I first picked Boone up in Novac, a town memorable only for a former tourist attraction known as Dinky the Dinosaur. Boone was the town’s night sentry; he sat in the gigantic dinosaur’s mouth, surveying the darkened wasteland with a set jaw that seemed rather at odds with the large plastic dinosaur teeth that cradled his sniper rifle.
I’d heard about Boone. The day-shift sentry mentioned that Boone refused to talk to him and expressed gratitude that, thanks to their rotating shifts, he rarely had to come face-to-face with the guy himself. A vendor hawking toy dinosaurs in Dinky’s hindquarters could only groan, “He’s got a real chip on his shoulder, that one.” The town’s innkeeper, a dainty-voiced grandmotherly type, was more sympathetic, sighing, saying simply that Boone hadn’t been quite right since his wife had left him.
When I finally encountered Boone myself, he did not disprove his reputation for being angsty and difficult. “Carla is dead,” he said to me flatly, unsmiling. “She was sold to the Legion as a slave, and I’m not interested in speaking to you again unless you bring me the person who sold her.”
This was certainly inconsistent with stories from the other villagers, stories that Boone’s wife, flighty and yearning for the city, had simply up and left one night, returning to Vegas. Maybe Boone was simply in denial that his wife had left him. Maybe he was a complete crackpot. In any case, I accepted his request: if were I to find the person that sold his wife to the terrifying, wasteland-pillaging Legion, I was to lure them out in front Dinky the Dinosaur so that Boone could exact his revenge.
Until this point, I had not assumed that Fallout: New Vegas would have very profound stories to tell. It took me a long time to get used to this more thoughtful, slow-paced style of first-person gameplay; I died repeatedly to the dumbest things and was overcome with childish frustration at the V.A.T.S. system’s incapability to simply carry me through the wastes, downing radiated scorpions and geckos for me. I was always caught in the act of pickpocketing locals, prompting me into a bad habit of auto-loading repeatedly until I’d finally successfully looted the handful of rusted bottle caps contained in my victim’s pockets. I wondered why my equipment was constantly on the verge of breaking. And to fail so often to a game that so many others adored, well, didn’t I like a right idiot?
New Vegas became my shameful secret. I couldn’t admit to playing it; doing so felt as though I was also admitting to failing at it. It was the more lighthearted aesthetics that kept me hooked. I’d tuned my Pip-Boy into the most embarrassingly country radio station I could find, and I was soon singing along to the occasional line that I could pick out from between banjo solos, my already-horrible singing voice affecting a hillbilly twang. I adored that visual representation of the game’s various stats and perks, the ubiquitous Vault Boy and his roguish wink; the ridiculous, ever-cheerful grin.
I had little clue of what New Vegas’ ‘bigger picture’ was supposed to be. I was truly a drifter, idly passing time as I traipsed across the desert towards some vaguely-defined goal.
So it was unintentionally that I found myself in the lobby of Novac’s inn one night, casually pocketing everything that I could find on the shelves. While looting the cash register, I noticed a safe built into the floor behind the counter. I figured that it’d be full of even more crap for me to sell right back to the town’s NPCs, so I got to work on the lock with a bobby pin.
What I found inside turned the course of the game for me. Aside from a few caps and an assortment of random everyday objects that were probably treasured as valuables after the apocalypse, there was a bill of sale. It named the unassuming grandmotherly innkeeper, Jeannie May Crawford, as the recipient of a large sum of caps, in exchange for the life of not only Carla Boone, but also the unborn child she was carrying. The two were fated to become slaves to the Legion.
It was a horrific dawning for me, to realise that the game encompassed absolutely wrenching sub-plots like this. Boone was more than a questgiver to me now; I was determined to help him avenge what had happened to his family.
It was 2am, but I stormed into every residence in town until I found Jeannie May, insisting to her that there was something in front of the dinosaur that she needed to see. “Well, all right, dear,” she said, with the agreeability of an adult humouring a child’s far-fetched stories. I followed her out of the house and to the dinosaur. In the chilly darkness, I could see the glint of a rifle between the dinosaur’s jaws. I reached into my inventory for Boone’s red beret, our agreed signal that my companion was the one who had ruined his life, and I placed it on my head. I held my breath, waiting to see what would happen. Jeannie May raised her face to look at me quizzically. A moment later, a shot pierced the air, strewing her brains across the dirt.
Boone’s voice did not seem any less hollow after executing his family’s betrayer. Jeannie May was dead – so what? It didn’t bring Carla back, and now he had even less purpose in life. He was as much of a drifter as I, with his traumatic past rendering him loyal to nobody but himself. I implored him to join me, and to my surprise, he agreed.
Boone’s been with me since. At first, it was a little strange getting used to having this overpowered sniper trail me – to hear him say, huskily, “I’ve got your back”, to turn and see him expressionless and stoic behind his dark glasses, not giving anything away. He obediently carries around my collection of guns and various armours; “It’s gonna be hard looking out for you when I can’t move my legs,” he says, sarcastically, should I overload his weight capacity. He was never a great conversationalist to begin with, but he’s been there to make up for all my shortcomings as a player.
He’s silent until he perceives a threat, at which point he turns into a cold, determined killer. He’s constantly scanning our environment as we travel, and has often managed to kill an enemy before I even became aware of it being in my proximity. He looks out for me.
He is merciless in defending me.
Now I know this probably wasn’t intended by the game designers, but it’s a real strength of the game that Boone’s companionship has so greatly affected my playthrough. He’s helped me love a game that I had so much trouble with, and not just because he can so easily one-shot enemies that used to slaughter me repeatedly. He’s been my only constant in the chaotic wastes, even a friend. I can’t help but wonder if choosing a different companion would still have tinted my game with such heartbreaking poignancy, or if my experience of the game would have made such a drastic turn had I continued to persist across the barren plains alone.
I’ve developed a frighteningly real emotional attachment to him. I know it’s probably not mutual, but in my head I colour the game’s mechanics with meaning. Boone had nothing left in his world when I met him. Now that I’ve helped close the door on what happened to his wife, I have become the only person in the world that he is loyal to, and that’s made for a pretty bittersweet journey.
We travelled all the way to New Vegas together. He fended off the raving thugs that targeted me in the ruined outskirts of the city, and together we dashed for the gate. He’s been with me as we explored the decadence of the casinos, freed a rich man’s spoiled son from the clutches of an upper-class cannibal society, dealt with mafia-like hotel bosses in smoke-filled dusty backrooms. Embarrassingly, Boone was even present when I solicited the services of a prostitute.
Upon gaining status as an honorary member of the Kings, a gang of sultry, smooth-talking Elvis impersonators who plied their moves just outside the city, I turned to Boone, wondering if my sexy new rocker’s outfit might elicit a smile. Instead, I noticed that a new dialogue option had become available. It’s time you told me what happened to your wife.
Haltingly, he told me.
After she had been kidnapped, he’d tracked down her enslavers in the hopes of rescuing her. When he finally caught up, he was crestfallen to discover her in the presence of numerous Legion soldiers. There were too many of them to fight, but he couldn’t leave Carla to a life of slavery. He raised his rifle to his eye and took the shot, killing her in an awful act of mercy.
Now I realise why his voice is so laden with misery, why he cannot fathom getting close to anybody again. Few could recover from such trauma; Boone probably never will. Maybe his fierce, brutal protection of me is the only semblance of catharsis he’ll ever have again. Maybe he needs me as much as I need him.