As an autistic person, I regularly feel ignored by media. In video games the player is often interacting with beautiful, charismatic neurotypicals or sociopaths and there’s not a whole lot of room there for anything else. New Vegas didn’t fall into that trap, because whilst it did have its share of the usual suspects, it also had Lily and Raul.
Lily’s mind was being overcome by an invasive disease whose effects were ever increasing levels of aggression – something she had to deal with on a daily basis. She was a lovely person but she was prone to snapping and having a more fantastical equivalent of panic attacks in a very spectacular fashion. Her condition was barely controlled by medication, though sadly this was also impairing the memories of her life before the disease. She’s an old lady and the faces of her grandkids served as a poignant anchor for her identity.
In Lily’s case it was possible for her to find peace but only through the erasure of her identity. The question begs to be asked: Isn’t that death? If you are no longer the person you were, if you have no recollection of that person, then hasn’t that person effectively died? This made the quandary regarding her medication all the more overwrought, dramatic, and emotionally charged. Lily’s condition and the cure thereof asked a question of the player that no one should really ever need to answer. “What is the worth of identity? And is it worth more than happiness?”
Lily’s story had no ‘right’ answer. Much like the real world, there were boons and caveats when dealing with her condition and, whatever road was chosen, there would be consequences. I still struggle with my final decision to this day. I perused all of the outcomes of her story and decided the best thing to do was to have her remain on half of her medication; it would slow the damage to her memories, though she’d still be confronted with the problems her seizures always represented. I picked a holding pattern out of hope.
I’m not proud of that choice, really. It was simply the only choice I could make in good conscience. To my mind, it was simply the choice I would regret the least, which is the only way I could think about it. One could argue for years over what the ‘right’ choice is, because there really was none. I made my choice out of a desire that one day, medical advancements would allow her to retain her memories and be cured of her seizures.
This story was poignant to me as it pinged off of the struggles I’d endured as an autistic person. These days it feels like not a month goes by where someone isn’t trying to ‘cure’ autism in some horrific way that would literally strip the autistic person of their very identity.
Lily’s condition would’ve perhaps elicited a very different response in the minds of others. I can only imagine the more neurotypical, extraverted individuals playing New Vegas would’ve chosen to ‘cure’ her sickness.
Her identity would’ve been seen as an acceptable casualty.
I don’t agree. I can’t.
Without Raul and Lily, [New Vegas] might not have struck nearly the chord it did. As it stands, it’s a game I’ll always remember for being brave enough to show people there’s more than just a couple of different kinds of person out there, that humanity is incredibly diverse and that diversity doesn’t have be seen as a pejorative factor.
My favourite moment was shooting Darcy in the bollocks in Alpha Protocol.
To put the scene in context, I have a tendency with [Western RPGs] to always play the good guy. I select the appropriate, measured response in every conversation. I never kill NPCs or civilians. And I’m always lawful alignment. It’s not that I’ve never been tempted to play a villain or a clown, but I can never bring myself to stick with it. I get too invested in my characters, and too invested in being good.
Alpha Protocol went a long way to curing me of this tendency, or at least showed me the joys of role-playing an utter madman. For my version of secret agent Mike Thorton, Alpha Protocol’s very malleable protagonist, was quite possibly the most unstable individual to ever grace a video game.
It all started innocently enough. During the game’s initial training mission you find yourself competing against Agent Darcy, an alpha-male type with a chip on his shoulder and a grudge against your character. During his turn on the training course, you can either watch as he tries to beat your score, or you can obstruct him. I chose the latter course and shot him with a tranquiliser. This was funny enough in its way, but it was the reaction from another character, Thorton’s handler Mina, that made me instantly fall in love with the game. Not only did Mina respond to the fact that I had shot Darcy ([if I recall] she encourages you to do it), but she also picked up on the fact that I had very deliberately shot him in the bollocks, and reacted accordingly – leading to a hilarious conversation at the end of the scene and, later in the game, an angry email from Darcy referencing the incident.
Normally, after doing something like shooting a story character, I would have reloaded the game and replayed the scene ‘properly’, but the reaction from Mina was so funny and unexpected that it encouraged me to carry on with my playthrough in the same fashion. And so, for the rest of the game, rather than playing stealthily as I typically would have done, I would instead run headfirst into every encounter, and make a point of shooting everyone in the bollocks. My version of agent Thorton made himself an asshole in other ways, too, choosing the most snarky and childish responses when in conversation, such that by the close of the game, just about every NPC hated him/me, with the exception of Sie, an East German madwoman mercenary who would become my love interest after I alienated the straight-laced Mina.
