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Played in 2023
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Three extremely cool characters and 10,000 geckos. Genuinely do not know how to feel about this one- almost every "tribal" character is flat and feels vaguely not okay, and the world can feel a lot more barren and dull than a lot of New Vegas's normal locales; the story it tells is definitely compelling, but, to me, feels less personal and affecting than Dead Money. In a lot of ways this holds the appeal of FO3 or Skyrim, where it's a largely empty open world that's also very pretty to gallivant through and is filled with things to shoot/experience points to rack up. Outside of its scenery and the writing of a few characters it's not very memorable but it's clean honest fun!
Maybe one of the most interesting game expansions I can think of off the top of my head? It makes sense a lot of people hated this when it came out- it's designed to be punishing and friction-filled in a way the base game just isn't. I adore New Vegas for what it is as this shockingly reactive open world, but even with hardcore mode and mods like JSawyer Ultimate and Famine (both included in the lovely Viva New Vegas project), the Mojave wasteland is still shy of being harsh enough to stop the game from eventually becoming much less threatening. Your character by the end of a play-through of New Vegas's base game is a one-man army, who likely also has two companions at all times keeping them safe. And this is fine! The core narrative of New Vegas kind of needs you to be feeling powerful and hyper-competent by the end in order to work; you don't end your game with the protagonist single-handedly deciding the fate of an entire region if you don't want them to feel like they've earned that by being the most epicest cowboy in the wastes. It's great working your way up to being a genuine legend, and it works for the kind of story New Vegas is trying to tell. Still, I love the desperation of games that make the player feel like every moment is a struggle for survival.
Dead Money delivers on that in spades- every skill and attribute on the player's character sheet has a place in helping your courier survive a complete nightmare scenario, from relying on medicine and survival to keep oneself alive, using intelligence, science and perception to understand a mute companion (which allows her to convey information that genuinely makes the game easier!), explosives to disarm traps, lockpicking to steal vital supplies... and yet, New Vegas's relatively more restrictive approach to doling out perks and skills means that being a jack of all trades isn't as viable as it is in other Bethesda-type RPGs. How a player who's built their character around guns, survival and repair will survive the Madre in an entirely different way than a character with a high lockpick, sneak or science. The scarcity of resources here and the constant drain on the player's health means that this one night spent pulling off the world's most fucked up heist (ended my playthrough crippled, irradiated and addicted to like 3 drugs lol) is the most harrowing obstacle you've faced yet. All the weapons suck ass compared to most of what you can get in the wasteland; the police pistol is maybe the only one that felt good to use in my character's hands, but ammo can be an absolute headache to find and you'll often have to pinch your bullets to survive. You come to rely on your companions and your character's own abilities in order to survive and make sure everyone comes out alive. This extra emphasis placed on desperation and scarcity always makes my time in Dead Money seem even more engaging than the base game. A more attentive and careful approach is required to make it through- there is no Julie Farkas here to flush your radiation, cure your addictions and heal your crippled limbs. The only other people you have to rely on are all self-interested and obsessed with a single goal, a goal you might want nothing to do with.
The quality and tightness of Dead Money's writing really reinforces that sense of being alienated by everything you meet in the Sierra Madre while also making you give a shit about the other players in this prisoner's dilemma, I think. Games will get lavished with praise and used as examples when they connect their gameplay to their narratives (Bioshock's big mind control twist linking to the player's lack of agency is talked about a lot), and Dead Money's ending where you realize you can't possibly escape with the treasure you came here for due to your character's carrying limit is often cited by people who love New Vegas as an example of mechanical storytelling. It deserves it, yeah, but I think that it also kinda overshadows a lot of the other cool stuff Dead Money does mechanically to support its narrative. Dead Money's writing is as far from subtle as one can get ("let go/letting go" is beaten through the player's skull with a hammer) but still has a lot more to say than I think most game stories do. Each character is trapped and cut off from others because of their obsessions, obsessions that are literally killing them, and the only way to survive yourself is to keep them alive by showing them that they don't need to keep dooming themselves to try and get back what they lost. Each character's motivations feel so real and make sense for the people they've become- even Dean Domino, most disgusting man on Earth, feels like he's been given an inner world. "I have a massive ego and am miserable and seeing this guy who's gone through more pain than me still find happiness makes me furious- I cannot die until I fuck his wife and fuck his Casino". Like "know the combination, and the Sierra Madre opens her legs" is such a sleazy line but feels like it gives a glimpse into how this guy thinks. In his mind, he NEEDS to cuck a guy who has been dead for 200 years by penetrating a building or else this guy will continue to be more of a man than him. The one character who you can't convince to move on from what happened to them in the past ends the game either dead or forever locked in the heart of the vault that he thought would get him back what he lost.
This is something I think is genuinely way too rare in video games from this time period with this kind of budget- a story that seems like it was written by people whose work is just as informed by their own understanding of themselves and other people as it is by tropes and simple drama. Loss and obsession being the central theme here is also cutely reinforced by the entire mission being a sunk cost- you will likely leave the Sierra Madre with nothing but what you learned from how it hurt you (represented by XP!). Literally all you can do now is leave this nightmare behind and seek your fortunes elsewhere. The Sierra Madre is dead, and it doesn't hold anything for anyone who isn't interested in staying there forever. I'm not saying Dead Money is like, peak fiction, but to me it's interesting fiction, which is an unprecedented thing to be able to say about a DLC for a 7th gen game.
Imagining this being played by its target audience, but, more specifically, a version of myself who is young enough to be the target audience. I download it at the age of 8 and barely survive the first 19 minutes because of the terrifying Viva Pinata bird. Minute 20 hits and I come face-to-face with Jumbo Josh; his goofy fucking face comes out of the darkness and I start absolutely screaming. I am not okay. My mom bursts into the room and asks what's wrong and then gets really annoyed when I tell her it's because Garten of Banban scared me and we get in an argument over how she knew she couldn't trust me not to play something inappropriate and I get sent to my room. Later on that night I hear my mom say "this is why the computer isn't good for him!" and my dad starts arguing back about how I'm a growing boy. They're screaming now at each other and usually that would already be upsetting but it's even worse because all the while I'm fucking terrified that Jumbo Josh is going to burst into the living room and kill them both. I go to school the next day and all the kids have just watched the Markiplier playthrough of Garten of Banban 2 and they ask me what I thought of it and I sheepishly say I'm not allowed to play Garten of Banban and one of them calls me a pussy and gets sent to the principle's office for it and the whole class hates me. I didn't even rat him out someone was just around to hear him say it but they all still blame me. On the way out to the busses at the end of the day I walk by a kid wearing the $59.99 "Banban's Party" backpack you can buy from a link on the game's main menu and I see Jumbo Josh and start freaking out again. Was going to rate this one star but I'm mad now because this could have happened to me so now it's getting half a star.