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I've been playing since my parents brought home the original NES with Track & Field, Duck Hunt, and The Legend of Zelda. Unlike most of my friends I never "grew out" of video games and love them today as much or more than I did as a kid. Among my many loves (Demon's Souls, Half-Life 2, Total Annihilation, Mass Effect) stand two games I just can't get enough of: Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas.
I must say that I was surprised how my religion was featured in the most recent Fallout I played.
I had never heard of Fallout until 2010 when I noticed my friend's little brother had logged over 125 hours in Fallout 3 on his Steam account. Intrigued, I rented Fallout 3 and was instantly hooked in that rare and wonderful way that happens when you experience something truly new and wholly captivating. I plowed through it on my PS3. I would get up at 5:00am to play before the kids woke up and the work day started, logging some 40 hours in the 10 or so days it took me to complete the main story. When I returned the game I was dogged by how many locations and quests I had to leave unexplored and unfulfilled due to my limited rental window.
After building a gaming desktop for my birthday and getting both New Vegas and Fallout 3: GOTY on the Steam Summer Sale, I knew I was in for a pair of very special treats. I have since logged over 200 hours in Fallout 3 and another 130 in Fallout: New Vegas.
As a Mormon, I am much more accustomed to seeing my religion portrayed in unflattering and even disrespectful ways in entertainment media ("Fort Joe Smith" in Starship Troopers comes to mind, as does The Book of Mormon Broadway musical and HBO's Big Love series) than to seeing any positive or deferential representations. Hence, when I came across The Old Mormon Fort outside New Vegas it naturally piqued my curiosity as to how it would be featured. Would the game's developers at Obsidian take the well-worn road of clichéd irony by making The Old Mormon Fort some den of hypocritical debauchery or zealous extremism, or would they do something different?
I wasn't expecting anything necessarily pro-religion, let alone reverent. This is a Fallout game, after all.
I was nevertheless surprised and impressed by what I found inside The Old Mormon Fort: a struggling but hopeful sanctuary for the lost and ill-fated souls of the Mojave wasteland. I found a people whose purpose very much in harmony with the aspirations of Mormonism and Christianity generally. (For those who may have heard otherwise, we Mormons worship Jesus Christ and consider ourselves Christians.) While Mormons weren't the ones running the show-it was the Followers of the Apocalypse who had set up shop there-their noble goals and purpose, connected as they were (at least nominally) to the Mormons, gave me a strong feeling of appreciation. They intrigued me.
I wanted to find out if there were more Mormon references in the Fallout universe, and were they as curiously sympathetic and respectful as this? Thanks to the exceptional collection of Fallout resources at falloutwiki.com—including numerous leaked documents from the pre-Obsidian studio Black Isle's cancelled alternate Fallout 3 project in which the Mormons of Vault 70 were going to figure rather prominently—I have been able to analyze Obsidian's Fallout Mormons from the perspective of a lifelong member, and am pleased to share what I found.
Some minor Fallout: New Vegas spoilers will follow
Clearly the most significant Mormon character in the Fallout universe is Joshua Graham, also known as Malpais Legate and The Burned Man.
For those who don't know the lore, Joshua Graham was a Mormon missionary sent from New Canaan (post-apocalyptic Ogden, Utah) to preach to the tribes of Arizona. Like most real-life Mormon missionaries, Graham had to learn a new language in order to preach to the Arizona tribals and, like most real-life Mormon missionaries, was able to do so. I myself served a Spanish-speaking mission to the Mojave wastelands of San Bernardino county, California. And Utah boasts one of the highest concentrations of US-born polyglots-speakers of more than one language-in the country due to the Church's foreign missionary efforts, with 30% of Utah's male population and up to 75% of the students of the Church's Brigham Young University speaking a foreign tongue.
In the game, it appears that Graham's linguistic abilities may have been pivotal in the formation of Caesar's Legion. Graham had been sent from New Canaan to preach to the tribes of Arizona and had managed to master a number of the tribal dialects. Meanwhile, The Followers of the Apocalypse dispatched a research party from California to study the tribal languages that were emerging in the east. They met Graham along their way and enlisted his help as a translator.
