2021: The Year Project Moon Took Over My Life

PART ONE: Finally Beating Lobotomy Corporation

CW: Horror, gore, addiction, stress, depression, capitol riots, death – basically everything. And also MAJOR spoilers for Lobotomy Corporation

On some strange level, I feel like Library of Ruina is the last game I will ever play.

I don’t even know what I mean by this.  I’ve played games since, obviously.  But I still feel this way.  As though the summer of 2021 was this hinge between two unrelated parts of my life that otherwise have very little traffic between them.  As though my entire relationship to playing video games has been irrevocably modified.  As though I have seen the heights of what video games can achieve and expect only disappointment from the entire industry in the years to come.

It’s only a feeling, though, mind you.

But let’s back up.

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Facing the Fear; Building the Future: Lobotomy Corporation and Processing Horror

Content Warning: Horror scenes/art, violence, depression/despair, cosmic horror, Nietzsche as interpreted by teenage boys, political stupidity (esp. capitol riots)

A Tribute to Games I Can’t Play

            In January of 2016, I was living with my wife in our Pennsylvania apartment.  I was in my third year of classes at Baptist Bible Seminary, but I’d hit a roadblock.  I had borrowed as much as the government was willing to lend me, and I was no longer able to afford to take classes full time.  In the fall I’d dropped from a full load of four-to-five classes per semester, to only one.  I had started substitute teaching at a local private school to help make ends meet.

            Then, one day my wife came home from work early and announced that she had just been laid off.  The college where she had worked for five or six years had mismanaged its finances and was facing major changes going forward, starting by laying off dozens of staff members, including her.

            I turned off the game I was playing, and haven’t ever turned it on again.

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CHUCHEL and the Joy of Clicking on Stuff

THE GREATLY-EXAGGERATED “DEATH” OF ADVENTURE GAMES

Once upon a time, in the middle ages of PC gaming (1993), the Adventure game was riding high. Zork had evolved from a text-based game to full graphical representations in Return to Zork, Myst and The 7th Guest were blowing people out of the water with their richly-realized worlds and environmental puzzles, Sierra was riding high on its various Quest titles, and LucasArts was King.

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Gaming as an Adult (Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Casuals)

Prologue: Gaming in the time of COVID-19

So my birthday was earlier this month – I’ve now reached the ripe old age of 34.  And celebrating one’s birthday in the age of COVID-19 is a pretty strong reminder of mortality.  There were no parties, very few gifts, and while I did risk a visit with my nieces and nephews, which mostly devolved into spending a long time playing Slime Rancher with my eldest nephew, it was mostly an uneventful day and week.  We were all very tired (except the kids), very busy, and our conversations were restrained by an effort to avoid divisive political talk.  I went home wondering what the future might hold: how long will we be stuck in social-distancing quarantine?  How long will I be stuck in my dead-end adjunct professor job, making little money and less respect?  What changes are in store for our government, our society, and our way of life with the next election?

But these weighty questions have few answers at this point – there’s no point worrying over them because I have so little control over their outcomes.  Instead, I want to talk about something I’ve also been thinking about for a while: how has my relationship to video games changed in the past five years?

In part, I’m thinking about this because my own life has changed pretty dramatically in that time.  In five years I’ve gone from a student to a ETS grader to an adjunct professor.  I’ve gotten married, and moved more times than I’d care to think.  I’ve gone from having whole days of free time, to whole days sitting on my computer, running Magic: Duels and match-3 casual games in the background while I grade, to having only small chunks of time available for gaming – at most an hour or two at the end of the day before bed, or ten-to-twenty minute chunks in the awkward times between classes or preparations.  And then in COVID-times, I find my habits changing again – with enough stress surrounding me from class preparation, world affairs, and day-to-day inconveniences, I’m moving away from intense games that challenge my reflexes to games that challenge my mind at my own pace.

This month I became especially aware of this dynamic when I examined my gaming habits.  As a gift, I received this month’s big exciting release from EA: Star Wars: Squadrons – a game I have anticipated eagerly (though apprehensively), and which proved surprisingly in line with my expectations.  I was a big fan of the old X-Wing and TIE Fighter titles in the ‘90s, the Rogue Squadron games in the ‘aughts, and much lamented the dearth of good Star Wars starfighter sims more recently.  My childhood was filled with these exciting space battles.  I still have my own elaborate method for mapping the old PC games’ elaborate and varied commands to the X-Box controller I keep connected to my desktop, though I find myself revisiting them less and less often.  So when the new game came out I was apprehensive (EA’s track record on Star Wars hasn’t been great), but excited.

