Playing Fallout: New Vegas, Part II: The Major Players and the Changing Face of the Wasteland

Fan art of the major players of the Mojave, care of leona-florianova on Tumblr (Sealinne on deviantArt). From left to right, top to bottom: Yes Man, Robert House, President Aaron Kimball of the NCR, Courier 6 (“Blondie”), Benny, and Caesar.

This is the second part of my long-winded ramble about Fallout: New Vegas. Here I will be blathering on at ridiculous length about the major factions in the game, how they appear and operate, and how the wasteland as a whole has evolved and changed across the franchise.

NCR military propaganda poster, remade for the total conversion mod Fallout 4: New Vegas.

For most players the NCR will probably be the faction they interact with the most, simply due to the Republic having the largest military presence of all the factions in the Mojave. It is also the faction a lot of players will be inclined to instinctively support. After all, the New California Republic is a democratic republic explicitly dedicated to upholding the values and principles of the Founding Fathers. However, New Vegas treats the NCR and its presence in the Mojave with a surprising ambivalence. As you come to work with the factions more directly, your relationship with the NCR will feel more distant and with the others. Unlike in the Legion and Mr. House, you do not have access to the centers of power in the NCR; the president, Aaron Kimball (Monte Markham), only appears to give a speech in the penultimate story mission, while the general overseeing the occupation of the Mojave appears right at the end of the game. You have to work through ambassadors and colonels, all of whom have wildly different ideas on how problems in the Mojave should be remedied. There’s a great deal of grumbling both within the NCR and without over how the leadership seems confused, muddled, a collection of left hands incommunicado with the right. Mind you, this lack of direction allows the NCR to have the second-most flexible ending in the game. If you swing by the Hoover Dam garrison to speak with Col. Cassandra Moore (Kirsten Potter) and dislike her hard-nosed my-way-or-the-graveyard approach to the minor factions, you can go back to the NCR base of Camp McCarran (formerly McCarran International Airport) and talk to Col. James Hsu (William Mapother) for advice on a more conciliatory approach, or just arrange matters on your own and approach the NCR later with a fait accompli afterwards.

The military is the face of the NCR in the Mojave. From its base in Camp McCarran in Vegas it has established outposts all across the region, the majority of which are focused east to keep an anxious eye on the Legion across the Colorado. The depiction of the NCR’s military in New Vegas draws a lot from America’s own occupation of Iraq in the 2000s, but in a way video games generally haven’t explored. I have something of a minor fascination with how the thoughts and anxieties surrounding the Iraq War have gone on to be expressed in big budget shooters. However, a lot of these games (the first Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Killzone 2, Resistance: Fall of Man just off the top of my head) are expressions of the fears that were felt before the war began, of this feeling that the United States was walking unprepared into a conflict far greater than her leaders initially assumed. New Vegas, by contrast, is a game from after the war, when the fears of a potential conflict have given way to the more diffuse anxieties and miseries of a long, grinding military occupation. The soldiers of the NCR are pulled at and twisted by a thousand different stresses. There’s never enough soldiers or equipment available to get anything done, everyone’s tired and stressed from staying on guard from raider attacks or Legion raids, experienced soldiers keep getting killed in ambushes and replaced with raw conscripts who only got a few weeks’ worth of training before being shoved into the meat grinder with no body armor. Doing quests for the NCR can often feel like acting as a cheerleader for the army as you help outposts get ahold of much needed supplies, figure out how to get a bunch of recruits to act as a cohesive unit, or take on a few contracts to wipe out some critters or raiders so the military can reassign men to more important duties.

Another remade poster, also for Fallout 4: New Vegas. I have a great affection for the NCR uniforms; it’s a very WWI-era “neo-doughboy” aesthetic.