Shortly thereafter, Graham and the Followers were captured by the Blackfoot tribe, one of the weakest of eight warring tribes in the region. Fearing they would be killed along with their captors, a Follower named Edward Sallow determined that to survive they needed to remake the tribals into a capable fighting force. With his knowledge of ancient Rome, Sallow enlisted Graham's linguistic talents to help him train the Blackfoot tribe in the ways of total war.
Sallow and Graham went on to lead the tribe in conquest after conquest, with both men ultimately forgetting or abandoning their humble and humanitarian beginnings and getting caught up in the violent rise to power of their new nation.
I take no offense at the story of Graham becoming Caesar's first Legate and actually thought it was exciting to have a Mormon figure so prominently in the history of one of Fallout's principal factions. One big reason for this was because his fall was precipitated by very human failings (fear of death, lust for power, pride, etc.), not a failing specific to his religion. Consequently, Graham becoming a ruthless villain doesn't feel like an attack on Mormonism any more than Caesar forming the Legion feels like an attack on the Followers of the Apocalypse (which it doesn't).
But it is Graham's life after the Legion that sheds light on another reason why I appreciate Obsidian's handling of Mormonism so much.
After failing at the first battle of Hoover Dam, Caesar has Graham covered in pitch, set on fire, and thrown into the Grand Canyon. Graham, already renowned for his resilience as much as for his cruelty, survives. Stripped of power, title, and purpose, he returns to New Canaan filled with remorse for what he had become and for the shame he brought to his people.
Here again, Obsidian avoids the lazy cliché of religious people being hypocritically unforgiving and intolerant and has the Mormons of New Canaan forgiving the penitent Graham, embracing him as a returning prodigal.
I'm not sure if Obsidian was touching on the general theme of sin, repentance, and redemption common in most all of Christianity or if they looked more specifically at Mormon history, but this type of story played out repeatedly in the early history of the Mormon church. There were multiple times that high-ranking Church members betrayed Church leaders by swearing false affidavits (i.e. Mormons planned to overthrow the government) which resulted in repeated imprisonments and even near execution, only to later have the traitors return seeking forgiveness and finding it extended by a magnanimous prophet and people (see W. W. Phelps, Thomas B. Marsh, Oliver Cowdery).
Regardless of what inspired the plotline, once again I appreciated that the core Christian tenet of repentance, forgiveness, and redemption figured so prominently in the story of saint-turned-sinner-turned-saint, Joshua Graham.
As a fun side-note regarding the fictional Graham and a famous real-life Mormon, Fallout: New Vegas project lead J. E. Sawyer said in an online Q&A that one interesting aspect of Mormon history is that John Browning, inventor of the M1911 pistol, BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle), and M2 .50 Cal Machine Gun, was a Mormon from Ogden, Utah. Joshua Graham, perhaps in a show of hometown pride and religious camaraderie, seems to be quite a fan of Browning's M1911 .45 Caliber pistols.
Until I started writing this I had overlooked that Bert Gunnarsson was a Mormon (probably due to most of the Mormon-related dialogue not making the final cut of the game), but I certainly had my suspicions about Driver Nephi.
While the name Nephi will not likely carry any significance to anyone outside Utah or the Mormon Church, to those in the Church Nephi is the first author of The Book of Mormon. For Fallout players, however, Nephi is one of the three fiend leaders that NCR Major Dhatri asks The Courier to kill in the Three-Card Bounty quest.
Bert Gunnarsson, on the other hand, is a ghoul medic and Mormon working with the Followers of the Apocalypse. He can be found helping NCR Captain Parker care for the poor and needy of New Vegas at the Aerotech Office Park.
If you speak to Gunnarsson he reveals that he is ministering to the poor and needy of New Vegas and that he has some medical training from the Followers. However, the GECK (mod tool) reveals a number of lines of unused dialogue that more fully flesh out his character. In one of Bert's lines he explains that in the Church people call him "Elder Gunnarsson," the title borne by full-time missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, implying that Bert is a Mormon missionary.
Also cut from the final game was an option that allowed The Courier to ask Bert what brought him out of Utah, to which he replies, "Following a lost cause, I'm afraid. My old friend Nephi fell in with a bad crowd. Drug runners, raiders, probably worse things it's better not to dwell on. When his gang headed west, I followed. I thought perhaps I could turn him back to the Church." This obviously implies that the golf-club wielding fiend Driver Nephi is also a Mormon, albeit a seriously lapsed one.
