Playing Fallout: New Vegas, Part III: The DLC Stories, With a Particular Focus on Lonesome Road

Ulysses at the Divide. Art by amyoy on deviantArt.

This is the final part of my long ramble about Fallout: New Vegas, in which I take a moment to look briefly at the DLC stories.

There are four DLC stories for Fallout: New Vegas, all of which were built and released over the course of 2011. They take the Courier from the familiar locations and stories of the Mojave and drop them in new conflicts all around the western regions of the former United States. I must confess that I was not exactly fond of many of the DLCs during my first playthrough; the conflict in the Mojave was what drew me into New Vegas, and I spent a lot of my time in the DLCs anxiously wanting to get back to it. While I had varying levels of engagement with the various story DLCs, it was the final one, Lonesome Road, that has stuck with me the most. Not only does that DLC return to the central conflict of the main game, it is also a clear expression of Obsidian wrestling with how Fallout has changed, as well as how their own work on New Vegas itself has changed it.

***

The first DLC story released was Dead Money, which has you on the trail of a mysterious radio transmission inviting you to attend the grand opening of the Sierra Madre Casino. As you investigate the abandoned Brotherhood of Steel bunker from which the signal originates, you are knocked out, stripped of your gear, and dumped at the outskirts of the casino. Your captor soon reveals himself to be Father Elijah (Richard Herd Jr.), an ex-Brotherhood elder obsessed with breaking into the vault of the casino. He explains that the casino and surrounding resort town were intended to be a sort of technological showcase with matter-synthesis devices, hard-light holograms, and all manner of pre-War geegaws. Unfortunately, the day the casino was scheduled to open was also the day of the Great Atomic War, so its doors remained shut forever. What’s more, a strange toxic gas has leaked out of the ground that has cut the casino off from the rest of the world and mutated the former work crew, turning them into feral killers whose altered biology can survive anything save dismemberment. Elijah has spent years trying to figure out a way to get inside of the casino, and to that end he taken to abducting people and forcing them to figure out a way in. As his latest victim, you are given the goal of finding three other people in the resort area that are still human(ish), figure out how to trigger the automated opening celebration that will open the casino’s doors, then get inside and get to the vault. To ensure the compliance of you and the others, Elijah has outfitted you with bomb collars that will go off if he triggers them, if one of you dies, or if one of you spend too much time near a radio or intercom speaker.

Suffice to say, Dead Money is not well-liked even by fans of New Vegas. The whole DLC is meant to be a slower experience that feels more akin to survival horror, so anyone who hasn’t built their character to focus on stealth or melee is going to end up feeling like they’re fighting against the game rather than playing with it. All the conditions of the Sierra Madre feel very contrived to set up this sort of experience, and some of the technology seems far too advanced even for pre-War America. The story is also very heavy-handed with its theme of “letting go”. The phrase is quoted constantly, all of your erstwhile companions are in the grips of obsessions and desires for revenge that they need to relinquish in order to survive the story, and down in the vault there’s a giant stack of gold bars that are too heavy to be carried away. (The thematic effect of that last one has also been lessened by the ingenuity of countless New Vegas players who have figured out ways to manipulate the game’s mechanics so that they can safely abscond with all 37 bars.) While I understand what Obsidian was going for, I personally hated almost every moment I was at the Sierra Madre and couldn’t leave the accursed place fast enough.

The second DLC, Honest Hearts, thankfully forgoes any major experimentation with gameplay to focus on its story. You start the DLC hiring on as part of the security detail for a caravan heading north to make contact with New Canaan, a Mormon community built on the ruins of Ogden, Utah. Tragically, your expedition is cut short in Zion (formerly Zion National Park) when a band of tribal raiders known as White Legs slaughter everyone else in your caravan. Marooned far from the Mojave and with no idea how to get back, it is a relief to make contact with a friendlier tribe of visitors named the Dead Horses and their temporary war chief, a New Canaanite named Joshua Graham (Keith Szarabajka), a man with some history of his own. A former missionary, he met the young Edward Sallow on the expedition that made him Caesar and chose to serve with him as the top commander in his embryonic Legion. While he was responsible for many victories over the years, he failed to lead the Legion to victory at Hoover Dam in 2277, and as punishment Caesar had Graham covered in pitch, set on fire, and thrown into the Grand Canyon. Stubborn old bastard that he was, Graham survived this and staggered his way back to New Caanan, giving rise to legends of a relentless “Burned Man” among the primitive peoples of Arizona and Utah. News of the “Burned Man” eventually reached the ears of Caesar, who enlisted the aid of the White Legs to find and destroy Graham once and for all. The White Legs promptly sacked New Canaan, and have now turned their sights to Zion and its own indigenous tribe, the Sorrows. Graham’s proposal to you is simple: either help evacuate the Sorrows from Zion or stand to defend their homeland alongside them, and Graham will be able to secure a path back home for you.