The military presence of the NCR in the Mojave naturally raises questions about the imperialist nature of the project, and to its great credit Fallout: New Vegas does not shy away from this issue. Indeed, the game as a whole is a wonderful scale model of colonialism in action, one that takes care to show and discuss all the complex and contradictory forces that drive the enterprise. The primary goal for the NCR in the Mojave is to secure control of Hoover Dam, repair and rebuild its generators, and use them to light up California once more. Less emphasized but just as important, the expansion of the NCR’s population over the century has put increasing pressure the farmland and water resources of California. While this has been a perennial problem for California since the 19th century, the lack of a federal government through which infrastructure projects and negotiated deals with other states can be negotiated in the post-apocalyptic world has meant that a more direct approach is required. On the heels of the military come commercial interests, whether trading corporations like the Crimson Caravan Company looking for new markets or ranchers looking for more pasture, all of whom have no issue with using force to secure their claim on the Mojave. The ranchers of the NCR also contribute to the growing entanglement of the NCR with the Mojave as their efforts to expand their holdings in California has forced poorer farmers off their land, leaving them to try their luck further east. (Just as enclosure drove British colonialism and imperialism in the 16th-18th centuries, so too has enclosure driven Californian imperialism in the 23rd.) None of this is happening according to some master plan; as so often in history, social forces and pressures are pushing nations and leaders to favor certain policies, which then go on to have their own effect on the forces that brought them to life. There is a lively debate throughout all of New Vegas on the nature and virtue of the NCR’s project in the Mojave. Some elements from the NCR do genuinely want to help the people of the Mojave rebuild civilization, but it’s hard to ignore the entitlement the Californians carry with them, or how the old categories of “civilized” and “barbarian” are being dusted off and reinterpreted for a post-atomic age. The peoples of the Mojave have their own mixed feelings, thanking the NCR for protecting them from the onslaught of the Legion, but resenting their own loss of freedom as their western allies set up shop and prioritize their own security and enrichment over that of the peoples of the Mojave that they ostensibly came to protect.

***

“Welcome to Nipton” by Milulya, depicting Vulpes Inculta (Jason Spisak) of Caesar’s Legion roughly three minutes before most players start hucking frag mines at him.

The game does not shy away from the biggest argument against the NCR’s project in Mojave: that by its veneration of the ideals of pre-War America and its need to expand, the NCR is attempting to rebuild the society that ultimately destroyed industrial civilization in the Great War and came within a hair’s breadth of driving humanity to extinction. This is the objection raised by the other two major factions, each of whom offer their own solution to the quandary of how to rebuild without repeating the mistakes of the past.

At first, it is hard to see how Caesar’s Legion could offer an answer. The player’s first encounter with the Legion comes early in the game in the town of Nipton. Or rather, what remains of Nipton; the Legion have chosen to make an example of the town for its “profligacy”. Bodies have been cast onto piles of burning tires, heads have been jammed on pikes, and the main road is lined with crucified townsfolk. A similarly grim story awaits further east in the town of Searchlight, a former NCR-allied community converted into a radioactive dead zone after a few Legionnaires unsealed a few old casks of nuclear waste. In the first hours of the game, the Legion comes across as a puzzling contradiction in traits, aping elements of ancient Rome’s army while seeming to have no knowledge of the more humanistic or constructive elements of Roman culture.

The veil lifts after you dispose of Benny, when you receive a summons and guarantee of safety from no less than Caesar himself. Another surprise awaits at the Legion compound on Fortification Hill; Caesar (John Doman) is no crude barbarian, but rather a stern intelligent man, fully aware and bemused by the contradictions of the society he leads. He explains that he began life as Edward Sallow, a citizen of the NCR. After his father was killed by raiders, he and his mother sought refuge with the Followers of the Apocalypse, an anarchistic group who make it their mission to preserve the knowledge of the pre-war world and better the lives of the people of the wasteland. After receiving an education from them, he was sent east to Arizona to study the tribes of the Grand Canyon, only to end up captured by one of them. He took it upon himself to begin instruct his erstwhile captors in the ways of war, ultimately leading them to crushing victories against their enemies. In gratitude, they deified him. The Roman imagery was really a gloss, something Caesar chose to give to the tribe as a new national identity that would be alien and unfamiliar to them. From there, the infant Legion embarked on a campaign of ruthless expansion and extermination. Tribes it came into conflict with were wholly destroyed, with their adult males killed, their women forced into servitude, and their children adopted by legionnaires and raised communally, ensuring that their native cultures were rooted out and that they grew up knowing no other culture than the Legion.

The Legion is, in essence, Caesar’s “special plan for this world”, his own attempt to solve the problem of creating a society that will civilize the wasteland while avoiding the path pre-War America took. Of course, there are innumerable flaws and weaknesses in the Legion, something many other characters across the Mojave are quick to point out. It is a brutal society that expands with brutal means and assimilates all it conquers, meaning that the only people that voluntarily join it are tribes who don’t know how the Legion operates or who feel they have no alternative. The Legion’s military power is formidable, but the nature of their society means that a lot of it has to be spent looking over a servile population that can never be trusted. Finally, the only one who actually understands how the society actually works is Caesar himself, and he’s not a young man anymore. While his pride prevents him from admitting any error, there is a sense that Caesar is fully aware of the weaknesses in his society. Indeed, that the Legion’s entire campaign in the Mojave is part of Caesar’s attempt to solve these problem. While the immediate goal is to seize the dam and make New Vegas the Legion’s new capital, Caesar explains that his ultimate goal is no less than the conquest of the NCR. Invoking Hegelian dialectics, he explains that the NCR and the Legion are the thesis and antithesis of the question of how to rebuild civilization, and his ultimate goal is to merge the two and create a synthesis that combines the best of both, with the Legion becoming the army protecting a greater civilian empire.

