Developers don't always know whether or not they'll have the chance to continue their stories, so narrative devices like foreshadowing can be difficult to justify or work into a game's plotline. When Obsidian Creative Director Chris Avellone and his team were told they would have the chance to create four DLC packs for Fallout: New Vegas, it was a unique opportunity. “That allows us, as writers, to do foreshadowing across titles and guarantee it will see the light of day,” Avellone said
The challenge of creating the Dead Money, Honest Hearts, Old World Blues, and Lonesome Road DLC packs for New Vegas lay mostly in the story, in creating DLC that would be meaningful after the game had ended and were still relevant to the player. There was also concern over the fact that Obsidian would know nothing about who the main character of the story was, as they stress player choice in creating and growing characters throughout the game. They began with what they knew about the player for sure.
They knew the player was a courier, often delivered dangerous packages, and had traveled out west into the Mojave desert. Obsidian wondered what would have happened had the Courier delivered their package rather than being shot and having it stolen before the game began. That single, successful delivery would have completely changed the scope and layout of the entire Mojave Wasteland. Avellone and his team wondered about all the other side quests in New Vegas, and what if even a small percentage of them had the same world-shattering impact? That's when the team began to get excited about the four DLC packs.
Obsidian had some appreciable constraints to deal with. Where Fallout: New Vegas is a large area to explore, the DLC would be much more limited. “It's a small area you have to prop out, and that's all the real estate you have to draw the narrative arc,” Avellone said.
The amount of available time for each piece of DLC, four hours, was similarly limited. New Vegas had hundreds of characters and a huge voice cast, whereas the DLC would have to keep both the casting and the amount of spoken dialogue tight. Obsidian would only have ten thousand spoken lines of dialogue to work with throughout all four DLCs.
All of the DLC packs and stories also had to be able to exist in isolation from one another. None of them could have any direct references to any other DLC, because players could purchase any combination of them. “If someone doesn't have Dead Money, you can't reference those events in Lonesome Road. It creates a very interesting narrative challenge,” Avellone said.
Having a four hour limit on the narrative arcs turned out to be an advantage by helping Obsidian to focus their themes and stories. The limitation of a smaller voice cast kept the stories tight between three or four main characters. And New Vegas was so huge, Avellone and his team had a lot of content left over, like areas the player couldn't explore in the main game. With these limitations tackled the question became, “What sort of hooks can we include in the main game to hint these DLCs were going to happen?” said Avellone.
Obsidian made sure they dropped a lot of references to Joshua Graham, the fallen Caesar’s Legion commander known as the Burned Man, in New Vegas to set up the Lonely Hearts DLC. They made sure the player knew another courier could have taken the package that was stolen from the player before the game began, but refused the job once they saw the player's name was next on the list. The question of another courier who knew a lot about the player, and who could have set them up to be killed, set the stage for Lonesome Road. And the player's companion from the Brotherhood of Steel, Veronica, mentioned her mentor from the Brotherhood, Father Elijah, who would appear in Dead Money. Obsidian also used visual cues, like pre-war posters for the Sierra Madre hotel and the entertainer Dean Domino in New Vegas to foreshadow Dead Money.
By knowing they would be able to do four DLCs from the very beginning, Obsidian was able to draw connections between the four packs which only players who purchased multiple packs would see. Again, there couldn't be direct references between them, and major characters from one of the packs couldn't appear in any of the other three in case the player killed them, but Avellone and his team managed to create the presence of the major characters throughout all the packs.
Working on the idea that all the major characters from the New Vegas DLC packs had been in all the locations among all four packs, Obsidian would look at maps and trace the paths of the major characters through them. Campsites, holodisc messages, graffiti and caches of weapons and equipment illustrate these paths to the players. This “reinforcing cast” system allowed the player to see the larger picture of these DLC character's lives, and how the player's actions affected them all.
Each of the DLC packs stood separate and complete on their own, but taken together formed a rich narrative arc. Avellone called it “a crazy experiment.” Obsidian took a chance, and it worked tremendously well.
Dennis Scimeca is a freelance writer from Boston, MA. In addition to feature writing and event reporting for G4, his work has been published on Kotaku, Ars Technica and Gamasutra. His weekly column First Person runs on The Escapist, and you can follow him on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.