When I say politics I don't mean the left-right spectrum, although some of the clumsiest humor in Fallout 3 does come from satires of conservatism. What I mean is the management of property, the distribution of goods, the construction and maintenance of infrastructure, of necessary services. In Fallout 3 (here come some spoilers!) your longterm goal is to find a machine that will make the Earth livable for a small community. Though there comes a turn in the endgame where things get a little more typically "epic," basically the central conflict of the game revolves around the necessity of establishing a waterworks. Because of the context in which the game takes place, it's unlikely most players stopped to think about this. In the US, water is something we feel we can count on. In some places (like my current home of New Mexico) less than others, but yes: you turn on the tap, potable water comes out. This is a miracle. We find it boring.
In the capitol wasteland you need water. In fact your character can live without it forever given sufficient other resources, will never suffer from thirst, but the environment is designed and the characters interact with you such that you buy into the fiction of water's necessity. There is a man outside the biggest city, a big steel boat stranded in a shallow pool of poison water, who begs you whenever you pass for fresh water. If you give him a bottle, which is something you could sell for good money, you get some karma. Eventually, if you play the game as a good citizen, you'll provide the entire community with good water. You'll feel really good about this. You'll be providing a vital, necessary service.
Of course the fact that you're living in a demolished DC is an indictment of our political system, one that is not so much subtle as so blunt it takes weeks or months to even think of it. They're careful in their usage of the iconography; you don't see a lot of demolished or upside-down American flags or anything, mainly you see the Washington monument re-purposed as a tremendous radio antenna. You see the Congress emptied out. This happened, of course, because the government was too busy preparing for a war that never should have happened to take proper care of its citizens. Part of what's striking in playing Fallout 3 is that your experience as a player -- walking around searching for food, for dropped money, for drugs, packing heat, etc. -- is not that different from the current experience of many real and living people in the actual DC. I mainly wish the game had been a better simulation of homelessness, because it was already a pretty damn good one. You've got sharply limited resources. You go around doing odd jobs in hopes it will pay off. Generally speaking the energy and life and ammo you spend on the job is worth more than it pays. Sometimes, because it's a video game, you maybe get lucky. You hang out in abandoned subway stations. Everything you see, everyone you know, is hungry and dirty and awful. Maybe you take the perk that lets you cannibalize corpses so you can find something to eat. Maybe you start killing people wherever you won't be seen doing it, so you can take their stuff.
Karma is awarded in Fallout 3 for good citizenship, and deducted for bad. Murdering people will lose you karma, and if you kill someone in the middle of their community or in sight of a good citizen, the other citizens will try to kill you. You also lose karma for stealing. Initially this struck me as very strange: why should property rights be enshrined in the laws of the universe? Why does God care if I take somebody's empty can? A stimpak, sure; that's medicine. But cola bottles? Bizarre.
It makes more sense, though, if you think about it as a measure of citizenship. Property rights take on a new significance after the apocalypse: when you have so little, it's that much more important that you keep it. The community will not only defend itself with violence from violence -- they may also attack you for theft.
Your mission, then, assuming you aren't playing evil, is to build a working society. You can solve many problems without violence, and there are rewards for doing so. You begin the game as a political dissident; a totalitarian vault overseer (vaults are underground communities in protective bunkers built before the war) goes too far, you escape him or you kill him. Outside you find a failed capitol. You have to do what the politicians failed to do. You're cold and hungry and alone. You try your best. (And if you do play evil, which I genuinely find difficult in games, especially on a first play-through, it feels actually motivated in a way it does not in most other games: you're doing what you have to do to survive.)
Fallout: New Vegas takes place in the Mojave wasteland, which was never that developed anyway, and did not fare too badly in the war. In other words, the situation is less dire. The main question is who's going to run the place, and while your character begins as a courier, a pawn in the larger game, it doesn't take too long to discover that you have quite a lot of power to affect the outcome of the game. In New Vegas, you're a player. You can decide the power structure going forward.
This means, in the most immediate sense, a choice between the New California Republic (NCR) and Caeser's Legion. This is not, in moral terms, an especially difficult choice. The NCR is literally presented as, at first glance, a bunch of grown-up cowboy boy scouts. The Legion is a society of slaves and slavers. The game offers nuance without false equivocation, however: the NCR has an authoritarian bent that pays little heed to local culture and custom, while the Legion has a sense of honor and discipline in its higher ranks. Again, there isn't much of a choice to be made here, but the fact of the player's having to articulate a position is exciting. It turns out that in the event of an apocalypse, I'm a pretty unapologetic authoritarian: I don't just feel that the NCR is the best option in a bad situation, I genuinely like them. You count as rich in the Mojave if you can either a) count on eating every day or b) kill people without much fuss. Elevating the standard of living for the average citizen, providing them security from gangs and monsters, providing them with things like electricity and decent food, are important enough goals that I have willfully delivered communities into the grip of the NCR against what seemed to be their wishes. In a hundred years we can have democracy, for now I want to feed people and find them shelter. And I don't mind using force to make it happen.
