Revisiting the Wasteland, Part 3 – Long Arm of the Law

There is a certain expectation we have in society that if someone is on the side of law, they are doing the work of Good. Sure, stories of crooked cops and corrupt agents populate both our entertainment and our reality, but for the most part people tend to believe that law is a good thing.

Wasteland puts the player in the role of the law – in this case, the Desert Rangers – but doesn’t give us a lot of background as to what kind of law they enforce. From the manual, we know they were founded by men from the Army, but once society fell, what parts of the old did they decide to carry on with? In truth, the game never tells you directly. For the player who is paying attention, though, there are are some subtle (and not so subtle) indications as to how the Rangers go about their business.

That brings us to our first stop on our tour of the wastes: Highpool.

Heading west from Ranger HQ, our intrepid lawmen decide to take the manual’s suggestion and check out this location first. Far from the dusty, decaying ruins of a town you might normally expect to find in the wastes, Highpool actually looks like a pretty nice place. The grass is green, trees dot the landscape, and a pleasant stream trickles down from the (one would assume) eponymous pond. Pushing a little further into the area, we are confronted with a series of old-fashioned camp cabins that seem to still be in pretty good shape. The game also informs us that children still populate most of them. The apocalypse might have ended a lot of things, but summer camp was not one of them.

While things might seem downright pleasant in this quiet retreat, we cannot shirk our investigative duties. Poking around the largest of the cabins, we discover a conveniently-placed list of everything of note to do in Highpool. If only all investigations went this smoothly.

While the note on the wall may seem a bit heavy handed, it serves its purpose well in what is ostensibly the tutorial area. It lays out a nice outline of things the player should try and take care of before moving on, as well as providing an opportunity to face a variety of challenges that can test the viability of their characters. In the days before games felt compelled to hold a player’s hands through step-by-step tutorials, this was a nice, natural way to start things off.

Dutiful defender of justice that I am, I start things off by picking the lock on the door just south of the note and stealing what I can from the cabin’s bedroom. Doing this triggers an optional encounter with a group of angry teenagers who are a little upset at your for looting their room. Now, in my first playthroughs of the game, I didn’t think there was anything odd about this. Looking back on it, having played many, many CRPGs since, it’s interesting to see that Wasteland actually had people take umbrage at your pilfering their belongings. It wasn’t until I played the Ultima series that I really saw this again.

As I said, encountering the angry teens is optional, but should you choose to do so, you can mow them down with pretty much no penalty. The Rangers actions are law in the wastes, and who is going to tell you otherwise?

Searching around the rest of Highpool, I locate a sobbing young boy named Bobby who tells me that his dog has gone missing, and could we please bring him back. He tells us of a hidden cave (mentioned on the note) along the west cliff wall. Here we get another chance to use our skills, as a character with good Perception is required to spot the cave, and then we can use our rope and Climbing skills to navigate within. The cave itself is filled with all manner of vermin, as well as a few random pieces of loot. Making our way all the way to the back, however, we encounter poor Bobby’s canine pal.

Though you might call it a snap judgement, it seems reasonable that Bobby isn’t going to want Rex back in his current condition. It would also seem massively irresponsible to leave this diseased, dangerous thing alive to stalk the inhabitants of this peaceful valley, so we do our duty and dispatch it soundly.

Here again Wasteland defies a lot of RPG convention; heading out of the cave, we don’t receive a reward for our hard work. Instead, we are met by a really, really pissed off Bobby. Cursing our names for killing his dog, we are thrust into a combat encounter. Interestingly, Wasteland again tests the player’s moral compass in subtle ways that I didn’t catch on to until much, much later. Once the combat encounter begins, I – like most players – probably took down Bobby in a hail of gunfire. It turns out that if you resist the urge to attack, you’ll realize pretty quickly that Bobby never actually ever makes any moves to attack you. I guess Bobby is smart enough to realize this is a fight he can’t win. If the player simply chooses to move, they can go right past this angry little child and leave him to stew in peace. While it would have been interesting to use a skill like Diplomacy to talk Bobby down, the game still leaves you with a non-violent option should you choose to take it.

Honestly, I’ve always taken out the little punk. I’m kind of an asshole.

Next Time: The Rail Nomads and… Reading!?

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