There’s an art to crafting the perfect videogame opening, and as games get more complex, perfecting that art only gets trickier. Obviously, introductions aren’t important for all games. Nobody’s begging each new Tetris developer to frontload the latest title with an emotional, exposition-filled preamble or anything of that sort. With Tetris, players want to clear lines and they only want to clear lines; anything standing in their way is bound to go down like a staple-filled sponge cake. For a complex RPG like Fallout: New Vegas, however, set in a world of conflicting factions, political turmoil and moral ambiguity, a meaningful opening with a pitch perfect tone is nigh on essential. The question is, does it deliver that? Oh boy, does it ever; it delivers with a radioactive cherry on top. So, as we approach the 10th anniversary of Fallout: New Vegas’ release, let’s explore exactly what makes the game's opening hour such a masterpiece.
One thing is clear from the opening seconds of the game’s introductory cutscene: war may never change but Las Vegas has. As we pull out from the inside of a lifeless casino, we see a rabble of drunken soldiers milling about the famous Vegas strip, followed by a squad of imposing, broad-shouldered robots and a couple of gamblers in shabby suits; not a usual Friday night on the strip, at least in our world.
As the cutscene continues, we pull out further into the outskirts of Vegas and beyond. We follow a masked soldier's expertly aimed bullet as it travels through a spike-clad bandit's skull. We watch some peculiar (but still threatening) Roman soldier types as they orbit the strip, moving with military coordination. Something bad is brewing with these guys, that’s for sure. Finally, we lay eyes upon a suited man standing over a figure lying dead on the ground, bag on their head and hands tied up. This, as we soon discover, is us—The Courier—and despite our… disadvantaged position, our story is just beginning.
In the second half of the cutscene, we learn (by way of irresistibly smooth Ron Perlman narration) about the world and conflict surrounding New Vegas, discovering our character’s profession as a courier and hearing about some mysterious dealings regarding something called a Platinum Chip in the process. We even begin to understand vague details of the warring factions tearing Vegas apart over ownership of the Hoover Dam. None of that makes much of an impact at this point, though. That all comes later. For now, we're just out to enact revenge on that smooth talking, checkered suit-wearing mystery man who shot us in our poor, innocent head.
Just Who Are You, Anyway?
We awaken—and assume control as a player—to the soothing sound of a weathered, aged voice and the accompanying mustachioed face that matches it. We’ve been shot in the head, but this kindly old man, Doc Mitchell, has put us right (or at least tried to). He’s wearing a simple farmhand’s outfit, not the battle-ready getups seen marching through the opening cutscene. This is an assuring sign for both player and character alike: war is barreling closer by the day, but it’s not here, not yet. We’ve been shot, buried, dug up and patched up; we’re likely brain-damaged (a perfect blank slate for RPG character building, considering the real-world examples of head wounds drastically altering personality traits) and the Doc wants to run a few tests to ensure that we’re operating at something close to full capacity.
Before we subject ourselves to Doc's continued medical tinkering, however, we're naturally drawn to the supplies scattered around his shelves and cabinets. That is, drawn to placing them not-so subtly into our near-bottomless pockets. That's because Doc Mitchell’s house is one of the few locations free from the constraints of the game’s karma system, at least as far as looting is concerned. Essentially, this means that anything that’s not nailed to the ground can be taken (and kept) without so much as a slap on the wrist. Why? Well there are several motivations informing this design choice. One, if Doc Mitchell becomes angry (as victims of theft often are), he can't be interacted with and character creation cannot continue; not exactly ideal for a first-time player, or any player for that matter. Two, it's Obsidian's way of giving us a helping hand with a few free Stimpacks, Sunset Sarsaparillas and other such sundries before we set out on our treacherous quest. How kind. Finally, it provides an introduction to the various environmental interaction mechanics that we’ll use throughout the rest of the game: how to open containers, where to find useful loot and how to interact with skill-check relevant objects (in this case it's the chemistry set and broken gun that require the 'Science' and 'Repair' skills respectively).
So we’ve filled our boots of loot, learnt how to navigate interiors and we’re ready to create our characters… the New Vegas way.
What follows is a character building process that’s perfectly integrated into the context of the game world and yet still mercifully brief, ideal for the repeated playthroughs encouraged by the game’s branching story. The famous S.P.E.C.I.A.L system? It’s masterfully implemented as a thematically relevant “vit-o-matic Vigor Tester” machine, an in-universe equivalent of the vintage Personality Tester contraptions ubiquitous in the early 20th century. And our three “tag” skills? Decided via a fake—and sometimes rather funny—personality assessment (complete with in-universe Rorschach test). Finally, with health checks complete and character created, we're led to Doc's front door and straight back into the world that saw us tied up, shot up and left for dead. Ready?
