Sunday, October 24, 2010

Narrative, ambiguity and player engagement: Exploring the desert of Fallout: New Vegas

One thing I think is fairly clear, going over a lot of my previous articles, is that I'm very into games that are able to provide a genuine glimpse into our experience as human beings.  A lot of games are only able to handle this on a surface level, with simplistic themes that go no farther beyond life and death, or a one-sided, traditionally romantic view of love.  Sometimes, though, a game comes along and really makes me take notice of deeper themes.  That game for me, at least right now, is Fallout: New Vegas.  In this article, I'm going to examine one specific subplot in the game, and it's a relatively important one, not so much for its value to the main story, but in fleshing out the world and the depth of the people that inhabit it.  Since the game has just come out, I'll say right up front: spoiler warning.  It isn't integral to your enjoyment of the game, but I think it's more rewarding as something you discover on your own.

To understand the conflict, I'll need to give a history lesson, so I apologise in advance.  The Khans were a group of Raiders introduced in Fallout, back in 1997, and were one of three large Raider tribes on the West Coast - the Jackals and the Vipers were the other two, but they were never seen in any of the original games.  Raiders, in Fallout canon, are effectively semi-civilised groups with a strong warrior code of honour, who live off of the pillaging and fighting of other, usually weaker groups.  Despite being numerous, they were always too scattered to ever have a significant impact on the development of the rest of civilisation, only posing a major threat to travelers and small communities like Shady Sands.  It was only in Fallout 2, when the Khans were mobilised into a more coherent fighting force by the sole survivor of the original Vault Dweller's attack on the Khans, Darion, that they began to become a significant fighting force, but once again they were mostly wiped out by the Chosen One.

In Fallout: New Vegas, the remaining Khans, this time taking on the mantle of the Great Khans in an effort to relive their former glory, are a broken people living on the fringes of the civilised world.  The Khans are no longer a Raider group so much as they are a tribal society, ironic since their type used to be responsible for much of the tribal enslavement in the past.  While they were fairly large in number, they never posed too significant a threat to anyone - they were content with leading their fairly isolated life, with small raids taking pot-shots on the weak as usual.  The Khans were very much convinced of their place as the Wasteland's rulers, but new parties would soon enter into the picture that put that into question.

It was only natural that tensions would start to bubble and boil as the civilised world started to press down on the Khans.  The New California Republic, the largest bastion of civilisation on the West Coast, began to expand East into Nevada in order to secure the city of Las Vegas, and eventually ended up pressing against the Great Khans' borders.  The Great Khans were largely opposed to what they saw as a domineering and controlling group of people - to their eyes, the NCR was just another weak, wasteland bully that they could hunt.  Unfortunately for them, the Khans also vastly underestimated the size, strength and ambition of the NCR.

 The Great Khans' tribal way of life looks increasingly
outdated as the NCR continues to rebuild Western civilisation.

The NCR wouldn't have it, and decided to get serious about the conflict with the Khans.  In a battle at Bitter Springs, one of the largest Khan villages, the NCR crushed resistance and killed a great deal of the Khans' women and children as they fled.  The accounts of this vary depending on who you ask - the NCR claims the attack was due to a communication error, but the Khans to the present day perceive the slaughter of their families and loved ones as part of the effort to wipe them out.  As a player, it's very difficult to know who to trust in this situation.  On the one hand, the Khans are obviously bitter and despise the NCR for what they did, but their opinions are often totally unreasonable, assuming the NCR wants nothing more than to conquer the world; on the other hand, the NCR insists they aided the Khans as best they could after the tragedy, offering medical supplies and giving the Khans a portion of land to settle as their own at Red Rock Canyon, but at the same time it's hard to trust the NCR's official stance when they're so content in using propaganda to spread their influence.  In response, the Khans decided to ally themselves with Caesar's Legion, a strict barbarian order from East of Hoover Dam, who are intent on destroying or enslaving all in their way.  The Khans' hatred for the NCR is so great that they are willing to work with a group who show no mercy towards others, ignoring the fact that they stand to be destroyed just as the NCR will be.

This situation might well be one of the most interesting to uncover in the game.  Unlike the main storyline, the details of this conflict are picked up from idle comments of various characters, speaking to those involved, and traveling the Mojave Wasteland for signs of what might have happened.  Many games would be content to provide the details of the conflict up front on a silver platter, but New Vegas requires the player to pick up the pieces on his or her own, without ever providing a clear answer as to precisely what happened at Bitter Springs.  As a player, it's one of the most compelling parts of the game from a narrative standpoint, because it hooks directly into the main strength of the gaming medium, interactivity.  As outside observers, we're forced to take a look at all the evidence on display, as much or as little as we are able to find, and then asked to make a judgement call about who to support.  And depending on what one's particular opinions and ideologies are, it can be a hard choice to make.