Taken wholly in the abstract, Caesar’s Legion is a creation that is fascinating in its repulsion. It is an abominable society, but there is a logic to their actions and behavior. Caesar himself has a terrible charisma to him, the charisma of a Mr. Kurtz who has come out of the darkness to reshape the world according to his schemes and has spent years never having to answer to anyone but the voice in his head. However, the great irony is that the Legion is so well realized that it’s difficult to rationalize actually wanting to side with them. There isn’t much of Legion society to explore (an issue even the devs have admitted as a flaw), and the only positive thing any characters really have to say about the Legion is that they keep the streets in their territory safe, an argument that cannot help but sound hollow when considering all that the Legion does to maintain this “safety”. I wouldn’t want the Legion to be made more sympathetic; I agree with director Josh Sawyer that in a game filled with grey choices, the Legion should be allowed to be what it is. It is an “evil” path that requires you to commit to being evil, of spending your time destroying the societies of the Mojave and preparing the region to be ground up and fed into the slave distribution system of the Legion in the hope that Caesar’s plans for the future will pay off. While I will probably never embark on a Legion playthrough, I am nonetheless glad that the developers of New Vegas were honest about what such a story entails.


***

Robert Edwin House, in the cathode.

For players wary of the NCR’s imperialism but who are less than enamored with chattel slavery, an alliance with Mr. House (René Auberjonois) may seem the way to go for an independent civilized Mojave. House himself is an interesting figure; while a newcomer to the this game, he casts a long shadow across the Fallout franchise. In another age he was Robert Edwin House, founder and CEO of House Industries, a massive conglomerate that dominated the electronics and robotics industries in pre-War America. (Even centuries after the apocalypse, every computer terminal you hack in a Fallout game runs on a proprietary operating system developed by Robco, a House subsidiary.) While he had made himself a man of great wealth, power, and influence, by the middle of the century he was increasingly troubled by the international situation. After running a series of statistical analyses in 2065 and discovering that they all pointed to a general nuclear exchange sometime within the next fifteen years, he set to work on the greatest project of his life. Choosing Las Vegas as a base of operations, he commenced a series of projects designed to both preserve the city from the worst of the war and allow it to operate as an oasis of industrial civilization afterwards. House also sought to preserve himself by locking himself in a life-support pod that would keep him functionally immortal while integrating his mind with a network of mainframes. The Lucky 38 casino became his citadel, housing his pod, his mainframes, a battalion of his Securitrons, and all manner of supplies needed to weather the coming storm. Unfortunately the war came earlier than expected, and while he was able to disable or destroy the majority of the Chinese missiles targeting the Mojave, the strain of having to do so with a buggy operating system knocked House out of commission for decades afterwards. With limited resources and restricted control, he bided his time until the 2270s, when the first scouts from the NCR rediscovered Hoover Dam. Sensing an opportunity, he quickly set to work rebuilding the Vegas Strip, forging alliances with local tribes willing to do business his way and using the Securitrons to drive off the rest. When the NCR’s forces arrived en masse a few years later, they were surprised to discover that Hoover Dam and the Vegas Strip had been partially restored and recivilized, all at the behest of Robert House. A treaty soon followed; the NCR got basing rights and the lion’s share of the dam’s power, and in return they recognized House’s sovereignty and agreed to not restrict NCR civilians and soldiers from visiting the Strip. Meanwhile, House began funding a series of expeditions in the NCR to find and recover the Platinum Chip, upon which was stored a series of software upgrades needed to bring his mainframes and Securitrons to full working order.

