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Hit the road, Desert Companion readers! And while you're at it, have a look around. This issue invites you to not only escape to the outdoors, but also to think about the environmental issues affecting our pursuits and our world.

Welcome to Fabulous New Vegas

Illustration: Ryan Vellinga
Nevada Public Radio

The world of this old Vegas-set video game remains so compelling, fans travel here to visit the real thing

As I stand in the Goodsprings cemetery, I do my best to be respectful of its residents, especially since only bona fide citizens of the town can be buried here. The place has a sepulchral serenity. Miniature American flags on headstones flap in the wind. There is a bench for contemplation. The sun shines all day. It’s a fine place not only to spend eternity, but also to reflect on the fleeting nature of life, the passage of time, and one’s own mortality.

But for a package courier approximately 257 years from now, Goodsprings cemetery is where life begins.

The 2010 video game Fallout: New Vegas, developed by Obsidian Entertainment and published by Bethesda Softworks, is a role-playing adventure set in the Greater Las Vegas area after a nuclear war has destroyed most of the planet. Players take on the role of a courier unwittingly embroiled in a power struggle between tribals-turned-mafiosos, opposing civilizations from California and Arizona seeking to expand their territories, a mysterious and seemingly immortal tech billionaire with his own plans, and other factions seeking their cut of Sin City. It’s up to you, the Courier, to decide which outcome is best for New Vegas.

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Fan devotion to Fallout: New Vegas remains strong even though the game is now old enough to be a freshman in high school. (Although, with an M for Mature rating, it’s still not old enough to play itself.) Subreddits, social media pages, and fan sites remain vitally active. And some who have the means even take their zeal a step further and brave the white-line nightmare (read: the U.S. Interstate Highway System) to see the real Mojave Wasteland.

During their virtual quests, gamers can visit the Strip, Downtown, Boulder City, Red Rock Canyon, Mt. Charleston, Primm, and Nipton, among other places. Fallout: New Vegas director Joshua Eric Sawyer even hopped on a motorcycle to do location research with the Obsidian team. One of their stops included Goodsprings, where the game begins with your character taking a bullet in the noggin in the town cemetery, a murder attempt that you miraculously survive. Because of this, Goodsprings has earned a special place in the hearts of players. No matter which paths you choose or whether you finish the game, everyone starts in Goodsprings.

“I’m a Star Wars geek,” Old Man Liver tells me. “I understood it right away.” Old Man Liver, real name Stephen Staats, is the owner (since 2021) of the Pioneer Saloon in Goodsprings. I’ve driven out here to learn how the town’s prominence in Fallout: New Vegas has affected tourism. On his website, Staats claims he won the saloon in a poker match, a dubious claim that, despite my best efforts, I can’t get him to confirm. Regardless, he seems to have quickly embraced the town of Goodsprings and fleshed out its connection with Fallout fans.

On a previous visit to the saloon, which is re-created with high fidelity in Fallout: New Vegas, I observed that trinkets and replicas of in-game items were stowed beneath the counter in the general store next door, only brought out for fans looking for them. Now, an entire portion of the dining area is dedicated to New Vegas memorabilia. Piles of bottle caps (the in[1]game currency), New California Republic soldier dog tags, and a combat gas mask are eyed with a bit of contempt by the portraits of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard across the room.

In 2022, Staats organized the saloon’s first Fallout: New Vegas Fan Celebration, inviting New Vegas fans and influencers (yes, influencers) to show off their cosplay, reenact moments from the game, and meet fellow Fallout diehards.

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Hosting it in July was a rookie mistake, but otherwise the event was a smash. According to Old Man Liver, the first year exceeded expectations, with about 1,000 attendees. “We were thinking maybe 50 or 100 people would show up,” he says. Fans camped in the surrounding area, stayed in nearby Jean, or rode a shuttle to the saloon from the Tuscany in Las Vegas. Attendees supported Goodsprings by lining up around the saloon for drink and grub, or joining the “Asshole Association,” a community chest for town services. The 2023 meetup, which drew a reported 4,000 fans, was sensibly moved to November. The next is scheduled for November 16-17.

Surely, this phenomenon warrants academic research. David G. Schwartz, who serves as the UNLV ombuds and has a doctorate in U.S. history, is the preeminent scholar on this topic. He breaks it down in his paper, “Back in the Saddle: Fallout: New Vegas and Meme Tourism in Goodsprings, Nevada’s Pioneer Saloon.” He describes “meme tourism” as a “subset of entertainment-influenced tourism, which is itself a subset of cultural tourism.” Other examples include Trekkies visiting Vasquez Rocks, in California, to see where a rubber-suit alien got a good beating from Capt. Kirk, or Joker viewers taking photos at a step street in the Bronx made famous by Joaquin Phoenix’s choreography. Vegas also takes part in the fun, with companies such as Annie Bananie Las Vegas Tours offering meet-and-greets with the casts of Pawn Stars and Counting Cars.

But while the proscenium of film and television keeps the audience as passive observers, video games turn you into an active participant. In Fallout: New Vegas, you can be a crusader for justice or a violent marauder, an ambitious go-getter or indifferent drifter. The choice is up to you. The choice is you.