Again, I find much to appreciate in these two characters and their stories. First of all, Bert Gunnarsson is a Swedish name. Scandanavia was the second most successful foreign mission in the early days of the Mormon church with 23,000 Scandanavian converts emigrating to Utah between 1852 and 1905. Consequently, Elder Gunnarsson may be a seventh- or eighth-generation Mormon, his ancestors perhaps dating back to those early Swedish converts. Did Obsidian know this historical tid-bit? I don't know, but their research into Mormonism so far seems to reflect a much deeper level of effort than is typically evidenced in entertainment media, so maybe they did.
Another way in which I feel Obsidian avoided a tired anti-religious cliché is in making Gunnarsson a ghoul.
In many media depictions, religious people are xenophobic and intolerant of the "other." In the Fallout universe, the group that most fits the persecuted "other" is the ghouls.
As Three Dog reminds us in Fallout 3, "For all you would-be bigots out there, ghouls are people too. See children, ghouls are simply humans who have been exposed to an ungodly amount of radiation and haven't had the good fortune to die...So if you meet one of the wasteland's many ghouls, leave your prejudice at the door, and your pistol in its holster." Three Dog reminds his listeners continuously about the unfair and apparently wide-spread anti-ghoul prejudice that exists among the humans of the wasteland. In this sense it is encouraging to see one of the only explicitly religious characters depicted as both a Mormon and a ghoul. This seems to indicate to me that the Fallout Mormons are not the xenophobic other-hating religious stereotypes featured in some media: Not only do they accept ghouls among their ranks but send them out as official representatives of the faith.
Lastly, it is poignant to me to think of this ghoul missionary following his wayward friend over 400 miles into the desert in the hopes that he might turn him from his self-destructive path.
In cut dialogue, Driver Nephi speaks ungenerously of his old friend and tells The Courier to tell Bert that he's never coming back to "his little cult." Bert admits to The Courier in another piece of cut dialogue that he was "never able to reach" Nephi, and that "drugs and hatred" have consumed him. In spite of this, it seems that Bert is determined to wait and hope for a change of heart that may lead his friend away from the fiends and toward redemption. Given that Bert is a ghoul and does not have an NCR bounty on his head, he likely knows he will outlive Nephi and seems willing to give as many of his long ghoul years as he must to offer his friend a lifeline back.
When death inevitably comes to Driver Nephi, likely at the hands of The Courier, if the player speaks to him Bert laments Nephi's passing (oddly, it would seem, given that all of the related dialog was cut) and expresses the hope that Nephi's soul is at peace.
"Elder" Bert Gunnarsson exemplifies the Mormon belief in the power of repentance and forgiveness, and that even someone as lost and sinful as the murderous Driver Nephi can be redeemed.
If you might indulge a film-based redemption analogy to further illustrate the point (*Pulp Fiction spoiler ahead*), it is as though Joshua Graham is Jules Winfield and Driver Nephi is Vincent Vega, with each of the former surviving a near-death experience and turning from their wicked ways to find forgiveness, and each of the latter persisting in their wicked ways and finding death.
Obsidian not only thoughtfully presents the concepts of repentance, forgiveness, and redemption in connection with Mormons but also the self-sacrifice, patience, and hope of the people seeking to extend those gifts to others as Mormon missionaries, like Elder Gunnarsson, work to do the world (or wasteland) over every day.
There are a few other fair-minded Mormon Easter eggs in the Fallout universe, but they would take too long to explain and are relatively trivial compared to those presented here (but for those that are interested, see Jeremiah Rigdon, the rise and fall of New Jerusalem, Caesar's extermination order and Missouri Executive Order 44, Daniel from Honest Hearts and Ammon from The Book of Mormon).
I as a Mormon feel a deep sense of appreciation for the time and energy Obsidian clearly spent researching Mormonism historically, culturally, and spiritually.
Rather than taking the safe route in the entertainment industry of making Christianity, and especially Mormon Christianity, a punching bag or the butt of a string of jokes, Obsidian has shown that at least in post-apocalyptia, Mormons can get a fair shake.
Skip Cameron plays video games and goes to church in Boise, ID and has to make time to game before the sun and his kids are up. He posts screenshots of his adventures through the wasteland at viewfromravenrock.blogspot.com
Just like cats, man's best friend is a returning character in every genre. We've selected those video game dogs—from games both old and new—which are usually portrayed as companions; sidekicks who can both help us with minor tasks and save our asses in difficult situations.
