Gaming on a Timer

Thoughts – Using B-Stories and DLC, Dead Money

This article discusses the sub-plots woven into the Fallout: New Vegas DLC, Dead Money, and the value of using such devices to increase immersion. While attempts have been made during writing to the contrary, certain spoilers cannot be avoided – read at your own risk.

Dead Money, the first of four DLC
for Fallout: New Vegas…
The initial premise of Dead Money is a highly formulaic “Grand Heist” plot; forced into compliance by the enigmatic Father Elijah, the player must join forces with three similarly reluctant individuals to rob the legendary Sierra Madre casino – known throughout the Mojave wasteland as both a giant repository of wealth and technology, and a giant death trap which has claimed the lives of every single treasure hunter to ever venture in its’ depths.
The aforementioned main plot is, in itself, highly enjoyable – the Sierra Madre village and casino proper are expertly designed, providing a much-needed break from the main game’s areas; meanwhile, the heist itself plays out (and eventually resolves itself) in a few manners (left to the player’s discretion) that are very satisfying and give a great sense of accomplishment. What really makes this DLC stand out, however, are the various b-stories woven into the narrative; the companions in particular have received a great deal of characterization and as a result really help the Sierra Madre legend come to life.
…starts, just like the other DLC, with a
mysterious radio signal.
What is perhaps the most unusual part of this approach is that Obsidian chose to expand  and build upon yet another b-story from the main game; namely, Veronica Santangelo’s background (one of the possible companions the player can recruit during the course of the game) – Father Elijah is made out to have been her mentor during her formative years and was part of the reason she undertook the journey to the Mojave wasteland. 
The elusive Father Elijah, menacing
the player character.
This results in a double-edged sword, narrative-wise: on the one hand it’s entirely possible to have skipped Veronica during the main game (and thus, have no prior knowledge of her relationship with Elijah), thus missing the entire background of said sub-plot; conversely, having taken the time to follow her character arc to its’ conclusion, this b-story helps increase the player’s immersion, by giving a more believable texture to the Sierra Madre tale, eventually leading into a few insights that carry over to the main game.
Which is not to say that the Elijah arc is the only one running for the duration of Dead Money; all three of the companion NPC’s are intricately developed with a good deal of character flaws and redeeming qualities. Even the least explored of the characters, Dog (a super mutant suffering from multiple-personality disorder) is given enough depth so that he comes across as a believable (albeit slightly exaggerated) entity.
Dean Domino, former celebrity turned
ghoul by the excessive radiation.
Additionally, merit is due to the actual level design and environments, as they consist of a secondary narrative device unto themselves. From the abandoned villas, littered with the remains of a two-hundred year-long decline to decrepit ruins, to the actual casino facilities, populated for the most part by the still-functional defense mechanisms, the levels tell a story of decaying splendour and lost dreams – giving the Sierra Madre resort a life of its’ own.
Christine, the mute but expressive
stealth specialist.
To this effect, the developers have used a great deal of visual cues to aid the storytelling: various warnings and threats are scrawled across the casino grounds, left either by long-dead visitors and treasure hunters or even the player’s companions; several holographic avatars of former casino staff appear to be locked in an eternal replay of their owners’ final moments; even the more mundane (and by now, industry staple) computer journals tell of a slew of stories, small snippets of their writers’ daily lives that add up to give the Sierra Madre a rich, involving history that is believable and, above all, consistent enough to immerse the player in the experience.
Ultimately, while Dead Money certainly has a few faults (such as the arbitrary need to perform dismemberment to eliminate enemies and the constant chatter of the player’s active companion, to name a few), it succeeds as a story well told, engaging and emotionally investing to the end.
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