Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Bethesda Backstories, In Defence of New Vegas.

So my last post was about Extra Credits and just how much I love the show. It got me thinking about another, more popular gaming show on The Escapist, Zero Punctuation, and how his over-critical approach is amusing but not really useful in deciding whether a game is worth playing. I mean, he just gave MW3 and BF3 the "worst game of 2011", beating out the steaming pile that was Duke Nukem Forever. Sure they may not be all that different from eachother or their previous installments and largely overrated, but they certainly aren't the worst or even bad for that matter. He just wants attention and we keep giving it to him. Shame on us.

So i decided to provide a response to his criticism of Fallout: New Vegas. In part because the game had a lot of unkind things said about it that made no sense to me from all different directions and I thought I ought to do some standing up for it, and in part because the criticism opened the door to a fairly interesting feature of the series and the other sandbox giants coming out of Bethesda, The Elder Scrolls. This particular criticism is about the lack of a back story for the character and then a dismissal of this lack being for the sake of creating a blank canvas for the player to decide who their character is by pointing out that you are already told that you are a courier. So I decided to write about the New Vegas intro and what I liked about it as well as how it related to the intros of the other Fallout games as well as those of Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim.

I decided on this topic before going to bed only to be woken up by a friend telling me he was on his way over with a couple of girls, who after arriving decided they wanted to try Skyrim. Before going to bed again after my company had departed only to wake up and find the new episode of Extra Credits was about....The Skyrim intro. I laughed this off and worried a little that it would look like coat-tailing EC, and then realized something. When Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation discussed New Vegas, his only real coherent criticisms were that it was easy to steal and the game froze. The criticism that I wanted to address actually came from elsewhere....Extra Credits. Oh well, I'll save my anti-yahtzee ramblings for another day (maybe talk about Monster Hunter and how you need to play longer than an hour to review it), I'm already all hyped up for this topic so I'm going for it anyway.

So first off, what I'm responding to is can be found here: Amnesia and Story Structure. It's good stuff, and I recommend watching it straight through, but if you want the bare bones of what I'm talking about for the moment, skip to 3:30. And on an unrelated note, the ad at the beginning bugs the crap out of me (if it's still the cheerios ad when you read this), "people who eat more whole grains tend to weigh less" is a pretty fucking sneaky sentence and they damn well know it.

Is including amnesia in a game lazy? In most cases, yes. It's a lazy way to get out of including an ACT I, and in most cases the reason for not having a first act is just being lazy.  I want to take another side step here and talk really briefly about another game that features amnesia and not for the sake of being lazy. I suppose here I should say -SPOILER ALERT- for those of you who have not yet played FFXIII, but I kind of get the feeling I'm among the only people who have not finished the game yet that have any intention to. In FFXIII we begin in ACT II, which consist primarily of trying to figure out just what the hell ACT III is supposed to be. The party is thrust into a situation where there is something they really need to do, and fast, but they have no idea what it is. ACT I consists of the thirteen days leading up to the start of the gameplay, beginning with the day that two of the characters wake up from a crystal stasis. The 13 days are fed to us in bits and pieces of reflection or revelation between the party as we progress, letting us learn more about them as they learn about each other. Now, I'm no expert so I suppose you could say ACT I starts well before two of our heros waking up, when they are first put in stasis, an event that neither of them can remember, but is undoubtedly directly related to what it is that needs to be done in ACT III. At the risk of ruining too much for anyone who ignored the spoiler warning, or of going on too long on a tangent, I'll leave it at one character is only pretending not to remember, and the ambiguity of the past lends to that of the future and the overall sense of internal and intra-party conflict driven by just having no idea. So yeah, surprisingly fun game for all its simplicity, maybe a future topic, and a very un-lazy use of amnesia.

Now, let's talk for a little bit about Fallout 3. Fallout 3 tells you who your character was literally from birth (if you played it, you know what I'm talking about). It let's you decide if you want to be a good guy or a bad guy, but the way this manifests is very straight forward, three dialog options: Saint : neutral : Satan. The choice between good and evil doesn't actually set you on a different path as far as the main story is concerned, because there is a traditional story arch that revolves around your character's family. Even if you decide to play a psychopathic raider that eats human flesh, you join up with the brotherhood of steel to actualize your father's dream of purified water. This doesn't really make a great deal of sense. What's more, the side quests you do, even if actually sticking to your character, are the same. Sure they can be ended different ways, but for the most part it's the same thing. The only thing that you shouldn't do as a "good guy" is the slavery quest. If you're evil then you can do everything, so long as you make sure you get payed. It's great fun to explore, and the game will give you a nod on the radio if you decide to be consistent in your unambiguous moral decisions (having played only the original and broken steel, which is really just the rest of the game that you payed for in the first place). But ultimately your character is who the story demands, and if you are playing good that's fine, but if your anything a little more complicated than that, then there is a tension between who you want to see your character as and and who the game occasionally just tells you who he (or she) is.

