Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Fallout: New Vegas Analysis

Much like my comparison of the Social Links in Shin Megami Tensei 3 and 4, this rant is going to basically be me delving into the thematic and subtle intellectual aspects of a game over the course of many, many paragraphs. Thus, this will probably be boring, and pointless. Ye have been warned.

Ah, the Fallout series. Truly a series of classics (if you don't count Tactics and Brotherhood of Steel, at least). Creative and fun, the Fallout games fascinate me in several ways, but perhaps the most interesting thing about them is the fact that they are designed to reference and explore the history, government, society, and culture of the United States of America. Much in the way that Atlus explores religions, faith, and the spiritual in its Shin Megami Tensei series, Fallout explores Americana, and also like the SMT series, it does its intellectual exploration without any sacrifice to the games' plot, characters, or general entertainment value, which is quite a feat, I think. It's not every product that can satisfy a need for intellectual stimulation AND have enough explosions, gore, and flamethrower-wielding mutants to enthrall the standard member of the overall ignorant, shallow gaming masses.

It's always fascinating for me to play a Fallout game and enjoy its events, because each one has new themes and perspectives on many aspects of America to delve into, while also usually building off many of the previous games' work on this theme. And even though it's not exactly going to go anywhere, I thought it'd be cool to make a rant wherein I share my thoughts and interpretations of the themes and perspectives found in one of these titles.* Yes, a rant where I ramble aimlessly about things that probably shouldn't be taken quite so seriously. Try to contain your surprise.

So which game to discuss? Well, any of them will be good, but I've decided that Fallout: New Vegas will be my subject. Why? Well, since it's the newest (at the time of writing this rant, at least), the ideas I have of its meanings are freshest in my mind. I've also found its thematic material much easier to recognize and contemplate than that of the previous games. This could be because there's more of it, or simply because they made it a little more obvious this time around and a lot of the subtle content of the previous games just went over my head.

So, without further ado (because seriously, there's already been way too much), let's dig into this game's themes.

Conquest, Expansion, and Imperialism

In some ways, the theme of the expanding conqueror is really not so much a theme of the USA as it is just a theme of human society. Ambitious hordes of violent jerks were out kicking their neighbors' asses long before the first lice-ridden European explorer stumbled out of his grimy ship and onto the beach of this continent, after all. And at first glance, the violent conqueror of this game, Caesar, seems to be an acknowledgement of this--regardless of his thematic ties to the Las Vegas setting (Caesar's Palace and whatnot), he and his forces are modeled after the ancient empire-building Roman legions, European rather than American.

And yet, the connection to the US in particular is definitely there. Even if the United States isn't thought of as a militaristic conqueror in general like Rome, or Genghis Khan, or Imperialist-era Britain, the fact of the matter is that this country's continent-spanning borders are a result of violent expansion that conquered, drove out, and committed terrible acts against countless indigenous peoples of less technologically-advanced societies. It's not hard to draw a lot of parallels between what this country did to the Native Americans, the brutal conquest behind "sea to shining sea," and the general method of Fallout New Vegas’s Caesar’s Legion. After all, the Legion’s mode of operation is to crush every tribe they encounter in their imperial expansion westward, destroying each tribal individual to oppose them and assimilating those that surrender. Whether through annihilation or absorption, the Legion’s subjugation of all they encounter means the death of each tribe’s culture. No, the parallels between the Legion’s westward expansion and that of US history are not hard to draw, at all.

