Happy Happy Gaming Fun Time: Thoughts on Fallout: New Vegas
One of the things I love most about New Vegas is the way it subtly acclimatises you to certain mechanics, certain freedoms, then suddenly brings those taken-for-granted game elements into sharp relief by taking them away, or presenting them in a new light. HBomberguy talks about a more extreme and groundbreaking version of mechanics manipulation in his analysis of Pathologic; New Vegas does it in a more peripheral way, but I haven’t really seen it discussed and I think it’s brilliant.
In Dead Money, New Vegas’ first DLC, the game makes you start over from scratch. After becoming a pretty experienced player, gathering great armour and weapons, and becoming sentimentally attached to your particular selection of hard-won kit, you’re suddenly stripped of all your possessions, including weapons, armour and meds. Instantly, combat changes from a fun diversion to life and death. You’d probably forgotten at this point how much your armour does for you, until you take a shot to the torso and lose a third of your health in one go. Oh, and look, you don’t have the medicine that would usually heal you and fix your limbs. Your arm is fucked now. Enjoy!
You gain a new appreciation for every weapon you pick up, even weapons that you’d long since stopped using in the main game, because they’re all capable of stopping you from being killed by the terrifying, mouthless ghoul people throwing knives at your face. For possibly the first time in the game, you’re truly aware that you are not this terrain’s master, and that it was deliberately built to be inhospitable to you. Losing the upper hand, and working to regain it, helps intensify the particular enjoyable quality of ‘freedom’ in the game precisely by temporarily taking it away.
This is an obvious overhaul: the idea of ‘starting again’ and becoming reacquainted with weakness, lack of control, vulnerability; becoming more resourceful, seeing items you would have previously discarded as important tools through which to keep yourself alive. But there’s a subtle, brilliant little touch throughout Dead Money, as well, which reinforces this new reinscription of your abilities and teaches you to feel the gaming experience more acutely.
Dead Money is probably the hardest content in New Vegas, and definitely the most arduous. You can’t return to the game’s main story without completing it from start to finish, it’s unusually linear, and the dark, pensive atmosphere can feel mentally relentless; you have a bomb collar around your neck that can be set off by radios and speakers, some of which can’t be shut off; enemies are constantly springing up; you genuinely have the sense of being in a hostile, poisonous city, where the previous treasure-hunters, consumed by paranoia and jealousy and greed, have laid traps for anyone who follows them.
In the midst of all this, you’re crawling through an abandoned residential area, where all the previous residents have been poisoned and turned into hostile ‘ghost people.’ these houses contain all the trappings of regular houses, including, significantly: beds.
Using beds triggers sleep in the game. You don’t have to sleep at all in Normal Mode, and in Hardcore Mode it’s just an occasional chore. I mainly ignored beds during my main run, except for the occasional story-relevant bout of in-game sex. But in Dead Money, i wanted nothing more than to sleep in a fucking bed, purely to gain a symbolic kind of break from this relentless hell-city; my character’s physical exhaustion had become coeval with my mental exhaustion. I wanted sleep to define me as safe and free and human. and the game kept taunting me with the spectre of that safety — the bed — and making it unusable.
In the main game, there are two other examples of a similar idea i can think of: Vault 34, and the NCR monorail. Vault 34 is a big, labyrinthine, irradiated vault. Even with serious anti-radiation kit and anti-radiation meds, your radiation level just keeps growing, and your RadAway and Rad-X supplies start to dwindle, and you feel like a trapped, scrabbling creature in an airless, windowless vault — which, of course, you are. You move so slowly and even just getting into the vault takes a while, and when I finally crawled out of it, I literally felt like I was taking a gulp of fresh air and sunshine. A game that can make you feel the quality of non-irradiated air and light? is a good game.
(This adds an extra dimension when you discover there are trapped vault-dwellers in Vault 34, who you can set free, but only at the cost of the NCR sharecropper farms; i’ve always chosen to free the vault-dwellers, mainly because that unbearable trapped feeling is so acute.)
Finally, we have the monorail. So, there is in-game time in New Vegas, but it’s rarely relevant, aside from changing the colour of the sky a bit and making things darker at night. There are a few ‘meet me at 4pm’ quests and ‘this thing doesn’t open until 6am’ areas, but you can use a wait mechanic to fast-forward until then. So, you forget about time.
