Reflections on finishing an open world game.

After almost a year of playing, I’ve finally beaten Fallout: New Vegas. This is a bit of a personal milestone for me. The Fallout series was one of my faves as a kid (I almost never beat computer games, usually getting bored of them and moving on, but I finished both Fallout 1 and 2 multiple times). Fallout 3 was the last game I played before I quit gaming for about five years. And New Vegas was the game that came closest to tempting me back into the fold during those years.

Well my friends’ gift of an XBOX ONE for my wedding has finally born fruit. I’ve eighty-five hours into the game, and I’m confident that I’ve completed about 80-90% percent of it, including going through the entire end-game. I eventually decided, for those who care, that what New Vegas needed was to be independent under my command. Caesar’s Legion was obviously a no-go. I almost went with the New California Republic, figuring that they’d be a strong, stabilizing, democratic influence, but I switched sides again after one of their commanders made an off-hand remark about how they might wipe out a local tribe if they needed to, and I realized that if I gave up power to them, then I’d no longer have the ability to affect the fate of the Mojave. (After completing the game, I realized though that in my time I’d done things much worse than wiping out a tribe, including blowing up the Brotherhood of Steel bunker just because my mechanical second in command was worried that they’d someday pose a threat. But c’est la vie.)

The game was a pleasant diversion. I liked the exploration element. The graphics were pretty mottled and ugly, and the environments weren’t nearly diverse enough (so many caves, so much desert, so many ruined left-over shacks), but it was always nice to go somewhere new and snoop around for a skill book or a unique weapon. Some of the little capsule stories (usually delivered through audio logs or found emails) were diverting as well. I particularly liked the tale of Vault 11, which eventually broke down over the institution, by the central computer, of a “The Lottery” style human sacrifice system.

The early parts of the game had the most character, of course: Goodsprings, Novac, Primm, Nipton, Camp Golf. Although ostensibly open, the game sneakily funnels you through these areas in a set order. And always it’s the same, you hit town, talk to everybody, collect a zillion quests, get plugged into the central narrative of the place and slowly go about solving all their problems. Later parts of the game, particularly Jacobstown, North Vegas, and the Westside, didn’t feel nearly as complete and alive. Here my presence didn’t feel quite as necessary.

Lately, after all the Gamergate stuff, I’ve realized that there are lots of people, mostly young men, who take gaming really seriously. To them, games are art. They debate over the qualities of different games the way people might debate about their favorite novels or television shows. If I hadn’t become a writer, I might have turned into one of these people.

The most interesting thing about gaming was the way that I recovered all those old bits of myself. I remembered, oh yeah, when I was a kid, I really wanted to be a game designer. Like, that was a huge ambition of mine. I spent so many hours fooling around, creating half-baked mods that were way too ambitious and that never got finished (one of my smaller efforts, Rahul Kanakia’s Potion Quest, has had an incredible after-life as part of the Baldur’s Gate 2 Quest Pack. Best three days I ever spent.)

There’s no question, to me, that games are art. But are they good art? Playing through New Vegas, I continually asked myself, “Does this experience have any aesthetic worth? And, if so, where does that worth lie?”

The problem with gaming is that the writing is generally not very good. At least FNV keeps things terse (I played another game, recently, Pillars of Eternity, where the writing was both incredibly verbose and not that great), but it’s still the rare character that displays the sort of multi-faceted personality that would make me empathize in any way with them. Throughout the entirety of New Vegas, I think maybe General Hanlon, Samuel Cooke, Caesar, the Misfits, and Dean Domino and Ulysses (from the downloadable add-ons) stood out as having any depth. Probably there are a few others, but they’re genuinely not coming to mind right now.

In an open-world game, the developer has no control over pacing, all they can control is the moment-to-moment experience of the player. You, as the player, are like the protagonist of a police procedural, dropping into the on-going drama of these people. What’s nice about FNV is that the dramas are on-going. You’re not central to the action. You help, but these people have problems that predate you and will persist long after you’re gone. But, I don’t know, in order for these mini-stories to be great, they need to go somewhere new, and they need to be as good, not just as the best games (FNV far surpasses most games in the quality of its storytelling), but also the best movies, television shows, and books. I wanted more genius in the characterizations. I wanted more characters that really pop. More characters who feel deeply and are torn by heroic passions.

Games are about more than storytelling though. In fact, games aren’t primarily stories, they’re primarily games. The games that, for me, have come closest to art are those that’ve created a great atmosphere or torn. They combine gameplay, art, music, and writing to make you really feel something. Fallout genuinely did make me feel excited about exploring the Wasteland. I loved chasing down those little hollow arrows and seeing what new stuff might be out there. I remember the holy shit moment of finding Vault 11, in a place I thought I’d already thoroughly explored. Or of going to Camp Golf or Camp Forlorn Hope and seeing a whole new hub of missions. Or of looking at the big fresh untouched maps of the add-ons (particularly Old World Blues) and feeling that jolt of excitement. There’s something to that. There’s really something to that. It’s definitely an aesthetic experience.

Now…whether this aesthetic experience enriches or enlivens one’s life in any way is the subject of another post. But to be honest, I’m still very torn about that question even when it comes to the great books, movies, and TV shows.

4 thoughts on “Reflections on finishing an open world game.

  1. Brian

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I think The Witcher 3 is really the gold standard in this department – in terms of a game with good writing/characters/storytelling, and also just such a lovingly crafted world that it reaches farther into the domain of “art” than most games do, by a long shot.

  2. mattllavin

    Love hearing your thoughts on FONV! I played the crap out of that one. Slow-mo VATS-killing a bunch of baddies in a row gives me one of my favorite video game feelings. I don’t even understand why I like that so much, but it’s an awesome (if admittedly pretty cheap) game mechanic. Fallout 4 is nowhere near as good, but is worth playing if you really like that Fallout experience.

    I’m with Brian (above) about Witcher 3. I’m actually replaying it right now because I never did the (enormous) expansions. It can get a little bleak and repetitive, but it has some really good storytelling. W3 also looks INCREDIBLE in 4K/HDR with its remastered console version at 60 fps.

    Did you ever play Skyrim? That’s the actual FONV equivalent for fantasy, in my opinion. With mods you can make it look pretty contemporary, too.

    -Matt

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Nice, I’ll definitely give W3 a try. I actually have started playing Skyrim, but the same thing happened to me as happened initially with FNV–I got a little frustrated with how the world felt immense, but a little empty. In FNV, I realized the solution was to spend less time exploring and more time doing quests–the quests actually guide you to the areas of the world that have the most going on. In Skyrim, I think the solution is the same–I just haven’t gotten around to it yet.

      1. mattllavin

        Oh weird I wrote a reply and it went away! I recommend starting one of the main guild storylines that’s appropriate for your character and letting that draw you through the map following the quest line. That’ll give you a lot more context for all the places you go. All the main storylines will get you moving all over the map. The Thieves Guild mission line is maybe the best storyline of the game, in my opinion.

        I’ve played Skyrim an embarrassing amount and I think it rewards having multiple characters that you role play. Otherwise your elf wizard becomes the Archmage and then you’re doing apprentice thrieving with no real money or gear incentive. That can break the sense of investment in whatever story they’re telling.

        That said, I feel like every character I’ve made in Skyrim has ended up being basically the same type of character style over time. *shrugs*

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