The other player in the imperialism-expansion issue of Fallout: New Vegas is, of course, the New California Republic. The NCR’s method of expansion has its own ties to the USA, in perhaps a more familiar way. Rather than rely on destruction and fear to spread itself, the NCR’s policies of expansion are subtle, using diplomacy, economic pressure, social and technological rewards, and political ploys to get settlements to join voluntarily. Though the NCR has, at the time of Fallout: New Vegas, the most powerful military might of any group or nation in the wastelands that we’ve yet seen in the series, they seem to generally use it to fight actual threats, not to conquer small territories. The NCR’s military strength is more an incentive than a threat to prospective members, offering protection from the various dangers of the wasteland in exchange for joining. This, of course, is similar to the way that the USA has operated with foreign policy and expansion in both modern times and earlier in its history. Territories, the later states, certain allies of ours, many of these expansions of United States influence employed the same kind of tactics that the NCR shows. Of course, most every nation and empire that’s furthered its borders has done some of this stuff, particularly in modern times, so it’s not exactly a US-only sort of thing. But then, neither was the Legion’s example of bloody culture-destruction. Even if not USA-exclusive, the parallels are still there with both the Legion and NCR’s ways of conquest and land acquisition.

Recognizing this, the fact that these 2 forces are embroiled in such a bitter war during the course of Fallout: New Vegas brings with it the interesting question of whether the conflict isn’t meant to have a higher significance regarding this theme of imperialism. Is there an intention of the game’s writers to have the conflict between the NCR and the Legion at least partially meant to be a symbolic struggle between which method of expansion and conquest is best? Perhaps the battle between direct and violent conquest, and indirect and manipulative conquest, is meant to at least pose the question of which direction America should take in world affairs. Or perhaps I’m just reading too much into it at this point.

Probably the latter.

The Role of Tribals

Tribals are an on-again, off-again thing in Fallout. Fallout 2 had a big role for them, Fallout 1 and 3 didn’t really have them at all, and Fallout Tactics used them for a little bit in the beginning and then moved along. Here in New Vegas, though, the idea is taken and given a pretty decent amount of importance and exploration.

The various tribes and their people in Fallout: New Vegas are obviously based on and meant to symbolize Native Americans,* and through them you get several examples of the ways that Native Americans have been seen in US culture. The White Legs are a vicious tribe that wants to win the favor of Caesar’s Legion, and make war on other tribes to earn respect from the Legion, which probably is a reference both to the exaggerated viciousness that cultural propaganda used to attribute to Native Americans, and to the fact that there were, at times, some tribes of Native Americans that attempted to form self-preserving alliances with colonists and settlers by attacking other tribes that were giving the colonists/settlers trouble. Much like how the Legion never had any actual intentions of treating the White Legs well (according to Ulysses, who was Caesar’s ambassador to the White Legs), I don’t think the real-life attempts to befriend the colonists/settlers ever worked out for very long.

Then there are the Sorrows, which symbolize the popular modern view of the Native Americans as spiritual, culturally-rich, and generally innocent. This direct opposite of the White Legs isn’t necessarily accurate, either, in how innocent and peaceful it depicts the Native Americans, but it’s certainly much more generally accurate of the Native Americans’ spiritual nature and worthwhile culture, at least. And even if I doubt the Sorrows’ innocence of humanity’s worse side is entirely accurate of Native American tribes of the past (they had battles for territory and so on, after all), they still had to be innocent of just how atrocious human beings could be to each other until the colonists and settlers came and gave them a first-hand demonstration.

The various other tribes in the game also are representative of different aspects attributed to and perspectives of Native Americans (whether these were factually accurate or not), like the Great Khans’ great knowledge of how to use the flora of the wasteland, the White Glove Society’s history of cannibalism,** the social significance of personal presentation that Ulysses relates in his remembrances of his tribe’s way of fashioning their hair, and so on. But in the end, all of these Fallout: New Vegas tribes’ symbolism of Native Americans comes to one issue, the same issue that it always was throughout USA history: what happens when a larger, better-equipped, and relentlessly expanding nation wants their land. That’s where the comparison between the Fallout: New Vegas tribes and the Native Americans becomes most significant.

