Saturday 10 January 2015

'More Tea, Victor?': An exploration of self-imposed roleplaying in Fallout: New Vegas.

So this was it. I could barely see in front of my gun as my companion lay dead on the floor in front of me. We had seen the rise of Mr House, brought down the White Glove Society, saved countless towns from bandits, heck he even stood by me as I betrayed my friends in the Bunker... but now the old dog was gone. Vaguely in the distance I could make out the sound of firing bullets and angered shouts coming closer. I scrambled to his body and took the only things of value he had left. A few doses of psycho and med-x. I promised myself I would quit, but what's one more for the road? With only enough supplies to fix up one of my legs, I pulled out my shotgun, stumbled my way through the cowering slaves and put up one last stand. 

You had to go and finish the job, didn't you Benny?

 It's worth beginning this blog by saying I love Fallout: New Vegas. As in 4 playthroughs and over 250 hours level of love. If I had to compile a top games of all time list, it certainly makes the top five, if not the top three. But within my first three playthroughs I had never given hardcore mode a go.

  For those who have never played the game, Fallout: New Vegas takes place after the 'Great War' in 2077 where all nuclear capable countries did the inevitable and bombed the ever living hell out of each other. Unlike the other games in the series, this part of America is doing fairly decently (giant mutated chameleons aside). Mr House saved the strip, Hoover Damn gives the land water for farming, Vegas brings in the money and giant security robots keep a small semblance peace. But as with all good things, people want it. And those people tend to have armies. Poverty is still everywhere and like in all Fallout games there's more bandits than there are 'normal' residents but it's still tactically one of the most important places left in America. One of the reasons why I love this game so much is the way you learn about the factions, they don't just present a manifesto saying what they stand for, instead you see the interactions they have between each other and all of the towns you can visit. Vegas is a place whose character is defined by all the factions, politics and (generally) very well written minor citizens and quest givers. But this is all something for another blog post.

 Graphics and glitches aside, the only major qualm I have with the game is the lack of feeling that the environment itself is hard to survive in. You see it for sure in others, but when you're carrying your rocket launcher, 60 stimpaks and have no need for sleep and water you feel like the exception to the rule. You experience the world very much like any other game, with you as this 'chosen' figure who can brush off bullets on a whim and melt armies within one press of the Vats. The purpose of this playthrough was to remove the 'Rambo' aspect to the game and make me feel more like just another scavenger hoping to survive and do some good in the world while I was at it.

 With hardcore mode on, bullets now take up room in your inventory, healing takes longer, companions die, you have to watch your food, drink and sleep meters but that's just sort of it. It was nice having to think about food and how fast travelling long distances may screw up your sleep but it didn't add all that much. Hence, this is where self-imposed rules come in. On my fourth playthrough I devised a list of restraints which would (theoretically) improve the experience and make me feel more connected to my character and environment. They are as such:

*Hardcore mode must never be turned off and combat difficulty must be turned up
*Never fast travel. 'Waiting' is possible so long as a narrative reason can be thought for it.
* Maximum inventory of 120 points. 

*No more than 2 side arms, 1 melee weapon and one long gun at anytime. Maximum companion carry rate of 60.
*Only 3-4 clips of ammo per gun.
*V.A.T.S to be used just once in an encounter.
*Barter to stay at a minimum level so that money couldn't be easily horded.

*Items could be kept in secure locations but no more than thirty
*Healing items and food must only be used when it would be feasible to do so IRL.
*No reloading to save a companion.
*Just simply role-play as much as possible and think of a narrative reason for every action. Attempt to keep the character likeable even if pure paragon was not possible.
*One life only.


 So, how did it go and how closely did I keep to it? Well, surprisingly well actually and most importantly, I felt myself playing the game differently as well as viewing my own morality in a more disposable way. It's been a few months since I did this so apologies if some details are skipped but this is how the run went.

 In my previous playthroughs I had always played the goody-two-shoes (well barring a few murders for the sake of bottle caps, but hey-o morality standards are low here), who made everything their business and either talked their way through quests or completed them through a righteous bullet through the head. The main thing about this playthrough however was that that pretty much everything, every bandit and scorpion, was really scary. The first time I noticed how differently I played was in Primm, from a purely gameplay perceptive I got to think about encounters much more, I took in the environment to know where to hide and how to face people one-on-one, and when the area was clear... I didn't feel as proud as you would think. Certainly it felt more like an achievement as I systematically found methods to give myself an advantage but this just attributed to the feeling that, I just killed someone. To heavily simplify and misuse Hegel and his Master-Slave theory, when the enemies power balance was such that they were just these forms of pixels which stood between me and my objective, I paid them no second thought as I slugged the grenade. When however you become the weaker form you have to observe them, see what weapons they are carrying, learn when to shoot and above all respect them. Before this sounds like a YA fanfic of how me and the drug fuelled bandit fell in love, I did still shoot him in the head. I get the same feeling in stealth games, the catharsis I felt though was only one of 'i'm still alive' followed by the slight tingling of 'was it worth it?' and 'was that even needed?' 

