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.

I’ve been lackadaisically playing SHADOWRUN: HONG KONG

ss_f7beb7e5194a85da47756e2ba83e26e38f10a567.600x338There was a Humble Bundle recently that allowed you to get a whole bunch of games, which I guess I’ll never play, as well SHADOWRUN: HONG KONG, for ten bucks. It’s one of these kickstarted games, the main advantage of which is that, unlike regular commercially released games, its simple isometric graphics mean I can actually play it on my Macbook Pro.

I’ve been playing fairly lackadaisically, doing a mission here and a mission there. I’ve played RPGs for long enough to know that you’re almost always better off selecting a combat-oriented character. I don’t know what it is about the play-balancing, but combat (with guns, if the option is offered, or with swords if it’s not) almost always outperforms technology or magic. I think it’s because combat usually requires far fewer skill points to get good, while with technology and magic you not only need to use more points, but it’s easier to get suckered into spending your points on stuff that sounds good but isn’t that worthwhile. Additionally, oftentimes the game will end when your main character dies (but will continue on if your party members die) so it’s worthwhile to make your main character the toughest one.

Yennyways, SHADOWRUN is beautifully constructed in a lot of ways. The combat is simple, yet it has tactical elements. Cover really matters. All characters can use guns, and it’s the mainstay even for magical or technological characters. And it’s done away with the annoying inventory management that plagues most games. There’s no ammunition for one thing. You need to reload your guns, which takes an action point, but otherwise ammunition is infinite. I believe grenades are infinite as well. It’s such a solidly sensible thing that I’m surprised I haven’t seen it before.

I used to have a copy of the Shadowrun sourcebook for the pen and paper game, and I was fascinated by all the different playstyles: magic and drone combat and cyber-augmentations and decking. So for me the game has mostly been a nostalgia trip. I remember as a kid trying to pick my cyberaugmentations so carefully, because you’re limited, at a cost of losing your soul, by the amount of “essence” that you have.

The game is very bare though. The environments feel rich and colorful, but there’s nothing to do in them. It’s the opposite of a sandbox RPG. It’s a very linear set of encounters, which is only enlivened by your ability to pick which order you want to do your missions in. There’s none of that sense of exploration that usually enlivens the oftentimes rather humdrum gameplay and worldbuilding of most RPGs.

But it wasn’t a terrible use of ten bucks.

Oh, I also downloaded and played my friend Chris’s mod, The Caldecott Caper, and let me tell you: it is in many ways better than the main game! Better dialogue and characterization, for sure, and an interesting conceit, with lots of atmosphere. Definitely worth your time.