Cost of Ambition
Obsidian ultimately managed to push Fallout: New Vegas out in 18 months. It fit much of Obsidian's original vision; but as with every triple-A game, cuts had to be made.
The biggest casualty, Sawyer says, were the settlements east of the Colorado River. This area was meant to contain three Legion locations filled with quests and content, and would have ultimately had a very different vibe from New Vegas proper.
Sawyer regrets the cuts, "I think a lot of people have said, in addition to the Legion being just repulsive, they didn't have content to redeem them as a faction. Some people talk to Caesar, and they're like, 'Caesar is interesting. Crazy, but interesting. But the faction itself just seems like misogynistic psychos.' And there's nothing to really change that perception."
Ulysses was another casualty in the main game. Conceived by Chris Avellone, he would have been a companion sympathetic to the Legion. But the character just got too big, Sawyer says. "That character just became enormous. I mean, literally, we just couldn't fit in the game. I can't remember how many lines he was, but he was just gargantuan, and editing him would have been too hard. So that's when we decided like, 'Okay, we're going to save this for later.'"
In speaking on what he would have liked to tackle given the chance, Avellone also focuses on the companions. "If there'd been time and the inclination, having Sunny Smiles, Yes Man, Benny, Vulpes, Victor and others as potential companions would have been great. So would have Muggy (we wanted to, but adding a full companion through the DLCs that would work in the core game would have taken more time than allowed)."
Then there were the invisible walls, which Sawyer swears wasn't meant to block people from traveling places, but made a bad impression nevertheless. "[Designer Scott Everts] for the most part was trying to solve line-of-sight issues. And really just prevent things from looking ugly. It wasn't to prevent the player from going anywhere. Because, as people have seen, you can get to New Vegas from the beginning of the game. It's just really hard."
"But because you start off in Goodsprings, and you're in mountains, near the edge of the map, you run into a lot of invisible walls really early on, and it really was not our intention to like, 'Oh, no! You can't go that way!' It was like, 'Oh, crap! People are getting stuck.' People would get stuck in the mountains, right? And so we put up invisible walls to prevent that. But it was a mistake. "
Needless to say, when it came time to make the DLC, Sawyer made sure that invisible walls were minimized as much as possible.
Fallout: New Vegas ultimately came out on October 19, 2010, where it received solid if unspectacular reviews. Much of the criticism centered around New Vegas' bugs, which had become an Obsidian staple by that point. Scroll through news articles from the time and almost all of them focused on the crashes and technical problems that bedeviled Obsidian's opus.
Urquhart is mostly sanguine about the reviews. "I don't want to excuse it. It's hard to make a huge game," he says. "We'll just say that four months is about 64,000 hours of test. You send your game out and a million people buy it. In one hour, they've tested it for one million hours. So it's again, not an excuse at all. It's just when you make a big complicated game, it's just hard and we need to figure out how to make stuff that's just not as fragile and stuff like that."
Sawyer says he would have been a stricter director in hindsight. "If I had it to do over again, I would have tightened things up, I would have pulled things a little closer together. And included those Legion areas. And I also would have been more aggressive. I let our designers actually do a lot of crazy things, sometimes those things were really cool, sometimes they were really bad and caused a lot of bugs."
Both say they were ultimately not that concerned with negative reviews, even if they did wind up missing out on their targeted Metacritic score. They had gotten their shot and taken it. In another era, that would have been that, and Fallout: New Vegas might have faded into obscurity as a cult classic but not much more.
But that's not what happened.
Walking the Lonesome Road
As you might expect, a lot of fans differ on why they consider Fallout: New Vegas a masterpiece. Some will point to the infinite opportunities afforded by the modding community, others will praise the writing and the often clever quests. But a significant number of them will tell you that the DLC is where Fallout: New Vegas really came into its own.
There were ultimately four DLC packs—six if you included the Courier's Stash and Gun Runners' Arsenal. They were mainly spearheaded by Chris Avellone, who used the DLC as an opportunity to fill in some of the gaps with the lore and play around with the quest structure.
"I think that both Chris and I wanted to explore specific ideas that were risky within the main game, but were less risky within a DLC," Sawyer remembers. "Like in the first DLC, a big focus was on the feeling of survival, and feeling really desperate, and almost like a horror vibe, and so Dead Money had that focus, which... It would feel weird if you designed even maybe a big Fallout New Vegas level around that. But as a DLC, it felt like, 'Oh, cool. This is my trip to a horror realm.'"
In a subsequent postmortem with GameBanshee, Avellone said that the DLC needed to have narrative hooks within the main game so that players would pause to consider the connection. "[W]e took care to make sure there were narrative connections across all the DLCs as well to reinforce the 'things that came before' and how all these signature characters' paths changed the Mojave and the DLC space."
Sawyer agrees. "Chris and I had to collaborate a lot to make sure that the DLCs actually fit together with Fallout: New Vegas and the core game. He had a certain progression towards Ulysses in mind, and Honest Hearts needed to fit into that progression."
The reception to the DLC was fairly lukewarm at the time of their release; but like New Vegas itself, they have grown in esteem has passed, particularly Sawyer's Honest Hearts and Avellone's grand finale: Lonesome Road.
Honest Hearts was a comparatively simple and straightforward quest, but Sawyer wanted to use it to delve into a number of themes, particularly religion. It begins with meeting Joshua Graham: the famed "Burned Man" who is alluded to but never seen in the main quest.