 This is pretty much why I can never bring myself to do an evil playthrough, I can barely hurt a nameless NPC without feeling bad about it. 

 I kept to it though, let the group hauled up inside the casino know the good news and then entered the building in the center of town to rescue their former sheriff. It was a pathetic affair, kill one guy then run out of the building and hide. It's the main problem with playing like this, eventually you start trying to cheat the system to survive to the point the immersion goes again. It's my fault admittedly but with the stakes so high I chalked it down to the bandits thinking the NCR had come and so they were too scared to run outside. This brings me to the second difference in this run through. Eventually you find the sheriff tied up in the building, he's a coward and you have to convince him if you want him to help out and fight or just let him run off. Now usually I let the guy go, no point putting him in danger when I can handle it. This time however, if he ever so thought about leaving me here, I would put a bullet in him. Turns out I didn't have to though as we came across a small group who were left, and he got stuck in the fire of a flamethrower. Fair to say, I felt pretty crap about it. First time I comprised in this game for the sake of survival and I got a guy killed for it. 

 This was also the first time I really got to role playing it however. I took the Sheriff's hat from the hut where he was killed and never took it off for most of the game. This would be my characters reminder that survival in the wasteland involves taking others out, and that if others get put in danger, to ask if it was needed. The sheriff died protecting Primm and got his wife killed in the process and I had already got the first of many killed for the same. And I know it's all deeply silly but in all honesty I could have made it out without him, but all because I was scared of what was left in that building I made him come along. 

Admittedly, it's a pretty badass hat too.

 If there's one thing I took from this playthrough it's how easy morality is to keep in easy games. In Mass Effect I never once deliberated over whether or not I should save people or give them some ammo as I knew I could do it and there was no real threat to me. Same goes to most open world games or just games with choices, if anything self-sacrifice nets you more rewards normally, negating the very concept and making the morality feel meaningless. It's only through an acknowledgement and the embracing of failure and the possibility of loss that these actions are given their true meaning, something which only a few games seem to offer the experience of. This however got me in the mindset of I AM ALIVE, a really underappreciated game where if you give others your resources there is almost no way you're making it to the end-game, and you need to ask yourself if you're okay with that.

 And for this game I wasn't. I wanted to beat the game and prove that I could survive the wastes and then live with Mr House's sex robots. I had no choice but to change my view of the character. If I was to play desert Jesus I wouldn't make it past Nelson, so instead the Courier became a bearded hermit who hid out in an abandoned petrol station and hunted and ate nearby radscorpions with nothing but a plank of wood and a belly full of irradiated toilet water until they could stand up against the rest of the land.

Hello, Darkness my old friend.
  Eventually I got my skills up enough so I could get ED-E from Primm to join me and headed down to Novac. You actually get to meet Victor here who is the robot who saves you at the beginning of the game. Admittedly, he's as creepy as all hell but after an hour or so of toilet water and insects, I felt genuinely happy to see him. 

Translation: No one will hear their screams
 Anyway, few quests done and I left Novac with Boone and ED-E in toe. If you've played the game you'll know there's a part not far from here where you walk down the road, two steep cliff edges on either side where you'll get ambushed by bandits. Until now my character had got back to being good and helping people out (in my head, I liked to think it was Boone and ED-E's influence) fairly selflessly. Despite having played this game three times before I always go up to the traffic cone in the middle of the road, knock it over to see what's under and get a mine go off in my face. Head, right arm and leg injured I dived towards the cars as the bullets came from above and some bandits ran down the road. At the very least, after I had come out of the corner of my room, face and clothes tear stained, this would make a funny story I figured. But I got lucky, Boone took a few out and I got a few shots off before having to use up the last of the stimpacks. Eventually however, both of them fell and with just one bandit left I went about climbing the cliff face for my revenge. It took over two minutes to track him again, with my vision blurring I only managed to knock the gun out of his hand before I ran out of bullets and he escaped. Then something weird happened.

 A Bighorn, one of the big alpha ones, stood on top of the slope, almost completely transparent,  right in front of the sun. In awe of the image, I figured I found an easter egg due to my characters brain injury.... Then I let the gaming side of me kick in so, I shot at what looked like a hallucination for fun. As you do. It's not hard to figure what happened next, as seemingly nothing occurred I turned to head back to look through the bodies of my companions until suddenly my characters body went surging forward off the cliff and onto the road. There went both legs. In another bit of roleplaying I dragged the body of Boone with me back towards town so he could get a proper burial, but as a now small army of bighorns scenery clipped their way down onto the road, I had to run.

Eventually I got back to the doctors, healed up and went to bed. Thus began glitch two. Half way through my character's sleep they suddenly woke up to find Victor in the room, standing above them. Just stood there at the foot of the bed, not engaging in dialogue. At first I readied my gun but as he did nothing I just... Moved on with things. I sat my player down and had them eat and drink as Victor followed. Finally giving into the madness a bit I even removed some food from my inventory and laid it at his feet. So this was it. My character had lost it. First Boone and ED-E kicked it, then a vision of a giant bighorn and now a tea party with a seemingly psychopathic, cowboy, robot. The Courier chugged a few whiskeys down for good measure. 

