Friday, 10 October 2014

Fallout: New Vegas and the Closing of the West

Today's post is another one in which I look at a video game and imagine a deeper cultural significance that may not exist. Mostly I do these over on my history blog (scroll down for the Skyrim stuff), but today I don't have even the most tangential history connection, so I'm just going to talk about Fallout: New Vegas and how a thing I found frustrating about the game might actually be one of its big themes.

I got my Xbox late in the console's life, so I only finished Fallout: New Vegas a few weeks ago. I had put off concluding it for a long time -- I started playing it in 2013, got to a certain point and then moved on to play other games. One of the reasons for this was that I found that the game's main storyline wasn't really what I enjoyed about it. 

The thing that I like about games like Fallout 3 and this one -- about this type of RPG in general, I guess -- is the exploration aspect. I like choosing a blank sector of the map and just saying "well, let's see what's over here." I like running into weird people and their weird problems. I like the hints, not at a wider story, but at the thousands of individual stories taking place everywhere in the world. 

And as the game progresses, there's less and less of that. The areas you visit have been cleared of baddies. Problems have been solved (at least in my case, because I tend to play a goody-two-shoes character in games), territory conquered, threats defeated. And finally there's nothing for it but to make your way to the climactic showdown at Hoover Dam, knowing that this means you have to say goodbye to the Wasteland. 

And I found that really frustrating and disappointing, even though I was pleased to see how it all ended. I popped in Fallout 3 (which I had also never finished) almost immediately to get back that that wandering-the-wasteland feeling. And then I began to think: this is a Western, right?

Today's activities will include: rootin', tootin', six-gun shootin'.
I borrow my summary of the core theme of the Western from Kenneth Hite, who phrased it thus (I paraphrase): 
Civilisation can only be defended from barbarism by the gun. Whoever takes up the gun is a barbarian.
And it's true -- many of the classic Westerns focus on this theme: a lone outsider or outcast who defends settled people from an external threat but then finds out that he can't exist in the society he's defended. Sometimes he dies, sometimes he rides on, and sometimes (The Magnificent Seven) it's a bit of both.

Ah, the forces of order. 

So was the disappointment and frustration I felt with the end of New Vegas actually how you're supposed to feel as a lone gunslinger when you finally take down the bad guy, only to realise that a bad-guy-free world has no place for your brand of rootless, .44-calibre problem solving? I loved the Wasteland, and I wanted to protect the people in it. But protecting the people killed the Wasteland, the Wasteland where anything could happen, where a man could wander as he liked with nothing but his trusty suit of power armour and heavy machine gun. I mean, Stetson and six-shooter. 

Now, obviously, my version of this experience is coloured by the fact that I sided with flawed, corrupt, bungling democracy, and that I routinely chose the nicey-nice option when available. I might feel different leaving behind a wasteland that I had terrorised and plundered, I guess. Or rather, I would feel the same way, but it would hardly be an iconic Western. 

I guess the thing I wonder is whether this "end of the frontier" phenomenon is something that the designers intended? Or is it just that if you populate a landscape with six-guns and sarsaparilla Western themes will just appear in the players' heads through the process of association? Is it just that the genre is so well-established? I expect I'll feel the same thing as I near the end of Fallout 3, and that won't have anything to do with its fundamental conflict of nostalgia vs bricolage. 

Does this extend to other genres? Can I get people to think about society's relationship to technology just by putting neon all over everything and giving everyone ill-advised haircuts?

I dunno. But from a game-running perspective I think it's an interesting question. 

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