Working with House is an act of threading the needle, of collaborating with the NCR to resist Caesar’s Legion, while simultaneously undermining the NCR’s attempts to establish hegemony over the Mojave. Securing New Vegas and the Mojave is only the first stage in House’s ultimate plan. With his knowledge and with the NCR acting as a bank of men, money, and material, House’s goal is to restart the pre-war R&D industry in Vegas, rebuild spaceflight technology, re-establish Earth’s orbital infrastructure, and develop a fleet of interstellar colony ships capable of transporting what remains of humanity to less benighted worlds. (There’s a joke in some circles that Obsidian’s 2019 retro-sci-fi-inspired Gilded-Age corporate satire The Outer Worlds is a stealth sequel to the House ending for New Vegas.) It’s an ambitious, ridiculous plan, but it was an ambitious, ridiculous plan to save the Mojave from nuclear war to begin with. That said, to work with House is to work towards his end, not yours. He is a self-described autocrat who expects you to follow orders like a good employee and has little patience for backtalk or alternative solutions. He is indifferent to anything that does not contribute to his plan, something the game quietly reminds you of in a rather subtle way. While you can make the Lucky 38 casino your home base to store your companions, guns, and outfits, you never have the option to fast-travel directly onto the Vegas Strip. You will instead always be taken just north of the Strip to the district of Freeside, a run-down slum where the tribespeople driven off the Strip by House mingle with a variety of refugees from both the NCR and the Mojave and try to make a living, looking up at lights they will never touch.

Finally, for those who don’t like any of the factions – or who managed to kill or piss off enough people to close off all the other questlines – there is one final option. After disposing of Benny, further investigation of his living quarters will eventually uncover “Yes Man” (Dave Foley), a rogue Securitron reprogrammed with a cheerfully subservient personality. Benny had concocted a scheme to usurp House and use Yes Man’s hacked AI to gain control of House’s mainframes and Securitrons for himself, but needed the Platinum Chip to gain access to House. With the chip at your disposal, it’s a comparatively simple matter to adapt Benny’s original plan for yourself, make allies of whatever minor factions you want, then use your new army of robots to drive out all the foreign powers and establish yourself as the supreme authority in the Mojave. However, the game does not portray this as an entirely positive development. Your authority relies solely on your command of House’s Securitrons, and absent any guiding ideology any alliances you form will drift apart after the region is secured. The Mojave will decay into another hazy borderland with you as yet another wasteland warlord, while the NCR and Legion retire behind their borders and make plans for another play for Hoover Dam in the future.

***

I’ve spent a lot of time and digital ink describing and discussing the major factions of Fallout: New Vegas, not only because they are fascinating creations in their own right, but because their interactions and conflicts are the engine that drives the majority of the game. The Mojave is dominated by the three solitudes of NCR, Legion, and House, and their influence bleeds into every interaction you have in the region. There are of course a mountain of minor factions and special interests on the Strip, in Outer Vegas, and across the Mojave itself, but even these groups are enmeshed in the greater conflict of the Mojave. Some of these are fairly obvious, as when every faction gets you to open relations with the Boomers, a society of gun-worshipping former Vault dwellers who have settled in Nellis Air Force Base and whose salvaged artillery guns could be invaluable in the coming battle. However, a great many more lines of conflict are more subtle in nature, revealed only through careful spadework. As an example, there’s a gang in Freeside called the “Kings” who’ve set up shop in an abandoned school for Elvis impersonators and have taken to revering Presley as a sort of Jüngerian anarch figure. While your initial quests with them mostly involve keeping the peace in Freeside, further exploration will eventually reveal that the Kings have become unknowing patsies in the quiet struggle between House and the NCR, leading to their ultimate destruction should you make the wrong choice. Of course, the idea of factional conflict is nothing new to the Fallout franchise; the idea of interacting with different powers and managing outcomes has been in the games since the first installment. However, no game before New Vegas has gone as far as to make factional conflict the centerpiece of your experience in the wasteland, and no other game has matched it since. Fallout 4, mentioned above, does try to bring in more factional conflict, but the nature of the Bethesda’s take on the franchise keep it from having the depth and impact of New Vegas. In Fallout 4 it’s fairly easy to be on good terms with everyone, or to simply ignore the main conflict entirely in favor of the exploration and crafting loop. Fallout: New Vegas is the prelude to a battle over the fate of the Mojave, and through your actions you have to pick who wins and who will be crushed. The many factions of the Mojave have goals which are mutually exclusive, and you will often be put in the position of having to choose who wins and who dies. Furthermore, a lot of the time it will be your hand on the trigger.

