Wednesday, April 25, 2012

#18: Character Analysis #1: Ulysses (Fallout: New Vegas: Lonesome Road)

Warning: Fallout: New Vegas and DLC spoilers
A few weeks back, I discussed characterization in Fallout: New Vegas. I said that the “villain” faction (because the player will almost always be directly opposed to it), Caesar's Legion, was one of the most poorly written groups out of the games factions. Though I did not explicitly say it then, I lamented the fact that the villain was so poorly written. In my opinion, the villain has to be one of the most well-written characters in a game. Fortunately, it seemed Obsidian preempted me and learned from its mistake. While I was busy complaining about the Legion, they released the Lonesome Road DLC and introducing one of, in my opinion, the most interesting and well-written characters in New Vegas. The villain of Lonesome Road, Ulysses, will be the subject of my first (and hopefully not the last) character analysis.

Before I get into his character, I need to explain his history, and it is a long and interesting one. Ulysses was originally a member of a tribe called the Twisted Hairs. The Twisted Hairs were a tribe known for their dreadlocks that symbolized every significant event in the lives of those who wore them. This tribe was eventually conquered by Caesar's Legion and conscripted into the Legion's military. In time, Ulysses began to stand out amongst his peers and became one of Caesar's elite, while the rest of his tribe slowly died out. He became a courier working for Caesar and made a promise to him that he would not kill anyone of the same profession. (I can only assume this is because either there are a lot of Legion couriers or that Caesar thinks he can use the couriers of an area after he takes over.) It was Ulysses who discovered Hoover Dam and the New California Republic, symbols of Old World values from before the Great War, for the Legion, sparking Caesar's obsession with the Dam and the war between the two factions over it.

Soon afterward, Ulysses was sent to explore NCR territory on the Legion's behalf and report back to them. It was while exploring that he discovered “The Divide,” a community shaped by Old World symbols and technology, which inspired him to wear the Old World Flag and carry an eagle staff as symbols. Ulysses saw the Divide as a place he could settle down, a place he could rebuild and begin again. Then, the Courier (the player character) came to the divide with a package to deliver. (Remember, this was before the events of the game.) The package contained Old World technology that, once activated, detonated many of the nuclear warheads and turned the Divide into yet another nuclear wasteland. Ulysses would have died if it had not been for more Old World technology springing to life to heal him. This event had two drastic effects on him. First, he developed a hatred for the Courier because it was his delivery that caused the destruction of his home for the second time. On the flip side, this event inspired him. It showed that one small, seemingly insignificant action from a single person could have a dramatic effect on the world at large.

After returning to the Legion, he learned that Caesar lost in the First Battle of Hoover Dam to the NCR. He was sent to Utah to arrange for tribals to attack the settlement of New Canaan. (Caesar had personal reasons to ask for this.) He felt sorrow for manipulating the tribals in a similar way to how his own tribe was manipulated way back when. This was exacerbated by the fact that the tribals began to wear their hair as he does. While they believed they were honoring him, Ulysses saw that as nothing more than an empty mockery of his tribe's tradition because they did not know the “history” behind it. This inspired him to leave his duties as a Legionnaire and try to change the course of history, believing that both the NCR and the Legion are both to flawed and do not know the best way to positively impact humanity's future.

He traveled to an Old World installation, Big Mountain, by tracking the weather patterns, noting that storms like the ones he was tracking are similar to the storms caused by the events of the Divide. There, he made contact with two members of the Brotherhood of Steel, an organization devoted to preserving Old World technology, directing one to the Sierra Madre Casino and having an intense philosophical debate with the other. Ulysses was hoping that the Brotherhood would know how to best lead humanity into the future, but eventually decided that they did not after having this debate. He continued to explore Big MT and met with the Think Tank, a group of scientists (well, tat least the brains of a group of scientists) who experiment and innovate in the safety of the area. Ulysses began to grow frustrated with the erratic nature of the Think Tank and finally yelled at them, “Who are you, who do not know your own history!?” At that moment, the Think Tank's collective memory came back and they recalled the America of before the Great War: Not just the nation, but the ideal. They told him about the last bastion of the Old World. Deep down in the Divide, there was an old missile silo still waiting for the launch command. Ulysses left Big MT determined to change history as the Courier had in the Divide.

As a last gesture to the Mojave before heading once more into the Divide, Ulysses was about to accept a commission to deliver a Platinum Chip to New Vegas. He was suspicious of the job, but felt that he could handle it. Then, at the last minute, he saw the name of the first person on the waiting list for the job. It was the Courier, who Ulysses assumed dead after the events of the Divide. Out of respect of his old promise to Caesar, and out of a desire for revenge, Ulysses dropped the job, knowing that the Courier would be the one to take it up, thus initiating the events of Fallout: New Vegas.

All of this history is central to understanding Ulysses as a character. He has several interesting and realistic motives for what he does during the events of the Lonesome Road. Firstly, he wants to do his best to improve humanity's future by destroying the NCR, who he sees as unable to help humanity in the long run. He does not bother with the Legion partly because he believes that Caesar will eventually tire himself out and wear down to the point where he might as be dead and partly because (and this is speculation on my part) that he still sees the Legion forces as family. With these two factions out of the way, the people of the wasteland will be able to advance on the correct path, guided by the values of the Old World.

