Unexpected Art

In a fictional Las Vegas, pixels become the palette for the end of the world and beyond

What a brilliant idea for a video game: Set a post-apocalypse in the desert Southwest and position Las Vegas as the only surviving city—one part Bartertown, one part … hell, it sounds like Las Vegas now. After all, we’ve been hit by something of an economic cataclysm, and we’re still standing, right? The only thing missing is the giant wall that surrounds the city, as it does in the alternate universe of the video game.

Fallout: New Vegas is the fourth title in the popular Fallout series of role-playing games; in this edition you play a courier trying to deliver a computer chip across the wastelands of the Mojave. The game is set in a nuclear winter a few hundred years hence, and borrows from a smorgasbord of mid-century design references—from gee-whiz ’50s sci-fi to pulp fiction and magazine art. It’s almost like a mid-century modern version of steampunk—but better, because wafting through the game are songs from the era (particularly Sinatra singing “Blue Moon”). To boot, Wayne Newton even lends his voice as a DJ.

But how do you go about creating a video game version of Las Vegas anyway? The answer: Know what you’re after. One of the first things project director Josh Sawyer told game designers at Obsidian Entertainment is that the vibe for this simulation of Vegas, called New Vegas, had to be very Rat Pack, very 1950s.

So lead artist Joe Sanabria went online to research the look and feel of the era. He soon found himself pouring through a Flickr photo group dedicated to all things vintage Vegas, a “huge library of images, postcards and pamphlets.” As they nailed down the aesthetics of the era, designers turned to modern architecture and a particular subset of curvaceous, Atomic-age design known as Googie. (Think of the Space Needle in Seattle or the Welcome to Las Vegas sign.)

The hotels in the game were not based specifically on real locations, but they do carry some stylistic quotes to old standbys such as Caesars Palace and the Sands. In addition, the Hoover Dam and a Fremont East-style district called Freeside also feature in the digital landscape. These locales are more than background, too—the courier character must navigate through them all during the game.

Above all rises the Lucky 38, a tower that is half-Landmark, and half Stratosphere, with a flying saucer-shaped observation deck that recalls, Sanabria says, a roulette wheel. Howard Hughes owned the real Landmark; the Lucky 38 is the headquarters of the Hughes-like ruler of New Vegas, the mysterious Mr. House. It is this structure that most marks New Vegas as something out of a surreal dream, one that threatens to become a nightmare.

About two dozen designers built the world of the game in a mere 18 months (three years is more typical). So how real to life is the game’s version of Vegas? Given the fact that the Landmark opened in the late ’60s, the visual vibe is perhaps as much ’70s as ’50s. Then again, designers did a bang-up job adding signage throughout their digital Vegas—they help convey the zany optimism of Las Vegas, post-apocalypse or not.

After all, the heart of Las Vegas is not any one architectural style. It’s all symbolic here, that feeling you get when you’ve been driving through the Mojave for hours, at night, and then the city finally unfolds in the distance as this impossible oasis of light and color in the middle of nowhere. (Parts of the Mojave already are “post-nuclear” environments, given years of atomic testing that went on during the same years the game references.) That’s Las Vegas, and it’s that vibe that Sanabria and the other designers have successfully captured in New Vegas. Sanabria says designers were clear from the outset what their game required: “At all costs when a player arrives there it was impressive.”