And, weirdly, they delivered.  Squadrons is a faithful love letter to the old PC starfighter titles like X-Wing, down to the cockpit design and complicated command interface, while also learning many of the lessons from the Rogue Squadron games.  They have an engaging, dynamic campaign and a modern matchmaking system from years of experience designing multiplayer games – all overlaid with cutting-edge graphics and VR support (which I don’t have the resources to take advantage of).  This was well above my expectations, and I can’t say enough nice things about the game.  It really is everything I hoped for.

And I’ve spent exactly four hours playing it since it came out on October 1st.

That’s all.

This month I also bought Monster Train – a fairly ingenious indie mash-up of Slay the Spire deckbuilding mechanics and tower defense battles.  The game is totally turn-based, so I’ll regularly start a game, walk away, and return to it often while making dinner or watching TV with my wife.  I can run it on my laptop, so I can play it on campus when I have free time.  There is no direct multiplayer, though I have enjoyed out-ranking my friends on various challenges and scoreboards.

At time of writing Steam reports that I’ve spent over ninety hours on the game.

Throughout this year I’ve seen similar dynamics at play.  I tried to play the highly-regarded Prey (2017) for the first time, only to quit about four or five hours in.  I love the game, think it is an apt successor to the likes of Deus Ex, System Shock, and the like – but I couldn’t find the time or energy to devote long sessions to it, even this summer when I had plenty of free time on my hands.  Instead, I devoted that time to Cook, Serve, Delicious 3?!  I have followed its development since it was initially released to early access this January – eagerly playing every successive update through every level and achievement.  At time of writing I’ve sunk 128 hours into the game, gotten every achievement, and consider it one of the key gaming experiences I’ve had in this year of quarantine – all before its full “1.0” release several weeks ago.

The other games I’ve spent this year playing show this same pattern: In July, during the Steam Sale, I bought all the expansions to Sentinels of the Multiverse (160 hours and climbing), a turn-based card game parodying and re-creating the exploits of comic book superheroes; the earlier part of this year was largely devoted to Fire Emblem: Three Houses (75 hours), which I received for Christmas; this fall I found myself replaying Slay the Spire (up to 250 hours from 150-or-so at the beginning of the year); since it came out I’ve been on-and-off of Animal Crossing: New Horizons (155 hours, though I probably would have quit around 90 or so if it wasn’t for my wife), and I’ve also found a lot of time for Demoncrawl (40+ hours), a re-interpretation of Minesweeper with rogue-like RPG elements.  There are exceptions to this pattern – I enjoyed and beat Furi (7 hours) which was nothing if not fast-paced and intense (though admittedly in bite-sized forty-minute-long boss battles), and I replayed through both StarCraft and StarCraft II (let’s call it about 60 hours total; they are less easy to track) – though I kind of trailed off during the end of SCII’s Protoss campaign (it drags, and the anniversary achievements got meaner L).  But the tendency seems pretty clear.

I’ve become a filthy casual gamer.

Turning in my “Gamer” card

This is especially embarrassing since Wes Schantz and I have started ramping up our efforts to create content and engagement for our Video Game Academy enterprise.  We’ve been recording our podcasts (on Final Fantasy VI and Pony Island/The Hex) more regularly, reached out to our friends for more content and ideas, worked to re-design and reorganize our platforms – only to run headlong into several walls.  I’ve had health problems in the past week or so; our friends have been slow or disinterested in producing content (though we have some irons in the fire); and we worry we don’t have much to say about the contemporary releases grabbing attention.

Our aspirations are not so much to become a review website (none of us are especially good at keeping up with the release schedule of AAA titles), but to primarily work on deep, analytical dives of games with strong themes or stories – but I find myself spending less and less time playing games driven by story and narrative, and focusing instead on mechanically-driven games of strategy and cunning.  The big, highly-regarded action-packed video game stories of the past few years – Red Dead Redemption 2, God of War, Prey, The Last of Us 2 – I’ve missed or ignored, or, like Prey and Squadrons, struggled to fit into my schedule.

On the one hand, I don’t worry too much about this: many of the biggest releases tend to be overrated and overblown – I don’t feel any great urgency to go out and play the newest Call of Duty, for example.  But, on the other hand, the games I’m playing don’t have much narrative depth to examine.  One of these days I’d like to deeply examine the conceit of Sentinels of the Multiverse, but I’m not going to have much to say about the themes of Monster Train or Cook Serve Delicious 3?! because theme and story are so secondary to how those games work.  Nor do I want to limit my focus to the games of yesteryear: there may yet be untapped richness to the old Zelda or Final Fantasy games, but I also want to be able to appreciate how games now speak to gamers now about real, meaningful issues and problems in our lives.  What’s more, I find it more and more difficult to talk about the narrative games I do really enjoy.  I’d love to do a podcast with Wes about Outer Wilds, for example, but the game is so non-linear and exploratory that I’d find it very difficult to structure a conversation around it, or to set up arbitrary restrictions and limitations for progress, just so we could explore the game on the same page.  I really enjoyed Superliminal earlier this year, but the story is so sparse and the conceit so experiential that it would be difficult to appreciate in prose.