I must confess that I did not play through Honest Hearts with the full diligence that I should have, so while there is a lot going on in the story I did not catch all the subtleties of the situation. Still, what I did see was an intriguing contrast and complement to the main game. Zion is a much more primitive environment than anything seen in New Vegas, a place where civilization has vanished entirely, history has been mostly forgotten, and humanity has returned to the hunter-gatherer life from which it sprang. At the same time, Honest Hearts tries its best to avoid falling into the “white savior” framing; while as a Fallout protagonist your choices still radically affect the fate of the people in Zion, you’re generally position as a supporting player in the action rather than the driver. You do not command; you advise. As for Graham, while he is an outsider commanding a tribe during a time of war, he shares with the other New Canaanites a certain flexible ambiguity about the relationship between his society and outsiders, seeing the Dead Horses and Sorrows as kin rather than through the sharp civilized/tribal binary that prevails in the Mojave. Graham himself is also a compelling figure (with an amazing voice), a man of God who has done terrible things in his life and wishes to atone, but still instinctively looks to violence as the solution. While a minor war in the grand scheme of things, the conflict in Zion shows how the fight over Hoover Dam has begun to spread outside the confines of the Mojave to inflame the former American Southwest, as both Legion and NCR look for secondary fronts, allies, and proxies with which to gain an advantage over the other. New Canaan itself had friendly relations with the NCR, which made its destruction a necessary goal for Caesar. Indeed, it is hard to play Honest Hearts, stuck in an unfamiliar place and needed to work with the local tribes to figure out a way home, and not think of the young Edward Sallow at the Grand Canyon and the choices he made that set him on his path.

The third DLC, Old World Blues, takes a break from these weighty issues to unashamedly revel in comedy. Upon investigating a crashed satellite just outside of Nipton, you are teleported to Big Mountain – Big MT, the “Big Empty” to wastelanders – a massive R&D complex isolated from the rest of the region in a massive caldera. (Big MT was originally built inside a mountain sometime during the 21st century, but the mountain itself was later blown up in an experiment.) Coming to with a mess of unexplained scars, you quickly discover that your brain, heart, and spinal column have been surgically removed and swapped out with augmented mechanical replacements. Further investigation leads you face-to-monitor with the Think Tank, a quintet of pre-War scientists who have transferred their brains into hovering tanks and have all gone quite daffy over the centuries. They explain that their former colleague, an old coot by the name of Dr. Mobius (Cam Clarke) who has gone mad and started siccing robotic scorpions on their installations, has somehow absconded with your brain and want you to get it back, along with a few other things. Now, while black comedy has always been a key part of Fallout since the first game, the franchise has not always been certain of how to express this side of itself. Fallout 2 has a mixed reputation for going to broad and leaning on pop-culture references, and New Vegas generally takes itself fairly seriously. Old World Blues is a diversion, but as a diversion it’s quite enjoyable. The writing and performances are fantastic as they take each member of the Think Tank, expand their neuroses to ridiculous proportions, then let their dysfunctional personalities bounce off one another. Even so, there are still moments when the smile freezes in one’s throat, as it did in mine when I discovered “Little Yangtze”, a former concentration camp used in the pre-War era to hold Chinese POWs and American dissidents for experimentation. Even through the laughs, New Vegas never forgets the world that came before and how it made the wasteland what it is.

***

The Divide. Where it all ends, and where it all begins.