One transgression followed another until, towards the end of the campaign, I found myself charging through a Roman mansion Rambo-style, blowing everything to bits while Sie hummed the Ride of the Valkyries on my comm and cooed approvingly every time I exploded an antique. Clearly something had changed.
So yes, lots of moments, but all stemming from that little transgression at the start of the game, which would steer Agent Thorton onto a path of chaos and change the way I play choice-driven WRPGs.
I decided to play Fallout: New Vegas with a high luck character. I don’t think I’ve ever been rewarded so much in sheer giddy joy – rather than combat prowess – for a character creation decision.
I decided to name her Lucky too, for maximum on-the-noseness. This provided great amusement when Doc Mitchell, after fixing up Lucky’s slightly wonky Gamebryo face said, “Huh. Not the name I would’ve picked for you.”
I dunno, buddy – I think surviving a shot to the head is pretty damn lucky. Clearly the good Doc is a glass half empty type.
Lucky was a cowgirl gunslinger, naturally, wandering from town to town in search of caps and seeking revenge for the man responsible for her bullet induced hangover. When she finally arrived at the Strip and cashed in on that revenge (how’s your head feeling, Benny?) she decided to reward herself with some R&R at the casinos.
I was delighted to discover that my high luck did, indeed, affect the gambling. Playing Blackjack saw me almost always hit the magic 21, turning over a face card just when I needed one. Lucky made her fortune that way until every single casino kicked her out. I’m pretty sure that’s why she left Reno before coming out to Vegas – pain of death for winning too much.
My absolute favourite memory of that character, though, was when she was asked for a password. I hadn’t spoken to anyone about it, hadn’t discovered it written in an email or stashed in someone’s pocket. I didn’t know what it was – and Lucky certainly didn’t know.
But I was given a Luck dialogue option. Lucky casually guesses “Ice cream”.
The guess was correct. It was beautiful.
To this day I still like to bring that up as a point of amazing use of skills and stats in an RPG.
The best Obsidian moment for me takes place in Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer, in the depths of the abyss between planes, gazing up at the titanic, malevolent skull of Myrkul, dead god of death.
The encounter with Myrkul is just a conversation, one that takes about 20 minutes or so if you thoroughly explore its branches. There is token combat depending on how things go, but you’re here to talk. By this point, the campaign has taken somewhere in the ballpark of 70 or 80 hours (assuming you began in the base NWN2 campaign) and it is only at this point that you understand the curse you are labouring under. In one long, slow chat, Myrkul explains everything: the origin and purpose of his nightmarish curse and the byzantine layers of schemes that have brought you to his bones. Everything falls into place, and you have no mysteries left to solve, just the chilling realisation that you have been inexorably drawn to this moment.
This is the moment the narrative hinges on, and you realise that the dozens of hours of adventuring that you’ve undertaken converge upon this moment, a kind of narrative black hole that draws in everything that came before and transforms your understanding. This is the essence of Obsidian’s design, and you can find similar moments in many of their other games. But Myrkul is still the best, a grand manipulator who has, without you even realising it, warped the nature of your story. Even truly killing him does not end his curse, and there are grave challenges ahead even in that moment of revelation. It is moments like these that make Obsidian’s games something special, and I look forward to more of them in the future.
There is a moment near the beginning of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2 where you are walking through some streets and come across a refugee who needs help. He asks for Credits and you have to decide as to whether you should give some or not. I did – I was probably aiming to build a Light side character.
After he ran off I was treated to a cutscene with Kreia – a member of your party who had been questioning my motives and actions – narrating what would later transpire. In my case, I saw a scene where the refugee I helped was attacked and robbed. This selfless act I had committed, or so I thought, caused more misery than the situation the refugee had been in before I intervened. Benevolence doesn’t necessarily deliver positivity or good fortune – this was the lesson the game was trying to teach me.
The moment in the streets had opened my mind to the possibility of unintended or unthinkable consequences. This left a profound impact on how I viewed subsequent scenarios, forcing me to think about what might happen as opposed to what I expected to happen. In many ways, this made storytelling in KOTOR 2 richer and more immersive as I now needed to think about my decisions rather than going for the quick, easy, points-scoring for the Light or Dark path.
