In the same spirit as the now infamous Starfield Sandwich Thief, Bethesda titles are well-known for creating a handy sandbox of a game where players can make up roleplaying stories for themselves—hilarious, dramatic, action-packed, and more. This isn’t just true in its factions and in-game decisions, but also the millions of not-glued-down items you can loot. Hundreds of safes to unlock and steal from. A variety of NPCs you can befriend, help, or hurt on a whim. Bethesda games allow you to create organic, unique, off-the-wall internal narratives about your character. This set-up is part of the reason why some players are so devoted to Bethesda titles. While these games do give you just enough direction toward a main goal, the story of this world is yours to make.
A Story Begins in The Mojave Desert
Once upon a time in 2013, I was still playing Fallout: New Vegas three years after its release — not all that wild considering sometimes I still boot the game up to this day. But then, as a junior in high school, I was looking for something fun on my Xbox. Without a new game to play, I found myself once again in the Fallout: New Vegas loading screen.
A little context. When I played my first game of New Vegas, I simply whimsied my way through every encounter, choosing whatever felt interesting at the time. However, when I ran into a game-breaking crash bug during the final mission to take down Caesar’s Legion at Hoover Dam, I quit and didn’t look back, heartbroken.
But in 2013, I wondered if I could try again and find a new ending.
So I sat down for a little while and thought about what kind of character I wanted to be. I wanted to have fun. I wanted to be a badass. I wanted to choose my own path, regardless of what some lawful NCR or evil Legion told me to do. And then — in thinking of all that “do their own thing energy” — it dawned upon me.
I wanted to be New Vegas Keanu Reeves.
No Mercy for The Wicked
Now, bear in mind that this is a time before John Wick, so I didn’t realize how on the money I’d be. But I grew up watching Constantine and The Matrix and saw Keanu Reeves as the height of badass and chill. I spent painstaking hours making my character look like Keanu. The angled cheeks, the dark eyes, the long hair, the beard — I was working off his appearance at the time of the upcoming 47 Ronin — and then set myself upon the wasteland with one goal: No mercy for the wicked. And in a sandbox like New Vegas, that list had a lot of names on it.
I went to the Powder Gangers prison camp and cleared them out. Ended every raider who crossed my path. Wouldn’t take bribes from the Khan and instead blasted shells through their heads. Stalked Caesar’s Legion and decimated their slave-run forces. My New Vegas Keanu had little interest in taking over factions and giving people helpful advice. Instead, he was much more of a Punisher type than the next moral leader. He smote the wicked and hoped everyone else got the message. Or else he’d be back.
The Purge of New Vegas
Then, after hours and hours of playing and wandering around, I made it to New Vegas. I took one look at Mr. House and Gomorrah and the White Glove Society all doing dirty business under the flashing lights and decided: Chaotic Lawful Keanu would burn this place to the ground. It would be the pinnacle of his story arc..
So, I approached the front gates with my strongest weapons and no plans of save-scumming. I was going to end New Vegas or die trying. Instead of bribing or convincing the Yes Men to let me in, I started firing. I made my grand entrance into New Vegas guns ablazing. With every magazine I emptied, I picked up the nearest leftover weapons from my onslaught from my fallen victims and kept going. I cleared through Gammorah, The Tops, even the NCR embassy. Everyone who allowed this seedy town to exist was going down. And in the end, when I stood in the center of New Vegas atop a pile of bodies and somehow, still alive, I decided that was it. New Vegas Keanu achieved his goal. I saved and shut down the game, never to play that character again. And it was one of the best video game experiences I’ve ever had.
Magic in Mischief — The Bethesda Way
Some players do the video game industry a disservice by downplaying how much power roleplaying can have. They focus more on carefully crafted narratives with shocking twists or mechanics. Of course, these things do matter and many critiques of Bethesda’s game-making style are valid and reasonable. But this is a rare developer that gives gamers that true sandbox experience — a world with people and objects and stories to find, but also the freedom to make up your character and their journey all on your own.
Bethesda games allow you to figure out who you want to be in this world. I’ve created lawful good characters. Some truly evil ones. But my favorites tend to be this odd specific subset of chaos. Thieves who take every book they find. Duelists who refuse to use anything but a knife. Vigilantes who prefer street justice over the word of the law. Sometimes, even, just a silly little tourist wandering the world and claiming waypoints like there isn’t anything else interesting going on in the world.
So, in salute to Starfield’s Sandwich Thief and New Vegas Keanu, I’d like to tip my hat to Bethesda. It is not a perfect developer, but its games give you the space to imagine. Whether that’s a no-thoughts-only-guns action adventure or a carefully constructed pirate roleplay, it’s all of your making. For some people so much choice is stressful, but for other players — myself included — all those choices gift us the exact immersive, chaotic, blissful escapism that we need.