Sin City where house always wins

A love letter to Fallout: New Vegas on the video game’s 13th anniversary 
Fallout: New Vegas.
Fallout: New Vegas.

CHENNAI : It’s said war - war never changes. Men do, through the roads they walk. And this road - has reached its end. — Ulysses, narrating the epilogue to Lonesome Road.

Allure of a post-post-apocalypse

Role-playing games (RPGs) and immersive sims are some of the best the video game genre has to offer; they often feature complex worlds, a surprising degree of player freedom, and a compelling narrative. Although, another commonality would be their occupation with situating an apocalypse (or at least a world-altering event) and its implications. Be it BioShock’s Andrew Ryan who crumbles along with his dream of a free-market utopia, Deus Ex’s prescient portrayal of a world collapsing under the material weight of class conflict, or Cruelty Squad’s utterly nihilistic corporatocracy where life has no meaning or value whatsoever. These games, by employing the (figurative, literal) apocalypse as narrative geist, and working player choices right into the ludic interface, end up becoming something more, a commentary on people themselves.

A primary member of this rich lineage, the beloved Fallout series, offers a very particular and interesting flavour of apocalypse, the post-post-apocalypse. The events of the first game, Fallout: A Post Nuclear Role Playing Game, take place nearly a century after a global nuclear war in 2077 between United States and China that wipes out modern civilisation. Featuring a post-nuclear wasteland reeling from the lasting effects of radiation, Fallout games generally involve the rise of serious organisations, playing out as a broad struggle for control across different regions of the Americas.

The series’ early days, in contrast to recent installments, featured sharp, biting indictments of global capital, imperial control, and war. The games often interrogated notions of order, hierarchy, and dogma, while staying cautiously optimistic about freedom, equality, and community.

While Fallout and Fallout 2, developed by Interplay Entertainment and its in-house division Black Isle Studios respectively, are widely regarded to be among the greatest video games ever made, they remain somewhat inaccessible to the flood of newcomers who got introduced to the series through Fallout 3, developed by Bethesda Game Studios after the Fallout IP’s acquisition. This includes myself. The transition to first-person mode, real-time combat, and a plethora of other fundamental changes brought in a horde of new admirers, at the cost of alienating old fans of the series.

The many shortcomings of Fallout 3 and the lost spirit of the original Fallout games, in my humble opinion, find their resolution in one unexpected entry to the series, Fallout: New Vegas. 

Big Iron On My Hips!

Fallout: New Vegas was released on October 19, 2010, to lukewarm reviews, with much of the criticism centred on the alarming number of bugs the game had shipped with. It is quite jarring, the initial reception to a game that is now, after 13 years and numerous fixes, considered an all-time classic, a beacon of great design, by both hardcore fans and casuals alike.

New Vegas’ opening itself is a bit unique and quite effective; you (The Player) start the game by getting shot in the face by a guy in a checkered suit, being rescued by a robot, and waking up at Doc Mitchell’s dingy house in Goodsprings, with no idea why any of it happened. All you know is that you are a courier for Mojave Express, a postal service for regions surrounding the Mojave desert, and the consignment you were carrying, a certain platinum poker chip, was swiped by the checkered suit fellow. Shaking off near-death fatigue, you venture out into the Mojave wasteland, after all, you have a delivery to finish. This intuitive, simple line serves as a great hook for the main story of New Vegas, apart from the 75+ side quests.

Without giving too much away, the game’s larger narrative, taking place during the year 2281, is one of a pointed power struggle for control over the titular New Vegas, the crown jewel of the Mojave wasteland built on top of the ruins of Las Vegas, Nevada. Its main attraction, The Strip is an absurd isola of opulence and indulgence, reserved for Mojave’s most powerful, and controlled by the mysterious Mr House, one of the game’s main factions. Featuring a variety of casinos, gambling pads, strip clubs, even a military police headquarters, The Strip is where you go to lose all your (bottle) caps, currency of the post-apocalypse. Heavily guarded by Mr House’s Securitrons (killer robots) and surrounded by slums, whoever controls The Strip, controls the Mojave.

Now, the power struggle over New Vegas does not manifest as a direct frontal assault on Mr House’s regime, for The Strip is way too valuable to stage a military invasion there; instead, the game’s various factions fight over Hoover dam, one of the wonders of the Old World, a well of substantial electric power from which The Strip exclusively draws from. The two other main factions, the New California Republic (NCR) and Caesar’s Legion, face each other in the First Battle of Hoover Dam, with the former securing a narrow victory. Fallout: New Vegas’ main story begins at a point where both factions are preparing for an inevitable second rush.

The Royal Flush

The game is primarily known for its brilliant world-building, and how this world is implemented as gameplay. While being a story about a power struggle between three factions, the writing does not make it easy to choose, or feature one faction as an obvious moral winner. The NCR is an expansionist federal republic, meting out ‘righteous’ colonial violence in the name of democracy and civilisation; while Caesar’s Legion is a totalitarian slave army, fashioned after the Roman empire, obsessed with masculinity, strength and survival. Mr House is the reclusive, enigmatic puppeteer, he believes in absolute technological progress as humanity’s way out of the post-apocalyptic wreckage, and plays a very important role in drawing the courier (The Player) into the game’s central conflict. 

Besides, New Vegas features loads of fun, meaningful side quests that make the world come alive, especially if you find yourself saturated by the main story. Whether it be sussing out who is behind the disappearance of Boone’s beloved wife in One For My Baby, or choosing to stand with or against a shoddy little town that wants to protect a stranger seeking refuge in Ghost Town Gunfight, these stories are sure to stay with you long after pushing through New Vegas. 

Above all else, Fallout: New Vegas is just extremely easy to pick up, even for casuals. I keep recommending the game to all sorts of people, and many have responded with unending gratitude, for the game is truly an experience. This was made possible by how New Vegas deals with jank, and how it takes after Bethesda’s Fallout 3, in cutting away the bad parts (less-than-ideal progression system) and amplifying all that it got right (towering landmarks, extensive side questing). 

Not to mention how the game’s strong sense of play is baked right into the (revamped) trait/perk system. Apart from having memorable queer NPCs and companions, some of the earliest instances of earnest queer representation in video games, certain perks such as Cherchez La Femme and Black Widow configure The Player to be explicitly gay or bisexual, opening up new possibilities and interactions in the game world. There is also the infamous Wild Wasteland trait that just makes the Mojave a weirder, spookier place. And I haven’t even started on the brilliant line-up of DLCs and mods.

As lead writer John Gonzalez said, “New Vegas is not about luck. It is about having a rigged game.” Whether you choose to side with the imperialists or the slavers or a literal rotting corpse (or the proletarian mass of the Freeside) Fallout: New Vegas won’t judge, and will have something meaningful in store for every player. Pick it up today!

Octobers & 13s

1996 Black Isle Studios, in-house division of Interplay Entertainment, is founded by Feargus Urquhart

1997 October 10 : Fallout: A Post Nuclear Role Playing Game is developed, released by Interplay

1998 October 29: Fallout 2, developed by Black Isle Studios, is released by Interplay

2003 Van Buren in development, Urquhart and others leave Black Isle Studios

2003 June 12: Urquhart and other ex-Black Isle employees found Obsidian Entertainment

2003 December 8: Van Buren gets canceled, Black Isle Studios is dissolved by Interplay due to financial difficulties

2007 April: Bethesda Softworks acquires the Fallout IP from Interplay

2008 October 28: Fallout 3 is developed, released by Bethesda

2009 April:  Fallout: New Vegas, developed by Obsidian Entertainment, is announced

2010 October 19: Fallout: New Vegas is released by Bethesda

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