As the weeks ticks by, I find myself still playing Wasteland 2. Part of it is that the game is simply massive, stretching out for dozens of hours, hours I do not have as midterms roll around and I find myself aggressively grading student papers and finalizing elements of syllabi and course frameworks I began developing little more than a month ago, but just as significant, perhaps more significant, is the fact that Wasteland 2 frequently paralyzes me with potential decisions to be made. It's a feature of the epic scale RPG with enduring consequences slapped on to the end of it: a game like Wasteland 2 encourages you to explore every conceivable option, and encourages you to do so with thorough aplomb, so much so that each time you enter a new area, if you want to have full control over your potential options in that area, you'll often have to move very, very carefully. Want to save Sarah in The Valley of Titan? You'll have to snipe her assailant from across the map. The Valley of Titan is actually a series of potential narrative pitfalls, which can terminate quite unexpectedly. Traveling with a Monk Guide, a seemingly innocuous decision to make, can completely destroy potential narrative lines. Traveling without a guide can do the same - whatever choice you make, someone's going to try and fight you, and you'll have to kill someone which will, inevitably, piss someone else off, long term. There's really no way around it.
The end result is that I spent three days playing through each potential scenario for The Valley of the Titan, in between grading assignments and picking out readings. Something that marks me as someone with obsessive compulsive disorder? Certainly, but it remains a feature of my experience with Wasteland 2, and it's actually a product of the same qualities I discussed previously that actually make Wasteland 2 so remarkable as a game. I can't necessarily discern where the narrative is going to go, and, as a result, I'll often explore multiple venues. But, since I'm a giant fucking control freak, I'll also replay the game again and again until I get the ending I want. I'd prefer not to just shoot my way into Rodia, so I'll quietly infiltrate the town and assassinate the leader of the bandit army occupying it. I'll rob the bank while I'm at it, and try to find some medical supplies that can potentially help people, but I'll also mess up and accidentally save a marriage instead of reuniting a pair of lovers, which will, in turn, keep a radio from being repaired, and force me to either wander the wastes until I can correct my mistake, or reload my game from an earlier save state and try to dig up some dirt about that filthy Beatrice tramp.
Either way, it's time that I'm wasting for the sake of my ideal playthrough.
To some extent these qualities are forcing me to confront my anxiety, which is a good thing. I'm a twitchy guy in general, and a little encouragement to leave well enough alone sometimes is healthy. But it's also generating something of a crazy time sink as I approach the game less like a narrative experience I'm engaging in, and more like a crazy-as-fuck equation that I'm trying to balance with only a formative understanding of mathematics.
Part of the trouble comes from the fact that there are losing and winning outcomes imbedded in the narrative frame: there are decisions that can be made that eradicate other decisions arbitrarily, elements that don't need to exist for narrative cohesion, that exist none-the-less for the sake of narrative simplicity. The first major plot point of the game, where you're forced to decide between saving two settlements, is one such occasion: other RPGs might let you save both towns, or give you an opportunity to work on saving both towns in different ways, but Wasteland 2 forces you to make your own bed and lay in it, even if the bed seems a bit trite and forced in its making. And sometimes, especially when you uncover a particularly nasty unexpected twist, the end result isn't that you feel like something incredible or organic has emerged, it's that you feel like the game has cheated you in some way. Hence the reboot.
This anxiety, as it builds, is pushing me further and further back into my playthroughs. I've already prepared a new party that I plan to run from start to finish in the game, now that I've uncovered the importance of starting the game with 8 intelligence (so many more skill points!). I've spent days loading and reloading scenarios in the Los Angeles swamp to test out how my decisions will impact the world around me. It's begun to build up to the point that playing the game, something I once did with unabashed joy and enthusiasm, has become something of a chore: I'm not just playing the way I want to play, I'm playing the way I think people might want me to play and trying to discern what my choices will actually lead to, long term, in about six or seven areas when they finally come to fruition.
When I sit down to play, there's now a weight to my actions, partly because of the approaching confrontation that I can see shaping up as the game eases towards its finish, but also partly because of this queer system of accumulations that has become, rather than engaging, onerous. Every interaction, every new area, must be fully explored. Taking one action has begun to represent the elimination of other potential futures, instead of the generation of one particular future. It's an old phenomena, one that dates back to the first consequence oriented games, one that people have found remarkable workarounds to in games like The Walking Dead, but that doesn't make it any less real. Each time I sit down to play Wasteland 2 I find myself compelled to look into the future of the Wastes, and simultaneously paralyzed by the variety of options that I see there, options that I know I'll be eliminating the moment I carve out my future.