There is a fantastic depth and complexity to the decision-making and characterization of New Vegas, but there is a hidden cost to it. As you trek across the Mojave and interact with the various powers, there is a very real sense that the world of Fallout, at least on the West Coast, is in the midst of a great transition. The earlier games were centered around exploring and interacting with the post-apocalyptic wasteland, a blank canvas dotted with towns and bunkers and all manner of oddball societies. While the Mojave has plenty of places to explore and a lot of the old oddball charm, it feels constrained in a way the earlier games weren’t. The central conflict of New Vegas is not over small communities trying to maintain civilization in the face of some madman with a vision and a cache of pre-War technology; it is the central front in a struggle between nations for whom the whole Mojave is a prize to be taken. The NCR has grown into a modern nation state with its own complex colonial relationship with the Mojave. Both Caesar and House preserve some elements of the “madman with a vision” archetype, but even they have more complex and ambiguous relationships with civilization than any of the antagonists from the older games had. Even the Mojave itself is slowly becoming a more connected place, with NCR efforts to rebuild the old railroad network and with a few groups even going so far as to get airplanes up and running again. If New Vegas is a Western, it is one of those Westerns set at the end of the era, when the long arm of developed society has finally ensnared the territories and is pulling them into the  civilized fold. (Doubtless, in a university in Arroyo or the Boneyard back west, some tweedy scholar is putting the finishing touches on “The Significance of the Wasteland in Post-War Californian History”.)

Quite remarkably, New Vegas goes even farther in depicting the wasteland by dismantling the symbols of the Fallout franchise itself. Raider clans than were menaces in the first two Fallout games have become minor nuisances in the Mojave, forced east over the decades as the NCR consolidated and drove them out of more civilized lands. Chief among these are the Great Khans, a pre-War motorcycle gang who refashioned themselves into a raider gang with a pseudo-Mongolian aesthetic, who have gone from threatening the future NCR capital of Shady Sands in the late 22nd century of the first Fallout to squatting in Red Rock Canyon northwest of Vegas a century later. While their continued survival can be arranged with some careful dialogue choices, it is more likely that they will end their days being herded onto an NCR reservation, consumed by the Legion, or simply being wiped out. Where there are still a few Vaults to explore in the Mojave, the era of the great underground shelters has come to a close in the region, with their inhabitants either having left their shelters ages ago or been killed off by a combination of raiders, technical malfunction, and Vault-Tec’s own sociopathic human experiments. One, Vault 21 on the Vegas Strip, has been converted into a tourist-trap museum, and it’s hard not to see that particular Vault as Obsidian’s own satiric jab at how the imagery of Fallout has been commodified by Bethesda. Your Courier doesn’t even have any connection with the Vaults at all, and only starts the game wearing the traditional Vault suit because you needed some new threads and Doc Mitchell had one to spare. Perhaps the saddest example of the passing of the old Fallout world comes in the Brotherhood of Steel’s appearance in New Vegas. Formed after the Great War by elements of the American military, they are a quasi-chivalric society dedicated to acquiring and stockpile the knowledge and technologies of the pre-War world, waiting for the better days to come again. While the Brotherhood’s insularity and high-minded attitude made them dubious allies in the original games, they have become one of the most iconic elements of the Fallout franchise, with almost every game making some use of the helmet for a suit of Brotherhood power armor in its cover art. In stark contrast, the Mojave chapter of the Brotherhood is depicted as a sad remnant, huddled in a single bunker after repeated defeats at the hands of the NCR. (As House drolly puts it, “the NCR showed them that ideological purity and shiny power armor don’t count for much when you’re outnumbered 15 to 1”.) None of the major factions particularly like the Brotherhood, seeing them as a hidebound collection of throwbacks who do little but hide from the world and make a nuisance of themselves. Your own interactions with the Brotherhood do little to change this impression, and while it is possible to get them to participate in the defense of Hoover Dam if you’re gunning for an NCR or Yes Man victory, a lot of the time you will have little choice but to destroy their bunker and wipe out the Mojave chapter once and for all. While it is a tragedy on the personal level, at the same time it feels like a verdict delivered by history on the Brotherhood’s own dogmatism and inflexibility.

Such is the unique nature of Fallout: New Vegas. It is a game built around an interplay of factions far more thematically and politically complex than has ever been done in a Fallout game, but such a complexity can only be built by reimaging Fallout as a more developed, civilized setting. It’s a shift in the setting that even Obsidian themselves seem unsure of how to handle, an uncertainty that would find its fullest expression in the four DLC campaigns for New Vegas.

Next time: in the final part, a discussion of the four DLC sidestories and some concluding remarks.

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