As you enter the town of Primm early in the main game, you are directed to pay a call at the offices of the Mojave Express and ask about the Platinum Chip you were given to deliver. While you don’t learn much, you do learn one unusual fact – you were not originally supposed to make the delivery. The Platinum Chip was originally assigned to another courier, but when he entered the office and discovered your name on the list of active couriers he refused to take the package and left it for you. This other courier begins to show more of himself in the DLCs, becoming a shadow stretching ahead of you. Various character in Dead Money and Honest Hearts speak of him in vague terms, describing them as someone who helped them in the past or whose actions helped shape the current conflict. You uncover an old hideout of his in Old World Blues, and both the Think Tank and Dr. Mobius recall having met the man. They describe him as a morose fellow named Ulysses who wore a jacket with the pre-War American flag on the back and constantly asked questions about history. More they cannot say; their memories of the conversations in question have been erased. Finally, in Lonesome Road, Ulysses (Roger Cross) sends you a single radio message – “Courier Six” – along with a set of coordinates inviting you to the Divide for a settling of accounts.

Ulysses’ summons sends you north and west of Vegas to the twin towns of Ashton and Hopeville, just on the eastern side of the former Nevada-California border. While in our world Ashton has been nothing but a ghost town for years, in the 21st century of Fallout both Ashton and Hopeville became the site of a major missile base, which in turn attracted more industry as well as a sizeable civilian population. However, on the day of the Great War the missiles of the two towns did not fly; no explanation is ever given, but the presence of a long-dead ghoul in an US Army general’s greatcoat with an empty pistol in a sealed command center in Hopeville suggest someone may have had a crisis of conscience on that fateful day. Spared the worst of the war and protected from the outside world by unusually savage weather – courtesy of an old pre-War weather control experiment from Big MT – Ashton and Hopeville remained isolated by the changes in the wasteland. In the 2270s the two towns were reconnected with the outside world when a single courier – you – braved the storms and walked the ancient highways to bring news of the wasteland beyond. After you came Ulysses, the second courier. Ulysses served the Legion as a frumentarius – a spy walking the Mojave in the guise of a courier, though his own loyalty to Caesar was wavering. For a man increasingly uncertain about the road he had taken and the leaders he served, there was something in the society of Ashton and Hopeville that spoke to Ulysses. Something was emerging in those two towns, drawing on the Old World yet forward-looking, something that could form the nucleus of a new society the way the shelters and towns of California gave rise to the NCR, something that could reunite the fractured wasteland.

It did not last. With the couriers came politics and strategic considerations. First the NCR came from the west, looking to secure Nevada State Highway 95 as an alternate route into the Mojave, which brought the Legion out of the east to stop them. Battles between the two began to erupt. And then one day, shortly before the First Battle of Hoover Dam in 2277, you returned delivering a package, a scavenged piece of Enclave technology the NCR wanted investigated by the locals. As the locals began working at the device, it came to life and began transmitting detonation codes to the ancient arsenal that still slept underground. Nuclear warheads began detonating in their silos, tearing Ashton and Hopeville apart with terrible earthquakes. The civilian population was wiped out, while the NCR and Legion troops in the region – turned to ghouls, skin torn off by the terrible winds, mad with pain – forgot their old enmities and joined together to become the Marked Men, attacking anyone who wasn’t them. The only survivor was Ulysses, patched up by ancient medical robots who saw the old American flag on his jacket and mistook him for a serviceman. Ashton and Hopeville had become “the Divide”, and it was no longer a home for Ulysses. He wandered the Mojave, sometimes serving Caesar, often serving no one, trying to make sense of things. Discovering your name in that office in Primm gave him new purpose. Two actually; first to settle matters with the Courier who had destroyed his adopted home, and then to set about recrafting the Mojave as the Courier had recrafted the Divide.

It is hard to know what to make of Lonesome Road. Taking inspiration from Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley, the DLC is a linear gauntlet, though the areas are wide enough to allow some poking and prodding. The only other characters to interact with are Ulysses and a companion robot that speaks in buzzes and bleeps. Ulysses himself is a frustrating figure, a man in love with metaphors who never says a word when a paragraph will do. There’s something unwelcome about how he discusses the life you led before you woke up in Goodsprings and tries to hold you accountable for the actions of your unknowable past self, an act that feels like a breach in the implied contract between storyteller and actor upon which role-playing rests. Ulysses speaks of symbols, judging both the NCR bear and the Legion bull and finding them wanting, but he never quite explains what he actually wants. He carries the symbols of pre-War America, but does not seem to revere anything that society actually did. He describes the society that lived in the Divide was an embryonic civilization that you aborted, but you never actually find any post-War artifacts in the ruins of Ashton and Hopeville.