I'm not sure where my loyalties ultimately lie, however. There comes a point in the game where (spoilers again!) you have to decide whether to commit to the NCR, the Legion, or yourself (as well as, I think, maybe one or two other options). It's not entirely clear to me how this last phase is going to play out. I've been traveling the wasteland getting to know the various factions so that I can make alliances where possible and also to determine where this cannot happen. In one case I worked closely with the community and helped them to gather resources and restore infrastructure in order to win them over to my side. In another case I gave in to political necessity and killed the tribe's leader so that another man more sympathetic to my cause could take his place. This was explicitly framed as a political killing. My hope is to arrange alliances and gather power such that I can give the NCR the Hoover Dam for good, while serving as a countervailing power to rein in their excesses (especially in terms of their unnecessary attacks on the Great Khans and Brotherhood of Steel). It may be that to impose my own order on the wasteland is necessarily to start a war with the NCR, in which case I don't think I'll do it: I feel they have more of a claim to rule than do I, given that many citizens have invested in their cause, and relatively few in mine. (My army would be mechanical.) At this point in the game, so close to the end of the campaign proper, I'm genuinely uncertain as to what I'll do, and I am thinking through the implications of my choices for the other people in the game. This is a tremendous achievement on the part of the developers.
In New Vegas, they half-implemented my idea of Fallout 3 as a simulation of homelessness: there is now a "hardcore mode," wherein everything you carry has weight (normally most objects and equipment have weight, but bullets do not) and your character needs water, food, and sleep to survive. I'm not playing this way right now because I enjoy the game's relatively breezy pace in the normal mode, and because I think this is really the wrong game for this feature. Resources are not nearly as scarce in New Vegas (or possibly I am only playing it much smarter) and honestly the requirements of hardcore mode sound more like an exercise in resource management than a real challenge: especially if you're comfortable stealing now and then, and if you're used to scrounging, I don't think it would change that much. And, most tragic of all, they still haven't done the most important part, which is to make you push around all your worldly possessions in a grocery cart. (There are grocery carts, but you can't interact with them except by kicking them over.) The mode seems fine, in other words, but less relevant in a game that is less about being a citizen in a failed state and more about being a politician or a strongman in a state being rebuilt.
The expansion of the karma system to a more complicated set of relationships with individual factions is a more significant revision. If you do good deeds or certain jobs for people in a given community, or in the NCR or the Legion, you'll become better liked there. This might lead to gifts, aid in battle, discounts on equipment and medical supplies, or other benefits. And of course it's necessary to forming alliances. If you get people in a given place to hate you enough, they'll attack you on sight. You still lose karma by stealing and killing, but the more relevant concern is usually pissing off the locals. Your citizenship, and your politics as you practice them more generally, have real consequences in the game.
The fact that you still lose karma for stealing from certain factions is very strange. I'm at a point in the game where I've essentially declared war on Caeser's Legion. They try to kill me on sight, and I do kill them. I take things off their corpses, which is both morally and socially acceptable even in the case of good people once they're killed, apparently on the theory that the dead do not have property rights. It seems to me that if I can kill a man then I should be able to steal things from his home. I should be able to, at the very least, use his bed, which the game literally will not let you do. There's an argument to be made, though, that makes sense of this quirk in the game's morality. I am skeptical of property rights as a real moral concern: while I enjoy owning things, I don't think of this as a moral question so much as one of convenience. A system wherein I own things is easier for me to live with than one in which I cannot. It rather stabilizes things: I may not have much, but at least I know where I stand. And yet in political terms the question of ownership is essential. In order to organize a society, a community, one has to deal with the distribution of things. In politics, stability is essential. We need to own things not so much because this is right, but because we wouldn't know how to deal with each other if we couldn't. By this view, it's important to recognize the rights even of slavers, because to do otherwise might corrode the whole fragile system I'm trying to build. No, I don't quite buy it, but again, it's interesting that a game can make me think about this sort of thing.
It makes me suspect -- and maybe I'll write more about this later -- that while minimalist storytelling exercises like the games of Fumito Ueda's studio (Ico, Shadow of the Colossus) are currently the most satisfying and beautiful things going in terms of games as a means of narrative and beauty, the game as practical politics has a very strong future, and may even be the most fertile territory for future exploration. In any case, in spite of its extreme glitchiness and a few other small shortcomings, I do think that Fallout: New Vegas is easily one of the best and most important games of this year, and if you were thinking about buying it, I'd say that maybe you should.