Which other dog companion would you choose as the coolest? You should post your picks with visual support in the comments below.
Here's a scene from Fallout: New Vegas re-done Hotline Miami style. I wonder how a game like this would work? How would VATS come into the picture, if at all? Well, as long as I get to kill Super Mutants I guess!
Props to the artist, Reddit user Sliferjam.
Click the image up top for full size.
Via the Hotline Miami Twitter.
Post-apocalyptic worlds in video games don't necessarily have to be grimdark, depressing or colorless. There are many fine examples where the game's design either moves beyond these tropes, or develops them to perfection. We have collected a few of them below.
source: veteran0121's let's play of the game
source: Half-Life Wiki
source: NormanJayden's let's play
source: 50CALBR's gameplay video
source: The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Wiki
source: official trailer
Make sure to submit your own picks in the comments! With visual support.
You know what the Mojave desert was missing? My Little Pony, of course. My Little Pony buddies, to be precise. Here's a mod by Kuroitsune and Riven1978 on New Vegas Nexus that allows you to have the MLP protagonists as your companions. Not all ponies are included—for now, there's only Luna, Celestia, Twilight, Fluttershy, Applejack, Rarity, Rainbow Dash, Pinkie Pie, Ditzy/Derpy and a few others. Perhaps the best part about this is that the ponies come with specific perks.
Littlepip - Stable 2 - Whenever Littlepip is your Pony Companion, you will receive +10 points to Science, Medicine, and Repair and 1 point to Charisma, at a cost of 1 point of Agility and Strength, and -5 to Guns, Melee Weapons, and Unarmed Weapons.
Luna - Mare of the Moon - During the night as long as Luna is your Pony Companion, you will slowly regenerate health. Luna will also gain a 20% combat effectiveness.
Celestia - Mare of the Sun - During the day as long as Celestia is your Pony Companion, you will receive 30 points to Energy Weapons, at a cost of 10 to all of your other offensive skills. Celestia also gains a 20% damage potential.
BonBon - Friendship Is Magic - When Bon Bon's health gets below 30%, Lyra will appear to help out in the battle.
Lyra - Friendship Is Magic - When Lyra's health gets below 30%, Bon Bon will appear to help out in the battle.
Twilight - Studious - Twilight's intelligence is par none. While she is your Pony Companion, your accuracy, spread, and critical chance improve by 20%.
Fluttershy - All Creatures Great and Small - While Fluttershy is your Pony Companion, every creature in the Mojave is your friend, at the cost of your human relationships.
AppleJack - Apple Cider - While Applejack is your Pony Companion, she will give you Apple Cider every time you give her 2 Apples.
Rarity - Rarity & Charity - While Rarity is your Pony Companion, you will find more caps or hard to find weapons on fallen foes only she kills.
Rainbow Dash - Speedy Arrival - While Rainbow Dash is your Pony Companion, you will be 10% faster at everything you do, at the cost of 30lbs of your total carry weight.
Pinkie Pie - Party Time! - While Pinkie Pie is your Pony Companion, you will find more chems on your fallen enemies. But you will be 20% more likely to become addicted to chems.
Derpy - Muffins! - While Derpy is your Pony Companion, she will give you 3 Muffins every time you use a campfire once a day.
Trixie - Trixie's Greatness - While Trixie is your Pony Companion, you gain +10 to all of your skills that are under 50 skill points.
Vinyl Scratch - Bass Cannon - Whenever Vinyl Scratch is your Pony Companion, any explosive based weapon you use will have three times the power, at a cost of -20 of your sneak skill.
You can download it here, though I'm a little sad that they walk upright. I mean, that kind of makes it more hilarious, but still!
My Little Pony Follower [New Vegas]
His latest job is this Terrible Shotgun from Fallout 3, which as you can see (in these pics by Dan Almasy) is about as far from terrible as something can possibly be. Forget what it's called in the game, this thing should be called the Wonderful Shotgun.
The piece was made with more than just eye-candy in mind; it was minted for web series Nuka Break, which as you may remember was pretty damn good.
