In last week’s blog I started my jawin’ about the recent release of Wasteland 2, the long-in-coming sequel to 1988’s Wasteland — a game rightly regarded as the grandaddy of post-apocalyptic computer RPGs. It’s a trite thing for a company to release a product and say “Because you demanded it!”, and yet in Wasteland 2’s case this would be entirely correct. Without the millions of dollars donated to Kickstarter by Fans Like Me, the game would not exist. It just flat out couldn’t get a publisher in today’s climate of first-person shooter franchises and risk-averse gatekeepers.
I suppose you really can’t blame those gatekeepers in an era where a game like Destiny ends up spending $500 million on development, a figure almost twice that of even the most lavish major motion picture budgets. Where the Tomb Raider reboot can sell 3.4 million copies (at around $60 US each) and still be considered a failure by its publisher. There’s just no room for risk. And while a video game being rated M for Mature isn’t the death knell of profit the way movies can make or break based on the often arbitrary and fuzzy lines between ‘PG-13′ and ‘R’, having any sort of content that could get a game pulled from the Wal-Mart shelves is still a big no-no for a big, AAA title.
Now, if you consider games like the Grand Theft Auto series to be controversial, well — let’s just say back in the day, things were a little looser even than that. Have you ever noticed that in a modern game, children are completely invulnerable, even in sandbox games like Skyrim and Fallout 3 where you can kill all the adults around them and raze the place they live to the ground?
That’s no accident. You see, the ESRB, which controls the content ratings of all games in the U.S. and Canada, has a level above “M for Mature”, which is “Adults Only”. You’ll rarely see a game with that rating, because major retail chains like Wal-Mart won’t carry that game on their shelves. Online services like Xbox Live won’t distribute it, and in fact Microsoft and Sony just flat out won’t support any development for their consoles after it’s been judged ‘AO’. Trying to get around the ESRB is no good either, since unrated games are automatically excluded.
Where are the lines drawn between ‘M’ and ‘AO’? Good question. But something like 1990’s Escape From Hell probably would have had a tough time seeing wide distribution, don’t you think? You know who published Escape From Hell, with its happy-go-lucky adventure that saw you teaming up with Hitler and Stalin on a quest to defeat Satan himself? A little company by the name of Electronic Arts.
What’s that you say? Your appetite for irony remains unsated? Well, Electronic Arts also published the original Wasteland, but wouldn’t give Brian Fargo the time of day when he came back trying to get them to greenlight a sequel. I’m surprised he even got in the door. Brian who? You say you put us on the map in the first place with classics like Wasteland and The Bard’s Tale? Whatever, old man. Get lost, we don’t need your kind around here anymore.
That’s why Mr. Fargo eventually turned to Kickstarter. It’s probably also why Wasteland 2 allows you to solve a crisis by giving cigarettes to kids.
Yes, I’ve finally gotten around to the hint I mentioned last week. Wasteland 2 at times feels very much like a barbarian throwback rattling at the gates of modern, civilized gaming. Character creation actually asks you to choose the brand of cigarettes your character smokes (although “none” is an option). It similarly allows you to choose a religious affiliation if you wish. The juveniles you can give cigarettes to can be brutally killed as an alternate method of solving the issue. Your superiors in the Desert Rangers won’t be happy if you do that, but heck, if you’re tough enough you can just kill them, too.
I do presume the price of this horrible, horrible freedom is that you may render the game unwinnable, which is another throwback to days of yore. But the freedom is there, and it’s an interesting feeling after so many games where you don’t even get the option. You’re ostensibly supposed to be a force for good and order, but at least to an extent the game allows you to instead be a completely barbaric asshole, far beyond even the worst Renegade excesses of Mass Effect.
Is that a good thing? Well, consider this. The original Wasteland all but forced you to kill a child early in the game. It was a misunderstanding, and technically self-defense, but it’s still a rough thing if you’re trying play your guys as heroes. If, on the other hand, you want to engage in outright villainy, you can massacre an entire town of children.
I admit, I tried this option out on one of my playthroughs — but the crazy thing is the game developers actually expected it, and send some very strange and surreal karmic retribution your way that will roundly kick your ass if you’re unprepared. You are not prepared.
But then again, Wasteland was a free roaming game and you could restart it with the same characters (including their high levels and equipment) after you’d finished, so you could theoretically work it out that you were able to also deal with the retribution.
I did that. And the consequences of my victory were, well — chilling. The developers let you do it all, with no artificial limitations on your murder spree, and yet in the end I didn’t just feel bad, I felt downright horrified at what I’d inflicted on a bunch of low-rez pixels.
Some people probably wouldn’t. But true to its roots, Wasteland 2 again allows you to be a jerk. How much of a jerk, I don’t know, because a lot of the same writers are on board, and that experience from 26 years ago still haunts me enough I don’t feel like testing them.
Wasteland 2 did end up rated ‘M for Mature’, so I guess despite the cigarettes and potential for juvenile murder the content of the new iteration wasn’t enough for the ESRB to slap it down. But compared to most games these days, it still seems rather fearless. We’ll talk about some other aspects of that fearlessness that surprised me next time ’round, this time dealing with one of my repeated subjects in this blog: the issue of intellectual property. See you then!