Nor do I want to turn gaming into yet another job.  Monster Train and Sentinels of the Multiverse are my refuges from responsibilities – switching to Prey or Red Dead Redemption 2 would feel like an obligation, and I have enough of those reading and re-reading The Iliad or Descartes’ Meditations in preparation for my classes.  It would likely spoil my experience of the game, or at least re-frame it in a way alien to most players.

But there’s the rub: as children we were free to enjoy games and engage with them at our own pace, with no obligation, no limitations to our experience besides the day-to-day drudgery of schoolwork and homework.  I came home and played games because I did not have to make dinner, pay bills, e-mail students, stay in shape, keep in touch with friends and family, endure social obligations – and so I played them, always on my terms, in the ideal mindset to appreciate and learn from what they had to say.  Is it possible that, in growing up, I have closed off my ability to appreciate the new?

A Defense of my Gaming Habits

Honestly?  No.

I realize that there is an urge to condemn nostalgia as unfair praise, and to think that focusing on the media of our childhood is evidence of that unfair nostalgia.  But I offer a defense of my gaming habits on the following grounds:

First, I think I have a pretty good grasp on my nostalgia-based biases, and I don’t think there are a whole lot of them.  I have been more than willing to admit when my favorite books and movies and video games are not all they are cracked up to be.  I will absolutely admit that Final Fantasy VIII endgame makes me want to tear my hair out, even though it remains my pet favorite entry in the franchise, based on my love of it in high school.  Some of my favorite childhood movies, like Felix the Cat or The Jetsons Movie really do not stand up to repeated viewings.  Animorphs and Redwall, my two favorite childhood book series, are both repetitive and drag on way too long.  I do still have an irrational love of Magic: The Gathering and basically all the Pokemon games, but I’ll absolutely admit the irrationality of that attachment, especially now that Magic has developed some really bad habits in the past few years, and Pokemon Sword made some long-needed changes that revealed the bad decisions of many past entries.

Second, I’ve found a lot of my favorite books, games, and movies in adulthood.  Just in the past few years, I’ve confidently classed Outer Wilds and NieR: Automata alongside Zelda: Majora’s Mask and Final Fantasy VI as some of my favorite games of all time.  Both left me regularly slack-jawed with admiration, beauty, and thoughtful reflection, every bit as much as the games of my childhood.  I’ve let my speculative fancy fly to the guidance of Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker and Cixin Liu’s The Dark Forest, thrilled at the artistic audacity of Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse and wondered at the cinematic mastery of Parasite.  I’m not spiritually-dead, even if my life affords fewer and fewer opportunities for that sort of artistic renewal.  I want to wonder; it’s just often inconvenient nowadays.

And Now, a Critique of Modern Gaming

At least part of the problem is what gaming has come to expect of me.  When I was a child, I was more than willing to dedicate an entire night to playing the same game.  When I was in college, I remember setting aside a whole afternoon to play the last Thieves’ Guild mission in Oblivion, down to making a sandwich before-hand in anticipation of a long ordeal.  But now, that same anticipation is the very thing driving me away from these games.  When I sit down to play Squadrons, I can anticipate a good five minutes of loading time before I ever get to a mission.  Once I get there, before and after, I can expect another five minutes of briefings, circuitous conversations with my squad mates with no real gameplay value (and limited value in characterization).  If I’m playing Multiplayer, I can expect missions to fail as I go up against players with superior skill.  I can expect setbacks and frustration – crashing into debris or other ships, lag, balancing the personalities of my friends.  By contrast, when I sit down to play Monster Train, I’m playing a game, making important choices, and setting my skills to the test in seconds.  One run alone might take an hour, and end in failure, but I’ve enjoyed the whole time I’ve played it.  I find myself gravitating, therefore, toward games that are economical about my time.

Prey, on the other hand, was much quicker in-and-out, but it was also hideously tense and involved.  I would psych myself up to play the game for an hour or two, then have to step away for a week at a time, then return to find I could not remember what I was supposed to do or how I was supposed to do it.  Part of that is the appeal of an immersive sim – all those complicated interlocking mechanics – but it was frustrating all the same.  By contrast, Slay the Spire starts every run at the same easy level of difficulty, ramping up only as you play longer in a given run.  There’s nothing to remember, no stakes to losing.  It was accessible and forgiving.

But these last terms are especially vilified by modern gamers – and tie into a whole sub-culture that I’ve always found myself excluded from.  I speak, of course, of Dark Souls and the need to ‘git gud’.