One of the most fascinating things about the Fallout franchise is the history of the vaults. Before United States was destroyed via atomic bombs, the government ordered the Vault-Tec corporation to build a number of underground safehouses. To the public, these vaults were supposed to help ensure the survival of the American populace after nuclear annihilation.
They didn't build nearly enough of them. Not to justify what Vault-Tec did, but in a way, building enough vaults to house an entire country is kind of crazy. So instead they only built 122 vaults—which, okay, still better than nothing. The issue is that the true purpose of the vaults is a nefarious one.
You know how most of the social experiments we hear about show that humanity is kind of screwed up? There's the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, for instance, where normal everyday men pretended to run a prison. Half of them became guards, half became prisoners. They didn't leave any detail out—prisoners got "arrested," the guards were given batons, and so on. It didn't take long before they all forgot it wasn't real, and the results were disturbing. The guards hazed and abused the prisoners, and the prisoners would have breakdowns. The experiment was canceled before it ran its course out of fear of what would happen otherwise.
There are other social experiments like it, in that they are testaments to our humanity—from how far we'd go to hurt others, to how long it takes us to go to someone's aid (if at all).
Many would argue that social experiments are inherently immoral and wrong. At the very least, if someone does something "as a social experiment" to get away with amoral behavior, we'd likely think that person is an ass.
While the war ramped up in Fallout, Vault-Tec became very powerful—practically another branch of the government. As cliche as it might be, that power corrupted them. They'd go on to research how to evolve humans with the FEV virus, along with a slew of other questionable weaponry and tech.
So it should come as no surprise that the vaults themselves weren't meant to help people. Actually, they were large-scale social experiments. Each vault tested certain conditions, often absurd and ridiculous, sometimes completely disturbing. Most of the vault-dwellers would never know this, save for the overseer, who had to make sure that everything in the experiment went according to plan. The purpose of these experiments was to test out how the population would react to certain conditions, and then to judge how the subjects go about repopulating the country.
In Fallout 1, we saw an issue with Vault 13 that was actually common amongst a good number of the vaults: the water chip was defective, and that's the reason your vault sends you on a quest. Nothing too crazy. Other vaults would have ludicrous conditions like "all women and only a single male." In Fallout 3, the infamous Tranquility Lane is a part of Vault 112, where residents are trapped in a virtual simulation that was maintained by the creator of the GECK.
Fallout: New Vegas, like all Fallout games before it, has vaults in it. Two are of particular note: Vault 21 and Vault 11. If you thought that a vault built in Las Vegas absolutely had to be themed around gambling, you'd be right—that's exactly what Vault 21 is, the gambling vault.
When you enter the strip, Vault 21 is nothing but a glorified gift shop maintained by Mr. House. But if you delve into its history, you find out that it was originally inhabited by only gambling addicts. The idea was to make the vault as "equal" as possible, and this meant that everything in the vault was left up to games of chance. The vault would be emptied by Mr. House after winning a bet against the residents of Vault 21, but you can't be too sad for them or anything. They left the vault for another gambling nirvana, New Vegas itself.
Vault 21 has one of the more amusing premises for a vault in New Vegas; Vault 11, meanwhile, is one of the more disturbing vaults. Here, the vault residents are told that they have to sacrifice a person from the population every year or else everyone will die. What they don't know: they're supposed to defy the decree, and if they do, the vault would tell them that they did good. Guess what: they don't figure it out until it's too late, and almost everyone is dead.
The story leading up to the downfall of Vault 11 is a tragic one. After the first batch of vault dwellers find out that the overseer knew about the twisted purpose of the vault, they elect the overseer as the sacrifice. The vault then adopts this as tradition, where all of its overseers are sacrificed after their term ends. It's funny, in a twisted way, to think that elections are typically characterized by a candidate's desire to be elected—but you'd imagine that in this case, people would campaign so that someone other than themselves would be given the overseer title, regardless of what power came with it.
Eventually a woman named Katherine Stone is told that if she doesn't have sex with a certain group of people, they'll elect her husband as overseer. She complies, only to find out that they intend to elect her husband anyway. She then starts killing those people off, supposing that at best they lose their majority and her husband is safe, or at worst she is elected overseer instead of her husband. She is right, and her first act as overseer is to abolish the election and to have the sacrifice be determined at random.
