious - the mechanics of gameplay practically demand that violence be the go-to solution to almost every problem. So, going ludicrously over the top is pretty much the only way to distinguish "good" from "evil."

Take the situation in Goodsprings as an example. A good and an evil character are going to react in pretty much the exact same way. Joe Cobb rolls into town and starts throwing around threats and basically acting like he owns the place. And when you try to talk to him, he instantly disrespects you. There's basically nothing about this guy or his his cause that's appealing in any way. You actually have to chase him down and suggest that you can help him out before he'll even let you in on his plan, and at no point does he try and entice you with a reward. Furthermore, his actual complaint against the people of Goodsprings is incredibly petty ("some guy shot one of our guys while we were threatening to shoot him, and now we want revenge), so you don't even get a thrilling sensation of power by aiding him.

So an evil character, coming into this situation, is almost certainly going to go "Hey Cobb, you prick, these people were good to me, so if I ever see you and your cronies in this town again, I'm going to hack you apart with this rusty machete." And a good character will react almost the exact same way, but probably de-emphasize the machete hacking and play up the self defense angle. Even if you hypothetically add the proviso "and when I'm done, I'm going to track down your friends and give them a taste of the same treatment, to serve as an example of what happens to any asshole that dares cross me" well, spoiler alert, that'll get you "good karma" too.

And you know what, I'm fine with that. What's the alternative - "I spend the next twenty years teaching the ex-convicts the conflict resolution and technical skills necessary to help them deal constructively with their anger while making a positive contribution to society?" Maybe that would be an interesting game, but it's not what I signed up for. Still, a little more nuance to the psychology of violent characters would not be amiss.

That's not a specific complaint about Fallout: New Vegas, though. Even with the occasional nonsensical sidequest, I love this game. My next destination, Primm, exemplifies why. It's a minor town. You basically stop by once and then never think of it again, but it has a couple of memorable characters - the cowardly Deputy Beagle and the delightful robot, Primm Slim, and a backstory that manages to be a fun pop-culture parody without venturing into Fallout 2's sometimes immersion-breaking heavy-handedness. I absolutely adored hearing a robot with a cowboy hat explain the history of a cut-rate Bonny and Clyde, badmouthing a long-destroyed competitor, and making a terrible pun about Primm's "Primm-ier tourist attraction." So much so that, after clearing out the bandit presence, I reprogrammed him to be sheriff (that this also saved me a schlepp across the wasteland is purely coincidental, I assure you).

Information gathered from the grateful locals pointed me towards my next quest destination, and suggested that there was more to my near-death experience than a simple delivery gone awry. So it is, with a glad heart, and new robot companion (an old Enclave propaganda drone that I managed to repair), that I head to the town of Novac, to see if I can track down the scoundrel who shot me and get my revenge.


  1. I always wind up sneaking/rushing through Primm Pass instead of following the road loop around to the south. It does kind of mess things up when you don't meet the Legionnaires in... wherever it is.

  2. That's actually a pretty good path through the game. If you can stand the heat, you get access to a lot of good loot and quick experience that makes the rest of the game much easier. I decided here that I was going to go through the game "honestly," but I've taken the shortcut a time or two myself. And not meeting the Legion in Nipton does have the advantage of potentially having a better first impression of the faction (because that encounter . . . jeesh).

    1. I have a friend who makes a point of always going NORTH from Goodsprings rather than south, sneaking through the deathclaws and creeping around to New Vegas before any of the intervening stuff.