Broken Steel: Fixing the Frontier
I've been thinking a lot lately about the Western as it exists in videogames. Having games like Red Dead Redemption and a new Call of Juarez on the horizon does that. But more to the point, I've been thinking about how gaming has never had that defining Western. (Yeah, yeah, Oregon Trail is good, but it's not quite the medium's "Unforgiven," is it?) Most Western games feel like reskinned action games from other genres; they're B-movie efforts at best. Which is well and good, but I'd like something more.
To my mind, Fallout 3 is the best Western our medium currently has to offer. That was the case before Bethesda released the Broken Steel expansion. In the wake of this DLC, I find that the Wasteland has become my greatest hope for the genre's future in gaming.
A brief data set: Broken Steel offers several new features. Characters can now advance from level 20 to level 30, gathering new perks along the way. In reality the difference between the old limit and the new is slighter than most would like to admit. You won't find worlds of difference between levels 20 and 30. Essentially, more skills will be maxed out, so your character might become more broadly specialized than before (threatening to break, I'd say, one of the principal role-playing charms of the game as shipped, but that's for another article).
There are new toys, notably the Tesla Cannon, which will take out many targets with one well-placed shot. Along with that are a few scenes of Michael Bay-worthy destruction and the surprisingly touching fate of one peripheral but massive character. But the new elements all pale next to the most important factor brought to the foreground by the expansion. That the factor is so common makes it all the more interesting.
With Broken Steel installed, the new real star of Fallout 3 is water.
Here I was, recently doubting the viability of the Western as a game form, and then came Broken Steel, subtly pushing forward water as a dynamic and important part of the Wasteland. There's an action story to distract you from that fact, but look beyond the nominal drive of this new chapter -- an encounter with the Enclave -- and you'll see that the landscape around D.C. is now a more detailed, lifelike frontier. I wonder if Bethesda views this evolution in the same way.
Originally, the primary story of a Lone Wanderer from Vault 101 had a hard endpoint. You had to find and activate a water filtration system, and radiation ended the story. No matter how you approached the story's final beats, done was done. Water was a MacGuffin of sorts; you pursued a dream of clean water for the Wasteland, and the story ended as the dream came to fruition.
The new content removes that hard ending. In the process, it doesn't push water to the foreground. It sets the Lone Wanderer off on the trail of the Enclave, the group that tried to take control of the water purification system.
Yet in the background, water is flowing into the Wasteland. The visual effect on the landscape is not tremendous. But the effect it has on the Washington, D.C. ruins, as a storytelling environment, is immense. Everywhere you go there will be evidence that things are changing. Water brings life, but in the Wasteland it also brings trouble.
Westerns are about human nature, not six-shooters and hats. The ugly side of human nature drives three side quests introduced in Broken Steel. With a new, easily stolen resource come new con artists and bandits. Raids on water caravans deprive towns of much-needed clean water. A ghoul irradiates clean water and sells it to other radiation-mutated citizens as a cure-all. An old woman near Megaton (assuming it still exists in your version of the Wasteland) builds a mad religion that carries the light of "Atom's Gift" through so-called Holy Water.
Those three mini-stories are all as close to core Western setups as you'll find. They add a new sort of strife to the environment. There's a specific product we can all identify with, and the possession of it, or lack thereof, now defines people. If I had to ask for something more than a simple action Western to really make the genre come alive in gaming, I'd want scenarios with conflict between politics and industry and character. That begins right here.
In addition to the quests you'll find nearly a dozen incidental encounters, all of which serve to underscore the ways in which water may or may not be the source of humanity's salvation.
The Brotherhood of Steel, which controls the purification system, can't figure out how to distribute its new resource. It finds that manpower, already stretched to the breaking point by the endgame of the campaign against the Enclave, is not up to the task of bringing water to the people. Mercs fight over caravans transporting the so-called "Aqua Pura." Entrepreneurs find ways to scan folks out of free-flowing, crystalline health. Bandits use the promise of free water to ambush unwary Wastelanders. Behind the action there are beleaguered bureaucrats like Scribe Bigsley, the Brotherhood of Steel cleric who has the sad job of making sure clean water flows everywhere.
So elements of the three larger side quests are echoed across the Wasteland. Everywhere you go there is a new layer of concern and strife. Water caravans, or their remains, are everywhere. Fallout begins to feel even less like a specifically post-apocalyptic landscape and more like a spaghetti Western. It's a place where everything is accentuated: fear, desire, desperation and change. It's an unexpectedly beautiful place to be.