While Fallout 3 was a great game, those of us who have played Bethesda's other sandbox epics know that exploration is where the game really shines, that's why we pick them up and play. The main story may be something a player sets aside until after they feel they have done everything else, they may even get burnt out spending hundreds of hours doing other things and not even finish the main story (like I did with Morrowind, I know I know, the combat just got too repedative after finishing every other faction and one hit killing everything). That being said, let's take a look at the New Vegas intro.

Ok, so we've established a little mystery, "why the hell did I just get shot in the head?" Or a reason for revenge, something to give our exploration a bit of direction. But what that intro is really about isn't our hero getting shot in the head, it's about the setting. We learn the backstory we all already know, people were in vaults and now they are (mostly) out. But then we learn about what's going on specifically in this region, a brief overview of our major factions which raises a host of questions such as "who's this Mr. House?", a peek at a couple of minor factions, and the setup for the conflict the whole game is leading to. The story isn't about you, the story is happening either way, you getting shot is a reason for you to show up in the city and find yourself in a position to affect the outcome of something that was already on its way to happening. You can choose to make a power grab for yourself, but you aren't forced to, it's just one of many divergent conclusions, I want to talk more about that a little later. So since the story doesn't require that we be any certain way, and the less we are told about our character the more open we are to making choices, it seems to logically follow that we don't want to be told anything about our character.

Now we know before the game's action that we were a courier, sure. But this could have been a steady day job as easily as it could have been a one time gig. Maybe we were heading this way and figured the caps couldn't hurt. Maybe we said "sure I'll deliver this for you *hehehehe*" hully intending to walk off. We need this small piece of information to draw us into the setting, but if you compare it to other games that try to give you free reign over who you are, it's practically nothing. For instance in Morrowind and Oblivion, you are never told anything except that you were a prisoner. Certainly not too developed, defiantly skipping ACT I. But it still says a lot more than New Vegas doesn't it? Either you were some sort of criminal, or you did something to really piss the empire off. I tend to forget that bit of story forced on me just as soon as I get out of the tutorial, because it's not informing anything else and it doesn't fit who I wanted to play. Now Skyrim does a much better job, for the most part it's on Par with New Vegas as far as blank canvasing off the bat. This time we know why you are a prisoner, we know you were crossing into Skyrim from Cyrodil at the wrong time. It could be argued that this is telling us even less than New Vegas, and that may be so, but there both so close to nothing if one is ahead here it's by a hair. This is where the amnesia comes into play. We know that our character in Skyrim (game) doesn't have something going on outside of Skyrim (place). By this I mean no family that he thinks "oh man dragons, the end days! better get back to my loved ones." Either they all have it themselves covered or they just aren't as important as adventure. Sure it could be he is duty bound to do something because he is the dragonborn, but he doesn't know that off the bat. It's not that big a thing really, but there are subtle things we can decide about who our character is based off of this. Still, leaps and bounds ahead of Morrowind and Oblivion here, and all three great games, But with New Vegas our character's past doesn't affect who he is because he doesn't remember his past. Maybe he has a wife or a dog or a kid or his own little shop. He could be the kind of person to have any of these things, and he isn't breaking character abandoning them because he just doesn't know. Again, this is the other side of that pretty minor thing about Skyrim, and it's still pretty minor but it's on the right side of the question "Is it decided for me that my character is the type to have nothing he is tied to, or the type who would just leave everything behind?" And then of course there is the other useful bit about amnesia, it allows our character to say "um, who are the NCR again?" (as we the player are learning something that our character has presumably grown up around) and when we get a blank stare and the person asks "What have you been living in a vualt or something?" we can say "Oh no, I got shot in the head." In other words, when a player wants to learn something that's common knowledge in the setting they can have the character ask without it seeming out of character.

Now this post is already way too long, but in for a penny in for a pound. While Extra Credits doesn't really attack New Vegas calling this lack of backstory the major difference between the two and then calling it a bad thing seems to be saying Fallout 3 is the better game. So I want to finish making my case for how New Vegas does a much better job of letting you get into your character than Fallout 3 or any of the Elder Scrolls games for that matter. I'm going to try to make this with as little text as possible so I'm going to point to two more Extra Credits episodes to help make my point for me.