Easy Mode

I have never beaten a Dark Souls game, or any of its attendant spin-offs like Bloodborne or Sekiro.  Part of the reason is that I started in on Demon’s Souls, the even less forgiving predecessor to Dark Souls, got pretty well hooked, then equally-well burned in later levels.  One of these days I would like to get around to finishing it, but – surprise! – it hasn’t happened.  The learning curve to Demon’s Souls is considerably crueler than Dark Souls – with longer runs to bosses and less patience for mistakes.  I did, at one time, master the art of patient, calculated combat – at least enough to make it through the first nine or ten boss fights – but I found less and less time for long, unfulfilling runs after I got married and started working full-time-ish.

That said, I have found some time for games like Hollow Knight and Sundered, which operate on similar rigorous difficulty curves.  I’ve beaten both to their respective secret endings, despite their difficulty.  I ‘got gud’, in short, and did so willingly – without apprehension or setbacks, in my usual hour-or-two-long sessions of gameplay.  Part of the reason I’ve found the time in this case, but not for Demon’s Souls is probably convenience – I have more time at my computer than my PS3 – but the other part is probably related to complexity and familiarity – the souls-like difficulty and structure is simplified by the 2D Metroid-vania style of Hollow Knight and Sundered.  There’s not so much world geometry to get caught up on, the levels are easier to take in at a glance, and – again – the loading times are much reduced.  I could do in an hour what Demon’s Souls asks me to do in three or four.  ‘Git[ing] gud’ isn’t the problem; the amount of effort and concentration required to ‘git gud’ is the problem.

But I also don’t have a problem with games that try to mitigate that difficulty curve.  The other side of the ‘git gud’ argument is an antagonism by gamers against games that provide an obvious ‘easy mode’ – like Nintendo’s efforts to reduce difficulty for gamers by providing an ‘auto-drive’ feature in MarioKart, or invulnerability to Mario, or “Funky Mode” in Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze.  I don’t usually opt into the “story mode” option which strategy games or RPGs employ to reduce the rigors of gameplay and let players appreciate the story on their own terms, but if it means I get to share the games I like with my non-gamer wife or my six-year-old nephew, I see only a boon here.  What’s more, I expect that the day may come when I need those easy mode options.  If this website takes off, I can absolutely imagine a day when my schedule won’t allow for a proper play-through, deaths and all, of a new title, but I want to see the story for myself, if only to talk about its merits on a blog or podcast.  I can imagine a day when I’m recovering from carpal tunnel surgery and don’t want to be penalized for poor reflexes and dexterity.  I have already sought out “easy mode” options for my nephews when I am shopping for Christmas gifts.

So the next time you dismiss the complaints of a “gamer” unwilling to ‘git gud’, spare a thought for why that might be.

The Classism of “Gamer” Culture

Much has been written about the toxicity of modern gaming, both from the perspective of ‘git gud’ elitism and the exclusivity of the “Gamer” moniker these days, but I want to draw attention to one particular issue in this dynamic, namely that the assumptions of ‘gamer’ culture are, essentially, classist.  To reject the “credentials” of a gamer on the basis of skill frequently fails to take into account the time commitment necessary to build skill.  Dark Souls may be a difficult game, but it is, more importantly, a game that requires long, uninterrupted blocks of time to build that skill.  It requires either a familiarity with the game built up in the past (i.e., more time) or a willingness to devote serious effort, mental energy, and stress to the acquisition of that skill.  It requires, to be blunt, a certain concentration of selfish leisure – a luxury that many are unable to afford, either because their lives are too demanding or because they are already managing excessive stress.  What’s more, to keep up with modern gaming requires a serious investment of capital – money for hardware, consoles, games, and peripherals, in addition to the time investment.  Gaming is, in short, a hobby that only the rich may properly enjoy. 

For my part, I cherry-pick critically-revered games years after their release, when they are heavily-discounted; favor $20 indie titles over $60 big-budget releases; and prefer games that treat my time economically and my mind gently.  This should not be disqualifying to my ‘gamer’ credibility, though I recognize that it will likely hamper my ability to reach a broad audience out-of-step with my habits.

But I also recognize that there are more dimensions here than I’m fully attentive to.  I’m seen my students and nephews caught up with Fortnite-fever, socially-pressured to buy expensive in-game cosmetic items to avoid the “default” skin, universally-mocked by the community.  I recently watched Noah Gervais’ videos on Call of Duty, in which he made the point that the power fantasy offered by those games (often condemned by critics) can often be salve to the powerlessness of poverty and crappy jobs.  By contrast, I find myself physically stressed beyond my limits when I try to appreciate a critically-regarded game like Cart Life or This War of Mine because it speaks to ugly realities about the world that I myself endure or identify strongly with.  Why and how we enjoy games may well depend on other factors well outside our control – the usual punching bags of insufficient skill or dedication or artistic appreciation may well mask an ugly classism: rich gamers pressuring poor gamers to overextend their time, energy, and money to join an exclusive society of “gamers” apart from filthy casuals like me.