While showing us these various parallels of Native Americans, Fallout: New Vegas also explores their ultimate fates. Sadly, and even more sadly realistically, the only time tribes in Fallout: New Vegas seem to get a happy ending (or at least, a non-bad one) is when they quietly, meekly give up their territories and move to a new place. If they stay and try to fight those that want their land and/or lives, either they’re crushed completely by their enemies, as is the case with the Legion’s subjugation of almost every tribe it encounters, or they’re mentally scarred by the conflict and lose an important part of their cultural identity, as is the case of the Sorrows if the player rallies them to fight back against the White Legs. If they try to ally themselves with the big nation interested in taking their territory for itself, whatever respect they earn will be short-lived, as is the case with the Great Khans, whose ending if they ally themselves with either the victorious NCR or the victorious Legion will lead to either being forced into a small reservation far north of any trade routes (the result of an NCR alliance), or being assimilated and having their culture destroyed (the result of a Legion alliance). And when they submit and agree to the demands of the powerful outsiders, it’s the death of their cultural identity, such as with the tribes that join the Legion, or the Families that agreed to run New Vegas for House. What happened to the Families is probably the least difficult metaphor to pick up on in this game--they gave into the will of an invader with superior firepower (House), and were absorbed into his society, giving up their culture to work his casinos and adopt a radically different social identity that he had chosen for them.

But if the tribes take the path of avoidance, migrating elsewhere to avoid the conquerors, they get the best possible endings in Fallout: New Vegas--the Great Khans avoid being crushed or forcibly displaced, and gain the time and space they need to create a proper nation for themselves, while the Sorrows, if they flee the valley instead of attempting to make war against the White Legs, find a new land where they avoid the harassment of the rest of the world while keeping their innocence. Now, you can criticize the developers for seeming to promote running from aggressors, but I don’t think that’s the right way to look at this. Unlike most of the other consequences of the player’s decisions in the Fallout series, I think this is less a case where the results are meant to show whether a course of action was right or wrong, and more just referencing how things more or less went down for the Native Americans of the territories now held by the USA. When everything is said and done, every course of action they could and did take, violent or diplomatic, did not save them from losing their lands to the colonists and settlers who kept expanding across the continent, and trying to hold their ground on the matter just resulted in violence, forced relocation, and/or cultural absorption. And that’s what Fallout: New Vegas seems to reflect--that voluntary relocation, even if it is unfair, and general avoidance are the only ways the tribal peoples could remain relatively intact as a society.

Of course, in real life, there reached a point where there really just was no place to escape to, save for some reservations scattered across the country that were generally too small and, as I understand it, economically almost worthless. But the Fallout universe at the time of Fallout: New Vegas has a long way to go before the NCR, Legion, or any other major nation-force will have the chance to expand that much, so the Sorrows and Great Khans are theoretically safe for a while, at least, if they choose to move elsewhere.

The Culture of Las Vegas

References to various icons and ideas and whatnot from USA culture and history fill most Fallout games to the brim, and Fallout: New Vegas is no exception. This one, of course, focuses largely on references to famous aspects of Las Vegas, and integral components of its culture. Now, I could sit here and list out every little thing the game uses that’s indicative of Las Vegas beyond just the necessary locations in the game, each reference and minute detail, but I have other things to do this month, and chances are you might, too, so I’m just gonna go into some of the bigger, more interesting ones.

First of all, the theme of gambling in Fallout: New Vegas is, if not terribly interesting by itself, at least worth mentioning, I think. Gambling’s traditionally had a component in the Fallout series, Fallout 1 and 2 in particular, with the games offering players a quick chance to play slot machines and...what was it, in the early games? Roulette? I think it was Roulette. You can tell how much it affected me by how familiar I am with it. But the option to gamble was there, and even represented by an upgradeable Skill for Gambling. Probably the most useless way to spend your character’s Skill Points in the entire game, of course, and I’d be mildly surprised if the number of people who chose to seriously invest their Skill Points in it instead of the other obviously more useful Skills goes as high as double digits...but it WAS there.

