To continue our discussion of genre in Fallout: New Vegas, it’s time to consider the second great inspiration for the games opening sequences: the great American road trip.
Americans have always been a restless bunch; given our big, sprawling country with its endless frontiers, we’ve always been keen, as a culture, to explore, conquer, and roam. Our culture is speckled with these stories: from the travelogues of Lewis and Clark to the sea-tales of Melville to the migrations of the beat generation in On the Road. Our movies repeatedly take these journies: from Hitchcock’s love of travel in North by Northwest and Janet Leigh’s flight in Psycho, to the doomed voyage of Thelma and Louise, to the comic National Lampoon’s Vacation.
And just as the Western has its origins in the American Southwest with its scrubby deserts and untamed wilderness, so does it seem that all great road trip stories circulate around the Southwest – especially the fabled “route 66”: once an artery of the 19th century westward migration, transformed through history into the thoroughfare for displaced farmers during the dust bowl, family vacations in the prosperous ’50s and ’60s, disaffected teenagers-cum-hippies in the ’70s, and pointless consumerist tourist traps in the ’80s and ’90s.
And Fallout: New Vegas revels in this iconography, doing its best to capture every dimension of the road trip experience. On our trip from Goodsprings to New Vegas, we run through a litany of road trip mainstays. We start in the idyllic town of Goodsprings, avoid escaped prisoners acting as looters and hitchhikers, get mixed up in the police actions at Primm and Freeside, and encounter a literal tourist trap at Novac with its tawdry giant dinosaur and overpriced souvenirs. We encounter the urban blight of the New Vegas ruins and west Freeside, largely controlled by the murderous, drug-addicted raiders. We stumble across caravans, and might even intercede if they are attacked by Legionnaires (or, depending on your bent, help the Legionnaires and raid their goods).
New Vegas recognizes the confluence of multiple traditions here, and pays court to each in turn. On the one hand, there is the western “mysterious outlaw” tradition – emphasized the freedom offered by the game as you encounter each new town. Will you rescue Primm and instate a new sheriff? Or will you help the raiders to finish them off and loot their remains? Will you help the ghouls hiding out in the Repconn test facility (also on their mad journey to the moon)? Or will you wipe them out and continue on your way?
But there are other nods here as well. The city of Primm has a definite character as a cheap imitation of New Vegas. It even advertises itself on the radio as “The other New Vegas,” complete with its own cheap casinos and attractions (like the second rate crook team “Vikki and Vance”. Novac’s dinosaur-themed tourist shop is trying to unload the frankly embarrassing number of souvenir dinosaurs and rocketships (themselves dangerously radioactive) at exorbitant prices. And yet, if you pass a simple barter check, the proprietor will reveal that he can’t unload any of the stupid things and opens a closet where you can take as many as you want for free. The name itself, “Novac” is the result of a broken “No Vacancy” sign attached to the run-down roadside motel at the center of town. Here we see that comical National-Lampoon-esque critique of road trip consumerism – tourist traps, fleabag motels, and overpriced, pointless tchotchkes sold by the unscrupulous to the unwise.
We also see a nod to the tradition of bandit road-trips: Bonnie and Clyde, Butch and Sundance, Thelma and Louise – in the crime duo Vikki and Vance. Their car, machine gun, and outfits are on display in the “Vikki and Vance Casino” in Primm. Except that they aren’t. The tour-guide robot in charge of the place tells you assuredly that they are there, but the displays are empty; only the car remains. Reprogramming the robot will reveal that they have been stolen – by yet another guy-and-gal team who robbed the place while passing through. (Tracking them down will net you the gun, but it turns out that crime isn’t for them after all, and they’re willing to retire if you leave them alone; a rare happy ending among these stories.)
