Monday, February 28, 2011

The Roman Legion: Fact, Fiction, Post-Apocalyptic Fiction in History, The Eagle, Fallout: New Vegas, Long Blog Post Titles

I should probably get to bed but I've wanted to write something about our (very) old friends the Roman Legion. I wasn't a student of classic history and, outside of taking a bit of Latin, I never had a huge amount of direct exposure to the subject.  Most of my knowledge about "the" Roman Empire came through studying their (violent) contact with the rest of the world.  For example, Roman Britain.  The revolt of the Iceni under Boudica, the concurrent attack on Mona, and the (unrelated) disappearance of the 9th Legion from York were my favorite episodes.


When I heard that the new film The Eagle was being made, I was excited.  The disappearance of the 9th Legion aka Legio IX Hispana is a cool subject.  I saw the movie and thought it was... okay.  I think one of the problems is that the Roman Legion isn't portrayed as being particularly great for the Britons and the Britons are portrayed as being ... well, not anything.  They don't seem to have much character outside of really disliking Romans and having some cool Scottish Deerhounds.  Considering the gravitas (yeah I went there) given to retrieving the eagle, the importance of Rome isn't built up that much outside of the main character regularly suggesting, "The eagle... is everything... that is... Rome!" with varying tones of profundity.

When they manage to bring the eagle back, it's a moment of triumph, but who cares?  There's never a time where you can go, "Yeah, I guess this aspect of Roman Britain is really cool and the Britons sure are dumb/bad, so this is a Good Thing(tm)."  Not that I'm advocating such a Braveheart-y portrayal, but if you're going to end on a high note, you have to build to it.

Alternately, Roman Britain could have been portrayed as being a mixed bag of things that were occasionally good for the Britons but almost always oppressively terrible, with the Britons being portrayed as an oppressed people who also regularly did horrible things to each other in spite of having a common enemy.  Because that's pretty much what Roman Britain was: Roman legions stomping on local faces and building some roads while Britons occasionally caused the Romans some grief when they weren't busy killing and/or selling each other out.  The hero could have reached this same conclusion, retrieved the eagle, and decided that the only important thing it symbolized was the character of his father during his final moments.  There would be no triumphant, celebratory return of the eagle to Roman politicians, just a son coming to terms with the legacy of his father and his own place in the world.  That's how I would have ended it, mostly because I think that the world and most of our societies have been differing dark shades of awful, so I find it hard to celebrate any of them.

On a related note, a lot of folks have asked me about the Legion in Fallout: New Vegas and why they aren't more fully fleshed out.  The real answer is "time", and I would have liked to have more locations, characters, and quests for the Legion.  Even so, the Legion was always intended to be a faction that was initially presented as terrible, much like the NCR is initially presented as heroic, with revelations over the course of the story causing you to question that initial impression in a larger context.  Caesar shows a very warped plan for how the Legion can bring order to the Mojave, and there are suggestions that regions under Legion control do enjoy a sort of "Pax Romana", but there isn't enough concrete evidence for the player to directly witness to really sell it.  Even so, under the most ideal of portrayals, it was never my intention for the Legion to become a heroic faction.  Their methods and approach would have always been unflinchingly brutal, with proven results and a clear plan to reproduce that success being the only potentially redeeming qualities of the group.


Pontifex said...

My complaint about the legion in F:NV is that it is presented as a tease choice. I restarted the game with a new character after Nipton thinking I could be pro-Legion and make a go at the game. Unfortunately, what I found is that the Legion only had a few quests for me and I was now pariah almost everywhere. Very disappointing.

I would have preferred knowing that it was basically impossible to join them, much like the Enclave in earlier Fallout versions. As it stands now, they are just a tease.. An idea that is frustratingly close yet out of reach.

I would place the same critique on the "don't poke the bear" quest that penalizes you unnecessarily in my view. The illusion of choice comes into conflict with the will of the designer

J.E. Sawyer said...

I disagree. The Legion is not a tease choice. Render Unto Caesar has fewer quests than the NCR, but you can fully support the Legion through the entire second half of the game (just as you can with the NCR, Mr. House, and Yes Man).

It's not difficult to join the Legion and it's not even difficult to deal with certain areas being under NCR control (especially with disguises). The places you need to go to complete missions for Caesar aren't under NCR control (other than Hoover Dam for Arizona Killer). Places like the Gun Runners, New Vegas Medical Clinic, and Silver Rush don't care about your NCR rep, so access to new gear remains pretty good. It's an exaggeration to say that supporting the Legion makes you a pariah "almost everywhere"; lots of settled places in the world aren't under NCR control.

I also disagree with your critique of "Don't Tread on the Bear". There's no illusion of choice. There's a very real choice: pick a side to support and accept the consequences. The player has quite a bit of warning and time in which to do this while going down the various main faction paths. I think this approach is superior to the most obvious alternatives, namely:

* Forcing the player to pick a faction allegiance halfway through the game and requiring them to stick with it.
* Ignoring what the player does for various factions throughout the game and leaving their fundamental "who wins" decisions for the endgame.

A lot of people support Mr. House -- until he demands that the player destroy the Brotherhood of Steel. A lot of people support NCR -- until they encounter Colonel Moore. Giving the player an indication of how far they are along a faction path and where they stand in relation to other factions puts pressure on them to support one group or the other.

If they find themselves committed to a faction that they realize they can't support until very late in the game, they always have the fall-through option of supporting an independent Vegas -- though if they've burned a lot of bridges along the way, the state of the world in the endgame may be far from ideal.

Anonymous said...

Hmm. I posted this comment earlier, and it disappeared. So, either there’s a technical malfunction or else you don't like my comments much.

