By: George Weidman
“Fashionably Late” is a new pseudo-monthly series where TPG columnist George Weidman shares his thoughts about games past their prime. Think of them as mini-reviews written in an environment where prices are cheaper and hype is quieter, focusing on insightful analysis rather than consumer advice.
I’m shivering a bit while watching the credits for New Vegas roll by, and it’s hard not to feel like I just finished the best game of this generation. It’s also hard not to blame such high praise on the simple measure of its longevity. New Vegas took me 250 hours to finally put down, with most of that time spent playing my second character. Two-hundred and fifty hours, man. Think of the things I could’ve done with that time.
What was it that kept me going? The small stuff. New Vegas has all the ambition, scope, and possibility that Bethesda’s grandiose RPG engine can provide, but is written by the same staff that brought us the mature and detailed writing of Planescape, Baldur’s Gate, and the old-school Fallouts. It’s a stellar combination. Though New Vegas is almost the same game as Bethesda’s version of Fallout, Obsidian’s interpretation of what it means to be an RPG couldn’t be more different. Just note how many more dialogue options you have with a light switch than you do with Ulfric Stormcloak.
The writing, atmosphere and delicate faction play that permeate New Vegas is produced with a respect for the player that Bethesda doesn’t always embrace, while still following Elder Scrolls design philosophy that encourages nonlinearity and minute environmental interactions. In the midst of a meticulously detailed narrative about a post-apocalyptic society, we are still given the freedom (and encouragement) to pick its desks and tables apart, fork by fork. After a few mods add a much-needed layer of polish, the long-term experience becomes intensely personal.
Obsidian’s thoughtful attention to the politics and economy of what would otherwise be juvenile fantasy is admirable, as is their skill at building a world. Though the writing is oftentimes spotty (particularly at the end of every DLC chapter,) there are more than enough moments of environmentally-told storytelling mastery that make up for it. New Vegas’ storyline is all about juxtaposing first impressions with second and third impressions. As morally black and white as its three main factions seem at first, a bit of free-roamy exploring reveals layers of justification and deep characterization coloring these factions
The unreal evil of Ceaser’s Legion is a reaction to their harsh environment and the abuses they faced under the new post-apocalyptic government. Their slave economy is an effective way of sustaining a society under these conditions and processes former prisoners into devout followers in a way that disturbingly resembles reality. Though they are undoubtedly “evil,” they are realistically evil, and that makes them scary as hell. Robert House, Vegas’ enigmatic and immortal billionaire, touts objectivist goals for curing the apocalypse through capitalism. But it’s a goal that can only work if he is allowed to murder the opposition. The New California Republic, the supposed lesser of these three evils, is an ideal socialist-capitalist combination that is laced with realist cynicism. They exploit their impoverished sharecroppers and scavengers to fund an expansionist military that overwhelms everyone else. I left it up to reddit to destroy this metaphor, but am nevertheless shocked that such obtuse observations can be made in a violent fantasy setting rife for shlock.
The fourth faction that twists and exploits this gameworld is you. Playing the “Wild Card” questline and doing some self-motivated faction-destroying sabotage behind the scenes almost seems like the only logical choice. With a main quest that can be fully realized four different angles that can intersect each other at any given moment, there’s a mind-boggling amount of ways a player can experience this game. Creating an individualistic experience out of them all isn’t hard.
Obsidian created a true RPG experience here, one where the game I was playing truly became mine. Kill Screen hit the nail on the head when they called it “imposed solipsism.” I uniquely carved the Mojave over a period of hundreds of hours into the political landscape that I wanted to see. I turned a wrecked bungalow into a bustling home base. I learned how to churn raw junk through personalized crafting stations with mechanical efficiency. I slowly built a character into an oddity that was both flawed and overpowered, and profoundly represented the hundreds of hours I invested in him.
Those 250 hours didn’t cathartically pass by—they were an emotional rollercoaster, passing by with extreme highs and lows that led to complex choices that led to countless regrets and rewards. I still don’t feel good about disabling Mr. House, though it was the choice I believed in. I still don’t feel good about forcing out the NCR, or even destroying Caesar’s Legion. I hoped for the best that the independent free state of New Vegas created by the “Wild Card” ending would look better. Spoiler alert: it didn’t.
You can’t save everybody. Because of inter-faction politics, someone’s always getting screwed. By you. I slowly began to notice that pushing for an independent New Vegas meant pushing out the people who were best for it. Because almost all of this world it is left in stasis before the player’s meddling, I became its representative. I was the person to blame for its successes and failures. Though the game was revolving around me, it wasn’t empowering me.
New Vegas is depicted dispassionately, and that’s one of the game’s biggest criticisms. It may also be its biggest strength. Its alphabet soup of acronyms (the NCR, NCRCF, Big MT) hammers home how unexciting these factions are supposed to be, but I relished in it. The storyline has no urgent goal breathing down your neck, no pressing tension hurrying you to finish the main quest. If you can accept the Legion, there isn’t even a real antagonist. Instead, the goal is something remarkably pure and almost innocently “game”ish: to simply experience New Vegas. The main quest mereley has you traveling across the Mojave to try to understand the various tribes and factions that inhabit it. One by one, you become entrapped in their society and face their problems, then express your thoughts about them to the secretary back at your office. Ultimately, the final goal is to simply experience the battle at Hoover Dam and watch a credits sequence explain what you did to influence its aftermath.
It’s a world built entirely for your experience. Its politics and conflicts are frozen in time until you advance them to the next step. The war between the NCR and Legion is artificially stalemated without you. No one’s problems can be solved without you. All this imposed solipsism makes room for a breadth of people, places, cultures, relationships and stories that we have all the time in the world to experience.
Even if it takes 250 hours, there’s never a dull moment in an experience so dense with humanity.
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