To which I may reply that Monster Train makes me happy, and that’s all I need to know to keep playing it.

A Conclusion

At the end of the day, I recognize that my gaming habits have changed, but I don’t think they disqualify me from discussing the games that truly warrant conversation.  I will not be a vanguard critic, charging into the unknown waters of gaming to distinguish overhyped duds from underappreciated gems – though I will maintain my vigil over promising indie releases, even if I’m a bit late to actually play them.  And I am in no present danger of running out of good games to talk about.  Wes and I have not discussed our plans for podcasts after our Daniel Mullins series, but I have plenty of titles in mind that should keep us going for years to come, and I’m sure he has a similar list in his mind.  We won’t want for content, even if it is years after the curve.

But I also think we need to take this opportunity to make a kind of statement of intent.  I recognize there is a push-pull tension between the desire to stay relevant and speak to games popular in the moment – and the desire to focus on games already proven insightful and relevant by years of community admiration and conversation.  I think we should not remain complacent in our comfort zones, reviewing only the games we already love; but we should also not exhaust ourselves surveying unproven titles in the hope of being the first to see value in a game.  We should be comfortable saying “I couldn’t get into this” about something like Prey or Squadrons, even as we recognize the merits we saw.  And we should absolutely question both ourselves and these games to try and find where the fault or miscommunication lies.  We should be willing to critique the industry as well as the developer; gaming as well as games.

In short: we can (and should) be casual critics without doing any disservice to our criticism or our credibility.

New Vegas III – War Never Changes

Every Fallout game is about war. The series’ post-apocalyptic setting reminds the player constantly of the devastating effects of war. The lore you uncover – forgotten e-mails and long-abandoned vaults – point to a world that up and vanished in an instant of nuclear fire. The series’ constant tagline: “War: War Never Changes,” reminds us again of this focal point.

But on the one hand, war does change – we see the evidence. The sheer destructive power we have wielded since the 20th century far outweighs any weapon or force concocted in the thousands of years of human history. On the other hand, though, war hasn’t changed. Destroying the planet: rendering every water source a potential fount of radiation and changing the landscape into a barren waste just means fewer resources to fight over (all the more reason to fight so desperately). Maybe the wars are between factions and tribes rather than nations or superpowers, but that doesn’t make those wars any less terrible for the people fighting in them, or caught in the middle, trying to survive.

The Mojave of Fallout: New Vegas is a contested land. Though we won’t see the details of the conflict until later in the story, even as early as our long road trip from Goodsprings to New Vegas reveals the main combatants and what they represent to the locals. From the west come the NCR (New California Republic) – they fly a two-headed bear flag deliberately resembling the state flag of California, wear desert military fatigues, and seem roughly organized, though more rag-tag than their uniforms and military bearing would suggest.

From the east come Caesar’s Legion (pronounced like the salad by outsiders; legionnaires and sympathizers pronounce it kai-sar). There’s something truly outlandish about running into troops throwing spears and wearing full legate armor – scale mail and red-feather trip, helmets and all – especially when most of the citizens of the Mojave wear Mad-Max standard leather.

I want to spend time later breaking down each faction and discussing their characteristics, so I won’t dive deeply into the mechanics of the two combatants here. But I do want to talk about our first interactions with each.

The NCR we meet first – they are standing outside Primm, situated across the blasted highway from the city proper, fortified with sandbags in a small encampment. The game funnels you down this highway, so it’s hard to miss the standoff. If you talk to any of the troops, they’ll explain the hostage situation: the citizens of Primm are being held in the Bison Steve casino hotel by rogue Powder Gangers – the same jerks who have been harassing us (and the locals) since we woke up in Goodsprings. The NCR will also ask you to take care of the situation – since they are too short-handed to storm the hotel. Your main quest (tracking down the person who shot you) dovetails with this request; the citizens of Primm offer to give you information if you help take out the Powder Gangers and release the hostages – so it’s most likely that you’ll fulfill both quests as you pass through town.

Why are the NCR outmanned and outgunned? Because they have threats on all sides. On the one hand, the Powder Gangers themselves were once prisoners, doing demolitions work for the NCR (again, because the NCR is short-handed and understaffed) – but used their bombs to take over the prison, and are now being (barely) contained by NCR patrols. But the real threat to NCR is the Legion, which has been pushing westward for a long time, only now held at bay by the Colorado River. But while the main body of NCR forces are posted at the Hoover Dam (strategic lynchpin of the whole area), reports increase of Legion incursions over the river, attacking NCR patrols, caravans, and locals.