Then, when you’re helping the NCR, you discover that someone’s been going into one of the comms towers at 1am pretty regularly when they shouldn’t be. You wait until 1am, you hide near the comms tower, and you watch a high-ranking NCR soldier — the one who’s been tasked with finding where the information breaches are coming from — walk into the tower. You sneak in behind him and eavesdrop. He’s a mole, and he’s put a bomb on the monorail, and it’s going to explode in 45 minutes.
45 minutes in in-game time is nothing. What this means — as I discovered quickly on my first run-through — is that if you go to anyone to tell them first, if you go to your commander to ask for instructions, the monorail is already gone. You have to go straight from the comms tower on your Slow Human Legs to the monorail, and fuck you if you don’t remember the quickest route, which you probably don’t, particularly if you haven’t used the monorail before, and you’re following the map marker stressfully hoping you’re not moving towards it on the wrong floor, and you’re scrambling onto the train and desperately trying to find the bomb knowing, knowing, that the clock is ticking —
I think I’ve made my point: the particular scope and immersive quality of games makes them particularly astute at settling you in, at teaching you its rules and expectations so well that it makes you forget, and then abruptly makes you remember. They can conduct a particular ‘acclimatise, then change’ mechanism that can immerse you, scare you, bring you into the game and into your character in ways that can’t be accomplished as well by any other medium.
The main medium I usually talk about is books, and there’s a characteristic of books that I usually don’t see explicitly recognised: books, and not just Derrida, all books, are work. Reading is work. Propelling yourself through prose is work. Some genres are more likely to reuse accepted forms and tropes which make the movement easier and more seamless, but it’s rare to catch one of those currents of kinetic energy that make reading feel genuinely effortless, and it’s even rarer for those currents to be sustained for an entire book rather than a chapter. Sometimes, on my first read of a difficult and dense book — Woolf’s Between the Acts, for instance — I’ll mainly be focusing on just pushing through, getting a feel for the territory, and then on my second or third read I can start to understand the contours of the book properly.
This is to say that there are forms of media where you won’t get anywhere except on your own steam: books are the easiest example that comes to mind. Conversely, there are forms of media that may require a large amount of effort to process, but which don’t require you to generate your own movement — they happen to you. This includes music and film.
But where do games fit into this? Games have elements of both: you move yourself through the game, but the game also rises to meet you in a more direct, less laboured way than books, and speaks in a much more directly accessible language. (Think about the spliced elements of creator-driven gameplay in a self-driven game, such as cutscenes.) Yet, with fiction, you can progress with the story at a consistent rate, whereas games include areas of obstruction, where you must work, grind, quest, in order to access the next story elements.
In a way, games aren’t defined by having less work than other media — as would be expected in the dichotomy of work/play — but in having a straightforward relationship between work and reward, a delicate maintained balance where story and content are fed to the player to repay them for a certain amount of work. When that contract is broken, either through rewards being cheapened through ease of access, or work not being sufficiently rewarded, we feel betrayed as players.
Game-work is not read as work but as latent play, latent reward, which may explain why we think of games as respite from the world of work: the game does not lack work, but locates its work in a structure of reciprocity, fulfilment, and surprise that fills those absences in the non-reciprocal, opaque, monotonous structure of capitalist work culture.
Games like New Vegas demand to be read as texts — not least because of the sheer wealth of story and literal text throughout the game — but we lack the tools to read RPGs as texts, because their spatial sprawl and lack of linearity completely changes how we talk about a text’s affects in series. For instance: in a linear book, there is an expected, and deliberate, single order — one that is at least intended to be a ‘best order’ — in which to encounter the book’s chapters, events, characters, digressions, elements of the story. Open-world RPGs, however, modify — or even discard entirely — this idea of ‘best order’ in order to incorporate player choice.
If we work on how to talk about non-linear texts, however — such as focusing on multiple patterns can be formed through the text, or how elements can spark off each other in different ways — this doesn’t just have positive repercussions for game criticism; it lends us ways to talk about other forms of non-linear and/or interactive text, and about how authors’ oeuvres can act as constellations that may change appearance entirely depending on the reader’s entry point and order of reading. How does Hamlet look to someone who’s only read Shakespeare’s history plays, rather than any of the tragedies or comedies? How do Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s plays appear to someone steeped in the Gikuyu oral tradition? What does starting with a certain book do to our perceptions and schemas around a certain author and their work?
(This is, of course, another way of talking about reading from different vantage points and through different gazes, but it also takes in a wider swathe of divergence, since patterns of engagement can differ from within the same person, depending on things like order of play, duration of play, and chance.)