It’s been more than 9 years since Fallout: New Vegas came out, and there has been plenty of discussion on the game itself. But if there’s anything that gamers do best, it’s adding self-imposed meta-games to our favorite games. From Nuzlocke challenges to speedruns, these meta-games tell us a lot about the design of the game by adding new rules or going about objectives in unconventional ways. Here’s what I learned about RPG design by playing a pacifist run of Fallout: New Vegas.
As with any meta-game, the first thing I had to do is define the rules. “Play as a pacifist” sounds pretty simple, but a lot of questions come with it. If Veronica punches a bark scorpion, does that count? What if I call in an NCR Trooper by radio when the Legion ambushes me? To keep in the spirit of pacifism, I decided I would not kill anything, I would not let companions kill anything, and I would not order anyone or anything to kill for me.
It is impossible to complete a pacifist run using these rules in any of the other Fallout games. The narrative of Fallout: New Vegas is unique in that it lets you resolve most of the main quest options without bloodshed and even lets you talk down the end boss Legate Lanius if you have a maxed out speech skill. It is worth noting that not all endings can be completed non-violently. Both the Legion path and the House path require, at minimum, that the Brotherhood of Steel be destroyed, but the NCR and Independent endings can be completed peacefully. I did the NCR path, since Independent is a little too easy to complete peacefully (since you can choose to just ignore all the minor factions if you want).
Partly, this has to do with the writing of the game. In game writing, narrative defines player choice in many ways. Every choice that the player can make, including peaceful choices, has to be written in by quest designers. Fallout: New Vegas in particular owes a lot to the influence of lead writer Chris Avellone. Avellone, who is credited at the end of the game (if you have a certain perk) with the quote “Can I make a speech check here? Because I really want to make a speech check.”
This impulse to ask whether it would be possible to add a speech-based solution to any given quest shapes the design ethos of the game. The narrative has plenty of options at each stage, and while not all of them are peaceful, there are plenty of options to make speech checks, hack terminals, or otherwise solve problems without fighting.
However, narrative is only one half of the equation. While it is possible to complete Fallout: New Vegas as a pacifist due to the gameplay variety written into the narrative, the game’s engine does not make this easy. The most obvious issue is the fact that the easiest way to deal with combat encounters peacefully is to run away. The problem with this is that the game doesn’t like to end the “combat” state unless you kill all of your enemies. This means that sometimes when you enter any random room, the game will act like you are in combat and NPCs that you need to talk to will flee from you. This actually ended up breaking the Come Fly With Me quest by causing a necessary NPC to run outdoors, which caused a bug that made him relocate to Novac, rendering the quest incompletable.
Partially, this isn’t Obsidian Entertainment’s fault, since they use the same engine Bethesda used for Fallout 3, which is not designed to be able to be completed as a pacifist. Still, it highlights the fact that a game’s infrastructure is just as important to player choice as a game’s narrative, and often the two interact in interesting ways.
A good example of this interaction is the quest Beyond The Beef. The quest takes place in a hotel and has a couple moments where hostile members of the White Glove Society ambush you as you try to solve a mystery. Now, you don’t have to kill these enemies for the quest to proceed, but the game obviously expects you to, and has no method for despawning the enemies or turning them non-hostile if you manage to escape and leave combat. Instead, they wander aimlessly through different areas of the hotel, and will attack you on sight. The problem with this is that both ambushes initially happen in isolated areas of the hotel (a sauna and one of the rooms) which means that no one else sees them. If the White Glove Society members attack you out on the main casino floor, the entire hotel staff will turn hostile, which will also cause the NPC you have to talk to in order to finish the quest to permanently flee, breaking the quest entirely.
Compare Fallout: New Vegas to Obsidian Entertainment’s most recent roleplaying game, The Outer Worlds. The Outer Worlds doesn’t use a repurposed game engine like Fallout: New Vegas, so the developers were more closely able to meld gameplay and narrative. The developers explicitly made it clear that a pacifist playthrough is possible, and the game’s mechanics make it easier than Fallout: New Vegas. Disengaging from combat goes more smoothly, and the stealth system is vastly improved for peaceful sneaking, with more forgiving detection, along with enemy alertness meters for each NPC, rather than a general one.
Playing Fallout: New Vegas as a pacifist illuminates an important lesson in game design. Player choice might be defined by narrative, but it is shaped by the game’s infrastructure and mechanics. Even if a game’s plot allows certain decisions, the game has to be designed to support these decisions to truly embody choice-based gaming.