Most of the rest of the game is fairly uneventful, at first I figured it made sense for the Courier to go it alone but yet again the wasteland was too daunting to attempt it. Now with a dog and Danny Trejo at my side (no complaints here) I went and did the House quest line. Overall my character was morally good but this was the first time I ever really relied on drugs to get by, at one point I even had to sell the sheriffs hat for a fix of jet. Yet again this is going to sound weirdly pathetic but having gone through all of that, and a lot of quests that required unsavorary resolutions, I got really attached to Raul (Trejo) to the point I figured if he goes i'll call the game quits. To be honest, I was beginning to have enough. With almost thirty hours of having to methodically raid each building for supplies and then go back to a trader, I was reading to play Borderlands and live out a power fantasy again. Which is sort of the problem with self-regulated rules over enforced ones, the desire to keep them up diminishes over time and you don't get that feedback from the game telling you well done. In Human Revolution you can go pacifist, it's annoying but characters telling me good job made it feel worth it. Now i'm walking half way across a map to retrieve an item for someone all the while scared my character will get an anti-climatic death which the game won't even acknowledge.

 At the end of the day i'm a gamer, and as such i'm used to having a constant reward process for every action, a new gun, new content, being praised by the story. Now when I get something, I just broker it off to buy food so me and Raul can get somewhere and eat. Even though it requires a lot of compensation on my part though, I liked it. Sure, it's a total waste of time giving a character food so you can sit at a fireplace and pretend to eat.... And yes I recognise how i've wasted my life just now by writing this down, but it's like being a kid again playing pretend but with more challenges and at least some degree of feedback. And from it came much better stories and experiences than I ever had through other playthroughs, and whenever I think back to the game, this is what I think of - through a haze of drugs trying to uncover the plot of a cannibal family so my character can meet their inevitable end feeling like they did something, because at the end of the game I cared about them more than another other player developed character. I had come up with silly reasons as to why they waited on a doorstep for hours so I could pass the time, their exhaustions, struggles and honestly boredom felt like mine, I had thought about their backstory while on long walks throughout the Mojave and had put every failing and success into a full blown arch for them. The thirty hour hell was worth it for these small, amplified moments.


So how did it end? Rather fittingly with how it started. I actually let Benny escape Vegas instead of killing him. Fair to say by the time i'd got there, i'd had enough of killing. I met him again on the way to nearing the endgame, you go into the Legion Fort (i'd been very careful to keep myself on their good side) where you can find him captured. The game rather awesomely gives you a few creative modes of death here, and while I was tempted to see him crucified, i'd tried to have my character clean themselves up for the end of the game, they were nearing the end of their withdrawal, hadn't touched alcohol since Vegas and now being stronger, did the right thing more. I still often avoided the most morally 'right' thing for the sake of survival but morality felt easier again, and now here Benny was. If I was truly to end this game satisfyingly, I couldn't murder him, it just wasn't right for my character any more. Being all dramatic I put on my recently re-bought sheriff hat and let him go in preperation to carry out an escape plan.

But it never happened. He just got up and ran, leaving an entire camp to open fire as he escaped. The one time I gave up any sense of survival for what was truly the right thing, and it ended up with the Courier, Raul and Dogmeat hiding behind an outhouse as a scout ran up and got Raul in the back. One last stand, pumped to the eyeball on drugs and whiskey, and it was the greatest experience i'd had in gaming.

In the end the wasteland, and everything that went along with it, won. Just like it should.

...And screw you, Benny. You owe me sexbots.

This blog was written for the Blogs of the Roundtable over at Critical Distance. This blog is nothing in comparison to what they post so please give them a look in x


  1. Fallout is definitely my favourite game. It's so vast and complex. This was a fascinating read and I really loved it. Thanks so much! Also did you know you're featured on Kotaku? :)

  2. I recently modded my Fallout New Vegas for a new run (134 mods or so) and it made the game feel very alive and very...well...scary. I recently cleared out the outside of Primm which was, by far, the hardest fight I experienced ever in a Fallout game. With only 3 stims left, 12 bullets in the varmint rifle, 20 in the 9mm, a broken leg and a broken arm, I had to ask myself: "Was it worth it?" Then you asked the same question here. It really is cool to play the game as real as you can. If you haven't, I suggest modding the game and making the world feel as real as your role-playing rules did.

  3. Thank you very much Bec! Very kind of you x Fallout is certainly my favourite game series, it's amazing how so many of the characters you meet in it are so interesting despite being fairly minor.

    And no I didn't! That's so cool haha. That's my weekend made *bounces up and down*

    I'll have to try and write more sometime, pretty hard with being a student nurse but that never stopped me procrastinating before. As my grades attest.

    Massive thank you again <3

  4. Hi Valorous! I would certainly like to mod it but sadly my computer is a hunk of junk so i'm rather limited to it on PS3. When this finally dies though I shall give it a go.

    Funny how we both point to that spot as to when it felt different, must be the open spaces or something but that really does feel like you're going into something above your head there. I really like Primm, got a lot of personality for something that only really has 3 major buildings.

    Thank you very much for reading!