In case it’s the former, I’ll try again:

For what it's worth, I liked the fact that the Legion wasn't nearly omnipresent in the Wasteland like the NCR is. If there had been roughly as much Legion stuff as there was NCR stuff, they'd be overexposed.

The fact that they weren't as "fleshed out" made them more interesting as a faction to me.

Pontifex said...

Some of what you say is true JE but the choice is horribly imbalanced. If I anger the NCR then I am denied all the McCarran quests, access to a large number of merchants (188, Mohave outpost, etc), the quest for the sharecropper farms and the office park next to it, the camp golf quests (including the distribution of the ranger codes), and so on. This is on top of all the quests that you are referencing with Moore and Restoring Hope that the Legion does have a mirror quest for. What merchants and quests do you lose by opposing the Legion? Very few.

I was even randomly attacked on the strip, if I recall correctly. And that is just going off my memory, I cannot access the wiki from here today (jury duty today).

Yes it may be possible to avoid a lot of this through clever play if you know what you are doing and complete quests in a certain order, but we cannot judge a design based on perfect knowledge of the way the game works.

And the Bear is misleading because it only happens after you have chosen sides, it is unrealistic that the NCR would have near perfect knowledge of the characters actions, and it actually intimidates the player in a way. It gives the impression you made the wrong choice and puts undue pressure on player freedom in a game that is otherwise a sandbox.

J.E. Sawyer said...

You're not denied the McCarran quests. In fact, you specifically have Legion resolutions FOR two of the McCarran quests (I Put a Spell On You via Finger of Suspicion and Silus Treatment). Dealing with Contreras, Three Card Bounty, I Don't Hurt Anymore and The White Wash can be completed as long as you're wearing NCR faction armor when you're near NCR troops. There are virtually no rangers or patrol dogs at McCarran (possibly none at all, IIRC), so it's trivial to avoid detection.

You can complete Left My Heart without interacting with any NCR personnel and I'm pretty sure Captain Parker can be fooled by NCR faction armor to complete The Coyotes and Keith's Caravan Charade.

You also don't lose access to The 188 because again, there are no rangers or guard dogs present there. Simply putting on any piece of NCR faction gear will allow you to buy from the NCR Arms Merchant or interact with the other folks there.

It is difficult to complete Return to Sender if you have a terrible NCR rep, but all of the NCR faction armor requirements for the quests above are really only necessary if you have absolutely tanked your NCR rep without any positive rep at all. A number of quests can be initiated with faction armor and completed for positive NCR rep, giving access to the others without even needing faction armor.

You don't have to be "clever" to complete these quests, you just have to put on faction armor before jumping into a location controlled by a given faction.

Don't Tread on the Bear IS NOT only triggered after you have chosen sides. It's a progressive quest with four stages. You have many opportunities to back out and/or switch allegiances before it hits the "lockout" stage.

Pontifex said...

Perhaps you may be overestimating the player's perception of needing to wear faction armor. I only thought of it as a way to avoid getting shot at. I would not have thought about putting on the armor and approaching major NPCs for quests if my rep is in the tank.

Konstantinos said...

I have to agree with Greg. Honestly, it never occurred to me to use faction armor to access NCR quests.

Nevertheless. You still happen to bond more with the faction you interact more with. (NCR exploitation of the locals isn't ruthless enough and a single Carrie Boyd immediately boosts my attitude towards NCR immensely :) Then there's Cass. And *LOADS* more of likable characters.)

And it's still very hard to root for the Legion given their presentation.
- The attitude to women is unnecessary. As you mentioned several times, you're writing for a specific audience. And for modern audience downgrading women to cattle is seriously offensive. If only there were hints of the *venerated* wife-and-mother icon rather than animal...
- Extreme obscurantism too. Actual Romans used advanced technology on a scale sometimes not reached till 18th century. Starting with extensive civic/public building (something we didn't catch a glimpse of either), astonishing mining outputs and ending with sophisticated battle machinery.
- Ban on chems and drinks is... so random as well. I can't see how it should (and could) apply to everyone. While attitude towards chems goes hand-in-hand and smells of obscurantism too.
- It'd be very nice to see some well-to-do slaves as in the actual Republic/Empire.
Strokes like these could've made the Legion a much more appealing faction.

Konstantinos said...

Ah. One thing I forgot to mention. The choice of humanoid companions to go with Render Unto Ceasar is kind of... very limited. While 4 of them are ardent haters, Raul and Lily are located in remote locations that requite decent skills to venture to (and quests don't flow-direct you there early either). Besides, being humanoids they're not humans.

So basically there're simply not enough *opinions* and *evidence* to think of the Legion as of a faction that might be a lesser of the two (four) evils. Which I find very disappointing.

Anonymous said...

I always got the impression that early FNV concept wanted to do something with real world Caesar's casino, and that's how we got the antagonists that we did in Caesar's Legion. But since the ingame Legion essentially operates using a Mongolian methodology, why not have the main antagonists be the Khans (who instead operate as the disregardable trailer trash of FNV)? Historically, Roman power derived from the overabundance produced by a powerful agrarian system, something Caesar's nomadic Legion doesn't have. The conquer-obliterate or protect-tax model of FNV's Caesar is just totally from Genghis Khan's playbook. Were the Khan's ever contemplated as the main antagonists? If so, why the shift?

Not sperging over "oh those aren't REAL Romans" as much as it just seems ingame Caesar could just as easily have been a missionary to the Khans, and Caesar's Legion could have been a Vegas faction (or the major Vegas faction), and I wouldn't have to snort at Caesar's exposition as being totally inconsistent with history. Just curious.