These rumors are verified firsthand as soon as we arrive in Nipton. Among the most horrifying scenes in the game, the sky in front of us turns dark as we approach a mountainous rise. A hysterical citizen runs by, shouting that he’s “won the lottery” – but we can’t get any more information out of him. As we come into the city, we see crucified, burned citizens on both sides of the street. We are greeted by a high-ranking legionnaire, who declares that the saving forces of “Kaisar” have arrived in the Mojave. He directs us to tell the NCR they have come, and departs with his substantial forces. The “lottery,” it seems, was to determine who would survive the destruction of the town. The second-place winner, Boxcars, sits in one of the buildings, his legs both broken by the Legion.

A little exploration (careful exploration – the buildings are littered with traps and mines by the Legion) will reveal that the town had been prostituting its citizens to local NCR troops for the town’s profit (especially the corrupt mayor). When Caesar’s Legion gets wind of this, they set a trap for NCR and citizens alike. It would seem they frame their action as a moral purge and tactical strike, part inquisition, part assassination. While our first interaction with the NCR suggests a disorganized, understaffed group claiming dubious authority, our first interaction with the Legion starts as a horrible, nightmarish, and terrifying, then metamorphoses into a sense of cruel, but effective, justice.

As we keep exploring the Mojave, we will find more history behind this war. Apparently there was a local force – the Rangers – that used to protect the area surrounding New Vegas. When the NCR moved in from the West, they lacked the Rangers’ discipline and skill, but made up for it with sheer numbers. Despite some friction, a treaty was signed and the Rangers were integrated into the NCR proper. This just in time for the Legion to start attacking from the East. The dual incentives for these dueling nations? New Vegas (a rich, powerful, well-defended city in its own right), and Hoover Dam, providing plentiful power to the area. Whoever controls these two tactical strongholds can control the Mojave and empower their own forces.

Apparently the Legion tried to seize the Dam, but was defeated in a devastating attack in Boulder City – the NCR lured them into the city, then destroyed the whole place in a single blast. Now, we find the NCR and Legion stationed on opposite sides of the Dam, a stalemate, though the Legion’s appearance over the river in Nipton suggests that the NCR line is not nearly as tight as they may think.

But while most video games about war place the player on one or the other side of the conflict, your role in New Vegas is undecided. Wearing the armor of one or the other faction will earn you the ire of the opposing army (if you wear NCR armor on your first visit to Nipton, the Legion will attack you on sight), and you have a separate “reputation” with each faction, that affects your standing with the members of each. You start neutral, and can watch Legionnaires attack NCR patrols without taking sides or being attacked by either group (patrols move procedurally around the map, so these sorts of skirmishes are pretty common). Nor must you take a side to progress through the game. You can antagonize both factions, endear yourself to either one (or both, at least until the endgame), or ignore them entirely.

What’s more, neither are presented as unilaterally-good. As sympathetic as the disorganized NCR tends to be (they, at least, don’t go around crucifying people), many of the citizens complain that nobody asked them to show up and start enforcing laws around the Mojave, and that their mismanagement has led to destructive forces like the Powder Gangers or escalating tensions with the drug-addicted Fiends. Likewise, though most are terrified of the Legion, especially if their lifestyles aren’t up to Legion standards (Caesar/Kaisar doesn’t tolerate any kind of sexuality outside heterosexual marriage, for a start, and would likely destroy the casinos of New Vegas and slaughter the families running them), others acknowledge that the Legion rewards its allies generously, and Legion territory is far safer and better-protected than NCR holdings. Caravaneers, especially, prefer working with the Legion and their zero-tolerance policies toward raiders, than running the risk of trading with the sparsely-patrolled NCR territories.

Instead, we see the war from all perspectives. We fulfill quests for beleaguered farmers and citizens trying to eke a living from the blasted landscape while fearing for their lives and livelihoods. We talk to mayors irritated by NCR’s uninvited occupation of the Mojave, taxes and all. We talk to casino owners, keen to use the war to accomplish their personal ends, protected from real consequences by money and power. We talk to NCR politicians desperately calling home for more men and materiel. We talk to soldiers who never wanted to leave California, but now find themselves far from home, frightened and unprotected. We talk to Legionnaires, indoctrinated into fervent faith in the leadership of Kaisar. We talk to bureaucrats mired in tragicomically-conflicting orders from competing NCR leaders. We talk to ideologues like Kaisar himself, whose vision for the Mojave is rooted in the same kind of absolute morality that described Hitler, Stalin, or Mussolini. And we talk to NCR bigwigs motivated by personal pride, profit, or patriotic fervor.

In short, War Never Changes. For all the history books may try to boil down conflicts into clear motivations, sides, and ideologies – as much as we may understand wars past in terms of simple heroes and villains – war was, is, and undoubtedly will remain a mess of conflicting perspectives and agendas. Battles will be won or lost as much by dumb luck, mitigating factors, or soft power as they will be by outstanding generalship, technological advantage, or sheer strength and skill of arms. If anything, I suspect that video games like New Vegas, with their open world, deep characterization, and great freedom for the player, better explore the real issues of warfare than your average linear medium like books or TV. Though the consequences of our actions must not be allowed to derail the overall story or major game states, New Vegas goes out of its way to explore the business of war at every level and from every side, choosing never to settle for easy oversimplifications.