The Burned Man was a nod to The Hanged Man from Black Isle's original version of Fallout 3. As originally envisioned, the Hanged Man would have been statistically one of the best characters in the game, but would have made negotiations problematic. His appearance in Fallout: New Vegas was a treat for longtime fans looking for a nod toward Black Isle's roots.
The subsequent centers around a war within Utah's Zion National Park and a mysterious character called "The Survivalist.
"I gave John Gonzalez the idea of who the Survivalist was," Sawyer remembers. " I'm like, 'The Survivalist is some guy from the army who got stranded in Zion, and he lived through all this crazy stuff, and it's just his logs and his life. Run with it.' It's not really a formal quest. It's just this sequence of learning about this guy's life, and I've seen a ton of people who are like, 'This is the best thing I read in Fallout: New Vegas. I love going through the story.' It's actually very simple because you're really just going from cave to cave and picking up these things, but the story it tells is very compelling, to learn about how this guy went through his life and came to peace with himself when he died."
Lonesome Road, for its part, brought back another would-be companion: Ulysses. It was intended to bring the story full circle by answering some of the questions introduced during the first moments of the game. It was also meant to serve as a dark reflection of the Courier's own story, suggesting what might have happened if everything had gone wrong.
"Lonesome Road was purposely built around the final image at the end of Fallout 1: the Vault Dweller walking off into a lonely future. The idea of a protagonist whose home is lost to him, walking off into the wilderness after helping to nurture and protect a place that ultimately exiles him (or where he simply no longer belongs) is one of the hallmarks of Fallout," Avellone told GameBanshee.
"The sense of abandonment and the lone wanderer connection was important in Lonesome Road, except you're not walking into a lonely future, you're walking into your character's past and seeing what it's done in the present. Ulysses hints that it's possible the player left the West and left NCR because he didn't belong, and that's why he walked the road to the Mojave-but that's Ulysses' perspective, and the motivations for your character are your own."
While New Vegas' DLC wasn't for everyone—plenty of fans and critics consider Bethesda's Point Lookout and Far Harbor to be the gold standards of Fallout DLC—it does find modern day Fallout at its most interesting and experimental.
It was also a rare opportunity for Obsidian to put an exclamation mark on the series. Not many studios get a four episode arc of DLC to close out their game. Obsidian got their chance, and they seized it.
From Cult Favorite to Undeniable Classic
Fallout: New Vegas was seen as a bit of an oddball at release, but a few major factors managed to turn the tide and get people to appreciate its idiosyncracies.
First, it was available on PC, pretty much guaranteeing a long life after release thanks to the modding community. There are hundreds of mods out on the Internet, from texture packs to an attempt to turn Fallout: New Vegas into a multiplayer game, all of which have helped to keep New Vegas fresh. Even Sawyer himself has put out a mod that makes the base game more challenging by tweaking progression and other factors, which he says was a matter of practicing what he preaches (it's pretty much the only mod that he uses when he plays).
"I will say that Bethesda's tools are incredibly good, like just... Straight up, the G.E.C.K is very powerful," Sawyer says. "I think that when I hear gamers who try to pick up a mod of it and complain about it, like, 'You have no idea how bad development tools can actually be.'"
Mods were ultimately an essential component in Bethesda's recipe for success, and Fallout: New Vegas was no different.
Second, with the complaints about the technical side of the game having long since subsided, fans can properly appreciate everything Fallout: New Vegas has to offer. And Fallout: New Vegas offers a lot. From the quests, to the writing, to callbacks to the days of Black Isle, New Vegas is one giant rabbit hole for fans.
Finally, Bethesda released Skyrim, and later, Fallout 4, which invited fans to draw direct comparisons with Obsidian's work. Those frustrated with getting railroaded into one faction or another found relief in Fallout: New Vegas. The stark contrast wound up boosting Obsidian's profile considerably.
You could really see the narrative turn after Fallout 4, which remains quite divisive among fans. Aside from its more robust reputation system, there are the little things, like the fact that you can kill pretty much everyone except Yes Man (who will continually revive himself) and still finish the game. In Fallout: New Vegas, freedom wasn't limited to its vast open world.
While Urquhart won't call out Bethesda specifically (they have relationships to maintain, after all), he does feel strongly that the intelligence of gamers should be respected. "They don't want to be overwhelmed, but that doesn't mean you can't lead them down the road of enjoying a complex system."
That is one of Fallout: New Vegas' guiding principals, and perhaps one of the biggest reasons that it has proven enduringly popular.
Obsidian has since moved on to other projects, but there are still daily requests for a sequel to Fallout: New Vegas. Earlier this year, fans were absolutely certain that a sequel to Fallout: New Vegas set in New Orleans was about to be announced, but nothing materialized.
Urquhart insists that nothing is in the cards right now, "Like we were saying, it was so awesome to get to do Fallout: New Vegas and it was sort of like this is maybe our only chance. If ever it were to happen that we would work on another Fallout, we would absolutely talk to Bethesda about it and think about it, but at this point in time there is nothing on the table where we would be working on another Fallout."
Disappointing, perhaps, for fans of the series. But even if Obsidian never makes another Fallout game, Fallout: New Vegas will live on. They got the opportunity that they could scarcely imagined having when they first started: the chance to make their dream game. The result was a game that many consider an all-time classic.
And seven years after its original release, that's more apparent than ever.