This year, I'm trying to do something different with game of the year awards. You can find a full explanation in part one, but the gist is this: I'm eschewing a list – because, let's face it, you've already skimmed 10,000 top-10s – in favor of writing about how these games affected their players and the specific moment that made me realize how great each game really was. Needless to say, SPOILER WARNING. Now then, on with today's pick: Fallout: New Vegas.
I've seen some stuff, man. I've seen some stuff. Fallout: New Vegas is about as variety packed as videogame worlds come, fully capable of evoking every major emotion in the book: happiness, sadness, anger, “OH SH** DEATHCLAW” – you name it. Most impressive, though, is the game's masterful ability to manipulate players' curiosity like a big red button with the words “Do Not Press” printed on it.
It's like you're some kind of post-apocalyptic private eye. Why is this office full of bloodthirsty robots? What's a lush green forest doing in this underground vault? Uh, how is Elvis still alive? Each of the game's many, many, many areas hooks you with questions before carefully reeling you in with a slow stream of incomplete answers. You have to put all the pieces together and get the full picture, though. It's this compulsive, almost overwhelming urge. If curiosity killed the cat, then Fallout – perhaps fittingly – is a WMD.
But there are “typical” (read: not typical at all) New Vegas adventures, and then there's the time the game truly, profoundly, “so much for sleeping tonight” disturbed me.
Vault 11 seemed innocent enough at first. I spun open its massive steel door expecting the worst, but out stepped a pair of brittle, apparently suicidal mantises. Their basic survival instincts abandoned them the second they took a look at my massive suit of power armor and thought “No man, no. I can totally take this guy.” So I ventured deeper. More mantises. A cakewalk, you say? Don't mind if I do.
And then I started taking notice of my surroundings. Propaganda posters were plastered all over the claustrophobic steel walls. I figured it was just a routine election for Vault Overseer and returned to my almost comical war against a stupidly determined community of mantises. But then I found a terminal.
Now, it's important to note that Vault 11 was more or less a ghost town. It was a bit strange, sure, but friendly faces are a rarity in Vaults, so I didn't think much of it. One thing did strike me as odd, though: no bodies. If the Vault's rightful owners had bitten the big one because mantises decided to chomp on their faces, you'd figure that there would at least be a few bones lying around. The terminal, however, cast everything in a new light.
Elections had been taking place all right, but something was very off about them. Candidates didn't want to be elected. In fact, their back-and-forth messages made it sound like they'd have rather taken a bullet than a term in office. So I dug deeper. More terminals. Apparently, one woman went so far as to perform sexual favors for a bunch of monstrously manipulative men after they threatened to nominate her husband for Overseer. “Messed up” doesn't even begin to describe it. But it got worse. Much, much worse.
Turns out, each Overseer was to be sacrificed to something within the Vault at the end of their respective terms. Otherwise, the Vault would wipe out its entire population. It didn't forgive what people did to each other to avoid their grisly fates, but at least it made sense. So then, one question remained: why did these people have to die? My answer lied underneath the Overseer's chamber.
A long hallway. A voice telling me to walk toward “the light.” I was a bit shaken, sure, but still alive and kicking. After a bright light nearly blinded me, I found myself in a wide open room with a chair at its center and a projection screen on the wall. I sat in the chair. As soon my armor-plated backside touched the seat, the projector whirred to life. What I saw next was... chilling. The projection told me to accept death while essentially reminding me of all the major life experiences I'd be missing out on. Dying, its disarmingly calm voice said, was my purpose, and other people were meant to live – to do what I could not.
And then the walls folded away, and a small army of kill-bots and sentry turrents opened fire with all the enthusiasm of machines programmed specifically to murder that only got to release their pent up urges every four years. Suddenly, my mantis buddies from earlier didn't seem so bad.
Looking a lot more like Swiss cheese, I barely emerged as the victor. A new door had unlocked, I noticed, so I dragged my beaten sack of broken bones up to a large computer terminal. To my surprise, it congratulated me.
The whole thing, as it turns out, was a test. The Vault's threats of wiping out the entire population unless a sacrifice was offered were idle bluffs. People were supposed to refuse, because – seriously – who'd be able to live with themselves after trading another human life to save their own?
According to the computer, a grand total of five people remained when they finally refused to turn on each other. Yeah. Too little, too late is a gross understatement.
Looking back, of course, I see it as an example of modern-day Fallout's storytelling style perfected. An utterly engrossing trail of environmental clues, a narrative that doesn't unfold unless the player takes an active role in discovering it, and a horrifying (though undeniably provocative) examination of what humans are capable of when their backs are against the wall -- Vault 11 had it all.
Even so, what I remember best was lying in bed afterward – in pitch black darkness with only a lightly howling wind outside to keep me company – wondering what I'd do if I was forced into a similar situation. It's easy to play the hero in videogames. Rare, however, is the videogame that forces you to realize you probably couldn't do the same in real life.