And though our decisions may unrealistically affect the outcome of the conflict, fulfilling the power-fantasy offered by such a game, no matter whose side wins this war, the message remains the same: War Never Changes. Our agency may change history’s names and numbers, the winners and losers, the rosters of the dead and the livelihoods of the survivors – but it will not change the omnipresence of violence in this world, or of war itself. Generations to come will not be spared from their own wars, their own struggles, their own efforts to survive the imperialism of invading armies. War Never Changes.

New Vegas – II: The Great Post-Apocalyptic Road Trip

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.

Fallout: New Vegas – I: A Most “Western” RPG

With the release of The Outer Worlds last year, I felt a keen desire to replay Obsidian’s earlier opus – Fallout: New Vegas. I had played through the game once, shortly after it came out, and remembered it being significantly better than the earlier Fallout 3. I remembered not playing through the DLC, and wanting to. I remembered wanting to explore the world more than I did the first time around.

Now, some four months and nearly 100 hours of gameplay later, I thought I might take some time to record my findings, as a travelogue of sorts, now that I approach the conclusion of my second play-through and have confirmed it is as good as I remembered.

Preface: A Travelogue of the Mojave

I should preface this by saying that I am a long time Bethesda fan, but have never had much investment in the Fallout series. I’ve played through Morrowind half-a-dozen times at this point (no small feat for a game that large), and it holds an entrenched spot on my short list of favorite games. I enjoyed Oblivion (with many caveats) and Skyrim (with fewer caveats). But Fallout 3 has never grabbed me, and I find the earlier installments impenetrable. Fallout 4 didn’t interest me enough to buy it, even now that the price has come down. And we don’t talk about Fallout 76, apparently.

But New Vegas is different, especially by Bethesda standards. It utterly abandons the free-roaming sandbox worlds of The Elder Scrolls and other Fallout games in favor of a surprisingly linear first act. It ditches the moral choice system of Fallout 3 in favor of a more nuanced faction-based system that makes your decisions carry more immediate weight. It is peppered with rich characters and environments throughout the game, and draws players to one of the most meaningful choices I’ve ever seen in a video game, full stop.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First I’d like to plan out my travelogue a bit, though my ambition may exceed my abilities here. New Vegas logically breaks down into three acts: the road to New Vegas, the politicking in New Vegas proper, then the player interactions with the different game factions. It makes sense, then, to structure my travelogue likewise. First I’d like to discuss the genre, storytelling, and mechanics of the game. Second, the setting and environments. Third, the different factions and the ideological positions they represent as the player chooses an ending. Then, if time permits, I might spend some time on the DLC.

But enough preface. New Vegas awaits.

Ain’t That a Kick in the Head

Bethesda games typically start slowly. In The Elder Scrolls, you begin as a prisoner. In Fallout you begin as a vault-dweller.

In New Vegas you start out dead.

With one shot, Benny and his Great Khan goons leave you for dead and steal the platinum chip that operates as supreme MacGuffin in the Mojave wastes. We don’t initially know anything about these people or this thing – we have to be reminded by the good doctor and the mysterious securitron-John Wayne surrogate with his strangely upbeat cowboy persona. We run through the requisite tutorial, but it doesn’t take long for us to be presented with the world and a single-minded mission: follow the man who shot us.

This has to be one of the finest starting quests in Bethesda history. Role-playing as the Courier, tracking down Benny leaves a lot of room for the player to decide exactly why we are doing this. Maybe you want revenge. Maybe you want the chip for yourself. Maybe you nobly want to fulfill your mission to return the chip to Mr. House. Maybe you’re just curious why this person you’ve never met wanted to kill you. Or maybe you just want to go to New Vegas: the Lucky 38 looms on the skyline from nearly every location in the game, a promise of riches and civilization in an otherwise desolate wasteland.

And the game leans on this quest, hard. You’ll spend a good ten hours or more trekking to New Vegas if you follow the quest line, helping citizens along the way. The whole first act depends on this one hook.

But that isn’t what I want to discuss today. This quest is too slow-burning to appreciate from the outset. Instead, the quest just operates as an excuse to play as a wandering outlaw, rolling into town to save the day before continuing on our inscrutable way.

This is a western, after all.

Outlaw, Lawman, Courier

Waking up in Goodsprings immediately brings you face-to-face with a classic Western setup. The townsfolk of Goodsprings are being harassed by bandits. Apparently a bunch of convicts were using dynamite to clear roads when they staged an uprising against their guards (why did we trust them with explosives again…?), and declared themselves the Powder Gangers, entrenching themselves in the same prison where they were once trapped. Now they are harassing local towns with their explosive know-how.