One Small Step for Courier
We step out into the world, and as our eyes adjust to the light we see… a small Wild West township? Is this Fallout, or have we been duped into buying some strange Call of Juarez offshoot? As the details come into focus, however, we realise that this isn't the same great American frontier taught by history books: gaudy LED signs adorn shop fronts, mutated animals graze on dry, radioactive grass and a single robot—a version of the ones seen in the opening cinematic—passes across our field of vision. This isn’t the Wild West, but it’s not quite the post-apocalypse either. We’re in a hybrid of the two: a strange post-post-apocalypse that’s rough and ready, but not lawless. What is this town exactly? Goodsprings, a post-nuclear take on the classic Western nowhere-town complete with a rootin' tootin' saloon, a general store and nothing in the way of entertainment except alcohol and whatever you can find to shoot with a .22 rifle.
A few seconds in the fresh air and it’s already time for our first real choice as a player. Do we stick around and meet the townsfolk, or do we make a beeline for Primm, the first stop on our quest for revenge? (And answers too, but mostly for revenge.) In other words, do we want a tutorial? As established, we’re fresh off the operating table from a bullet to the skull; it would be wise to stay in small-town America for a spell before setting off for the big leagues. It’s our choice, though, and Obsidian has designed the situation so that either one makes sense in terms of our character’s motivations. If we were particularly determined (or we were a particularly experienced player), we’d storm straight out of town with fire in our heart and vengeance on our mind (or vice versa). That’s not who we are, and as per Doc Mitchell’s instructions, we mosey on over to the Prospector Saloon to introduce ourselves.
You’ve Got a Friend in Me
We step into the saloon following a brief chat with the elderly prospector (read: scrap salvager) sitting idly outside. Greeting us at the door is Sunny Smiles, another friendly face eager to get us back on our feet. She takes us on a survival crash course composed of gecko hunting (combat tutorial), foraging (exploration tutorial) and cooking (crafting tutorial). After licking our gecko-inflicted wounds (those buggers are huge), we return to the saloon a little more prepared for the dangers of the Mojave. These recent sequences may not bring much in the way of thrills but they do make one thing clear: the outside world is dangerous, but if you look hard enough, there'll always be a goodhearted 'Sunny Smiles' or 'Doc Mitchell' around to lend their brains, brawn or just a few extra bottle caps. That’s an important lesson, one that’ll serve you well on the long road ahead.
Trouble in Paradise
Before parting ways, Sunny requests that we make ourselves known to Trudy, the bartender and “town mom”. As any good courier does, we follow our instructions without question, sauntering up to the bar and spotting Trudy, our next Goodsprings friend-to-be. She’s not alone, however, but rather in the midst of a harsh back-and-forth with a nasty looking man shooting off some even nastier threats. Joe Cobb is his name, and while his prison officer’s getup and thuggish demeanour make an imposing first impression, we’re not scared of him, not after those geckos.
After he leaves, we speak to Trudy and discover that Cobb is part of a violent gang named the Powder Gangers. A fellow called Ringo recently survived one of their brutal attacks; they’re looking to track him down and finish him off along with anyone who tries to stop them. And just who’s trying to stop them? Well, the people of Goodsprings for one: they’re sheltering him in an abandoned gas station just outside of town, and if they don’t hand him over soon, bullets are going to fly.
So we’ve got a quaint Wild West settlement and a gang of dangerous outlaws eagerly waiting to attack. It’s a climax fitting of any classic piece of Western fiction; if only there were a mysterious, honourable stranger willing to face these outlaws in a dramatic lead-filled showdown. Oh wait, there is: it’s us! Of course, we could always choose to rebel against the tired trope, defying our ‘Man With No Name-esque’ destiny by siding with the Powder Gangers and handing Ringo over. It’s our choice: Goodsprings or Powder Gangers? Whoever we side against will forever see us as their sworn enemy. This is the final lesson of New Vegas’ opening hour: there is no good, no bad, no shining halo or devil horns that’ll mark us as a hero or villain. In the cutthroat world of apocalyptic Las Vegas, there are only friends and enemies, and usually, you can’t make one without making the other.
The End of the Beginning
Obviously, we choose to side with Goodsprings. (Did you expect anything different?) Gathering the townsfolk to fight the Powder Gangers is no easy task, however; our low-levelled character proves unable to convince everybody to take up arms, but Sunny Smiles is ready for the fight and so are a number of nameless residents. Like I said, there’s always help at hand if you look hard enough.
It’s not an easy fight, but when the dust has settled, it’s the Powder Gangers lying dead on the dirt and the Goodspringers—along with Ringo—standing tall (okay, it was an easy fight, but sometimes the truth just isn’t dramatically satisfying). We look over Goodsprings, at its people and its various sights, and we finally feel ready to move on, to begin our quest in earnest. We stock up on Sarsaparilla, say our goodbyes and set out to see what New Vegas has in store.
When you’re beginning a long and arduous journey of revenge (or beginning a long and complex RPG), it’s incredibly important to have a ‘home’, somewhere that feels protected from the threats of the outside world. In Fallout: New Vegas, Goodsprings is that home. It showed us kindness in our time of need, and we repaid that kindness in its darkest hour. There’s no telling what the next 20, 40 or 100 hours of playtime will bring us, but no matter what happens, this opening hour ensures that we’ll always have a warm bed and a friendly chat waiting for us at Goodsprings.
Images by Jspoelstra and 69.I25 on from the Fallout Wiki.