Fallout: New Vegas

Another oldie I’m finally getting around to.

Like all of Obsidian’s catalog, Fallout: New Vegas is a beautifully-written game that should have been a visual novel. The RPG elements, the shootouts with random suicidal raiders, and the endless trekking through acres of samey wasteland and copy/pasted buildings full of useless garbage items so thick you stop paying attention to item pickups altogether, add nothing to the experience. The Hardcore survival mechanics were an interesting idea, but are rendered meaningless by the fact the wasteland is a veritable Eden of endlessly-replenishing food, to the point you’ll probably accumulate more than you’ll ever need just by wandering around the starting areas.

But in between the chaff, the story is, as per usual with Obsidian, exceptional.

The story presents extremely heavy and raw issues most media will only touch with a ten-foot pole of metaphors and abstractions, and with a nuance and sensitivity I’ve sorely needed. Fallout: New Vegas deals with real issues like drug addiction, foreign occupation, mental illness, and more. It’s extremely rare that a video game will present a moral dilemma I don’t immediately know the answer to, but the resolution of “Return to Sender” genuinely left me uncertain if I had made the right choice, or indeed if there was a right choice. Do we continue a forever war selfishly occupying a nation that hates us, or do we wash our hands of it and let it fall to monstrous dictatorship? A sobering thought that that question is just as timely now in 2022 as it was in 2010.

You probably shouldn’t have gotten positive karma for killing drug-addled Fiends, though, that was ooky. There was some jarring cognitive dissonance in Freeside having a really thoughtful plot about how drug addicts are victims who deserve support and compassion, then in the same breath tells you you’re a good guy for murdering Fiends — several of whom you find already dead of drug overdose! There really shouldn’t have been an objective morality system at all — the reputation system is better in every way and should really be a standard for games going forward — but I guess that was leftovers from Bethesda.

I thought it was nice that the story presented such a refreshingly optimistic view of a post-apocalyptic society, as well. So much post-apocalyptic media treats the breakdown of society as inevitable, that every one of our neighbors is secretly a monster only held back by the fiction of civilization. But that’s very much not true in real life, and it’s not true here either. The world may have ended, but people have rebuilt it, because it’s the nature of people to work together and help one another. (I also appreciated that there was only one group that was a misogynistic rape gang, with every other group being visibly egalitarian and disgusted with their misogyny. It is not actually a law of the universe that women must become chattel, thank you.)

I particularly enjoyed the companions and their storylines. All of them are lovely, well-realized characters and genuinely good people. I related extremely hard to Arcade Gannon, perhaps the epitome of mediocrity, and his resolution affirming it’s just as important to play a support role, even if it’s not exciting or popular. (I also liked that his hatred of the Legion was entirely on ideological grounds, rather than specific personal trauma like with Boone; it’s rare that characters are allowed to have purely political opinions.) And there is just something delightful about Lily, a sweet old grandma who can snap bad guys like twigs with her massive sword.

I actually felt the DLCs were the weakest part of the game (with the exception of Old World Blues, which was delightful), in large part due to their attempts to branch into other genres or go high-concept in a way that distanced themselves from the realness of the base story, I felt. In particular, Honest Hearts felt uncomfortably racist and imperialist in its uncritical portrayal of Christian missionaries being the good guys, and especially with its focus on preserving the Native Americans’ “innocence”. If all it took was seeing one guy execute their enemies to turn them militaristic, they weren’t all that “innocent” to begin with, guys. It was particularly awkward that none of the Sorrows themselves had any dialogue about the quandary. If it’s so important to their culture, we should have been able to ask their opinion instead of taking the word of the foreign missionary.

But seriously, how has no one cleaned up their trash in 200 years? Did the nuclear holocaust kill off all the janitors?

11 Comments

  1. Roarke says:

    ‘(You probably shouldn’t have gotten positive karma for killing drug-addled Fiends, though, that was ooky. There really shouldn’t have been an objective morality system at all — the reputation system is better in every way and should really be a standard for games going forward — but I guess that was leftovers from Bethesda.)’

    The karma system is actually a relic of the original Fallout games from the 90s. They were always flawed in the way most ‘alignment’ measures were in RPGs of the time – you’d become a saint just by going through the normal quests the game offered (and yeah killing druggie raiders), and needed to make a concerted effort to be a bastard to go negative. Can’t pin that one on Bethesda.

    ‘The world may have ended, but people have rebuilt it, because it’s the nature of people to work together and help one another.’

    Now this is something Obsidian (and Interplay back in Fallout 2) got right that Bethesda never understood even up to Fallout 4; humans in Fallout 2 and Fallout NV rebuilt society pretty much back to modern levels within a few lifetimes of the 2077 nuclear apocalypse; one of my favorite things about NV is the background detail you get about the New California Republic essentially being a modern country again. NV explicitly takes place in a sort of no-man’s-land on the frontier of several rebuilt civilizations. I think it’s a great design decision that we never actually see the NCR homeland, only the encroaching fingers of imperialism that represent them. In Fallout 1, the NCR was Shady Sands, a struggling agrarian village, and in Fallout 2 it was a budding city-state. It’s kind of a great ‘die a hero or live long enough to become the villain’ depiction.

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    1. Can’t pin that one on Bethesda.

