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Two Profoundly Emotional Experiences in Fallout: New Vegas

March 4, 2012

To change things up this week, I’d like to depart from discussions about more recent games. I’ve made claims before, I believe, that I think games are capable of creating meaningful experiences, so I think it would be a Good Thing if I were to qualify that claim with real examples and explanations. I’ll be talking about one of my favourite games, Fallout: New Vegas. There are a few minor spoilers here and there, but nothing that would truly spoil your experience if you plan to play it, so don’t be too hesitant to read on.

Fallout: New Vegas

It would be a severe understatement to say that I love post-apocalyptic (“postapo”) media. For me, postapo is fascinating because it examines what happens to humanity when everything that keeps us under control (e.g. government, laws, and security) is no longer there. For this reason, I prefer Fallout: New Vegas over Fallout 3 because of the former’s focus on the rebuilding of society after such a devastating event: as much as I love the feeling of loneliness in FO3, it just isn’t as impactful to me. And it is a direct result of FNV‘s people-centric story that I experienced the following two profound moments.

Shame, from Selfishness

Fallout: New Vegas is set in the Mojave Desert, surrounding what’s left of Las Vegas (now “New Vegas”). The New California Republic is the primary governmental body here, and their goals and structure reflect modern democracies. With that being said, there are those who object to the NCR’s ways, since they focus more on rebuilding society (particularly by first establishing a base of operations, and doing things in a by-the-book fashion), rather than addressing the specific needs of the people. In my opinion, they’re doing a good job, and I would support them if I were living there, though I do understand why some people are upset.

Several hours into the game, when Vegas is within sight (you begin the game in a town many miles from the city), you come across a power station, Helios One, on the highway. This station could potentially provide power to the area, but it hasn’t been set up properly, and the “scientist” charged with fixing it slacks off and only pretends to know what he’s doing. The NCR wants to get it back to full power so they can get electricity to their main Vegas base, Camp McCarran, and also provide electricity to the Vegas Strip, with hopes that doing so will help garner the support from the Strip, thus solidifying the NCR’s influence in the region. However, upon fixing the power plant, you’re in the control room alone, and are given the choice of where you want to send the power: to McCarran and the Strip, thereby earning a good reputation with the NCR; Fremont and Westside, the poor parts of town, thereby actually helping the people; evenly between the two, thereby making nobody happy due to frequent brownouts; or to a space-based satellite weapon, ARCHIMEDES II, which harnesses the power of the sun and deals a rather satisfyingly massive amount of damage (though only once per day). Thinking that my choice really didn’t matter, and that I could gain reputation with the NCR in other ways, I chose to get the weapon, ARCHIMEDES II.

It was selfish, and I felt a bid bad, but in the long run, it was only a game and it didn’t really matter, right? Well, sort of. A long while after making the decision, and without using the weapon too often (so, kind of wasting this decision), I entered Camp McCarran for the first time. It was dark inside the main building, but I didn’t make the connection at first. When I was later talking to a scientist in the building, he mentioned that although Helios One was up and running, they couldn’t figure out where the power was going, which was too bad, because they really needed that power to help with getting water to the people around the city. And boy, did I feel rotten. After all’s said and done, this was “only” a game, and I hadn’t affected any real lives, but I was suddenly ashamed for wanting a powerful gun, rather than choosing to help the people of the Mojave. I had been journeying to nearby towns, helping to resolve their conflicts, to fix their problems, hoping to aid in the rebuilding of the area. And yet, I had chosen my own enjoyment over the wellbeing of thousands.

You might think that after experiencing this, I would not be so wanton about my future decisions in the game. For the most part, this was true, but there was one more instance in which I recklessly progressed through a storyline just to complete the objectives, to get what I wanted.

Guilt, from Heartless Manipulation

Trading is the main source of goods in the Mojave Wasteland, and I had found myself interested in gaining favour from the Crimson Caravan Company, the largest trading caravan in the Southwestern US. After getting an audience with Alice McLafferty, the manager of the Vegas Crimson Caravan branch, I was tasked with doing a few chores for the company: deliver an invoice, convince the current head of the branch to quit (he inherited it from his father, and only wants the job for the money, though he’s now in serious debt), and finally to buy out Cassidy Caravans, a competing company.

