In November of 2010 I wrote an article expressing distaste for Fallout: New Vegas over Fallout 3. In short, I didn’t like the way the game changed from its predecessor. I’d gone into that experience looking for more, and what I got was very different.
Allow me to argue against myself. Since then, Bethesda has given us Skyrim, and after spending the prerequisite time entrenched in it, I now feel differently about the whole lot. Closing in on two years since New Vegas, it has a different place in my heart. Each game takes the same idea of an open world RPG and approach it differently, enough that the experience of each is distinct. In retrospect, Fallout 3 is more straight fun to play, Skyrim holds the least appeal, and New Vegas is the smart experiment that differs the most of from its sisters, and I think it deserves more recognition than I gave it two years ago.
I get tired with Skyrim in a way I don’t with the Fallouts. That’s not to say there aren’t things I enjoy about it, but those things tended not to be the real “point” of the game. Nevertheless, I played Skyrim for ~50 hours, so there was something there for me. But a lot of that involved my willingness to put up with a lot of bullshit and a lot of silliness.
Bias up front: I don’t like fantasy. I’ve (recently) seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the aesthetics of that lore bore me, and it seems to stretch on as long as the person wielding it wants it to. I was never interested in the idea of orcs, elves, or dwarves, and at this point, I’ve given up on trying to like it. I hope everyone has something that they will just never get into, something they try to understand while never actually being privy to the feeling. If you do, I think your opinion on that thing is still important. You are an outsider. You see things differently, and that’s good.
As for me and Skyrim (I only spent a few hours with Oblivion), I think it’s up to me to accept my fantasy aversion as a bias. Whatever it is, this “thing” that I have, it makes it hard to care like I do in Fallout, mostly because the Elder Scrolls world seems to be so incredibly steeped in its archers, swords, dragons, and something called “skooma”.
Not all of that stuff is necessarily fiction. We had archers and swordsmen and people with tangled beards who probably carried axes. The off-putting part to me is the requirement to wade through it in order to enjoy it. To me, it’s a well of fantastical lore that seems to exist for its own sake: orcs, scaly man-lizards, “magic”, potions, cat people, ice trolls that regenerate health… It’s one thing to say those things exist, or to imply them, or to even build a game system that works on them, but (and here’s the take-it-or-leave-it criticism) in Skyrim I’m left asking if these things exist for any reason other than because a good chunk of people think they’re pretty cool. As someone who doesn’t think any of these things are cool, to have a conversation with a character about it and to be asked to take it seriously and make it important? I can’t do it. I can’t believe in the problems of people who are too caught up in something I don’t understand.
Here’s the difference when it comes to Fallout 3 (and New Vegas, which is another face of that lore): the dystopian world reinforces an idea. It’s not post-apocalyptic for apocalyptica’s sake (because Lord knows there are plenty of things that are), it’s a reason for everything being the way it is. The implications of a DC post-nuclear war stretch through social psychology, economics, dystopian morality, and survival. The conceit of the world breeds those scenarios––they’re not just window dressing.
So the most enjoyment I get in Skyrim has nothing to do with anything wrapped up in its aesthetics, the setting, or the world in general. I like stealing cheese wheels and sneaking around people’s cottages and pilfering everything in sight. I like corralling guards to the top of mountains and shouting them away. Sometimes I just like to walk through the woods. The moment you try to wrangle me into caring about the problems of this hyper-imagined world, eyes start to roll.
And where I impatiently skip through dialogue and scenarios in Skyrim, I seek it out in both modern Fallouts. I can stomach helping children escape their slavers because they’re not prefacing it with a metric gut-punch of fantasy lore. I’m willing to help the squatters in Freeside work out an egalitarian contract for food and water resources because that’s a change I can effect without wading through the aesthetic. It’s a problem I can understand. The same quest in an Elder Scrolls game would be fraught with details of a world I ultimately find silly.
After all is said and done, each Fallout game is about embracing the person you become after the demise of a society that might have kept you from you. It is about both the persistence of the human heart and the futility of that persistence. In comparison, Skyrim is about saving the world from dragons. One gets me excited, the other falls flat. My evaluation of Elder Scrolls games hinges on this, and I think the best thing is to present it up front.
But, if Fallout is indeed an exploration of humans sans established society, Fallout 3 and New Vegas are two wildly different interpretations of that idea. In fact, Fallout 3 is closer to Skyrim in that a large part of the fun is in exploring outside and in dungeons full of monsters, following an occasional side quest line, and saving the entire world at the end of the day. New Vegas is more granular and cohesive than 3: there’s not much to explore and few dungeons to trawl, but the end result of the game hits harder. This is undoubtedly an Obsidian product, a company with seasoned roots in old school WRPGs.
At the end of Fallout 3, you purify the Potomac and ostensibly usher in a new era for post-apocalyptic civilization. At the end of New Vegas, you’ve aided a faction of your choice in over-taking the Hoover Dam, a chess move in a much larger game. I like the adventure of the former but enjoy the cohesiveness of the latter. Fallout 3 has one main quest and a handful of side quests that ultimately have nothing to do with each other, a wasteland full of standalone vignettes. New Vegas is predicated on factions, and your interaction with each faction affects the state of the world by the end of the journey. The system isn’t fully fleshed out in New Vegas, but it’s there, and it seems larger and more irreducible every time I play it.
Do you side with the Legion and return society to harsh, survival of the fittest roots? It’s a strong foundation but guts the tripe out of society in favor of animalistic conquest. It’s military life in slavery and squalor. Maybe you relinquish the wasteland to the NCR, the bureaucracy that defines most of modern life. Perhaps you help Mr. House keep his iron grip on the strip, let him restore it as America’s destination for sinful grandeur. Or, do you abandon all that and work for an independent, melting pot Mojave? Combine that with each of the other, smaller factions, there’s quite a few steps forward you can give the Mojave wasteland. And most genuinely, it’s all in the context of a selfish motive: the mission to find your killer spins out into an opportunity to play the role of x-factor.
And that’s the game. It’s very different from Fallout 3, where you spend most of your time whiffing the next interesting place to visit, concerning yourself with exhausting every dusty nook and cranny. It’s more of an archaeological dig than it is a treatise on the value of human life in the face of destruction. 3 is more in line with Skyrim this way: there is a satisfying gameplay loop of exploration and combat that is mostly fueled by curiosity. By comparison, New Vegas is more of a political simulator.
It’s ultimately the title I like the most for that reason, and it took me a long time to come around. The curiosity underneath the other two games is mostly absent in New Vegas, but the outcome of its systems have been more alluring. Two years ago, (even one year ago), I was more enamored with Bethesda’s interpretation of the Fallout scenario––there is more to do, it looks nicer, and pays off more immediately––but as time goes on, New Vegas’ pretensions continue to pull me back.