To Hell With Good Intentions

Wasteland 2 featured image - ranger team

InXile’s Wasteland 2 isn’t a perfect game, but it sure is one I enjoyed. I’m going to talk a little about why, but be warned that random encounters in this article will include spoilers. Read on if you’ve already played the game, don’t plan to but are curious about it, don’t care about spoilers, or are simply unable to help yourself.

One of the best aspects of Wasteland 2 is its (admittedly variable) commitment to moral ambiguity and forcing difficult decisions on the player. So far, so Brian Fargo, of course: this is something we’ve seen in the original Fallout games, in the opening few minutes of the first Wasteland, and probably in the dreadful Bard’s Tale if you actually managed to persist with it.

Where Wasteland 2 stands out for me is that it will force you to make decisions, usually choosing between two or three options at pivotal sub-plot points, where there is no ideal outcome. In fact whatever choice you make – and choose you must – is probably going to mean a lot of suffering for a lot of digital people, including innocents.

A brief aside: okay, so describing ‘innocents’ getting hurt sounds like the game might be pulling its punches on this whole morally grey, ethically difficult, make the best of a bad world conceit. When you see games break down social roles into, say, victimisers and victims – typically the guilty and the innocent – you’re usually seeing a gross over-simplification. I just got done playing Shadow of Mordor, which features humans and orcs (fine: uruk-hai). The humans are to a man brutalised slaves or valiant freedom fighters; the orcs, with the exception of one weaselly opportunist, are universally barbaric monsters with little beyond murder and bestial self-indulgence on their minds. In what is in many ways a deeply troubling stroke of narrative design, the best that can be expected from them is achieved by violently dominating their minds.

I know, I know. Criticising something connected with The Lord of the Rings for being racially essentialist and problematic is like saying that woods are shat in by bears, but given that the game’s promotion has made such a fuss about how it ‘models orc society’ I think it’s still fair.

But back to Wasteland 2. Its innocents are, at least, convincing minor characters in that they are usually people attempting to scratch out a living as best as they can in a world where their personal agency and power usually stops at the end of a rifle or an ambiguous social contract. On the latter point, take the example of brigands raiding a farm. In the game’s fiction this happens sometimes and the pragmatic response is respected by both parties: the farmers hide their women and children, make a show of their weapons, and let the raiders make off with a little food. Where things break down – again in the game’s fiction – is where the aggressor parties demand more. Players will run into such scenarios, if they approach the game with an exploratory mindset.

Wasteland 2 is inevitably populated by numerous NPCs without names or unique dialogue, but it does nonetheless feature a pleasing number of characters with enough of a story that they contribute towards the texture of this post-apocalyptic world that has been struggling on for long enough to settle into something resembling a routine. As a result it is all the more distressing when, through action or inaction, you allow them to come to harm.

Desert Rangers standing amidst a settlement. The ground is littered with corpses.

The consequences of such a decision.

The example that gets brought up the most is early in the game, shortly after you’ve completed the tutorial areas. Whilst proceeding on an existing mission you receive a distress call from a town named Highpool that is the primary source of water for most of the settlements within the Desert Ranger-policed parts of non-irradiated Arizona. It is under attack by raiders and, worse, there is a risk that the town’s dam could blow. Minutes later you receive a second call from the Ag Centre, a farm research centre that is on the cusp of solving Arizona’s crippling food shortage problem. Something has led to the Centre’s flora and fauna growing wildly out of control and becoming aggressive, and the researchers and farmers are facing total slaughter.

It’s impossible to get to both locations in time and so you must choose. Water or food? Raiders or mutants? Who do you save? Which do you perceive as the greater threat? There is no ‘good’ outcome, although there is a lot of discussion among players about which quest is more fun, which offers the best NPCs to recruit, and which involves the most loot and XP. Either option also has some impact down the line, although it’s not as seismic as the marketing might have made you think: it largely means side-quests will or won’t appear.

Binary decisions of this nature are far from uncommon in games. Usually they’re not a part of quests that could take you hours to finish, and usually the player is comforted afterwards as having made a good choice. In this instance I chose Highpool; when I finally arrived at Ag Centre, the last survivor told me to go fuck myself, right before she expired.

Wasteland 2 - Vulture's Cry being attacked by giant honey badgers

This is an example of a character making a difficult¬†decision rather than the player: Vulture’s Cry won’t attack “harmless animals” even when they are excavating her abdomen.

An alternative way out that often features in games including binary decision points might be offered for the resourceful player, who has either thought laterally, explored thoroughly or simply consulted a wiki. One recent example is Deus Ex: Human Revolution‘s Missing Link DLC, which culminates in a “one life versus many” decision that can be circumvented by moving a box and hacking some stuff, resulting in you saving everybody. Well done, Jensen! In contrast with such examples it’s a strength that Wasteland 2 neither comforts its player (your commanding officer acknowledges that you made a tough choice, but he’ll still chew you out if you fucked up on any details) nor offers an ideal outcome for powergamers or serial GameFAQs addicts.

There are stronger examples later in the game, although not many: the Highpool / Ag Centre sub-quests constitute maybe a sixth of the game, and it would obviously begin to feel rote if every notable plot arc in the game involved a similar choice. Your decisions in the Canyon of Titan and the associated areas are probably the game’s strongest point on this front. There are further examples in the game’s latter half, but by this stage they’re beginning to feel weaker. For example: do you side with the regnant power in this somewhat fucked-up but still functioning community that may or may not be resorting to cannibalism, or do you side with the power-hungry fuckbags who are self-realising their inner potential through the medium of a coup and largely care only for the individual? Which, in essence, feels like the least bad choice?

Despite the game’s narrative flabbiness in the second act, this is one of the elements of Wasteland 2 that has left the strongest impression on me, and so probably the most lasting. It deserves to be acknowledged for these achievements, even though in the same breath it should be acknowledged that most such choices are still ultimately binary, can be a little goofy, and at the game’s less well-written points can begin to fall into the territory of BioWare decisions (as in, largely fucking obvious how to deal with if you’re not playing as a sociopathic bum weasel). What we are left with is essentially “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”: a post-apocalyptic future riddled by war, disease and want is not a setting where positive outcomes for all are the natural order. Wasteland 2, if nothing else, gives the player the freedom to make their difficult, ugly decisions and to live with the consequences.

Wasteland - rangers fighting discobots

Whether you choose action or inaction, disco is usually a bad decision. Exceptions will be made for the English Disco League.