Still, as I’ve implied just now, gambling had practically no relevance to the games overall, so Fallout: New Vegas’s giving it importance is new and noteworthy. Most of the game’s casinos are locations of some plot relevance (notably the Families’ casinos), and the entire first Downloadable Content package for the game (a very good DLC, I might note) is based around a casino with a troubled history. There’s also Caravan, a card minigame that you can play with the majority of the game’s NPCs. This game effectively expands the influence of gambling using a deck of cards (cards being, I think, the most easily and widely recognized symbol of games of chance) beyond the casinos, out into the wasteland from one side of the game’s playable map to the other. So, as you’d suspect, the theme of gambling becomes universally major in Fallout: New Vegas.

And yet! There was one thing that confused me somewhat when I played through the game. For all the hype developers had seemed to make during the game’s creation about how major a thing the casinos’ system was, it actually did seem to have a comparatively minor part to play. I know I just said that the casinos are mostly important plot locations, but here’s the thing--while you DO have to visit them and they ARE plot-relevant, the actual act of visiting their card tables, playing the slot machines, wagering money, is actually still pretty much entirely optional. While Poker with a high Luck stat turns out to be a good way to make about 20,000 to 25,000 caps altogether, there’s really nothing in the game that compels you to sample this vaunted gambling system, no incorporation of it into the plot that I can recall. And Caravan is certainly no more important to the plot. I think of the, what, 100+ hours I put into Fallout: New Vegas, I may have played Caravan twice.

This confused me, but I think I might have the reason for it (that is, if there IS a reason, and I’m not just reading too much into it, which might be the case at any number of points in this rant). It once again reflects the culture and ideology of Las Vegas. Sure, gambling figures heavily into the image of Las Vegas, and it’s all over the place, and it’s sort of the main draw of the city as a vacation spot and American phenomenon. But at the same time, it’s not really a...mandatory component of it, is it? What I mean is, while the gambling’s there, it’s in the spotlight, and sure there are a ton of people who go to play the tables and shoot the craps and whatnot (I’m not too familiar with gambling terms; I don’t do much of it), the draw of Las Vegas, the spirit of it, is more the idea of fun, of the glamor and glitz, of a fun, crazy time of living like there’s no tomorrow. Of course, the gambling’s the most noticeable method of enacting this idea, but there are plenty of people for whom a vacation or party night in Vegas includes little to no gambling, but is nonetheless as wild and enjoyable as expected from the city. So, by hyping the gambling, by making it a present background to the entire game, but by NOT making it a strictly necessary component of Fallout: New Vegas, perhaps the developers actually were getting the idea exactly right.

Or maybe I’m reading way, way too much into this and these things never even crossed their minds. Entirely possible.

Anyway! There’s a lot of interesting cultural stuff to find in this game that’s worth thinking about, like how powerful and vitally necessary electrical power is to Las Vegas (and by extension, our modern lifestyle) as an entity, which is shown by the fact that the battle for control of the New Vegas area in the game is fought not over the actual location itself, but the dam that can power it and much more, or the power of entertainment as an opiate of the masses, shown in the way that House manages to protect his belongings from the vastly superior power of the NCR simply by making his strip of New Vegas an indispensible provider of entertainment for NCR’s citizens and soldiers. But for now, I think the last bit of cultural insight I’d like to get into is the character of Mr. House in Fallout: New Vegas.

Now while you can link Mr. House to a lot of pop culture characters in several ways, I think it’s fairly safe to say that he is primarily based on the character of Charles Foster Kane, from the legendary film Citizen Kane. His appearance, his vocal tones and method of speech, the relentless pursuit of power and the strange, manipulative methods thereof, the whole thing with the snow globes, it’s all pretty obvious. But why have one of the most important figures in the plot (possibly THE most important) of a game focused around Las Vegas be an homage to Kane? Kane didn’t have anything to do with Las Vegas, or even Nevada in general, in the film, not that I can recall. I mean, like I’ve said, the Fallout games are littered with references to American culture, so I could just take this as another of those and leave it at that, but House’s importance to the game’s events, and role as the one calling the shots of the actual New Vegas, puts him in a position where he has to have some serious symbolic significance or else be entirely inconsistent with the game’s storytelling methods.

