A case of narrative defeating frustration July 31, 2012Posted by sinewysimian in Bethesda, PlayStation 3, RPGs, Xbox 360.
Of the 48 hours that comprised this weekend, I think I spent 35 of them playing Fallout: New Vegas, feverishly working toward the completion of my second full play-through. Having now followed three of the four main quest lines through to the end, I feel safe in concluding that New Vegas is the absolute antithesis of everything I loved about Fallout 3.
That’s not to say New Vegas is a bad game—on the contrary, it’s a rather good one. But where Fallout 3 excelled in giving me a wide open world to explore as I saw fit, New Vegas’s triumph is in its complex branching narrative. It plops you down in the middle of a vast, multi-faceted power struggle, lets you gradually learn who everyone is and what’s going on, and ultimately gives you complete freedom to decide who wins and who loses. Fallout 3′s main story got the job done, but ultimately felt kind of pedestrian, a means to an end; it didn’t even have a truly satisfying payoff until the Broken Steel add-on. New Vegas, on the other hand, is all about the story; it captures almost none of the joy of exploration that Fallout 3 so effortlessly delivered, but it sinks its narrative hooks in and doesn’t let go.
I am willing to admit that I may be partially to blame for the fact that I felt practically no drive to explore the Mojave Wasteland. In my initial play-through, I ruined my reputation with a powerful faction known as Caesar’s Legion very early in the game. I was unfamiliar with the Reputation system, see, and didn’t comprehend the ramifications of becoming “Vilified” in the eyes of the Legion. All I knew was they had destroyed a town full of people and were torturing the survivors just for fun. So I hid myself behind one of the houses, took aim from afar, and slew Vulpes Inculta and his subordinates in cold blood. What I didn’t know was that by doing so, I had doomed myself to be frequently ambushed by gangs of powerful Legionnaires any time I was out in the open. I realized this only after my old saves had been overwritten, and it was too late to go back and undo my murder spree. I should have bitten the bullet and restarted the game from the beginning, but for whatever reason I kept pressing onward… and it didn’t take long for the repeated assaults to completely kill any desire I might have had to roam freely around the Mojave. I would proceed directly from one quest to the next with no diversions, fast traveling whenever possible—and in the process, utterly destroying what had always been the most enticing element of Fallout for me. I really hated the game for that, even if I could have easily prevented it by controlling my trigger finger. My opinion didn’t improve when various game-breaking bugs started trying their damnedest to make sure I never got to see the ending. At two different points in the story, I was attacked on sight by people who had no reason to be hostile toward me—first by the Legion at Cottonwood Cove after I’d been given the Mark of Caesar, then by the NCR at Hoover Dam when I was supposed to help them stop an assassination—and it was only by reloading old saves and accidentally realizing that I could travel to Caesar’s Fort without someone there to escort me that I was able to continue my play-through at all.
A large part of me was hating Fallout: New Vegas with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns, and yet the narrative and characters compelled me to keep going, especially once I’d hit the New Vegas Strip. Meeting people in the towns and encampments around the Mojave and doing what I could to improve my reputation with them did hold some addictive qualities, but the Strip is where the options really opened up. It was a bit overwhelming, to be honest; suddenly there were four different entities pulling me in different directions, with the inscrutable Mr. House being the most commanding. I was instantly fascinated by this character, impressed with both the intelligence of his dialogue and the fantastic performance by Rene Aberjonois, of whom I was already a huge fan from his roles on Star Trek DS9, Archer, and a bunch of other shows. If the designers set out to create a truly larger-than-life personality to lord over the New Vegas Strip, they succeeded unequivocally with Mr. House.
The more poking around I did, the more I was impressed by. The hysterically funny Yes Man made for a great assistant in the task of claiming New Vegas for myself, and Caesar earned almost as much of my respect as Mr. House had, even though his intentions and methods were far more insidious. Aside from that, though, I had fun simply discovering all the interconnecting relationships of the various communities around the Mojave. This is something that for me took more than one trip through the game to really appreciate, because each of the three dominant factions has its own plan for overthrowing its opponents, and its own thoughts on whether to win over, ally with, or destroy groups like the Brotherhood of Steel, the Great Khans, the Omerta family, and the White Glove Society. Playing through each faction’s storyline gave me a reason to seek out each and every one of these outlying groups and learn about them—something I didn’t really take the time to do when doing the Yes Man quests, but now I kind of want to go back and play that quest line again with more thought put into whom I should allow to stick around in MY New Vegas. And hell, even the handful of party members you can find throughout the adventure can potentially add so much to the story; they all have their own histories and backgrounds that were gradually revealed through dialogue and quests as I spent time with them. I really like the way the ending does a Majora’s Mask thing, where the more people you’ve met and/or influenced, the richer the conclusion is. I dig it when games reward me for investing my time into them. I only wish the game had allowed me to experience the reality I’d created, rather than simply telling me about it with a series of still images. But you can’t have everything, I suppose.
It’s taken me a while to come around on New Vegas, but in the end I have to admit that it’s a pretty amazing creation, one that I will remember for completely different reasons than Fallout 3. I love Fallout 3 for all its quiet, intimate discoveries—meeting a tortured tree-man in a remote corner of the Capital Wasteland, or happening upon someone’s abandoned office, reading her journal and wondering how she died. Whereas Fallout 3 was about the little moments, New Vegas is about the grand scheme. It won me over not by recreating that sense of solitary exploration, but by crafting an elaborate narrative and sophisticated character interactions.