My favorite moments from Fallout 3 came out of a collaboration between the creative output of the designers and my own imagination. The game set up situations in which moral decision was entirely in the hands of the player: help the slavers or fight them, save the villagers or exploit them, the good of the many or the good of you. In one quest I recovered a pristine, powerful rifle that belonged to Abraham Lincoln. I held onto this gun, not using it but hoarding ammunition, until I’d leveled up to the point where I felt strong enough to take on the slaver camp head on. I attacked at night, and the only weapon that I used was Lincoln’s rifle. I freed the slaves and literally blew the head off the slaver bastards. The game gave me the requisite XP and rewards, but the greatest pleasure I got from the whole experience was the symbolism that I’d laid upon it.
For all it’s bugginess and slightly outdated graphics and stiff animations, this is the area where Fallout: New Vegas shines most brightly, presenting you with compelling moral quandaries and letting you make decisions. Having added a nifty Reputation system into this game, the consequences of those decisions now vary across the wasteland. Some will love you, while others will hate you for what you do, as is the way in the real world, where the moral landscape is a jumbled mass of prejudices, preferences, and pretensions. Even so, the game’s options usually come down to questions that the vast majority of people would agree upon about what is moral and what is immoral (killing innocents for your own gain is bad, killing psychopathic killers is good). However, there are a few exceptional set-ups where morality is much less clear, and the ones that fascinated me the most were a pair of quests centered around sex slavery and prostitution.
I think we’ve about gotten to a place where sexual relationships in video games can be interesting, believable, and not simply puerile big-boob-athons. The latter still exist in droves of course, but I’ve seen realistic and even moving tales of sex and love told in games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect and probably in some non-Bioware games too. However, I don’t recall playing another game that’s delved as deeply into or explored the different sides of prostitution the way that Fallout: New Vegas does. This element is all the more striking because it’s a topic in which a clear sense of what is right and wrong is far from settled and people that agree on most other moral issues still have profound disagreements about. By way of disclosure, I think prostiution should be legal and have lived in countries where it is and known sex workers who choose to do it, make a good living doing it and benefit from the protections that legalization offers. However, I also recognize that prostitution often has very negative impacts on sex workers and clients alike and that sex slavery and forced prostitution are very real and very serious crimes. I think Fallout: New Vegas knows all these things too.
Given the open world nature of the game, there’s no set order to take on these quests, but you’re most likely to come upon them in the order that I did. Without venturing too far into spoiler territory, you’re offered a job rounding up new prostitutes for a low-rent brothel/bar/casino. It’s definitely side quest territory with no impact on or relationship to the game’s main story. Your brief career as a procurer of sex workers is played mostly for humor, since none of the people that you’re recruiting are anything like the average, real world prostitute. The casino has clients with special kinks, so you’re after a gentlemanly gigilo, a cowgirl ghoul dominatrix, and a sex robot. Only the last offers much of a challenge for recruiting, since you have to get someone to re-program a regular robot for you. The key element to this quest is that the people hiring you make a point of saying that all their sex workers are free agents who can come and go, working or not as they please. Indeed, if you want to later partake of their services, you’ve got to ask nicely, and they have to like you and give consent. Even the robot.
The second story is much darker. It takes place in the hedonistic Gomorrah Casino, which has scantily clad hookers out front, beckoning gamblers inside. There they’ll find the table games and slots, but also a strip club and a mega-brothel centered around the pool courtyard. It employs the strung out prostitute Dazzle, who you can pay to sleep with or convince her to share drugs with you and “have a good time” free of charge. But front and center, literally when you walk into the courtyard, is Joana, a sultry sex worker who offers to show you a good time. Go along up to her room, and she acts the part all the way. While the game’s screen fades to black while playing dialog out of a porno, she tells you that you’re the best that she’s ever had.
But talk to Joana, treat her like a person, and the truth comes out. She’s so numb from drugs and depression, she no longer feels anything, much less your fumbling, sweaty caresses. The one person that she cares about, her love Carlito is gone, probably killed by the Gomorrah’s owners. They’ll do the same to her, or worse, if she so much as hints at walking out the front door. She and the other men and women here (Gomorrah caters to all tastes) are slaves. And so the quest unfolds: find the boyfriend, sneak the enslaved Joana out of the casino along with a couple of her fellow sex slaves, and confront their captors in a back alley. There can be (as there was for me) a happy ending. Not that kind. For that I went back to my favorite sex-partner, Fisto the Robot.
So Fallout: New Vegas gives us a sex comedy and a dark psychodrama, both centered around prostitution. While the game doesn’t make you participate in either quest, it does reward you for completing them. Moreover, there are no particularly hard choices here. If you don’t mind a few characters teasing you for being a pimp, you can recruit new workers with relative ease. And no one of importance at the Gomorrah holds it against you after you’ve saved a handful of slaves from their clutches. Any real, moral judgement has to come from you, the player.
For me, this pair of quests reminded me of my previous delight with Fallout 3. Here I got to take a stand for my beliefs on both sides of this divisive issue: pro-sex workers who choose their own profession and vehemently anti-sex slavery and forced prostitution. I wonder if this is just my own gloss on the game’s elements or if my own views mirror those of its creators. I suspect that maybe we’re of a mind on these issues, but of course, I cannot know. They leave it up to us to wonder and think about what meaning, if any, these quests might have.
Like everything in Fallout: New Vegas, both these storylines could’ve been handled better—with more subtlety or thought. The game’s greatness comes from the sheer magnitude of these moments that it offers its players. But together they took me on a little journey and managed to provoke some thinking, some re-thinking, and even a little guilt in me about my actions in the game. This kind of provocation is fruitful territory for any game, and in this respect, more than most games I play, Fallout: New Vegas is no wasteland.