Wasteland 3 Achieves What Bethesda Never Could
Inland Empire is David McNeill’s column about world building, CRPG’s, love, loss and many other kinds of literary vulnerability.
Few games successfully make you feel like you have an influence on the world (or indeed, like Batman, Greg). More often than not, blockbuster Role Playing Games focused on the myth of the individual--the lone wanderer, the gunslinger, come to dispense justice and shape the world in their image. This is a common narrative in the west. It works well for video games where you, the player, feel in control. You have the ability to affect the world with individual action in a way few (save the elite and wealthy) can do in real life. Power fantasy, escapism.
Wasteland 3 is the opposite of this. And it rocks.
Wasteland 3 is an unwieldy, huge yet small, personal yet political pastiche of original Fallout storytelling and progressive understanding of how capitalism and scarcity create systems of power. The game is this: you play as the Arizona Desert Rangers. You’re a band of law-enforcing mercenaries who have fled Arizona in search of resources for your starving people. You come to Colorado to fulfil a deal you’ve made with The Patriarch, the defacto leader of the people of Colorado. Your caravan is attacked before you can arrive. Most of the rangers are killed, save your player characters and two or three others.
The Patriarch has given you a simple task: go out and capture his three children, each one a warlord of a gang that threatens his control of Colorado. Now, if you, like me, wonder if a father can be such a poor parent that his children form murderous gangs to take over his lands, what kind of leader might he be? You’d be right.
You’re thrown into the world at this point. You’re free to do the Patriarch's bidding, double-cross him, triple-cross him, ignore him, side with cannibals, butcher insane clowns, whatever you want. You move around in isometric 3D. Combat is turned based with skills, attributes and perks: this is classic Fallout but you have a party of six. There’s also a rad car of death that you drive in the overworld. The game’s overworld is balanced well: close areas are easy, and far areas will party-wipe you if you aren’t levelled enough. But you can theoretically visit end game areas early on, it’s just very very tough.
The real magic sauce of the game comes in two parts: the way you involve yourself in world events (small or large) and the consequences of your actions.
Much like the first Fallout, Wasteland 3 dotes on how quickly superfluous interactions can embroil you in local politics. Fallout does this masterfully. You leave your vault in search of a waterchip. You only have a vague idea of where to find one, and along the path to this location, you come upon Junktown. Junktown is a fortified piece of capitalist paradise run by Killian Darkwater, a descent of the town’s grandfather, the sheriff and the owner of the general store (a little control-y for sure). When you stumble into Killian’s store, someone tries to shoot him. Holy shit! No matter what you do you’ve just been witness to a potentail fucking murder and you’ve been here for all of eight seconds. Before you know it you’re sneaking around the town’s casino to catch a mob-boss’ confession on tape or tricking Killian into giving away his control to the casino.
You don’t have to involve yourself in the town’s affairs. But when you get to your destination in search of the waterchip, you need a rope to climb down a great drop. Luckily, you know a general store who might sell you one.
Already the game is inside your head. No waypoint tells you to go back to Junktown to buy a rope, you just work it out. I’ll refer to this type of story hook as Natural Integration for now.
Wasteland 3 creates story hooks using similar Natural Integration of quests and stories. The second you arrive in Arizona you set up shop in a base. Any other game (Fallout 4, for example) would give you a location and say have at it. Wasteland 3, refusing to be dull, insists on making even the simplest concept of a base a great story opportunity. The base is controlled by semi-sentient robots, slaved to a mainframe: the robots are on attack-intruder-mode, so you’ll have to deal with that somehow. There are also squatters in the base already, refugees with nowhere to go. The jail also has a prisoner who has been eating mushrooms for years and is so perpetually high he can’t quite put together a cohesive story of why he’s locked up, so you’ll have to decide what to do with him. Oh, and also there’s a mysterious locked door in the basement that JJ Abrams would be jealous of.
All of these elements are introduced as natural parts of the location, but they all serve as meaty hooks for storytelling. You could ignore all of them and go on your way, but you won’t. Promise.