This leads to another one of his internal conflicts. On one level, he despises Caesar for betraying his tribe, the Twisted Hairs, and killing them off. On the other hand, he does partially sympathize with Caesar and the Legion and thinks that while they cannot sustain themselves and that they do not know how to last in the wasteland, they still have noble goals. This is an interesting internal conflict. He has seen the good that Caesar's Legion is capable of, but has also experienced the worst of what the Legion can do. He has also witnessed how the Legion operates and knows that the current model is only sustainable so long as the Legion has an enemy to fight. This provides a level of depth and intrigue to his character that is quite refreshing to see.

The fate of the Twisted Hairs and of the Divide are what inspired another key aspect to Ulysses's character: His obsession and attention to detail with regards to history. After witnessing the destruction of two settlements, the people, and the knowledge of them, Ulysses understands the tragedy of lost history. This is what inspired him to learn more about the Old World, the symbols and the events of the past. He eventually took the name of a key general who defended his home in war time, Ulysses S. Grant. His reverence for the Old World is a key-aspect of the character. It is the reason he tried to settle at the Divide, the reason he traveled to Big MT, and the reason he found his motivations and the method to achieve his goals.

The last conflict with his character is the one that is the most obvious, his relationship with the player character. Because of his promise with Caesar and his desire to honor it, Ulysses is forbidden from attacking the Courier directly. This means that he needs to find indirect ways to get revenge for what happened in the Divide. He tried once by giving the player the Platinum Chip job that led to him/her being shot twice in the head and left in a shallow grave at the beginning of the game. By the time the player begins the Lonesome Road, he/she has most likely begun asserting his influence on New Vegas and shaping it the way he/she desires. This provides further motivation for Ulysses. He wants to not only shape the world his way, but to prevent the Courier from leaving his/her mark on history. This provides an interesting dynamic between the player and the primary antagonist that is furthered by the conversations the player can have with him throughout the Lonesome Road. However, just because Ulysses hates the Courier does not mean that he will not lend his ear to him/her. This is perhaps the best part of his character. Despite what has happened to him, despite his personal feelings, despite the player acting contrary to his goals, Ulysses is willing to listen and try to understand the player. The player, with either a high enough Speech skill or knowledge divined through Ulysses's personal recordings scattered throughout the Divide, can even talk him down and convince Ulysses to join his side. This speak volumes about Ulysses, more than his backstory or actions do, and makes him more than just another enemy. It makes him a good antagonist and character.

Ulysses is an example of what writing in video games should be like. He has a deep and involving backstory that ties into many of the events of both New Vegas and its DLC. His backstory gives him a unique personality that is both believable and relate-able. This is what happens when a talented writing staff makes takes it upon themselves to write detailed lore, fascinating characters, and believable interactions for the player to have with both of them. Game developers and writers should look to Obsidian and take this lesson to heart when developing the world of their games. This is arguable even more important for games because players are active participants in the world and the story.


SougoXIII said...

Whoa, this is a really nice character analysis. Sorry I don't have much to say on this since I haven't played the 'Lonesome Road' yet despite completing New Vegas 4 times by now.

Just wanted to say that I have been keeping an eye on your blog for awhile now and found your post to be very well written/expressed.

Keep up the good work

newdarkcloud said...

Thank You. I appreciate the viewership and I'll try to keep it up!

Sebastian said...

Hey, man, loved your insights on Ulysses, well done. Was wondering whether you still intend to write any further analyses or if you lost interest.

newdarkcloud said...

It isn't that I've lost interest. I've been kicking around ideas for another Character Analysis for some time. It's just that I have such a huge list of topics to choose from that I want to comment on, so this has been put on the back-burner, so to speak.

This was written at a time where I was running out of ideas and really liked his character, so I decided to make him the focal point for an article. There will no doubt be a time when I do another one of these, but I have no clue how soon that will be.

Sebastian said...

That's cool, just checking. Keep up the good work, whatever you write on :)

Even said...

Goes pretty much along with how I interpreted him. There's a few minor details that I'd see a little differently, but overall this is probably the best and most accurate analysis I've ever read on him. Many people simply dismiss him because he doesn't really engage you with all this knowledge of his past and talks very cryptically. Without taking the extra work of trying to figure him out, there's little in ways of understanding him, which I have to say was a somewhat bold move on part of the writers.

The only thing I can't really fully agree on is what transpired when he was in Utah. The way he talks about it, it just seems like him expressing regret after the fact had happened, rather than when he was actually doing it. The way he describes the scene where the White Legs came to him imitating him and declaring their dedication to him just sounds like him of having somesort of major post-traumatic flashback and a sudden realization of what he's done. Seeing the 'ghosts of his former tribesmen', all coming back to him and then further pondering on what the world really lost when the New Canaanites were wiped out. I'd argue that it's the point where he only really came to understand what all that lost history really meant to him and what the potential price you have to pay for losing it can be. It's hard to know for sure, of course, but I always felt that holotape pretty important in this aspect. Still I suppose it doesn't really matter where it happened, just that it happened.

newdarkcloud said...

Thank you for reading it. I love the way Obsidian handles the character. You have to look take the time to look around if you truly want to understand why he does what he does. As a history fan, it was cool to see "history" become a major theme of one character, especially a very important one.

That's an interesting, and also perfectly valid, interpretation of Ulysses's backstory. I won't dispute it because, as you say, the particulars can be difficult to pin down. All we can get is an overall timeline.