But one of their thugs has deserted, and is hiding out in town. They’ve caught wind, and are coming to set things right. So you are already faced with a very complicated dilemma.

You could sell out the deserter, saving the town the trouble of fighting the thugs, though this seems only a temporary solution.

You could defend the deserter, in which case you’ll probably want to rally the townsfolk to your cause, and stage a desperate battle against the dynamite-wielding thugs.

Or you can sell out everyone involved and join up with the Powder Gangers, winning their admiration and access to their stronghold and supplies.

This kind of choice is typical of New Vegas – non-binary, organic, and rooted in the different characters’ interests. It also doesn’t lend itself to a clear good/evil dynamic, though there is a superficial “karma” meter that affects some statistics and perks as you level up. Instead, you can decide for yourself who your most valuable allies will be, and which interests are more in line with your own.

Heck, an enterprising player could rally the townsfolk to fight the powder gangers, then slip into the bar and rob the place blind during the confusion. Hard to say if anyone would even notice.

Which brings us to an interesting dichotomy between New Vegas and its predecessors.

Freedom…?

Many have complained that New Vegas restricts the freedom typical of a Fallout or Elder Scrolls game. One of the hallmarks of Fallout 3 (and Oblivion before it) was the ability to wander in any direction you liked and make your own way through the world. The main quest was a loose guide – you were welcomed and encouraged to tell your own story instead.

But New Vegas sharply pens you in. Head north from Goodsprings and you’ll run into poisonous Cazadors, which will kill your low-level character easily. Head East, directly toward New Vegas, and you’ll hit a quarry full of Deathclaws, who will handily tear off your limbs. The only safe route, suited to your level, is South, then East, then North into New Vegas, following the highways. Ignore it at your peril.

Some would argue that this limits the player’s freedom, and it does. But it also showcases the freedom the game does offer, which gives the lie to the “freedom” of its predecessors. Fallout 3 will give you the run of the map from the word “go”, but most of its towns are linked to scripted quests with limited outcomes. There is only one or two “good” options that complete the quest (with the much-desired experience bonus), and the outcome of your choices tends to be limited to that one town. By contrast, the factions in New Vegas tend to be more widespread. The first few towns you encounter: Goodsprings, Primm, and Novac, all have their own isolated friendliness toward you – help them and they’ll help you by lowering prices or offering useful tools and caps. But each is also harassed by the Powder Gangers. If you choose to side with the Gangers, you’ll be welcome in their fortress; if you antagonize them, you’ll have to tread lightly around their patrols and outposts along the way to New Vegas.

Freedom in the other Bethesda games is about a lack of responsibility – your actions rarely have wide-ranging consequences. That makes the player feel powerful in the sense of being unlimited. But in New Vegas your actions do have consequences, and that makes the player feel powerful in the sense of shaping events and the world around her. In the end, I think New Vegas properly captures the freedom (and responsibility) of that power. New Vegas recognizes that these are two sides of the same coin. Without that accountability, you are just checking off quests and wandering across the wasteland.

Instead, these towns will live or die based on your decisions. Characters will help you or hate you. And you cannot make everyone happy. You will necessarily alienate some factions by aiding others. You will befriend the law or the outlaws, but you can’t do both.

Riding Off Into the Sunset

The isolation of the first few towns you encounter is a tutorial, a feint, and a fantasy. It teaches you the basic faction mechanics so you’ll be familiar with them when you hit the more important factions (the NCR and Caesar’s Legion especially, who you’ll meet in low-stakes engagements on the road to New Vegas; importantly, their faction reputation will be reset when you reach the Lucky 38). It allows you to explore your options and make mistakes without any serious consequences. Even if you regret supporting the Gangers in their takeover of Goodsprings, you’ll just know better when you ride into Freeside and meet the more complex difficulties there.

But it also plays to this western fantasy of the wandering courier, riding into town, solving its problems, driving off outlaws and miscreants, then riding off into the sunset. You’ll always be welcome if you return to Novac or Primm, but you’ll rarely have cause to revisit. To the people of these towns, you’ll always be the mysterious courier who saved the day before continuing on.

Fallout is a post-apocalypse game, sure. But New Vegas uses its setting with aplomb. You are a cowboy, a lone ranger. Maybe you’re the outlaw Josey Wales, or John Wayne, standing up for justice. Maybe you’re Clint Eastwood, hardened and cold and mercenary.

But the emphasis in any case is clear. The pig-iron you carry at your hip is not a tool to be used lightly. Killing has consequences. You choose who lives and dies. You choose what fights to avoid and which fights to finish. You decide how much your integrity is worth. Even in your limitations, you are terribly powerful, and your decisions will make waves throughout the game.

So choose wisely.

-Ben Kozlowski