[Yes I’ve been busy]
Fallout New Vegas is one of my favourite video-games of all time. Here’s why. On my main playthrough I’ve just hit 70 hours and my other three playthroughs are half of that. This is an incredibly deep, emergent game full of the best that both non-linearity and linearity have to offer through the marriage betwixt the two. The downloadable content that has been released for the game has been a very odd affair: some pieces are boundlessly pushing the design whereas others restrict the core game’s emergent promises and pull away the RPG elements.
I’ve critiqued cornered all of the DLCs, from Money to Hearts to Blues. After Blues I was convinced we were in for something that would outshine New Vegas itself and cement its place on the pedal stool (get the reference, win a cookie) of great interactive works. Blues is still a game of the year candidate in its own right, though Portal 2 will probably take the cake (irony there), but Blues still offered something New Vegas couldn’t. A contained yet free yet subtle yet eccentric experience; it was an outstretched oxymoron, a giant world to explore yet a linear story to carve through its flesh.
Lonesome Road then is probably the biggest disappointment of the year. Perhaps it’s one of the biggest disappointments I’ve ever come across. All of the hype, all of the revelations about ‘Ulysses’ has finally caught up with the Courier. Might realize there I’m saying ‘the Courier’ instead of ‘the player’ and, if you know me, you know I don’t like player character dissonance. Of all games guilty of this, New Vegas is last on my list. Even Shadow of the Colossus has some pre-determined elements, but New Vegas throws that all away. This is a ‘in media res’ story that lets the player create there own Act One. There are a few dialogue references to past events of the Courier’s life, but all of them are too minute to get in the way.
What isn’t minute in any shape or form however is the reckless retconning of New Vegas and its philosophy of characterisation. Perhaps the Obsidian Crew watched the Extra Credits episode on their game and couldn’t think of anything wrong with it. Firstly, I love Extra Credits and how they’re broadening the recognition of video-games as more than just putrid shallow filth. Secondly, they were completely wrong on New Vegas. Finally, that isn’t any excuse to try and fill in the cracks in just a four hour DLC romp. If they wanted to give the Courier an Act One, and not lose the player through extreme exposition exposure (alliteration!), then they shouldn’t have played a LOST and just ‘hint’ away towards actual revelations. All the DLCs together now take around… 20 hours to complete put together.
That’s more than a perfect amount of time to create an Act One. I don’t think one needed to be created, this is an RPG, and I’ve already spent nearly two-hundred hours with a backstory of my own creation. The Courier was a bloke who travelled the whole West and get tempted by this odd job, done. To be forced into this ‘guilt-trap’ that Ulysses rants on about (and he rants in a non-interesting and dull way, whereas with Old Blues it was incredibly fun to interact with the braintanks). I don’t feel guilty at all, in fact, I feel no bit of remorse for what I’ve done. Why? Because I didn’t do it.
I think this is probably the most annoying aspect of video-game storytelling. I’m seeing IGN and Kotaku and Gamespot ranting on about the likes of Gears of War 3 and Red Dead Redemption having ‘incredible storytelling’ when they both tell their narratives through pre-determined character relationships/traits and cut-scenes. Not that I dislike both those games but I don’t play either for their ‘story’, I play them to chainsaw giant insects and to lasso-drag people across a sun-drenched desert. But with New Vegas, I play it for the intrigue, mysteries and exploration.
What I don’t play it for is to be lectured on how bad of a person I am for something I apparently did. This is probably the biggest problem our medium faces: making assumptions about the player’s ‘cares’. I care about Boone, I care about Agro and I care about Wheatley… why? Because I spend time with them. Games are not like movies where I can assume the history of characters because I care about the emotions they represent and not what they attach to. Dom Cobb’s history (Inception) is interesting to me given it defines his key tragic flaw as a character: his guilt. However, if I was Dom Cobb, none of that emotion would exist because I’ve never interacted or had those years of love for his wife.
I should really give up this ‘pre-determined character relationships’ nonsense now, seriously, it’s pretty much what I talk about every other week. What I am getting at is this: an overall lack of empathy for the player creates a massive sense of dissonance. Wait, isn’t that inherent of any medium just replace ‘player’ with ‘audience’? I distance myself away from the Twilight‘s world because I can’t understand why Bella is depressed other than the fact her life is completely perfect. But yet the film still goes on about her relationships… it assumes that I care.
Lonesome Road assumes that I care about my backstory, and I’d like it if it showed me one that I do care about, but instead falls into a four-hour Operation Anchorage that ends with a “You were the bad guy all along!” and this weird moment when I realized the game thought I was allied with the NCR. Ironic considering I’d just spent the last four hours destroying Caesar’s Legion and then bitch-slapping NCR, all in prep for my final walk into Hoover Dam. What was promised as a true relevatory and incredible experience has been shown to be just a shallow, linear (and not in a good way) affair that doesn’t show me a backstory. Why? Because that backstory isn’t my backstory, it’s fiction to me. None of that backstory represents who I am as the Courier.
For the first time in New Vegas… I am not the Courier. I’m Nathan Hardisty and I’m playing a video-game that just told me who I am.
New Vegas still stands as one of my favourite games of all time and the first three DLCs, removing any Ulysses references, all remain great experiences.
Just… what a shame.