Naturally this upsets people, notably those who think that Stone's actions will destabilize the already-established power relations in the vault. This, in turn, catalyzes a war that leaves only a handful of people alive. Fate is cruel, and the last remaining vault dwellers find out the truth about the vault. They are so aghast with what they learn that they kill themselves... though even these final moments are filled with tension over what should be done. The only remaining evidence about these events are the audiologs that you find when you explore the vault years later.
You get the feeling that these social experiments were done because the government wasn't really interested in saving anyone that wasn't "important," (i.e., themselves) and this is reinforced by how the Enclave treats everyone on the wasteland as something other than human in almost all the games. Regardless, it's difficult to point fingers and be judgmental about it all, because this vault plot twist is exactly what makes them so fascinating. I know that whenever I play a new Fallout, I'm excited to see what new vaults the designers have thought up. My hope is that the Fallout in question features a good mix of funny vaults alongside upsetting ones.
Maybe we're just all awful human beings—that's what all these social experiments say, anyway. Consider this though: the Enclave might be the ones that set up the experiments, but we're the ones practically eating popcorn while we read the results.
When I play Bethesda's open-world role-playing games, I steal. A lot. I know I'm not alone in this—in fact, I'd wager that almost every single human who has played Fallout 3 or Morrowind or Skyrim has stolen something or other.
After playing so many hours of Skyrim over the past year, I've noticed something odd during my extended return to Fallout: New Vegas—the Karma System. It changes everything.
I noticed immediately how every time I stole some (necessary! important!) piece of ammo or health kit, the game would play that oh-so-disappointed "You've lost karma!" sound effect, and I'd feel bad about myself. Even when I was robbing someone like The Silver Rush, the one place in New Vegas that absolutely demands robbery. It's run by a crime family, and they're all assholes. But nope, Karma lost.
I'm not the only one who feels that way—in this thoughtful essay over at Extra Credits, Daniel Starkey recently posted about how New Vegas' predecessor Fallout 3 made him confront his real-life stealing. Upon meeting and interacting with the hardscrabble survivors on around the Capital Wastes, Starkey realized that he felt bad about depriving them of their much-needed supplies.
In Fallout, as I encountered different enclaves of people with their own strategies for survival, I was asked to critically consider their lifestyle, understand their perspective and finally judge the rectitude of their actions. It forces us to answer, both from observation and through play, how far we'd be willing to go to survive in the wastes. Fallout: New Vegas takes that core narrative one step further, with more nuanced mechanics and a greater number of "morally gray" agents, the questions posed are both more realistic and more disconcerting.
Who we are isn't always easy to understand. I stopped stealing long before I played Fallout 3, but I only did so to save face. It wasn't until I experienced, in a very real way, the effects of my own actions, that I was able to truly come to terms with what I had done. And in 2008, I began to apologize to all the people I stole from.
An interesting analysis, to be sure. I wonder, though, how much it the Karma system factors into this sort of thing, consciously or unconsciously? In Skyrim, I steal until I'm blue in the face (or rather, red in the hand), and as long as I'm not spotted, no one cares. I do enjoy that kind of loose moral approach, as it makes it much easier to change playstyles halfway through the game.
But then, Karma has been a part of Fallout for as long as the series has existed, and it'll doubtless always play a role. Surely I'm not the only one wandering around New Vegas at this point, so I'm curious if any of you guys think twice about stealing from some folks in this game, or if anything goes? And if you do have second thoughts, does the Karma system play into that?
Games are falling fast and hard this time of year, but there's always time for a little bit more wasteland wandering. We'll have more Return to New Vegas posts up this week.
There's this small problem I'm having with Assassin's Creed III. It's nothing to do with the game itself, actually, and everything to do with me. The problem is this:
Assassin's Creed III is turning me into a kind of obnoxious person.
I've developed this running commentary while the game goes on. It has nothing to do with the game's themes, or characters. It's unrelated to the gameplay and more or less completely unconnected to anything meaningful inside the game. It sounds like this:
"I used to work about a block away from there."
"They haven't changed out those cobblestones since 1773 and they're murder on nice shoes."
"That hill is the Back Bay now."
"That river is the Back Bay now. They put the hill in it."
"Lexington Common looks different when it's full of cows."
"A beacon? On Beacon Hill? I didn't see that one coming."