Furthermore, this scene also resonated with understanding how the real world operates. I don’t wish to bring cynical rhetoric as to the merits of charity, but I think Obsidian Entertainment was trying to highlight the inherent complexities of such actions. That is why, ultimately, the game succeeds. It doesn’t want you to feel good or bad for the consequences of the decisions you make; heroes are defined by how they justify their decisions.
If your reasoning stemmed from positive and optimistic inclinations and yet the outcome was negative or disastrous, the player can feel confident because they know why they chose to do what they did. This is the fuzziness or greyness of decision-making. Intent is the heart of the matter, not the outcome, and that in itself makes for a far more fascinating journey and tale – one Obsidian Entertainment delivered through one minor encounter in an alleyway filled with refugees.
I’m an old fart so I’ve loved Obsidian since back in the Black Isle Studios days when Planescape: Torment was so good it made me flunk out of college (there may have been other factors – who can remember?). Choosing a single in-game moment might not be impossible but it would definitely drive me insane. On the other hand…
It’s a few years ago. I’m going somewhere, and I’m going to be gone for a few hours. My wife isn’t a gamer, except for Her Interactive’s Nancy Drew games, but it’s such a big part of my life that even many years into our relationship I’m still intermittently trying to get her on board.
A friend has mentioned to me that his wife actively dislikes video games but she’s played The Stick of Truth all the way through twice, back to back. My wife, having heard this story and been sold on the idea of turn-based combat as a means of not being overwhelmed, is creating a character as I leave. She’s disappointed that she can’t play as a girl but she’s going to style her PC as a girl and pretend.
Six hours later, I arrive home. The house is dark, with the exception of flickering lights in one of the windows. When I go inside, my wife doesn’t appear to have moved. She’s been pulled onto the spaceship, and she’s getting smacked down by the aliens over and over again, and she’s so frustrated that she’s muttering some of the fouler language I’ve ever heard her produce. I offer to help and I just get murdered, and I can’t figure out what’s going on.
Finally, I look at her character sheet, and she’s, like, level two. Upon discussion, it becomes clear that she, having never played an RPG, has been avoiding combat.
“Honey!” I say. “RPGs – with the exception of Planescape: Torment, the greatest game of all time, which you and I will someday play through together, even though you think fantasy, as a genre, is ‘kind of stupid’ – are all about committing acts of violence to make yourself stronger!”
She started a new game right then and there, and she played through to bedtime. She has her own Steam account now.
One of my favourite gaming memories is of playing through Alpha Protocol for the first time with my partner. We had tremendous fun with the dialogue system and the often-absurd responses we were able to elicit from the game’s characters.
Our protagonist had something of a split personality to say the least, as we could never quite decide how to play him in his role as secret agent. Eventually we developed a system whereby my partner would suggest the names of different spies or spy actors, and I’d try to approach any given scene or conversation as if I were them.
“Do a Matt Damon!” she’d say while I was talking to an NPC, and I would have to choose the most dull and earnest response. Or, “Pretend you’re Bond,” and I’d try to play it cool and suave.
My favourite moment came when she barked out “Tom Cruise!” in one of the game’s penultimate scenes, and I, not quite knowing how she wanted me to portray Cruise, decided to play the role of a swivel-eyed loon, choosing the battiest and most contradictory dialogue choices, veering between happy positivity and angry outbursts. We decided afterwards that we had done a pretty good job of capturing something of the awkwardness of Tom Cruise’s infamous Lauer interview.
The wonderful thing about Alpha Protocol is that you can play every scene in any of the above ways and the characters in the game will always respond appropriately. Not only that, but unlike most WRPGs – where the ‘good’ dialogue choices tend to generate the dullest responses – it manages to be consistently hilarious whether you play it as an out-and-out good guy or as a raging nutter.
The moment I remember best, which I tell others about, was in Fallout: New Vegas. It was the moment that convinced me it was something special, beyond more Fallout 3.
I made my way into Caesar’s camp with ridiculous sneaking capabilities and an inventory of remote C4. I wanted to rescue Benny, just because. I don’t know how long I spent but eventually I sneaked a pack of those explosives into every soldier’s pants. I assumed, after years of playing Oblivion and Fallout 3, Caesar would be ‘essential’ and unable to die, but I put one in his pants too, just to knock him down.
