No-one forgets the beginning of Fallout: New Vegas. You’re blindfolded and gagged, three gangsters facing you. They’re arguing about payment, then one of them sees you waking up.
The boss pulls a gun out.
“I’m sorry you got twisted up in this scene,” he says to you. “From where you’re kneeling, it must seem like an 18-carat run of bad luck. Truth is, the game was rigged from the start.”
Blam. He shoots you in the head.
Call me one of those guys, but I think Fallout: New Vegas was the best Fallout game. Bethesda are my favourite game developer bar none, but I don’t think any of their Fallout games quite match it. New Vegas feels alive in a way almost no other game does.
And that’s despite the awful graphics and the notorious bugginess.
It has a beautiful atmosphere and I still find myself thinking about the world, the characters and the factions even now, a decade later. Why?
Because it’s so rich. There are many people fighting over New Vegas, and they all have compelling motivations. There is a bitter war, many different sides, and dozens of interesting characters all with their own ideas and motivations. It feels real.
But fiction that contains such depth and complexity – Game of Thrones is the same – always faces the same problem: how do you introduce it to the reader in a way that makes them care?
If you get it wrong, you risk overwhelming them with information. They don’t know what’s relevant, they tune out, and you’ve lost them.
As a writer, it can be tempting to try to avoid this by starting slowly. This is how Lord of The Rings did it: think about how much conflict-free time we spent in the Shire before Frodo got the ring and took the show on the road. And as LoTR has proven, it can be done to great effect.
But an in medias res (‘in the middle of things’) beginning can be just as effective, and that’s what New Vegas does.
It makes the world feel alive, because you’ve started half way through. The characters and setting already have a history, a backstory, and that’s what makes the world feel deep and interesting. But with in medias res, you really do have to be careful about overwhelming the reader with infodumping.
The solution, I think, is to start with something simple. In New Vegas, after you’re shot, you’re dragged out of your shallow grave by a robot and patched up by the local doctor. You’ve lost your memory (convenient), but you were a courier, carrying a poker chip from one place to another. These men attacked you and stole it.
Now you’ve given the reader a simple thread to hold onto. We have to get this chip back. It was the main character’s job to deliver it safely, after all. And if those men are willing to kill over it, it must be important. Plus, we have a personal vendetta against these guys now. They shot the mc in the head, damnit.
A simple thread, a few hooks that make us want to know more, and we can move forward slowly, revealing more about those hooks as we go, and layering in sub-plots along the way. This is, in my opinion, the best way to tell complicated fiction: jump in early with a big event, give the main character some strong motivation and the reader some interesting hooks that make them want to know what happens next, and let loose. Worldbuild slowly: reveal the map in inches, showing new conflicts.
Before you know it, you’ll have a rich storytelling tapestry. And when you [WARNING: MAJOR NEW VEGAS SPOILER] reveal that the poker chip was actually a computer chip programmed to activate a huge army of robot soldiers which anybody could use to control the wasteland, you know they’ll be invested and listening.
Couple this with the in medias res beginning, which makes us feel as though the world already has a history, and you have the makings of a great setting.