Nov 122010

A review will eventually go up at, but because Fallout: New Vegas is such a large game I couldn’t cover everything I wanted to in the detail it deserved. The shorthand for this game has been that it is “more Fallout 3“, which is, in a limited sense, a fair assessment. Obsidian doesn’t revolutionize anything about the way the game plays, except for the superior hardcore mode. What I would say instead is that New Vegas is more of a complement to Fallout 3 than a supplement. Bethesda’s version of Fallout was one in which the environmental storytelling was very strong and the traditional storytelling was fairly weak. What I’d hoped was that Obsidian’s talent would combine with Bethesda’s in a productive way and produce a more cohesive whole. But instead it was more like two ships passing in the night. Fallout: New Vegas has a very strong story in the traditional sense, but the way exploration plays out makes it seem like Obsidian didn’t really get what made Fallout 3 compelling.

Role-playing games, from the tabletop to the XBox, have always been about exploration. Like all acting, role-playing involves an exploration of psychological space, either by trying to put yourself in the position of someone who’s completely different from yourself, or by drawing out the aspects of your own personality that are aligned with those of the character. Role-playing is also an exploration of narrative possibility space. Any DM who comes to the table with an extremely rigid story that he’s going to inflict on his players, no matter what, is setting everyone up for a thoroughly miserable experience. In the best cases, a role-playing narrative is a collaborative journey through the inherent possibilities of a setting. The creation and outfitting of characters is an exploration of a different kind of possiblity space, but is often just as rewarding as the narrative.

From the very earliest days of computer-mediated role-playing, these kinds of exploration have been available and often have been delivered with very high quality and fidelity. In these games the narrative possibility space (and by the same token, the psychological space) is more tightly constrained than it is on the tabletop, so there’s the risk that the full space can be exhausted. Even in a game as complicated as Alpha Protocol one can conceivably experience every possible permutation of the narrative. However, any player attempting to map out the whole space through play would have to invest an unrealistically large amount of time. In practical terms, the narrative possibility space is inexhaustible, and can easily be made compelling.

What computer role-playing games mostly lacked was a compelling exploration of physical space. The tabletop usually doesn’t offer amazing visuals, but the mutual storytelling enterprise of that kind of role-playing allows for the creation of fascinating representations within the player’s mind. Computer role-playing games lagged significantly in their ability to create places that were as interesting as something the player could imagine, and in many cases continue to lag in this way. The physical landscapes of Mass Effect, though occasionally pretty, weren’t particularly interesting to look at or to cross. Moreover, the spaces in computer RPGs were generally inert, being little more than backdrops against which a written drama played out, delivered through the traditional means such as dialogue and textual descriptions.

Fallout 3 was striking because the exploration of physical space was so compelling. The spaces and the arrangements of objects within them were used to tell stories without the interpolation of text. Going into a house you might find two skeletons on beds and one in the bathtub with a knife next to it. This suggests an open-ended set of possibilities, and whatever story the player invents to satisfy them will be interesting to him. “Solving” mysteries like this turns role-playing back towards its collaborative roots on a level beyond that of the script. The Capital Wasteland bristled with fascinating spaces to explore, to the extent that large, complex locations like the L.O.B. building didn’t even earn their own waypoints.

I didn’t feel the same way about Fallout: New Vegas. Its map has considerably more waypoints than Fallout 3‘s did, but the locations generally feel like they have less to tell as spaces. In part this is because so many of them are essentially nulls — a waypoint dropped over a spot in the wasteland that looks interesting but doesn’t have anything to do. Many of the game’s locations are small caves that are pretty obviously templated, which is something Fallout 3 tended to avoid in its natural spaces (although its Metro tunnels brought to mind the classic “You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike”). These make for very short excursions and generally have no story to tell. And, in general, unless there was a quest associated in some way with a given location, it was generally very small and had little to do. This lack of elaboration made the Mojave wasteland feel thinly imagined.

The complex exploration projects that do exist also betray a certain adherence to traditional storytelling. Vault 11 is a case in point, one I mention because I really liked the backstory behind it. In this Vault, the inhabitants had regular elections for the office of Overseer, which had no incumbent because the office-holder would be killed at the end of his term to expiate the demands of the Vault’s mainframe. This led to an interesting political system where various blocs would vote for a candidate they didn’t like. This story is partially told by campaign and political posters on the walls, but is largely delivered through textual elements and recordings. The last Overseer recognized the corruption of the system and replaced it with one in which those who followed her would be selected randomly, prompting a violent conflict that killed most of the people in the Vault. Again, there is an environmental component to this story, as the lower level of the Vault is full of skeletons positioned around fortifications, traps, mines, and boxes and boxes of ammo. However, there are no guns down there, a bit of illogic that made the whole area feel very strange and staged. The traditionally-told story in this area is very strong, but the environmentally-told story didn’t quite keep up. Contrast this with, say Fallout 3‘s Vault 108, where explanatory text was available but totally superfluous.

The physical space of Fallout 3 was also strongly connected to its narrative concepts. The monuments of Washington were a rebuke to the strong-armed tactics of the Enclave, while their decrepit condition assented sadly to the game’s Hobbesian political philosophy. Aside from an avowed (but unpracticed) desire to rule, little separated the Enclave from the Brotherhood until Elder Lyons decided that his power should be used to protect people rather than merely preserve technology. In fact, a key weakness of that game’s story was that this decision, the most interesting one of the main narrative, was completely out of the player’s hands.

Here again there is a contrast with New Vegas, because the Strip, while prominent in the landscape, doesn’t really figure into the game’s concepts. The game’s take on war hews closely to Clausewitz, viewing war as primarily political, even though Vegas itself is really an economic entity. I felt like I was playing a much more vital story, more connected to the setting, when I was doing the sidequests for the Crimson Caravan and the Van Graffs, or rooting through the corrupt influences in the casinos themselves. The player does get to make the most interesting decision in the plot, but it is not really the most interesting decision in the setting. Given that the choice is fundamentally a political one, it would almost have been more interesting to make it back in D.C. This relegates New Vegas to being merely a backdrop for the game’s core conflict, instead of a vital part of the thematic fabric.

Rather than a stylistic synthesis between the old Fallout games and the new motif introduced in Fallout 3, New Vegas feels like the other side of the coin. Obsidian’s mastery of traditional CRPG storytelling is (finally) on full display here, but the game feels like they were just getting their feet wet with this environmental thing and haven’t completely picked it up yet. As a result, Fallout: New Vegas didn’t really feel like it lived up to its potential. It’s a good game, but it doesn’t do as much as it could with the tools that it has.

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