The Mysterious Wasteland 3 Prisoner Says a Lot About the Full Game

It's the end of the year and I need to make quick choices about what I play.

It’s getting to be that time of year. I’m slicing and dicing my way through a backlog of games — but not just any games. It’s late September, bay bee! That means it’s time to check on all the great games I was too depressed busy to check out over the year. Game of the Year is around the corner, and Wasteland 3 was on my pile of potentials. I say “was” because, as much as it pains me to give up partway through, I have made the wise decision to give up on Wasteland 3. And a certain prisoner should have tipped me off.

I don’t think Wasteland 3 is a bad game. Part of why I played it was thanks to recommendations from several reputable sources. In another time, in another place, I might be down for a spiritual successor to the first two Fallout games. The top-down, turn-based tactics are perfectly to my taste, too. The tone of the game, however, is not. Not right now.

A mysterious prisoner in Wasteland 3 sets that tone. The otherwise unnamed NPC lives in a cell beneath your base. Much of the early game is about staffing up this facility — completing side quests across the frozen wastes of Colorado to recruit arms dealers, grease monkeys, and secretaries. It’s everything a gang of roaming do-gooders needs to survive in a post-apocalyptic winter wonderland. And the base comes preinstalled with a strange man living in the basement.

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Wasteland 3, like its predecessors and cousins, is often about making hard moral choices. One such choice is whether or not you let this slightly unhinged captive out of his cage, after recruiting a brig officer to work your little panopticon. Can you trust this man — who’s been living off wall fungus and bugs in solitary confinement for years — out in the real world?

The scene is played half for laughs, half to tutorialize the kinds of choices you need to make in this world. But 2020 doesn’t leave me feeling great about being a wasteland cop, arbitrarily decide who does and does not get to be free in this world. Neither does deciding if I should work with the more literal in-game cops, The Marshalls, or not as I navigate factional politics. The timing isn’t the fault of developer inXile Entertainment. But even without it, the “deranged redneck” gag referring to the prisoner wears pretty thin.

As do the recurring bestiality, sex worker, eunuch, and fatphobic jokes. Wasteland 3 wants to be so edgy. It differentiates itself from the scads of post-apocalyptic games out there (even the mostly bleached-clean modern Fallout titles) by hearkening back to a rougher-hewn time in RPGs. It’s a stark contrast to my 80s nostalgia devs of choice, Harebrained Schemes, which brilliantly recontextualizes old properties with modern imagination. Have you played the new BattleTech or Shadowrun games? You should!

However, I will not be playing any more Wasteland 3 this year. Besides its aggressively unappealing aesthetic, glitches and a generally unpleasant user interface have told me it won’t make my Game of the Year list. Sometimes I need that kid of concrete excuse to get myself to stop. It’s hard not to feel like a prisoner of my own responsibilities — to finish every notable game to feel “comprehensive.”

In that way, I’m grateful to Wasteland 3 for freeing me of my own neurotic needs. It makes its intent clear pretty much right out the gate. And if that’s your sort of thing, more power to you! You’ll know as quickly as I did whether or not this game is for you.