I hid in a corner of Caesar’s tent and detonated all the C4. The soldiers’ body parts flew all over, and, to my surprise, so did Caesar’s. So did Benny’s – but I didn’t care all that much any more. I looted all the unique items I could find and walked out of the camp, unmolested.
That moment, when Caesar died to a dumb idea, showed me just how carefully constructed the narrative was, to allow me to attack and/or kill anyone without concern for breaking the game or story. That’s the way story in an open world should be done.
When Kreia saves the Exile from the Jedi Council’s sentencing [in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2]. In particular this one line: “She has brought truth and you condemn it? The arrogance!”
This line perfectly sums up the flaws in the Jedi Order of that time period and throughout the Star Wars saga: their flawed moral superiority, their inability to see perspectives outside their own, and their unwillingness to compromise with those they believe to be ‘fallen’.
It gives me chills every time I hear that line and it has changed my perspective on the Star Wars universe as a whole.
In Stick of Truth there’s a point where Jimmy is talking and starts to stutter. You’re ‘supposed’ to be able to skip the stuttering but it doesn’t work and you have to sit there listening to the poor chap struggle on for what feels like an eternity, wondering whether the game is bugged and if you’ll be stuck and there’s no way past. Eventually he manages to finish and the game carries on.
To me this was the best joke of all – incredibly South Park but something only possible in the medium of video games and (in my mind at least) it also worked as a nod to the perceived bugginess of some previous Obsidian releases. Comedy genius.
My favorite memory is the uncomfortable conclusion to Rose of Sharon Cassidy’s quest line in Fallout: New Vegas. I’d learnt that the game eschewed the notion of black and white morality but I still felt sure that confronting Alice McLafferty, the owner of the Crimson Caravan company, was the right thing to do. And there was no doubting her culpability: McLafferty had given the order to take down Rose’s caravans, slaughtering her employees, ruining her livelihood and leaving her to seek solace at the bottom of a bottle.
Confident I was ‘in the right’, Rose and I walked into McLafferty’s office to confront her. As we presented her with incontrovertible evidence of her crimes, things went about as well as you might expect. The grizzled caravan boss drew on us and bullets started to fly, a situation that only escalated when, stepping over her corpse, we headed outside to find ourselves pinned down by heavy gunfire. We returned fire and more bodies hit the dirt, blood seeping into the irradiated Nevada sand.
As we left Crimson Caravan, I tried not to look at the numerous corpses that littered the compound. It was impossible to believe that they’d all been party to their boss’s actions. And yet, they were dead all the same. Had there been another way? As heinous as McLafferty’s crimes had been, it didn’t feel like we were the ‘good guys’. I pushed the thought to the back of my mind and journeyed onwards.
It wasn’t until the battle for Hoover Dam was won, and the dust settled, the ramifications of my actions really came to light. As one of the game’s ending slides grimly informed me, as the Crimson Caravan company was no more the wasteland’s critical supply lines had been severed. This left many settlements with no way of obtaining the essentials they needed to survive in the inhospitable wasteland. And so, thanks to my misguided belief that vengeance was the best course of action, hundreds of people met an agonising end.
There was, it turns out, another way of handling the quest but I was nevertheless left shaken. It made perfect sense that taking out the Crimson Caravan would leave people isolated – it just hadn’t occurred to me.
There have been other games that adopted a similarly ‘grey’ approach to the concept of right and wrong, but I’ll always remember Fallout: New Vegas for being the first game to remind me the player isn’t always right.
I’ve had a lot of genuinely memorable moments with Alpha Protocol, ranging from utter brilliance – everything about its conversations – to irritating ridiculousness, laughable crouch-running animation included.
But The One has very little to do with the game itself and more to do with me personally, as it usually goes. There’s a little Easter egg on a boat level. The boat is named Victory when translated from Russian (ПОБЕДА) but has a couple of letters missing, transforming the word into Misfortune (БЕДА).
It’s a throwback to a series of Soviet books and cartoons about an adventurous yacht captain and his crew – a small, funny detail, and nothing more. And yet for me it became associated with the idea of the video game industry being a truly universal media, where a few people in California could produce something with an inconsequential detail that could only be read and recognised by someone familiar with the Russian language – or at least the Cyrillic alphabet in general – and a relatively obscure animation based on a pre-World War 2 children’s novel. Like some 18 year old kid from the Ukraine.