First is the choice and conflict episode. Got it? good. Now Fallout is mentioned here, but in truth Fallout 1 & 2 did a much better job of giving us incomparable choices in character building than did fallout 3. With some careful planning you can max out every skill in Fallout 3, and with Broken Steel (which as I've said is really just the rest of the game) maxing everything comes pretty much automatically. You can also get just about every single perk that you could want (especially after Broken Steel since it didn't add 10 perks worth taking). So you may need to make choices about what to level first, but you'll have everything in due time, eventually there will be nothing to do with those skill points but max out melee fighting even if you never plan to use it. Close to the same is true of the elder scrolls games, sure you might not ever be as good with blunt weapons in Oblivion as you are with blades because one isn't a major skill, but the difference is pretty minor and you will still get to a point where you can kill anything with one hit with either. Skyrim is a little more interesting with its perk system, but I still played a melee/ranged/sneak/mage/craftsman character and didn't feel like I gave too much of anything up other than my spells not being as strong as they could be. New Vegas by contrast forces you into making hard choices about what kind of character you want to play, there simply is no way to have it all. You don't get enough skill points to max everything, and you always seem to need just one or two more perks, just to be the thing you want to be. When you compound that with the skill requirements for the perks you want you are left with even more difficult choices with very real opportunity costs. For example, my cowboy/sniper would benefit from the "Cowboy" perk that will up the damage of revolvers and lever action guns (the cowboy repeater, including the unique scoped version), but in order to take it I need 45 ranks in Melee. I never use melee with this character and those skill points could be a big help making me a better sneak, making me less than useless with explosives, or letting me hack computers one difficulty level higher, and this difficult choice comes after I've already given up things like plasma weapons completely. So there is a calculation aspect to it, but it's mostly just a matter of style. I could have focused on melee or on plasma weapons and been just about the same level of killing machine. Had I been able to do all three, my character would feel like he was only a cowboy ranger when I felt like it and anything else on a whim, but that's not the case, he is who I chose for him to be. Now the next kind of choice and just how right it's done.

Now, the karma system is still there, but it takes a bit of a back seat to something this video suggests, factions. Sure some of these factions are just as bad as others, but most all of them are different shades of grey. Shades that play off each other to create legitimate interesting moral questions beyond simple good and evil. First let's just take a sample of major factions to show how the exact spectrum referred to when the color wheel is mentioned are represented. Using the good old fashioned D&D 9 point system as a jumping point let's call the NCR LG, the Followers of the Apocalypse CG/NG, Caesar's Legion LE, the Boomers NE, and good old fashion raiders CE. No the law v chaos here is more authority v autonomy, but it's close enough to the same thing. What's interesting are cases when the interests of The Followers and the NCR are at odds, such as in the quest "The White Wash." Lastly, what factions you choose to get in good or bad with actually makes a difference. Faction members treat you different of course, from friendly pats on the back to trying to murder you on sight or actually sending people out to find you. Different quest lines are made available (probably the biggest thing). And you get different endings, or get to the ending a little different by deciding who joins the fight and on what side, not sure if this fits "re-purposing" but in any case it's certainly something.

So yeah. If someone told you this game wasn't as good, as its predecessor or not worth playing or anything like that, I suggest ignoring them and taking advantage of this widespread under-appreciation to pick the game up dirt cheap and have a great time of it.


  1. A post so long leaves no doubt, It must be a great game.

  2. on the one side you are right:
    we shouldnt listen to every bad critism about a game.
    but on the other side:
    we listen to those critics because we want to know if the game is worth our time and money.
    But like you said in the beginning of your post: some just take their opinion to a whole new level of abstraction ^^

  3. nice post, very long, but also very interesting

    don´t wanna know how long u wrote 4 this

  4. I am not familiar with the game that you speak of. I am more of a retro gamer, but things are going to change. I plan on exploring the new generation of gaming. Last new game I played was Mirror's Edge. lol. I feel like a caveman.

  5. Long post, but very good read! I read it all lol.

  6. I'm not a fan of Fallout 3, but New Vegas was great. Obsidian did a great job on that one.

  7. never got around to playing new vegas. played fallout 3 for a while and enjoyed it. But like all those sandbox games I end up never finishing the main quest. I always just sort of wander off