It is frankly astonishing to me that I haven’t talked about Fallout: New Vegas significantly on this blog, because I think it might be my favorite game? I have a tattoo symbolizing it, after all, so I should probably talk about it.
For me, the shining jewel in New Vegas‘s crown of good design is the faction system. You see, from basically the moment you set foot out in the Mojave Wasteland, you become immediately aware of a series of factions, wielding varying amounts of power. Some, like the New California Republic and Caesar’s Legion, are massive, world-bending forces vying for complete control of the Wasteland. Others, like the Powder Gangers and the Great Khans, are smaller gangs who control small pieces of turf in the Wasteland. Others yet are singular towns, like Goodsprings and Novac, just trying to get by.
The previous Fallout game, Fallout 3, had a binary morality system which existed on a single scale from good to evil, which was fine? Ultimately, it ended up feeling like your character was either a saint, a monster, or just some sort of morally ambiguous blob. If you were bad, bad people liked you. If you were good, good people liked you. It was something, certainly more than a lot of games, but it wasn’t terribly interesting. New Vegas did away with this, and did something great.
You see, New Vegas measures not your morality, but your standing with each individual faction. This is so good for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, it allows for a greater moral depth to your character. In Mass Effect, a game with a traditional morality scale, I always felt like the scale didn’t quite capture the way my Shepherd behaved: I was a mondo dick to most everyone, but fiercely loyal to my crew members. The game just ended up labeling me “mostly a mondo dick”, which I found kind of incomplete. In New Vegas, if I want to be a valuable ally to the factions that align themselves with me, and a complete scourge to anyone in my way, the game mechanically portrays that. Instead of just everyone thinking I’m kind of an asshole, the people I’m allied with will treat me like an old friend, and the people who hate me will shoot me on sight.
Here’s another cool thing: these faction reputations are on multiple axes. There are separate measures of Fame and Infamy, meaning that if you murder a bunch of Powder Gangers, then out of the blue give them a ton of help, they’re reaction isn’t to just do a 180 and love you, instead they’re actively confused, as they should be.
Just having this system is really cool, but the way the game leverages this to make interesting missions, and interesting mission solutions, makes it even better. An entire act of the game basically requires you become either favored by or to destroy whole factions in order to pave the road for the final conflict. Some missions become much easier, as you would expect, with certain faction reputation. If some rando needs the NCR to jump in to defend a town, it might require a bit of convincing. If a valuable ally of the NCR needs them to defend a town, however, sure, we owe the guy this.
That’s, ultimately, the cleverness of the faction system, is that it is such a powerful narrative and mechanical force. The main plot of New Vegas is actively changed by which factions you ally with and which you forsake. The final fight on Hoover Dam can be fought on either side, or optionally you can storm it as a dark horse force all your own. Whether you fight the battle all your own, with the help of one of the big factions, with the booming artillery of the Boomers, or any other number of factors depends on your faction rankings. Hell, if you don’t like any of the big factions, you can basically assemble one on your own, a patchwork of all of the factions you like.
On the flip side, the faction system provides mechanical representation of your narrative choices within the game world. The merchants available to you change depending on your faction reputation. Your reputation with certain factions determines how you think of the game map, with certain areas changing from bastions of safety to enemy fortresses depending on your choices and your reputation. The big factions might even send hit squads to kill you if they hate you enough. Your experience in the game world changes based on your factions, and each playthrough is different depending on your different faction alignments.
The faction system is a nuanced, clever way to represent the way the player interacts with the game world, and also changes the game world in response to the player’s choices, creating a cyclical force which strengthens the player’s connection to the Mojave Wasteland, and for that, it’s a Good Idea.