I have read and listened to these criticisms made by other players, and I agree with many of them. However, there is something about the Divide and Ulysses that still haunts me weeks after I finished the game. I think about what Ulysses said, what I saw there, and what I did. I don’t have all the answers yet – I probably never will – but for the moment I have two potentials.

The first was born of a simple metatextual concept I found in an old forum post: “Ulysses is the spirit of Fallout and Fallout 2“. In the first two games, the Old World was dead and buried, a source of treasure, mystery, and superstitious awe. The real drive was in exploring the wasteland, to discover and interact with the new communities that had sprung up in the centuries since the bombs. We never see what Ulysses saw in Ashton and Hopeville, but perhaps that is the point. The society of the Divide is kept from us because it represents all the societies that grew out of the wasteland, all their ideas and potentials at the same time. Ironically, the nuclear-earthquake wracked ruins of the two towns is a truer expression of what Ulysses saw than any actual modelled society could be, for it represents the wasteland at its most primordial. The Divide is The Day After, it is October 24, 2077, it is the day the wasteland was born out of the ashes of American civilization. In its terror and chaos, the Divide is, in microcosm, the primordial matrix from which all of Fallout grew.

However, for Ulysses the destruction of the Divide was a sign that the wasteland was coming to an end. As societies rebuilt and civilization resumed, the old habits began again. Borders were drawn on maps, frontiers were defined by patrols and checkpoints, and ideologies are being developed to justify assimilation, incorporation, and extermination. Hoover Dam is a prize that will only accelerate this process, allowing whichever civilization holds it to transform the wasteland into their own empire. The contest for the Mojave is not a free-for-all; it is a struggle between Bear and Bull with the House between them, and trying to rig the game for yourself nets you a booby prize. When you finally meet Ulysses face-to-face, he explains his plan is to use some of the remaining nuclear missiles that survived both the centuries and fratricide of the earlier detonations against the main supply routes both sides use to support their operations in the Mojave. Cut them, and a tiny scrap of the wasteland may survive the predations of empire. While Ulysses’ plan is no solution at all, for the only counter to empire is another one, at heart it feels like a protest against what Fallout: New Vegas has done to the wasteland.

The second reason Lonesome Road has stuck with me is because it confronts the ultimate horror that has always lain at the heart of Fallout: the concept of nuclear war. The Divide has become a terrible place; its ground shattered, twisted and uplifted, the buildings toppled and spilling open, the people who inhabit the ruins writhe in pain and anger over what the bombs have done to them. At the same time, a few missiles remain in their silos, sleeping like dragons and just as deadly. There was a moment in the middle of my trek when I ended up having to complete the launch procedure to open a door into a silo. I’ve launched a fair number of nukes over the years I’ve spent playing video games, but that moment was different. As the old rocket climbed slowly upward, I connected it with the devastation I had seen around me, and realized that I had just inflicted that same horror and pain on some unknown part of the world. The same choice presented itself again in the story, with the added temptation of strategic considerations for the conflict in the Mojave, and I am ashamed to say that I chose poorly.

***

I could continue on about my thoughts and experiences with Fallout: New Vegas (and I may, some day), but I now feel this is as good a place as any to draw a line under this long rambling discussion-cum-glorified summary. New Vegas was an immense experience for me, filled with highs, frustrating lows, comedy, terror, and some excellent political discussion. Looking back on it all, I am still struck by the feeling that, in a way, this is the last Fallout game. Not in the series or in the timeline of the setting, of course; Bethesda will keep them going as long as they can turn a profit. Rather, there is a feeling in New Vegas that the setting has reached a turning point, that whoever controls Hoover Dam and the Mojave will shape the wider world, not just their immediate surroundings. The game depicts a great transition from the world of the post-apocalypse to the next cycle of culture and civilization in North America. Such a place would still have a lot of explore, and I would love to pay a visit a few decades down the line to see what that new world looks like. However, it would no longer be what we call “Fallout“.

Fallout: New Vegas is a farewell. A farewell to the West Coast of the Fallout setting, and a farewell to the old Black Isle devs at Obsidian to the setting they created all those years ago. Still, as endings go, it is not a bad one to go out on, and rest assured I will one day revisiting the Mojave and walk the road to New Vegas once more.

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