“A trip to Goodsprings,” Schwartz says, “has markers of a spirit quest. Even for Southern Nevada residents, it involves a considerable drive out of town, both in miles and in spirit.” There is a sense of transmutation that occurs in the seven miles between the I-15 and the Pioneer Saloon. Many games offer “player agency” through decision-making, but often they feel shallow. Player actions in New Vegas are poignant because they often involve agonizing deliberation and unexpected repercussions. One crushing questline involves helping a travel companion decide whether she wants to stay with her isolationist community, the Brotherhood of Steel. If she stays, it’s with the understanding that their unwillingness to work with the outside world will lead to their downfall. If she leaves, the Brotherhood will slaughter the new community she joins. These scenarios give weight to characters who are, technically speaking, a bunch of ones and zeroes.

Short of open murder, there aren’t “right” or “wrong” paths. What you choose reveals your values and what you’re willing to sacrifice to maintain them. Fallout: New Vegas ends with a slideshow recounting your adventures; the harrowing music makes you realize how you are both a small com[1]ponent of, yet a major influence on, the world around you. It’s a revelatory text that converts casuals into pilgrims seeking out its landmarks.

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If it’s not already obvious, I am one of these Fallout pilgrims — I don’t usually stand around in cemeteries otherwise. As a kid growing up in Vegas, I never felt any movie or TV show cared to represent the city in any way more nuanced than The Hangover. I discovered Fallout: New Vegas at an age when I was being allowed a degree of independence. Once I got the keys to the family car, where did I go besides the taco shop after school? Old Mormon Fort. Hoover Dam. Boulder City. Goodsprings. Primm. All locations you visit in New Vegas. There was an excitement to it, recalling that here was the spot where I went toe-to-toe with dangerous, dynamite-wielding convicts. Or here, using temporary insight I gained from a medicine magazine, I performed life-saving surgery on a weary traveler.

In a Zoom call, Schwartz acknowledges that players also spend much of their time shooting mutants, people, and wild animals. “I would hope that’s something people don’t try to re-create in the real world,” he says.

Fortunately, it seems most who went to Goodsprings for the celebration are on the courteous side. “The Fallout community has so far been some of the nicest and most creative people I’ve ever interacted with,” Old Man Liver says. After the two-day event, volunteers stay behind to help clean up, a gesture residents seem to appreciate.

Schwartz also points to the video game’s modding community as a reason players might feel a deeper sense-of-self with than with a movie or TV show. “Mods,” for the uninitiated, are aftermarket modifications to a game that can enhance the visuals, gameplay, and performance. Mods are typically created by fans and thereby give players a unique sense of ownership and customization. “I think of it similar to how in the early days of cars, you also needed to be a bit of a mechanic, too,” Schwartz says.

As someone who spent many hours fixing his heavily modded copy of New Vegas in the same way a greaser would have labored over a souped-up T-Bird, I can tell you that Schwartz’s theory is well-founded.

Even if the game was often a buggy mess (it was developed in just 18 months, a major crunch in the video game world), the developers clearly did their homework, both geographically and historically. The game pays homage to Vegas icons such as Bugsy Siegel, in the character of casino manager Benny, and Howard Hughes, model for the enigmatic lord of the Strip, Mr. House. One quest involves recovering a WWII bomber from the bottom of Lake Mead, which was based on a real-life B-29 Superfortress that crashed into the reservoir in 1948. It’s still down there.

“I think it’s great,” Old Man Liver says. “They come because of the game, and then they meet the people here and find out about our unique history.” My desire to learn the chronicles of my city, and subsequently deepen my civic engagement, had a lot do with Fallout: New Vegas. Partially because the game was so enjoyable, but also from the feeling that we had finally been seen in a way that honors our community.

Perhaps the best way to encapsulate all of this is the quest for the in-game collectibles, snow globes. These rare items command a hefty bounty (2,000 bottle caps for each one you find) and reward players for digging through every nook and cranny of the Wasteland, with snow globes hidden in the closets and neglected areas of places such as Nellis Air Force Base and the Nevada Test Site.

Snow globes are, of course, the pinnacle of tourist tchotchkes. You can find them in any museum or attraction gift shop, even in locales not known for winter weather. So, in a way, the Courier, between efforts to repair broken generators or get a new brain for a robot dog, is also “playing” a tourist. In an interesting turn of life imitating art, Fallout fans have crafted snow globes and delivered them to their real-life locations. The Old Mormon Fort has received several, displaying one prominently in the gift shop and giving another to Schwartz after his presentation about New Vegas in its museum.

It may seem a little ridiculous to identify so deeply with a game, to handcraft a snow globe, a laser rifle, or a souvenir dinosaur and render it to its mythic point of origin. To attend a desert party dressed as a video game character. To feel a sense of connection while standing in a graveyard where no one I know is buried. But there’s a powerful homecoming in this journey that I have yet to see with any other fandom or media franchise. The 2010 trailer ends with the tagline, “Enjoy Your Stay.” If the game were to get a remake or rerelease today, it might say instead, “Welcome Home.”

As I drive back from Goodsprings, I look around at the desert. The mountains bear witness. The Strip begins to peek over the horizon. For a moment, I’m not a writer living and working in the 2020s. I’m a Courier surviving in the 2280s, determined and unforgiving in who I am. Because, as the series tagline reminds us, war … war never changes. ✦