At first it was just a nibble.
I've played Obsidian's 2010 RPG Fallout: New Vegas several times, but this time around, I leveled up and found an option I'd never encountered before: cannibalism.
"With the Cannibal perk, when you're in Sneak mode, you gain the option to eat a corpse to regain Health. But every time you feed, you lose Karma, and if the act is witnessed, it is considered a crime against nature."
I know it's frowned upon in polite company, but this is the Mojave Wasteland, this is a matter of survival. Right?
The first people I ate were Powder Gangers, second-rate criminals inhabiting a prison near the opening town. A rite of passage in my playthroughs is to go to their headquarters and wipe them out... a few sticks of dynamite and they were suitably pacified, leaving me to try out my new healthy eating regime. After a hearty meal, it was time to face facts: I'd just devoured an entire sub-culture within New Vegas's world.
I smirked, darkly.
Related: Watch our documentary on the world of eSports:
Cannibalism has remained one of the last taboos of video games: The Walking Dead and The Last of Us both feature player characters doing terrible things, but use the trait to highlight the worst of the worst.
Despite handling it with Fallout's distinctive humor, New Vegas goes beyond casting cannibals simply as the villain of the piece and introduces nuance by making you the monster. In a game where I could conceivably bring salvation to the wasteland, could my cannibalism ever truly be redeemable, or was I the bad guy?
To find out, I'd need to eat a lot more people. For research.
I managed to keep my snacking relatively under control at first. The justification that a few dead NPCs were better for my character than whatever I could harvest from a giant mutated scorpion held water. It was just a few bad guys, or people killed by the host of other dangers inhabiting the wasteland. I've always played a sort of saintly nomad in most RPGs so I struggle to kill anyone unjustly: After all, they might have a part to play in an upcoming quest, or have a backstory for me to discover.
Things came to a head after I first encountered Boone. Boone is a former Special Forces sniper with a dark and terrible backstory but a strong sense of right and wrong, despite the terrible acts in his past.
This is where things started to get out of hand. I happened upon a dead villager in the middle of the road, and started to eat. Boone had done horrible things before we'd hung out, so surely he'd be OK with me gnawing on a few spare ribs. The villager didn't need them anymore.
Boone was definitely not OK with this. He immediately broke the sacred trust between player character and non-player character by attacking me. Later, as I ate his remains, I thought to myself: "If I'm to be the bad guy, I'm going to act like it."
Instead of nibbling on the wasteland's leftovers, it became an all-you-can-eat buffet. I started hunting humans for food. I was waging a one-man culinary war as I crushed settlements in my all-encompassing desire to eat.
Unlike many other games, New Vegas has no protection in place for many key NPCs. If your target isn't one of the handful marked "essential" you can kill (and eat) every single character in the game world, providing you're tough enough to take them down. My "chew first, ask questions later" approach meant that starting or completing quests was proving quite difficult.
But I wasn't expecting the game to adapt to my deeds. News spread across the land, with settlers often becoming immediately hostile as soon as I entered the town. Fallout: New Vegas manages reputation with a faction system. If you kill members of a faction, that faction will start to dislike you. If you kill a faction's enemies, that faction will "learn" of your deeds and like you more. The two main factions of the game both attacked me on sight. Eventually both the NCR and Caesar's Legion started to send hit squads to take down the dreaded monster of the wasteland.
Caesar's Legion are cannibals too, so I thought their aggressive position was a little bit hypocritical, but I guess logic isn't your strongest attribute when you decide to roam a post-apocalyptic American wasteland dressed up like Roman Legionnaires.
I like to imagine eating cannibal was my equivalent of a three-bird roast, where there's a new taste just beneath the surface of the first. And my first surprise was the hidden perk you unlock for eating four unique characters: "Meat of Champions" temporarily imbues you with the powers of the quartet every time you eat. These characters are important quest givers and faction leaders, meaning that many people will rarely even eat one, let alone the whole set.
The second surprise was just how much fun playing the bad guy could be. I'd dabbled with this before, realizing midway through Prototype 2 that maybe I was the villain, but New Vegas is different because it lets me forge my own evil path. Games that force you to play as a villain or anti-hero will generally justify your behavior as "shades of grey" as you steal a convertible and mow down a pensioner. Instead of simply choosing the renegade option and acting like a petulant child to some aliens, I was being a dick on my own terms in New Vegas, the dastardliest path of all.
Halfway through my gourmet tour, I realized just how monstrous I was. The Powder Gangers never returned. The towns on which I had feasted were empty ghost towns. The streets of New Vegas were littered with half-nibbled bodies, the leftover invulnerable children playing eerily in the detritus.
Grand Theft Auto doesn't have the same impact: you commit mass murder before speeding away with the police in hot pursuit, but soon everything resets to normal. There are no consequences: infinite people, infinite mischief. You're a prankster with a military arsenal. In New Vegas I was free to walk around the wasteland I had created, not one that was there in perpetuity, letting my actions sink in. I spent a few hours wandering the wastes, beholding my destruction. The Mojave Wasteland still bore the half-eaten scars of my passing.
I ate the wasteland.
Follow Jake on Twitter.