Posted by: bracehare | November 3, 2011

Fallout New Vegas: a brief analysis of structure

Having recently read an excerpt on game story structure taken from a Lee Sheldon textbook, I was intrigued.  Particularly, I was taken by this sentence:

“[The web story structure] still feels familiar to gamers and reviewers because they mistake it for branching.  This indicates that it’s working because they don’t recognize it.”

This lead me to wonder: the Fallout games have, for a while, been a noteworthy example of player choice and of morality systems in games.  In what way is this implemented, though?  The game seems like a sprawling world, but it also has a fairly clear and static beginning and ending.  To an extent, certain missions are only possible along a given path, but others are accessible at any time.  Therefore, the question is to what extent the game follows the structure of a web, and to what extent it follows a branching structure.  It seems clear to me that the game combines elements of both.  However, in having elements of both, the implication seems to be that the game has a web structure, as the essential difference between a branching structure and a web structure is simply that in the latter, there are points where a user can jump from one point in a branch to a point within another branch.  However, I still think it benefits us to examine in what sense and in what places the game has branching structures, and in what sense and in what places the game has a more web like structure.

Fallout: New Vegas has a story and gameplay structure which revolves, in a large sense, around multiple factions.  Furthermore, the story and gameplay of Fallout: New Vegas is mission based.  Certain missions can only be unlocked after the completion of others.  There are, in my estimation, two primary factions, one secondary faction, and a collection of tertiary factions.  The primary factions, the New California Republic and Caesar’s Legion, are at odds with each other.  With minor exceptions, this means that missions which are undertaken for the benefit of Caesar’s Legion and missions which are undertaken for the benefit of the NCR are at odds with each other, and therefore represent different branch paths.  The exceptions to this occur at the beginning of the game, where the player is really only exposed to the NCR (and therefore NCR missions are structured not to put you at odds with Caesar’s Legion, or at least not past a critical point which makes later allegiance with them possible), and at the midpoint of the game, where circumstances allow you a second chance to make a choice of which allegiance to take, and therefore which primary branch of the storyline to take.

The secondary faction, represented by a man named Mr. House and his robot army, is essentially an alternate “out” offered to the player which can be accessed from either primary branch.  The missions which one can do for Mr. House somewhat form their own branch, but this branch is very short owing to the fact it is an ending branch.  It becomes available to the player well after they have made an initial decision regarding which primary branch to follow, and at about the same time as the player is presented with their “mulligan” by the story.  Each of the primary and secondary factions is associated with their own ending; or rather, with defining the meat of the ending.  The endings in Fallout: New Vegas are essentially mix-and-match from among various elements.  However, the endings are essentially defined by allegiance with a primary or secondary faction, then qualified by actions taken in regards to tertiary factions, various towns, and important NPC characters.  A fourth major branch ending is possible if the player chooses not to ally themselves with any of the primary or secondary factions.  In this case, the tertiary factions take on a much greater significance.

There are many missions which concern none of the factions, and which concern the tertiary factions.  Since the tertiary factions are not really at odds with one another, nor are non-faction missions at odds with any particular branch (with very minor exceptions), this is where the bulk of the web structure comes into play.  It is interesting, in this context, that all of these missions can effect the ending.  To an extent, the game is even modular in regards to these non-critical missions, because many of them can be accessed at any time in the game.  Therefore, Fallout: New Vegas might be described as a formally being a web structure, but in the capacity of modules which are connected to a central skeleton in the form of a branching system.  But of course, this skeleton is not purely a branching system, as there are points where you can exit one branch in favor of another.  This is a very complex structure.  In my experience with the game so far, I have enjoyed it quite a bit.  It seems to allow for a “best of both worlds” approach in terms of the traditionally dichotomous relationship between player freedom and authorial narrative control.  While the major decisions of the game (represented by the endings) are still in some essential way limited to four branches, the player is allowed extreme freedom to craft a much larger number of qualifications to those branches over the course of the game, and is allowed this secondary sort of freedom for essentially the duration of the game.  There are 27 different non-trivial subsections of any given ending in New Vegas.  Between all the different possible qualifications to each subsection, there are a literal 180 different discrete qualifications.  As these belong to unique modules which can be combined in various ways, the actual number of possible endings is much, much larger.  Of course, since much of what determines the outcome of many of these modules concerns the decisions made in regards to primary or secondary factions, the actual number of different uniquely combinable discrete qualifications is more like 45.  The result is still a very large number of different endings, though, even if all endings fundamentally still belong to one of four primary branches.  It is a definite testament to the complexity of a game that I do not want to actually do all of the math necessary to determine the number of possible endings within it.

– Jessica Evans

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