And as it turns out, I’m pretty sure that there is, in fact, a lot about the character of Kane that makes him an excellent choice to base Mr. House on. First of all, on the surface level, it definitely works; you need someone with brutal cunning and understanding of manipulative human interaction to work with the position that House has in the game. More importantly, however, in many ways, Kane embodies quite a lot of aspects of the Las Vegas culture and mentality. First of all, the opulence. The extreme extravagance of Kane’s lifestyle, shown best by his famous man-made paradise Xanadu, certainly has similarities to the extreme extravagance of Las Vegas. Kane has great wealth, and he happily spends it in huge quantities on his whims, clearly caring far less for holding onto his wealth than for having as noticeable a good time as possible. That’s more or less a part of the idea of Las Vegas--throw caution to the wind, don’t worry about what it costs you, just live in the moment and have a great time.

There’s also the matter of Kane’s unflagging ambition. Charles Foster Kane is ambitious to a fault, seeking ever to rise higher, to have more. He’ll sacrifice his money, his marriage, his integrity, and his public standing, anything and everything for his ambitions--ambitions which he never does achieve, losing the election. But then, it’s hard to say whether his ambition could ever have been satisfied to start with. For men like Kane, sometimes there’s nothing but the ambition, never satisfied with what they achieve, living only to pursue the next carrot dangling in front of them. And that’s why his ambition makes him a great model for the character of Mr. House, owner and iconic figure of New Vegas. As I said above, gambling is not necessarily a required part of Las Vegas, but it’s the inseparable iconic concept of the city, and the ambitious Kane actually is very much like a compulsive gambler. He never knows when to quit, when to either be satisfied with what he has or to cut his losses and leave the game, always pursuing the next goal no matter what it costs him--much like the compulsive gambler forever chases the jackpot, heedless of what he’s lost and what he’s gained so far. And as it almost always does with the gambler, the obsession ruins Kane--he puts too much on the line, won’t back down, and in the end, not only loses what he wanted but also everything he had. Yes, Kane is, indeed, an excellent character to base the owner, caretaker, and symbolic figure of New Vegas upon.

The Significance of Roads

Much, much more than in any previous Fallout game, the tattered remains of major roads and highways play a significant role in Fallout: New Vegas, and the fact that their role is made significant is in itself a significant thing. Unlike other Fallout games, which are almost entirely open-ended in most aspects of exploration and plot, Fallout: New Vegas, while not lacking plenty of optional exploration, has definite paths to follow, at least for the first major part of its plot--in order to get to New Vegas, where the game’s story really starts to come together and become important, you pretty much HAVE to follow 1 road or another; there are insurmountable mountainous barriers that prevent you from just cutting across the middle of the map to reach it. While plenty of off-road exploration is available, this means that part of the game is pretty linear as you simply follow the highway path to your destination. Furthermore, the final, climactic Lonesome Road DLC for the game is (unsurprisingly, given the name) a very linear journey which greatly focuses on the symbolism and nature of roads, and the people who travel them. It’s actually very cool, and reasonably thought-provoking.

I’m not going to rehash what Lonesome Road tells us, but I do want to touch on this theme of roads and give it further relevance through relation. I think that one reason why the concept of the road was included with such thematic importance in Fallout: New Vegas is that roads have more cultural importance to the USA than perhaps to any other nation in the world, save the historical conquests of Rome.*** I mean, to be sure, roads and the transit they allow are inextricably important parts of human society and history no matter where you go, sure, but more than ever for America. For the formative centuries of the United States, exploration and expansion across the continent was a major driving force in every aspect of the US’s society--its economy, its national and international policies, its culture, its people, its mentality, these were all heavily influenced the USA’s constant drive to expand to the other end of the continent, to “tame” the wilderness. While the trailblazers and settlers did this exploration, the paths they created to be followed by the rest of the country’s society, the roads that their labors allowed for are their true legacy. As a monument provides tangible representation of intangibles of the mind or past, so the road sits as the monument to America’s significant history of exploration and expansion.

