I read a review yesterday for the new DLC pack for Fallout: New Vegas called Honest Hearts. To be fair, I didn’t read the whole review, I read a summary which basically suggested Honest Hearts wasn’t that great and that the quests were mostly fetch and collect stuff. Compared to Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, that seemed out of place since the developers do a good job of disguising the quests so they don’t feel like ‘go here, fetch that’.
It got me thinking though. What was it that I enjoyed most in the two Fallout games I’ve played (I never really played 1 and 2)? After thinking about it, I believe the reviewer of Honest Hearts missed the point. The quests aren’t what make Fallout 3 and New Vegas the games they are, it’s the side stories.
When I first played Fallout 3 on the PS3 I was blown away by the depth and richness of the world. I came from an MMO background really, in terms of computer RPG’s, so I was expecting lots of little quests tied together, but the main one in Fallout 3 is actually quite simple. Essentially it’s, ‘go to a small number of locations, find evidence of your father, piece together the story, and then make a decision at the end which finishes the game’. But doing that took ages, because I was constantly dragged into the side quests. The side quests are great, but even they aren’t what make the game essentially unforgettable, it’s the non-quest driven side stories.
Finding a vault, searching it, and finding journal entries, or computer logs, or snippets of information and putting together what happened in the war, or just after, or what happened in that vault to one or two people, or the entire population. Finding a house in the middle of nowhere with some tiny piece of information about the owner, often sad, poignant, a reflection on what the Fallout world had become before the war, or the struggle that followed. That was what made the game great. Learning about the world, learning about the history. Not having it given to you on a plate or purely in voice overs, but honest discovery. If you just did the main quest, you’d miss it. You had to go looking, had to go digging, open every box, check every terminal. Find out of the way locations, en route to nowhere, and delve into their history.
Slowly, the sinister truth about the vaults became clear, and the heartache of a world destroyed came into focus.
I was initially disappointed with Fallout: New Vegas, it felt a little too civilised for me, I wanted more of the blasted world of Fallout 3. Despite myself, I found it growing on me though, and eventually I bought into the story. Sadly, constant crashes on the PS3 version meant I stuck to the main quest, did as little as necessary to complete the story and got through it more as a chore than a game. But I recently re-bought it on the 360 (still in pocket after purchase, re-sale, and cheap re-purchase), and thanks to fewer crashes (3 in 80 hours, plus 2 almost-game-breaking bugs) I’m taking the time to go everywhere, search everything, do every quest, explore every vault.
The stories are still there. The vault where people were basically driven insane so they could be researched, the vault in which people had to sacrifice one person every year to stay alive, the vault with too many people and an unlocked armoury. In those locations you learn the back story by piecing it together, yourself, from journals and terminals. You don’t need to, nothing in the main quests requires it. You may need to go to the vault, but you can find what you need by just following the arrow – if you’re interested, if you want to find out, it’s there for you to find.
The writing is superb – I feel like I was there during the last moments of the lives of those vault dwellers, because the game authors take so much time to craft the words.
I picked up Honest Hearts and played through it in a weekend. It’s a new location, rocky and hard to navigate, there aren’t many different enemies, and the story feels a tiny bit contrived. But there’s an underlying story of loss, heartache, suffering and then optimism if you want to go looking for it. Not only that, but there are little teasers of connection to the Mojave wasteland and vaults you’ve already been to. While I was running around doing the collection quests, I was also searching every inch of caves for some sign of an old hunter who lived in the region and who documented his story on his computer terminals. That story takes us from the war through his survival, and the slow regeneration of the land, including the first signs of new creatures that Fallout 3 players will know well.
It was fascinating, sad and heart wrenching, and as well written as anything else in the Fallout universe, but if you didn’t go looking for it, you might never find it.
None of this needs to be there. The developers could just stick the same vault design in the ground, fill it with ghouls and leave it at that. They don’t have to write these stories, they don’t have to populate the vaults or the buildings or the caves with history and sadness. Quite a few gamers wouldn’t even notice, certainly not the people who brag about completing Fallout: New Vegas in 7 hours. I’ve been playing it for 80 hours and I’ve only scratched the surface of the main quest. I’m pleased they take the time to include this content, I’m grateful the development team get the time from their management and the people funding the game, it’s what makes them worth buying.
You can make me collect as many broken radios as you want, as long as when I get to the building they’re in, I can spend time learning about the world, the people who are or used to be in it, and hearing their stories.
(Oh, it would be nice if it didn’t crash too)