I grew up in and around Boston, making my home well inside of Route 128 from birth until striking out down the coast for New York City shortly before turning 25. While previous Assassin's Creed games have claimed high fidelity in recreating Damascus, Rome, and Istanbul, the basic fact of the matter is that those cities aren't my home. Boston is.
AC3 certainly doesn't represent the Boston or New England of the 21st century, of course. But the late 18th century setting of the game, a scant 230-odd years in the past, retains much more immediacy than the Italian Renaissance or the Crusades. The creatively imagined Boston-that-was is close enough to my Boston-that-is to give me a sense of familiarity both comprehensible and misplaced.
Games occupy this strange place in memory, where we so clearly go places and explore worlds that never actually existed. Experiences like To the Moon explicitly address this dissonance, but it's true of every game. I can remember how to get around a space station as well as I can remember how to get around my local mall, but my body's only been to one of the two. The mall is real; the Citadel is not.
When game spaces represent real-world spaces, the strange sense of memory gets ever-stranger. I moved to Washington, DC the year that Fallout 3 came out. Controversial advertising sprang up through the city's Metro system depicting a post-apocalyptic Capital, but it wasn't until after the game came out that I felt the full weight of investigating my own ruined city.
The general size and scale of the virtual DC is of course a mismatch to the real one—spaces in games were ever thus—but the details are devilishly familiar. In particular, the ruined Metro that provides the Lone Wanderer a route for getting around a city full of toppled buildings, nuclear waste, and super mutants is uncannily, frighteningly similar to the Metro that federal commuters use every day.
At first, while playing Fallout 3, I'd wander through the game comparing its locations to ones I knew from daily life. But after fifty or so hours of Fallout, a funny thing happened. Instead of comparing game-play time to real-world experience, I began to relate the other way around. While waiting to change trains at Metro Center in the mornings, I'd see a bench in the shadows and think, "That's good cover for avoiding the super mutants," or I'd see a door and think, "Didn't I pick that lock yesterday?"
Two Kotaku colleagues not based in New York reflected that the Grand Theft Auto games had inspired similar deja vu in them. They had played the games first, and then visited the city. On visiting, they handily identified and remembered places they hadn't actually been. As someone who lived a block away from Brooklyn's Grand Army Plaza the first time she came to the neighborhood around Outlook Park in-game, I could sympathize. On that memorable occasion, I'd blurted aloud, "I can see my house from here!"
I can, of course, visit the real Boston—or New York, or Washington DC—at more or less any time, weather and cost permitting. I don't need to see them in a game in order to explore them to their fullest—and even when I do use a game, it's not the kind I can put in the PS3. Exploring a real space, and digitally navigating an imagined space, are never the same thing.
Sometimes, though... sometimes, when game spaces represent real spaces, the uncanny and the real cross over in a very strange way. Through the games I've played, I remember the cities of my heart as places I've never actually known them to be. The tall ships of Connor's era are long since replaced with ugly motorboats, but the next time I stand on Long Wharf, part of me will remember seeing Haytham sail in on the Providence even so.
My first brush with homosexuality was at age ten—and it happened thanks to Fallout 2. Imagine my surprise—being a girl with ultra religious parents—when I saw that given high enough charisma, my female character could flirt and then sleep with a woman named Miria in an early town. Before that I hadn't even considered the possibility of a woman loving another woman. My family never talked about such things.
But then! Should you sleep with Miria in Fallout 2, her father catches you and forces you to marry his daughter. Unless you manage to talk your way out of it, or unless you kill him, you are then stuck with his daughter for the rest of the game. Yes, even if you didn't want to get married. If you're an awful person, you can fix this "problem" by selling her to slavers later. Alternatively, there's always divorce—which you can do in the city of New Reno for the price of one bottle of alcohol. Then you can go wash all that down by becoming a pornstar in the same town.
Sex, gay marriage, divorce—twelve years after the release of the game, California—the state Fallout 2 takes place in—still hasn't legalized gay marriage, and homosexuals are still the scornful subject of the hyper-religious.
In this way, the Fallout franchise has always been progressive, and 2010's Fallout: New Vegas is no exception.
Character-building-wise, you're free to take up the confirmed bachelor or cherchez la femme perks. These allow you to pursue aggressive same-sex special options in dialogue and combat—the results of which make these perks a fan favorite.