Remember, too, that the reason you wander the Mojave, passing through these cities to New Vegas, itself ties into the tradition of revenge-fueled road trips: at every stop along the way you ask about the man in the checkered suit who tried to kill you and seems to be passing inexorably toward New Vegas (because isn’t that where everyone is trying to go?). But is that really the reason you want to go to New Vegas? Your protagonist character is silent, except for the words you put in his/her mouth. Are you going for the revenge, or for the promise of untold riches, or out of curiosity?
Nowadays, I think the “Vegas vacation” has become a trope in its own right. National Lampoon did its trip to Vegas in the nineties, but the Vegas trip has exploded in popularity since, in part because Las Vegas has aggressively advertised itself and offered major discounts on flights and hotel rooms to get suckers into the casino doors, and in part because its proximity to Hollywood has made it the logical weekend getaway for bachelor parties, business trips, and other debauchery. The original CSI cemented its position as a wild, raucous enigma; The Hangover advertised its promise as a breeding ground for stories and lived experience – itself an obsession of our time. And that, too, the game will realize, in time.
Everyone wants to go to Vegas, in short, and the game teases its promise everywhere you go. But the journey and the destination are equally important in this case. The game directs you to sidequests and distractions, runs you through tourist traps and highway robberies. For all the promise of the lights of New Vegas on the horizon, the game’s design urges you to take your time. You can skip ahead down the highway, ignoring the quest chain, but you’ll miss so much, (and likely get flattened by overpowered enemies – the direct route is right out, to the chagrin of many players). The game wants you to experience the ups and downs of the road trip; the promise of the destination but also the joyous diversions of the road itself. It wants you to explore its world, familiarize yourself with its characters and factions, even as it guides your hand down the main thoroughfares and safest routes.
But there’s also an intangible quality to this journey, which is honestly the reason I was drawn to replay New Vegas in the first place.
See, just before I started my game, I was playing a little indie title called “The Signal from Tolva” – a first-person shooter from the team that made “Sir, You Are Being Hunted” (which I enjoyed thoroughly). And while Tolva was less directed and less robust than Fallout: New Vegas, the one thing it absolutely nailed was a sort of relaxed exploration. The world of Tolva was strange, rich with secrets and dangers, but there was a powerful zen-like calm about it. I found myself wandering across its terrain with a sniper rifle, able to see enemy robots on the horizon long before I was spotted, and plan my attacks on their strongholds with deliberate, calculated care. I was outnumbered and outgunned in most cases, and so I had to live by my wits, my courage, and my determination.
It’s the very same sense of uncertain, adventurous calm that I wanted from New Vegas, and that I’ve felt every time I’ve taken a long road trip to unfamiliar places. As much as I am excited to see new things, new people, do things I’ve never done before, I also very much enjoy the business of driving through new, unfamiliar places, with no particular route or destination in mind, no schedule to abide by. I like to take in the world, wary of its hostility, but a calm, unknown hostility that could turn out to be friendliness or enmity. I like not knowing what lies over the horizon, and yet feeling confident that I can take it, whatever it turns out to be. And as much as I remember my adventures in Primm, in Novac, I also, as distinctly, remember looking out over the dried-up-lake near Boulder city, Varmint Rifle in hand, picking off fire ants when they get too close. I remember ambushing bands of Fiends hiding behind billboards, just as they were about to ambush a passing caravan. I remember skirmishes with spear-throwing Legionnaires to defend the town where I was staying. These weren’t necessarily scripted events; they are just the result of the game’s mechanics, the game’s world. The Mojave is hostile, yet often tranquil. It is dangerous, surprising, wild, and yet ripe for conquest and control. It is like a friendly adversary, eager to test my mettle, but not out to frustrate or discourage me. That’s always been a draw to sandbox-style open-world games like Fallout, Assassin’s Creed, or Zelda: the promise of power accompanied by possible challenges. The feeling of entering a world both beautiful and dangerous, but not insurmountably dangerous. The promise of calm interludes in and among the exciting exchanges. The promise of the unknown, ripe for discovery, exploration, and conquest.
But the enticements of the Mojave haven’t just attracted me. There is a war on, after all.