Recently, I re-visited two of my favorite games, Fallout: New Vegas and Bioshock.
I have been a huge Fallout fan for years, having started with New Vegas, playing 4 when it came out, going backwards to 3 and even the first and second isometric entries, which are interesting to say the least. There are so many aspects that make me love Fallout, the most being the story and environment, the number of ways the player can build their character to fit a unique playstyle, and the roleplaying aspect.
Fallout: New Vegas
New Vegas does a fantastic job at making the player feel like they are a part of the world, especially regarding the choice and consequence in almost every quest. Other roleplaying games and AAA releases with large budgets manage to do this to a small degree. For instance, last year’s Cyberpunk 2077 released as an action adventure with some choice elements even though initial plan were for an RPG.
Where New Vegas differs is that this occurs everywhere. The best quest design in games where choice is a factor is the “branching” style, where there are a multitude of different choices presented which lead to different outcomes. New Vegas pulls this off everywhere, which is impressive especially considering Obsidian developed it in a cycle of only 18 months.
The best example comes in the culmination of the player’s efforts in the main questline, which sees the main factions of the Mojave duke it out for control of the Hoover Dam, the largest source of power and water in the wasteland. The major powers consist of the New California Republic, Caesar’s Legion, Mr. House (the New Vegas Strip) and Yes Man. Over the multitude of hours spent with each faction, the player sees the benefits and pitfalls to each. Not only this, but each of the main factions has the player character develop relationships with other side factions such as the Brotherhood of Steel, Boomers, Great Khans, and the gangs of The Strip.
The player can choose between this many outcomes to the game, and each faction is given life through its positive and negative traits. Additionally, several main quests over chances for players to approach in totally different ways depending on the skills and reputations of each playthrough. With so much choice, it is easy to see why New Vegas is coined the ultimate roleplaying experience.
On the other hand, I came across Bioshock when Infinite was released in 2013, and enjoyed it for its unique atmosphere of Rapture, a city underwater, its old-world 1950s style tone (much like Fallout) unique art-deco style. Furthermore, audio logs left by previous citizens detail the experience of living in such a place. The player listens to these as they explore the city and bounce between firefight and setpiece.
The city is controlled by Andrew Ryan, a businessman who created Rapture as a place for people to be free and not bound by the restrains of morality and censorship seen at the time. The city was filled with the brightest minds, and was well, until everything changed with the discovery of ADAM. This discovery led to the magic-like powerups of the games, Plasmids, being developed.
Not only are there side effects to using Plasmids, but ADAM has to be sourced from little girls. A notable individual against Ryan was Frank Fontaine, who ran a contraband smuggling ring in Rapture and created a company named Fontaine Futuristics to develop Plasmids and genetic enhancements. The side effect of the Plasmid creation is that they require little girls to mass produce ADAM. Fontaine set up a front, the Little Sister’s Orphanage, and took little girls from Rapture to be genetically altered and mentally conditioned to reclaim ADAM from bodies around Rapture. However, Fontaine was believed to die in a shootout with Ryan’s forces before the player arrived. This finally leads us to the player.
Fontaine’s abuse and experimentation on Rapture is compounded in the player character, whose plane made a crash-landing near Rapture. When the player enters Rapture, they are contacted by a man named Atlas, who guides the player through Rapture via audio communication. The initial goal he tasks you with is getting his wife and child back, who were kidnapped by Ryan, given their established rivalry.
However, when the player reaches them, Ryan kills them, and a distraught Atlas demands that the player kill Ryan. Only after killing Ryan is it revealed that the player is the was brainwashed by “Atlas”, who is really Frank Fontaine, to carry out any of his wishes given the phrase “Would You Kindly…”. Fontaine also fabricated memories of a family and life the player never had. Therefore, the player sets out on a mission to kill Fontaine and take revenge. The only choice the player has to make throughout the game is whether or not to save or harvest Little Sisters – which effects your ending through this finale.
These two titles present vastly different experiences in gaming. One is built on the concept of choice in a world which feels alive. There are plenty of people to meet in New Vegas, all with their own stories and problems. The player chooses the outcomes of these people, and ultimately, the entire wasteland.
In contrast, Bioshock is designed to oppose player choice. The player character is a mindless drone, believing their actions are their own, until they abruptly are not. The game inspires a metacommentary on games in 2007 and before. These games never actually gave player choice or urgency, and if they seemed to, it was a façade. Bioshock plays on that trope expertly.
The gradual acquisition of free will in Bioshock and the vast amount of choice in New Vegas how choice can impact a game for the better. Roleplaying games should aspire to be like these two, and they are great examples of video games as a medium with agency and great storytelling potential.