Fashionably Late: Finishing New Vegas

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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31 thoughts on “Fashionably Late: Finishing New Vegas

      • Oh please, seriously?

        Are you saying that because it’s a video game?

        consider, if you were to watch all of the LOTOR extended editions and all of the extras you’d be spending a comparable amount of time. OR how about the harry potter movies/extras?

      • Damn dude. I wasn’t thinking of comparing my time spent in NV with multiplayer games, but I still think it lasted longer than them. Then again, I wouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t put more hours into Counter Strike: Source from ’04 to ’06. Or maybe the two Jedi Knight sequels a couple years earlier. For three years, those games were my standby multiplayer games, and managed to guarantee fun every time I launched them.

        But according to Steam, New Vegas is my most-played game by a wide margin.

    • It would also be worth it to check out A World of Pain and New Vegas Bounties I and II. They’re totally new content and quests that don’t necessarily fit in with the themes of the article, but add tens of more hours of enjoyable content nonetheless.

  1. Very nice article.

    I too consider NV to be one of the best, if not the best, RPGs this generation. The difference shown by comparison of light switch vs Ulfric really is staggering. Bethesda makes fantastic games that are at the same time bad RPGs….Obsidian makes sometimes mediocre games that are great RPGs, and in case of NV fantastic games that are also fantastic RPGs.

    I almost wish Bethesda would buy Obsidian and appoint it to be its primary Fallout franchise caretaker.

    • I pretty much agree with you on that, Paul. Since Obsidian is made up from some those who worked for Black Isle, it is no surprise they continue to make great titles.

    • That’s kind of what happened with this game. A different developer was hired to re-interpret Bethesda’s own re-interpretation of the different developer’s own franchise. It’s a weird situation, but they somehow worked it out.

      • The thing is, Obsidian is composed of people mostly from Black Isle and Interplay, the dev’s who worked on FO1 and FO2. J.E. Sawyer and Chris Avellone, two of the biggest dev’s for F:NV, worked on Van Buren.

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  3. I didn’t like them as much as the vanilla game, but I think that’s because I played them out of order. Also, Old World Blues was ridiculously difficult for me. More so than the others. The writing was fun (I love the appliances in the Sink,) but I can’t say so much about actually playing it. But I think that’s because my character was at the level cap and it mucked up the difficulty scaling in there. But I digress.

    I have a review of Lonesome Road here. I quite enjoyed Dead Money, quite disliked Lonesome Road, and Honest Hearts and Old World Blues were somewhere in-between. For some mind-blowing analytical perspective of the three DLCs overall, I highly recommend reading Kill Screen’s review.

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  5. I like that, at the end of the day, your review(ish) is about the ‘experience’ of playing the game, not the systems. I just reached the point in Skyrim (after approx. 75 hours) where my attention to the gameplay systems is outweighing my attention to the narrative created by my play; that tells me it’s time to stop for now.

    So much attention is paid to picking apart gameplay systems in these big narrative games, when I think much more should be paid to how those systems allow for imaginative engagement with the world presented. Without that, it’s not a game to me, it’s a set of rules and an arena to use them in. WITH imaginative engagement, it’s a game, a dream, an interactive narrative experience, whatever. It becomes everything that games CAN be.

    • Awesome. Your comment reminds me a lot of the famous 4chan criticism of Skyrim.

      When seeing opinions like these, I really can’t help but wonder: “Is that really all that game is to you?” They ignore all the aesthetic work that goes into the “video” part of the video game, and strip away all the wonderful ranges of experiences that can come from exploring a well-realized virtual world.

  6. I agree that FNV did a much better job with adding layers to player dialogue and interactions with NPCs, most notably with the depth and character they gave your companions. I would have followers for weeks in Skyrim and not even remember their names.

    I will say, however, that Skyrim outdid New Vegas when it came to auxiliary realism. The NPCs talked to each other and gave insight into their lives. They had unique faces. They had jobs, which they performed routinely. They felt more like real people in this sense. For as much flak as people give about “the arrow to the knee” line, it occurs maybe about 1/10000th as often as “Walking the Mojave makes you wish for a nuclear winter.”

  7. Interesting article, since I’ve been playing a lot of Fallout 3 and NV. There’s the part in the article where it says, “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.” This made me think of the Tenpenny Tower dilemma in Fallout 3. Hmmm. Is the New Vegas situation at root just the Tenpenny Tower scenario writ large?

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