Having Caesar's Legion indirectly involved only makes things more difficult, since the Legion is the major enemy faction in the game and helping the Khans could also bolster the Legion's strength.  The Legion rose to power specifically because their leader was able to unite dozens of tribes like the Khans, all of whom were in denial of their own increasing irrelevance to the world, and were therefore willing to delude themselves into thinking an alliance with Caesar would be to their benefit.  It's hard not to look at the situation and feel sorry for the Khans - they're clearly a people who have had it rough for decades, and as much as one wants to tell them to grow up and get over their rivalries, at the same time it's clear that their independent and free lifestyle has a lot of merits as well... at least if one overlooks the violence they commit against others.

 Caesar's Legion are a warlike, Roman-inspired empire made out
of conquered tribes.  Are they really the best option for long-term stability?

There's a number of strong parallels to real-world history in this subplot.  One reading of it can compare the Khans to many of the Native American and Native Canadian peoples that populated North America before their colonisation and gradual destruction by the more technologically advanced and numerous Europeans, or in the case of New Vegas, the NCR.  In both the fictional and real-world scenarios, the larger groups saw fit to take over the territory of "lesser" peoples and assimilate them into their own culture, officially in the name of progress and well-being for all, but unofficially in the name of economic expansion.  Much like the real-world situation, oftentimes the NCR had to resort to some pretty shady, sometimes outright bloody dealings to get what they wanted, all while conveniently glossing over or forgetting about those deeds and doing little more than paying the occasional lip service.  And, of course, it's hard to ignore the NCR relocating the Khans to a new location - ostensibly for their own benefit, but really just because Red Rock Canyon was useless to the NCR's goals and it was an effective way of getting rid of it, all the while claiming the much more advantageous Bitter Springs as their own.

Of course, this isn't the only reading that one could make of this conflict.  Depending on your perspective, it could also seem a heck of a lot like the United States' invasion of Vietnam, or the persecution and slavery of Africans in the name of American expansion and nation-building, or any other number of things.  On a more general level, it simply relates to the theme of old-world sensibility and tradition versus the progress of technology, science, mass culture and urbanisation.  The brilliant part about the videogame medium is that it is able to draw us in like no other, and through the use of allegory, allow us to relate to in-game situations through our own real-world experiences, and vice-versa.  Fallout: New Vegas is doubly successful because the fictional situation it presents to us isn't just something we can optionally read into, but it's also morally ambiguous enough for us to identify with whichever party we want to - and if it's our decision in the end to walk away from it, then that's also available.

It's these sorts of plots in games that really make me appreciate them.  On a more immediate and obvious level, it's a good way to flesh out the world and the characters, and add some moral grey areas to what may otherwise be a fairly clear-cut political situation.  It also helps tie into the main story of the game - it's not necessary at all that the player understands it, but being able to experience it enhances our enjoyment of the game and allows us to get just that much more out of it.  Beyond that, though, it is able to make us think about how we interact with games as a medium, and how their strengths can be utilised to provide for a better and more engaging narrative experience.  And, perhaps most importantly, it is able to improve our understanding of the world we live in, so that we might better deal with the challenges that face us.  Hats off to Obsidian to once again bringing the depth back that was so utterly lacking in Bethesda's Fallout 3.  I know who I want making Fallout games from now on!

[Image credit]


  1. I couldn't agree more with you. I've noticed throughout the game that I had to make choices that I didn't just know, but FEEL would make a big impact on the world. Obsidian actually made me feel bad for some, absolutely hate some, or just ignore some others. (Also, just to put it out there, around the end, I hated both the Legion and the NCR, so I just used Yes Man to bring the rockets on their heads, haha)

    Right from the start I felt that the story was very defined, and that mostly the characters weren't just standing around going "HI IM GUNNA KILL U NAO" only to aimlessly fire rockets at you. (Unless you play through the whole story and then go back to Trudy in Goodsprings. She still has the same dialogue as in the beginning of the game. Feels weird, imo.)

    So yeah, this was very good and repeated some of my own opinions as well as show me some different aspects. Awesome.

    Now I need to play fallout 1 and 2.

  2. Yeah, Great Khan is an awesome faction. Not too comically like Caesar Legion, and stand as a shady, independent group. Wish they have more quest, better yet, help them regain Mojave, heh.

    Great article. Although Fallout 3 were fun, but yeah, you got a point there. It's plain suck in the writing section.