The road is also significant to the United States culture that the Fallout series likes to represent and analyze in that the USA’s size made the road all the more essential to its function. Sure, roads are important in any developed country, and have lots of historical impact anywhere you go, but I feel that they’re just not the same to a smaller country, like a European nation, or Japan. It’s hard to explain, but I feel that the greater size of the USA means that the roads across it become all the more essential, I think, as ways to connect its people and varying cultural identities together.

Economically, the history the USA is yet again tied with the idea of the road, the set line for transportation over distances. How enormous an impact did the setting down of railroads and pavement have upon our economic history? One of the richest men in history, Andrew Carnegie, made his fortune from the creation of nation-spanning railroads. The effects on the USA’s economic and cultural history from Carnegie alone is probably incalculable, and that’s just the influence of the road felt through one person.

You can see how culturally significant the road is to the United States just by observing some of our popular culture of the last century or so. I mean, I don’t profess to be too knowledgeable about foreign film industries, but just how many movies focusing on the experience of being on the open road are there that haven’t been set in the USA? Or at least made by and for Americans. If the concepts of the cross-country road trip, the Sunday drive, and the lone drive down an empty road in some kind of vague and not particularly sensible attempt at either confronting your inner demons or trying to outrun them, did not originate from America, then it’s at least made the most use of them, I would think. And that’s to say nothing of the cultural significance of a road’s foot traffic.

Again, I know a lot of the historical and thematic impact of the road is global, not just American, but even if roads have great significance to other cultures as well,*** one can’t deny that they’re a huge part of the United States, having played an immeasurable role in this country’s history. I like that even in the middle of its other, grander references and insights, Fallout: New Vegas takes the time to examine and recognize the nature of something so simple as a road, and its integral role in shaping our society.

And that’s it for now. Are there more themes and representations in Fallout: New Vegas to contemplate than the ones I’ve listed? Indisputably. But I think that’s a fair chunk of text right there, and I can always continue to speculate later if there’s an interest. What was the point of all this? Not entirely sure, I guess, but it was interesting to think about, and with any luck, I’ve at least impressed upon you that the Fallout series is more than just an artistically cool and fun post-apocalypse adventure series, that there’s a lot of insightful ingenuity that goes into the games’ settings, plots, and characters. Or perhaps I’ve just impressed upon you the idea that I can read way too much into these games and find depth where none was intended. Entirely possible, I suppose, but I really do think that Fallout games are more than just the awesome RPGs they are on the surface, that they’re also incredibly thought-provoking and intelligent, and I believe Fallout: New Vegas is a great example of this.

Also, just a heads-up: This rant took me a very long time to write, so I'm gonna take a month off from ranting to refill my rant backlog, get a few more rants done and on the back burner for when I need'em. Sorry! But there's like almost 200 other rants here you can peruse in the meantime if you like.

* I’m going to say right now that I have little more than an everyday knowledge of Native Americans’ culture and history, and the details of the United States’ long and extremely nasty history of conflict with them. I think that cursory knowledge is all one really needs for interpreting the Fallout: New Vegas stuff fairly well, but all the same, I apologize if I speak in offensive ignorance at any time here.

** To avoid controversy, I’d like to remind you that I specifically implied that these things were not necessarily true. While there is, to my understanding, some debate over exactly how inaccurate this is, the idea that Native Americans were cannibals is a prejudiced piece of propaganda that persisted for a particularly long period of the past. Lousy though it may be, labeling Native Americans as cannibals has long been a perception of the national culture that Fallout attempts to depict.

*** Yet another thematic connection to Rome to be found in Fallout: New Vegas. Interesting, that.