      Ah, and looking at the history, Obsidian actually grew out of Interplay, so yeah, that is on them. I’m glad they’re moving in better directions at least, with the reputation system here and the tides alignment system in Tides of Numenera (though that one also runs into the problem of requiring purposeful effort to deviate from Blue/Gold).

      And yeah, I really liked that the Mojave was clearly not representative of post-apocalyptic society at large, and that the NCR had a much higher standard of living. It’s really hopeful that even after such horrific destruction, humanity can piece itself back together again and things weren’t permanently lost. Life goes on.

    2. illhousen says:

      “The karma system is actually a relic of the original Fallout games from the 90s.”

      Yeah, and it was pretty redundant even back then since local reputation already existed: you could be a hero to one city and a monster to another, and they were pretty self-contained, so there wasn’t really a need for global karma tracking.

      Probably the clearest sign that the system is fucke was gaining karma for hubologists. Like, they were bad institutionally, what with being a parody of scientologists and all, but individually most of them were people duped into following a cult for the usual reasons people fall in with a cult. Treating killing them as objectively good is… ah… a thing F2 did.

      “Now this is something Obsidian (and Interplay back in Fallout 2) got right that Bethesda never understood even up to Fallout 4; humans in Fallout 2 and Fallout NV rebuilt society pretty much back to modern levels within a few lifetimes of the 2077 nuclear apocalypse”

      Yep. This is a major background theme in F1 -> F2 -> FNV. In F1 we see people at their lowest, living in the ruins of a dead civilization. In F2, those isolated settlements become connected. Not just NCR, but also New Reno, Redding and Den (and others to a lesser extent): all of them are tied economically pretty heavily, and your actions in one place can echo in another. (Of course, it’s not always a good thing: with connections come exploitation, as we see with the mafia families.)

      And then in NV we see the first truly major conflict between restored civilizations.

      Now, I get why Bethesda would shy away from it: with each game, there is less and less space to actually do the post-apocalyptic stuff. The world is slowly transforming from frontier wild west into, well, a country. Can’t exactly be the Masterless Man in suburbia now, can you?

      Still, it’s a shame that this theme gets ignored.

      1. Now, I get why Bethesda would shy away from it: with each game, there is less and less space to actually do the post-apocalyptic stuff. The world is slowly transforming from frontier wild west into, well, a country. Can’t exactly be the Masterless Man in suburbia now, can you?

        This is a good summation of why subversive media tends to snap back to baseline, I think. An undying franchise has to riff off the same genre conventions endlessly, which is at odds with something that commits to a single idea that locks off other options.

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      2. Roarke says:

        The ideal would be for a FNV2 to be about someone realizing civilization has come full circle and navigate a way for the new society to avoid the mistakes of the old. Fallout New Vegas was almost there, but not quite; the distance from those new countries prevents you from actually engaging their inner workings in such an intimate way.

        Unfortunately, that hypothetical sequel really *would* be better off as a visual novel or walking simulator, because part of the point would be that the NCR has so little personal violence compared to the frontier. I’d love to see the Disco Elysium devs handle something like that.

        1. That would be a brilliant capstone for the series, but for that reason it’ll probably never get made. Have to keep the golden goose laying.

  2. illhousen says:

    “Like all of Obsidian’s catalog, Fallout: New Vegas is a beautifully-written game that should have been a visual novel.”

    IDK if it’d worked as well in a VN form. Part of the appeal of the game is that you get to explore the world on your own terms (but actually being carefully guided through design), which allows you to go to various places, get involved in local stuff, and through that glimpse a part of the bigger picture.

    That said, yeah, the mechanics are not super-inspired here, and it’s easy to imagine a game that did the same thing but better.

    Then again, NV was made in 18 months because Bethesda can be a deeply unreasonable company, so here we are.

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    1. I don’t think I’d have minded it as a walking simulator. Discovering and exploring the cities on your own terms was a pretty cool mechanic. I’d just have preferred to do it without random encounters and sifting through garbage all the time.

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  3. illhousen says:

    Also,

    “But seriously, how has no one cleaned up their trash in 200 years? Did the nuclear holocaust kill off all the janitors?”

    It’s Fallout. The janitors were probably all placed into a single Vault as a sort of nega-Rapture.

  4. EC says:

    “There was some jarring cognitive dissonance in Freeside having a really thoughtful plot about how drug addicts are victims who deserve support and compassion, then in the same breath tells you you’re a good guy for murdering Fiends”

    Well, no, because doing drugs isn’t what makes the Fiends “evil”. It’s the recreational torture, burning people alive, cannibalism, slavery… They’re a brutal, expansionist gang.

    I don’t particularly want a game telling me “this guy is evil”, but there’s no cognitive dissonance here.

    1. People say the same things about drug gangs in real life. I think it’s irresponsible to reinforce that belief by creating a narrative where it’s true.

      We’re repeatedly told (and shown, through gameplay mechanics) that drugs are addictive and alter your behavior to be more aggressive. Vault 3 is littered with corpses of Fiends dead from drug overdose. How much of their evil is genuinely their own choice, and how much is the result of being driven insane by bad drugs they had the misfortune of trying once? Would Ronte and Hoff have behaved any differently if they had gotten hooked on Psycho rather than alcohol? The narrative doesn’t care to ask that question, but it’s an important one.

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