But hey, not my fault I can’t say no!
– Yes Man, Fallout: New Vegas
The real Fallout 3, the last great WRPG, that really buggy game made by a developer no one knows about. Somehow, New Vegas has wormed itself into the hearts of those willing to brave the Mojave, leading many to call it the true successor of the Fallout series. But what is it about the game that makes it more preferable to some RPG fans than Fallout 3, the game’s older and less glamorous sibling? And what can Bethesda learn from the masterpiece it unintentionally spawned?
Hyperbole aside, a number of traditional RPG elements add to New Vegas’ elevated status in the modern RPG landscape. The stat system, an amalgamation of the early Fallout games and Bethesda’s own, allows for an incredible amount of player freedom in the creation of characters and their backgrounds. Unlike similar games, each stat has a profound impact on the narrative sequence and the fighting mechanics. Unintelligent characters are unable to communicate with New Vegas’ geniuses, while less charismatic characters miss out on many opportunities that cannot be accessed through physical force (Obsidian chooses a type of either/or role-playing system in Alpha Protocol, but for decidedly different reasons–there is only one Michael Thorton). A major problem with various open world games is the dissonance between the players’ imaginations and the possibilities presented by the game itself: whereas I can easily see any character adhering to the various systems of thought in New Vegas, I would have to do some serious streamlining of motive and background to fit them in the jingoist sensibilities of Fallout 3’s narrative.
New Vegas accomplishes this freedom of expression in two ways. 1) The protagonist’s identity is most commonly aligned with the political systems of the Mojave 2) this political identity is decided on amoral terms.
Now when I say that New Vegas’ construction of identity is amoral, I don’t strictly mean the various political systems battling for control over the Mojave. Indeed, the most noticeable tensions arise from two morally minded factions: the NCR and Caesar’s Legion. Even so, it would be a drastic oversimplification to judge the NCR as just and to subsequently place Legion as its moral opposite. One side chooses to exert control through the creation of dependent states, the other through an autocratic system whose main source of infamy is its reputation as a slaver society–both injure the parties which they attempt to reign in. While the NCR’s means are obviously more desirable than its counterpart, it’s not difficult to imagine a world where Legion has succeeded in improving the human race, or what’s left of it. For every NPC who expresses fear over the oncoming army, there’s another whose overt disgust for the NCR reminds players that their’s is a political, rather than moral, choice.
And this is how it should be.
Whereas many developers would feel satisfied with their creation of two complex, opposing factions–usually establishing a an easy identifiable dichotomy–New Vegas takes the additional (and for open world RPGs, practically essential) step by including even more options for the player. Games like Mass Effect and Skyrim, while presenting themselves as games with “tough” choices, establish these limited types of systems and scenarios. There are examples of dichotomies and binaries done right (see: The Witcher 2, a game with a politically minded system akin to New Vegas’ own), but they often limit the player and make them choose one over the other with the full knowledge that they’ll just go back and pick the other option on their next run. This doesn’t amount to role-playing, but extending the length of a game through often minor differences in the text. Keep in mind, this type of game is not inherently bad–but when it’s attached to an open world game promising you can do anything (no Molyneux), it can often lead to false advertising. New Vegas avoids all of these pratfalls by allowing the player to choose politics, not morals: you’re not a paragon or renegade, you are an affluent member of a democratic institution, a purveyor of anarchy, a pure-minded capitalist/controller of the bourgeoisie. And these opportunities don’t account for the lesser factions; the Great Khans, Boomers, and the Brotherhood of Steel have a significant impact on the courier’s role as well.
With these various systems intact, players can move in and out of the political spectrum as they please: you can start as a follower of Legion but move on to Mr. House, only to side with the NCR before the end. Along the way, the player can partake in role-playing by filling in the narrative gaps of the courier, providing motives for their actions, their betrayals, their loyalties. In a system such as the one present in Fallout 3, the end game consists of choosing the answer to a moral dilemma: eradicate everyone in the area you’ve just spent x amount of hours in or allow them to survive with the promise of a higher quality of life. One option benefits a single group in the game, the other the entirety of the Wasteland.* Even the ending slides prove that one answer is “correct,” as the narrator states that those who choose to poison the water supply “ultimately surrendered to the vices that had claimed so many others–selfishness, greed, cruelty.” If this doesn’t sound like the character you made, too bad: you took a moral position and the game’s system makes sure you remember it.
And so New Vegas’ sense of political identity and the amoral options they provide allow for a better role-playing scenario. Whether it’s the better game overall is dependent on the player’s preference of genre, but for someone who wants to have control over the courier’s identity it’s an easy choice. The politics are there so the player can choose their own morality rather than be pigeonholed into a strict dichotomy. There could be an infinite amount of conjured motives to side with Dr. House or to introduce anarchy to the Mojave. If desire is the defining characteristic of a person, the possibilities of such a system give complete creative control to the player–an often spoken about aspect of video games but one rarely realized in the games themselves. The approach isn’t novel, but it’s effective, and New Vegas wouldn’t–couldn’t!–be the same without it.
*This type of end game seems superfluous in a post-apocalyptic setting: having already witnessed the near annihilation of mankind, wouldn’t another genocide (if it could be categorized as such–there are relatively few societies in Fallout 3’s Washington) seem redundant? Fans have already expressed concern over the Enclave’s motive for being there. Adding to this dissonance is the fact that the stakes could hardly be lower in a post-civilization game. Another end of the world? So be it.