The first two tasks were simple enough, and I didn’t feel bad about getting the present head of the CCC to quit, given that he was more concerned with getting drunk and sleeping with hookers. So once those were done, I had to venture far off to the corner of the map to find Rose of Sharon Cassidy (which is the greatest of names), who owns Cassidy Caravans. Given that I’m meant to buy her company from her, I sit next to her at a bar in an NCR outpost and ask her about herself. She tells me the story of how she loved to wander the wastes, and that starting Cassidy Caravans was her way to make money from it. But she fell on hard times when her caravan was attacked, and she lost pretty well all that she had. And here she was now, drinking her sorrows away with a bottle of whiskey, far from the city.

There are several ways that you can convince her to sell the remainder of her company to CCC: you can straight up buy it from her, you can challenge her to a drinking competition, or you can talk her into doing it. I didn’t want to spend the money, and I didn’t have the Barter skill or whiskey for the second option, so I knew my silver tongue would be my best bet (I had been working on my Speech skill the whole game, since I knew that it would come in handy for talking my way out of tight spots, or avoiding spending money, as it would here). In order to convince her by speech, you can choose to explain that this outpost is an awful place for her, given her interest in traveling, and that it would be much better for her if she were to just leave. This choice also involves doing a chore for the head of the outpost to convince him to let her leave.

The second option, though, is much easier, as long as you have a high enough speech skill, which I had. After talking to her about the offer from McLafferty, she’s reluctant to sign the contract, but she says:

Look, I know you came all this way, and that takes some drive, especially these days. Just doesn’t feel right, trading history for a slip of paper.

She’s proud of her company, having built it from the ground up. So it’s especially harsh when I choose to say to her:

If you made the caravan, you’re responsible for killing it.

Then all of a sudden, she just folds, and her voice weakens. And then she signs the paper. I felt absolutely dreadful: the worst feeling that I have ever felt when playing a game. I had been so cavalier about my actions—this conversation took less than a minute. I had spent hours building up my speech skill, so I had been happy to use it. Sure, I read what I was going to say, but I figured that she’d put up a bit of a fight, then eventually just give up, and I’d be able to walk away without spending any of my money. Instead, using only a few words, I crushed her spirit, and forced her to face all of the things that she had been hiding from. To this end, some good came of it: she joined me as my companion, and we later discovered that McLafferty had planned the attack on her caravan. By then, though, I had learned my lesson, and I used my speech skill for good, convincing her to not kill McLafferty out of vengeance.

Even still, the guilt I felt for speaking so harshly to her was strong, and stuck with me for a long while. And that moment will surely stand as one of the most powerful moments that I’ll ever experience in games. On the other hand, I was surprised that a game could make me feel this way, and it also got me thinking about how else games can affect a player emotionally. There is clearly an opportunity for these sorts of experiences to be crafted intentionally, and I would love to explore that as a designer.

What Have I Learned?

Being a Christian, and a morally-minded person, I’ve always felt uncomfortable with being a “bad guy” in games that give you that option. But in the end, I knew that these were just games, and if I chose to do something I wouldn’t do in real life, I did so because I was playing something that didn’t really affect my life. That view changed because of experiences like the two I mentioned here. Now, I make decisions in games with about as much care and thought as I would in real life, knowing that my choices build up a character in the game, and to disregard a decision is to dismiss the whole experience of being in this imagined world as ultimately meaningless, which I no longer hold to be true. Interestingly, I’m more willing nowadays to be a bad guy in a game if I’m interested in exploring that mindset, or understanding what might lead someone to make those choices.

Looking back, I think my time with Fallout: New Vegas (particularly these two moments of shame and guilt), drastically altered my perspective on games, and likely became the foundation of my more purposeful approach to gaming, as I talked about a few weeks back. And due to this shift in viewpoints, I look forward now to having many, and unique experiences in games, so I am eager to try a variety of games to see what else I can learn about myself, and about the world.

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