Gaming on a Timer

Thoughts – Narrative and DLC, Honest Hearts

This article discusses the narrative delivery of the Fallout: New Vegas DLC, Honest Hearts. As such, certain spoilers cannot be avoided – read at your own risk.

In the past few years, the gaming industry has developed a new model of business, based on offering additional content for their released products for a (usually) nominal fee – downloadable content, or DLC. These often fall in one or more of the following categories:

* Level additions, such as map packs or game world extensions.
* Tool additions, such as weapon packs or unit roster extensions.
* Mechanics updates, such as increased level caps or additional skills.
* Narrative extensions, such as additional quests or “after-the-finale” scenarios.

Honest Hearts, Fallout: New Vegas’
(chronologically) second DLC…

This article concerns itself with the narrative aspect of DLC, specifically Fallout: New Vegas’ Honest Hearts; namely, the faulty way in which the developers handled the narrative delivery.

Honest Hearts – a DLC that’s arguably the weakest of the three released so far in terms of its’ narrative delivery, mainly due to the mishandling of the character of Joshua Graham, a.k.a. the Burned Man. During New Vegas’ main game, encounters with Caesar’s Legion (a tribal-originated horde following the militant aspects of ancient Roman culture) yield the legend of the Burned Man: Caesar’s right hand man, burned alive and thrown into the Grand Canyon as a punishment for his (single, as far as the game lets on) failure – his very name forbidden to be spoken.

…features one of the least interesting
main characters in the game
.

In Honest Hearts, Joshua Graham appears as one of the major NPC’s and driving force behind the narrative, having survived (albeit terribly disfigured) and leading a small tribal band (the Dead Horses) in the remnants of Zion National Park, assuming the role of their protector against their territorial rivals, the White Legs. The main plot hook involves the player character choosing whether to assist the Dead Horses in either evacuating Zion Park or eradicating their rivals, in exchange for a way back to the Mojave desert (the main game’s play area).

Bland, two-dimensional characters
that serve only as quest fodder.

At first glance, there are a number of good storytelling opportunities here; Joshua Graham is set up as a tragic figure, having abandoned his faith (the game hints at him being a former Mormon missionary) by joining, and to a degree leading, Caesar’s Legion in their many atrocities (with great emphasis given on slavery and mass murders) and subsequently cast aside and left for dead – displayed as an example to all who would dare fail Caesar.

The problems begin to appear here, however, as the actual Joshua Graham the player meets in-game doesn’t quite live up to the hype the main game perpetuates; where there is an opportunity to present him as either repentant or unyielding, he instead comes across as being bitter and vengeful – a missed opportunity for certain, accentuated by the relatively little screen time he receives – as a result he comes across as a bland, two-dimensional character with little depth or redeeming values.

Even the tribal characters appear to
be nearly devoid of  personality.

This is a problem in general with Honest Hearts, as every major character involved in it is either killed off at the beginning, or never receives enough character development to push past the point where they are given depth and emotional investment (on the player’s part). Aside from Graham, there are a handful of characters that are integral to the story (to such a degree that if any of them die, the DLC reaches a premature “ending” of sorts) – this is never adequately explained, as the characters never appear to have anything much to actually do with the narrative aside from pointing the player to the next group of quests.

The most engrossing aspects of the
plot belong to Randall Clark…

Which is weird, seeing as there’s at least some effort in the narrative development – it’s even weirder that it’s mainly focused on one of the minor, unseen characters in the DLC; the elusive “Father in the Cave”. Scattered around Zion Park are six “survivalist caches”, sheltered and protected by traps – these constitute a series of bases that Randall Clark, a former soldier and survivor of the nuclear holocaust, used throughout his post-apocalypse life; these are masterfully crafted, with layouts that feel intuitive and believable, being consistent with what a survivalist with military training would create and use in the Fallout universe.

…an unseen character that has left
behind several journal entries.

These havens, however, consist of only half the presentation; in each one is a computer terminal, containing Clark’s journal entries – these tell a story of guilt, survival, the struggle to adapt to a rapidly-changing environment brought about by nuclear war and ultimately, self-redemption. As most of these entries correlate with the rest of the environments in Zion Park (several locations are consistent with the journals found nearby), Clark ends up being a much more compelling presence than the “main” characters – at times, piecing together Clark’s story provides such better narrative than the actual plot that I couldn’t help but wonder if he was meant to be the main focus in some early draft of the DLC, scrapped in favour of the more marketable “Burned Man”.

Ultimately, it’s interesting to note the dynamics brought about by this scenario, where secondary, “flavour” characters end up being vastly more interesting than the main characters – if only as a consideration in future development of narrative-heavy content.

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