What lures people to the Fallout worlds also weakens the allure. The world is so undirected that it feels like anything could happen, but so broken that any accomplishment feels like an accident. New Vegas is unique among its series as a triumph of mediocrity, for in acknowledging that the allure is in its flaws, it becomes more representative of its series than the failed attempts at drama of its predecessor. War never changes, and neither do broken games.
The most admirable thing about Bethesda’s Wastelands is that they seem to understand disorder in their dusty, uranium-caked bones. They take so hard to not working properly that I play them just to see what will break first: my spirit or its program. I quit their games without ever making it to the story’s end, with nothing more complicated than the inevitable, unflinching boredom that must result from inhabiting a system with more promises than functions.
You wake up at the beginning of New Vegas with a bump on the head and no impression of who you are or what you should do. This does not mean that you’ll ever find out either of these things, but that you are perfectly justified in never concerning yourself with it more than New Vegas itself.
This stands in stark contrast to Fallout 3, which begins with Liam Neeson unflinchingly moving your umbilical cord out of the way so you can fill out the questionnaires requisite to begin the adventure of your life. The pretense of an epic uniqueness is as laughably thick in that game as the worst science fiction films, the ones that begin with a gravelly monologue about world affairs and climax with a dude dressed in latex and googly eyes. It’s all smoke and pretension, as your mother screams from the point-of-view camera and your dad’s glossy manikin eyes start quizzing her on your appearance.
New Vegas gets the joke in all that, and stuffs itself so full of curious parameter bugs and path-finding foul-ups and unpretentious self-critique that you feel in on the joke. So that’s why of the Fallout games since the third one, New Vegas is the one I’ve sunk fifty hours into. It’s not better or different, but it’s the only one that seems to know it.
Every shine is met with smut, every passable intention with the warm spittle of limitations dribbling down its disillusioned face. I love sadistically popping the balloons of its story with my reverse reactions to serious things, killing critical characters and arranging their bodies around the static manikins of their family while they continue to flap their waste-bin mouths about world affairs. Fallout games feel like beta, but no one ever said that playgrounds have to be clean.
You can waft out into the Wastes and pirate around for a while arm-wrestling with wildlife but you can bet your weight in caps there’ll be more path-finding bugs than real ones. You can explore every conversation and find no difference between them. Humans are plentiful but with expressions so mechanical they would compare unfavorably to the zombies in another game. Your tasks amount to busywork exclusively. Not a single quest in the entire game is any fun.
But the humans are so disposable in New Vegas that even if it falters as badly as its predecessor in making them relatable, it serves better the more essential purpose of this kind of game: to romp aimlessly, testing limits, emptying clips, and stopping when you feel like it. It is a less-aware trial run of the promise fulfilled by Goat Simulator.
There are no notable quests in New Vegas, and some of them take fetching to a level downright labyrinthine (that ponderous collect-a-thon for the ghouls at the launchpad, for instance). But since there is no notable emotion that it strives for, nothing fails its own standards. Your long-lost dad glitching out on the edge of some rubble while a rad scorpion nibbling his calves interrupts his heartfelt monologue about your dead mom was just disenchanting. But the doctor’s parameters bugging up and turning him into an elastic John Carpenter monster while he’s trying to explain your quest? Hilarious.
The clan system offers so many ways to screw up the world that breaking the game became my way of beating it. Making mission-critical people angry enough to kill you on sight was a better experience than any of their actual missions.
So why is everything in New Vegas, in every Fallout game, inorganic and non-dramatic in exact proportion to how hard it tries?
The contradiction at work here is as basic to video games as ones and zeroes. The fact that everything in a game has to be directed into a program, that nothing is truly organic, means that the structured illusion of discovery is the best a traditional game can offer. And it’s that structure that Bethesda dumped as ballast before journeying out into the Wastes. Dark Souls has mastered tradition: the sense that you find things only by outsmarting the game dev that lords over the place like a malfeasant god or that twerp from Superman comics that wears a bowler hat and rides clouds. By contrast, everything in Fallout feels like an accident.
Bethesda seems to aim for a current of randomness but without the algorithms that make this a feasible engine for organic discovery, such as that in Spelunky. Their strategy is simply to place enough stuff around that you’re always finding things, but almost never to place anything good enough to make you stop wishing you could discover something. Finding the ultimate laser weapon in any of the Fallout worlds should be an immense disappointment to the convention-conscious: that is the moment when the Wasteland has essentially been sucked dry. Only up to that point and in no way related to the progression of a narrative, Fallout: New Vegas is a playground. The discovery of a super weapon is like introducing a single real bludgeon to play-pretend. Or getting to the end of a perilous wagon-trail and ending up in Burbank.
But for as long as we’re on the trail it doesn’t matter if discovery ever happens at all. In fact, if we’ve already spent so many resources repairing the covered wagon and lost so many children to dysentery, giving up starts to seem like the real crime. I get the impression that there’s nothing out there to glean from the sands of the Bethesda RPG, that they’re just a barren flatland managed by a salesman of wooden spokes and IV fluid and the whole discovery thing is just a rouse to keep us buying in until we stop from exhaustion or pity.
But even a snake oil salesman may start to believe his own pitches. I actually think Bethesda believes in the discovery their worlds promise. In fact, I think they believe in it at the expense of quite nearly every convention of the medium, visual, auditory, interfacial, and so on.
New Vegas wasn’t developed by them in-house: Obsidian took up the job. But I think that makes it ideal to unveil the whole formula, because this was a team that had to use all these broken assets and questionable ideas to make something that they believed it was trying to be all along. From the outside, they succeeded in making a barer and more essential Fallout experience, one unburdened by story and enabled rather than distracted by its badness.
And Bethesda learned nothing, introducing to Fallout 4 nothing that would increase immersion or generate that sense of genuine discovery which is the intention of fantasy roleplaying at its most essential. There are still glitches, loading times at doors, three voices actors total, pathfinding bugs, and all that we might expect from the rigid worlds functionally. But the static characters, non-missions, non-descript dungeons, and wasted space amount to a more heinous misuse of worlds than any programming errors, worlds I’m convinced are designed purely with screenshots in mind. With all these issues, where were their priorities? Mine-crafting. Sims-style house-building.
No, Bethesda has no idea. No idea that the worst game in the Fallout line would be its most representative by default, that people utilizing bad assets for a joke would be the most qualified to give them their true purpose in life. To make falling through a floor part of the world’s style rather than just an oversight. To make badness its aesthetic.