The second thing Wasteland 3 does exceptionally is consequences. This is a tough word in video games because consequences in games aren’t real. You don’t feel a character’s fatigue if they don’t sleep enough, nor a hangover or addiction (which a lot of RPG’s use as a mechanic for some reason). Consequences are hard to do well. Often RPG’s end up using ‘or’ statements to create consequences. You can help this person and do this quest or you’ll lose access to this other questline. Content is often locked off by siding one way or the other. Skyrim tries to disabuse itself of this problem by allowing you to become the leader of the all the game’s guilds, which feels like an overcorrection.
I think Wasteland 3 strikes the right balance because there are no good outcomes but you can always choose the best option. Stay with me.
Remember that locked door in the base? Well, a little into the story some mercenaries will roll into HQ. They’ll do you a deal: go capture their prisoner who escaped and they’ll give you the codes to open that JJ Abrams vault. Um, yes please, what’s the catch? Well, the prisoner is a slave. But those supplies in the vault could help you take down the people who enable slavery, these mercenaries are just cogs. The question becomes: is one life of servitude worth it for the greater good. Will you serve these thugs for the larger cause? To save your people? Wouldn’t you take every advantage in the fight to protect your people?
The game takes a simple locked door and makes it into a compelling, agonising choice with no good options. I made this decision right after I got a call on my radio that a homestead was being attacked by murderous thugs. My decision to save the slave cost me valuable guns and ammo in the vault I could have used to kill the thugs harassing the homestead. Instead, they slaughtered a homestead and I was powerless to stop it. I made a choice, but whether it’s wrong or not is for you to decide. The game doesn’t have a morality bar. It doesn’t presume to be the arbiter of good or bad. Characters will offer their perspective and opinions on your actions but no one is right, everyone is just following their own morals.
This extends outwards to all aspects of the game: shop vendors, faction leaders, even followers. Everyone in this game reacts to your decisions. I sided against the Patriarch at the end and it cost me my best sniper: she didn’t want any part of taking him down if it cost Arizona their vital supplies, so she walked away. This crippled my party which I’d built around her high DPS and target marking. My decisions forced me to slog through the final act of the game without my secret weapon, all because she morally disagreed with me.
That’s how good Wasteland 3 is at story. The delicate balance of contextual interactions and scripted moments blends into this euphoric game about making decisions with outcomes on a political scale, an interpersonal scale, both of which alter your access to resources and gameplay options. That all three feed into each other is the game’s ultimate success.
You need to capture one of the Patriarch's sons who has thrown in with a cult of oil farmers who worship a sentient AI of Ronald Regan. Regan is objectively going mad. If you support the cult, you’re enabling old-school American fascism but Colorado gets a steady supply of oil. If you piss them off, you’ll have to kill the AI (or any of three options in deciding what to do with his consciousness) and likely kill the cult, stemming the oil supply to the main town. So even something as theoretically objective as “kill the fascist cult” becomes a dilemma. If you do, you’re ceasing access to a vital resource. And the people of Colorado will be mad at you.
This is the ultimate rendering of capitalism. In order to service the most number of people, small evils must be accepted along the way. The difference in Wasteland 3 is that you are the one conducting the small evils, every step of the way.
The game makes you complicit in the outcomes of these decisions because you are truly the one making them. Anytime a choice feels safe, the game will beat you down for your optimism. Pick up a side quest from a widower to locate a slaver who abducted her family to find out if they’re alive? You find the slaver, and decide to exile them because they had no choice and are reformed. But you know the family is dead, so at least the widow has closure. Good to go, right? No, fuck you nerd, she followed you and if you don’t tell a very convincing lie she might just shoot you and the slaver (and his dog and very nice girlfriend). You might have to murder this grieving woman because you didn’t pick up the sub-textual clues she was out for blood.
I’ve offered a small fraction of examples here to illustrate my point. When gaining quests feels so organic and every outcome is a complicated push and pull of morality and consequences, Wasteland 3 perfectly simulates what it is like to be a political entity. Everything you do will always hurt someone. Doesn’t matter how hard you try. And that gets under your skin. It creeps into your skull. It itches at you as you play, the sense that you never quite have the full picture, the gut feeling there is always another shoe that will drop. A penny in the air at all times. True, genuine, earned tension.