Once out in the world, you meet a number of people who are gay, bisexual or more on the 'sexually liberated' side. JE Sawyer, lead gameplay designer of New Vegas, once went on record regarding the inclusion of such characters, "Represent marginalized groups when sensible. Diversity helps broaden the appeal of our media, can add interesting dimensions to thematic exploration, and in some cases may even generate themes that would otherwise go unexplored." Sawyer wrote this on his blog following the ruckus game websites made about Arcade Gannon—one of the recruitable companions, a doctor that you find aiding the Followers of the Apocalypse. A doctor who happens to be gay.
The argument was that Arcade was a great gay character because of how downplayed the "gay aspect" of his personality is. When depictions of gay characters in media likes to err toward the exaggerated, it becomes easy to commend Obsidian for how Arcade handles himself in the game. At best, you have just a few lines that give a nod about his sexuality, and they're not particularly explicit.
But as Sawyer wrote on this blog, it's difficult to nail characters like Arcade. You can't make everyone happy. Some people criticized the idea that the only good gay was one that wasn't in your face about it. Perhaps the best we can do is to make sure these characters are written by people who identify with the backgrounds depicted—because beyond that, what the hell are a bunch of straight people doing arguing about how to write a gay character? Or, more applicably to everyone, how can we possibly postulate the idea of a "correct" way to depict a gay person? Like they're all the same or something? Uh, no.
This stuff is complicated, but that's identity politics for you.
Arcade overshadowed the other companions who also weren't heterosexual—Veronica and Cass. I never met the former during my playthroughs (somehow), but her background story revolves around her sexuality. Being a Brotherhood of Steel member meant that her attraction to women wasn't welcome—the BoS is scarce, and they frown upon relationships that don't allow for procreation. Veronica's lover ended up leaving the Brotherhood as a result, while Veronica was shunned by the community.
The discussion of Arcade made me uncomfortable in that he became defined entirely through his barely noticeable sexuality—as if no other aspects of him existed—and with Veronica, that focus felt less like a circus act. You can't get to truly know her without learning about her struggle.
Cass, meanwhile, is a caravan owner who finds herself in a pickle. You find out about her sexuality in passing much like Arcade, but only if you happen to be a woman with the cherchez la femme perk. She tells you that once she's had enough to drink, she doesn't care who she ends up in bed with. And, if you try to recruit her despite having no room for a companion, she says "Not in the mood for a threesome," shortly following that up with "...today" under her breath. My reaction to that line? Damn.
The frisky business can get more explicit, but what do you expect in Vegas? There's Gomorrah, a casino where debauchery rules supreme and players can help a sex worker escape. In Freeside, if the player goes into the Atomic Wrangler, they can start a quest chain called Wang Dang Atomic Tango. This is the quest where one of the Wrangler's proprietors asks you to find special escorts for his customers. If you take it on, you'll meet a number of escort candidates, including a sexbot called FISTO (whose function I hope is...evident, but if not, hey. The game allows you to test it.) You can sleep with all these characters—if you have the caps. Though I'm not sure I'd brave FISTO given the drill sounds that reverberate in the darkness as you test him. Yikes.
The interesting thing about that quest is how it treats fetishes. While it could be argued that New Vegas doesn't take fetishes seriously, it struck me as more of the tongue-in-cheek, ridiculous post-apocalyptic wasteland shenanigans. At the same time, I wouldn't blame anyone for reading this scenario as almost like, "Hey! Wow! Look at how wacky we are! Look at these fetishes, haha! Fetishes, amirite?"
Ultimately none of these things stuck with me as much as Betsy, a sniper with the NCR who suffers from sexual assault PTSD. As a means of coping, the game argues, not only is she in denial of what happened, but she also becomes alarmingly predatory with other female characters. Like, she can't stop talking about how much she wants women, even ones belonging to the faction that raped her. This is a dark situation, and it's not often that you see a game depict rape without it acting as something that builds character for women, depressingly.
What bothers me about how rape is treated in New Vegas is that it doesn't help with a common belief surrounding lesbianism: that those that turn to it must be victims of rape who need a way to cope.
And yet for all the criticisms I have of what New Vegas depicts when it comes to gender and sexuality, I can't help but stand in awe that it dares to include so many of these things, period. It doesn't get everything right, and I don't think it should get a pass simply for trying. But damn if New Vegas isn't ballsy.