It occurred to me while cooking that a lot of what Vesh is about stems from some disappointments I had in Bioshock. I mean, the skeleton of the setting grew out of a series of recurring dreams I used to have about a vast city of interconnected hotel/resort things like Las Vegas but even moreso and with a dark secret, but the actual functioning of the setting I think comes from that Bioshock thing.
Bioshock is touted by many to be a critique of Objectivism, but it doesn't go quite far enough. In Bioshock, the society ceases to be an Objectivist society and falls to authoritarianism as Andrew Ryan and Frank Fontaine's ambitions get the better of them. But in the end, that's less a critique of the system itself, and more a critique of human nature. Does Objectivism, when followed strictly, encourage that kind of behavior? Absolutely. But I think a truly Libertarian/Objectivist society bears with it other ills that would be better addressed in a city that's on its way to a fall, rather one that's already fallen. Furthermore, Vesh is, ironically, only one of two equal evils, the other being the People's Democractic Republic of Northreach. The latter is a theocratic oligarchy, wherin the ones in power don't believe a word of the religion they tout, but find it a useful way to control their people. So the idea was to have these two nations that are polar opposites: in Northreach, everything is controlled and monitored, 1984 style, whilst in Vesh there are literally no laws save what the Warlords make in their individual Holdings, and even those, well... some Holdings are better at enforcing those laws than others.
So, basically, what you have in Vesh is the way that only a very, very few actually hold power, and while there is a true "free market" and no government regulation, what you really end up with is a few people with the concentrated wealth lording it over the rest of the city. You have violence in the streets outside the Holdings, you have an entire underworld, and of course, the toxic waste generated by Quintessence. I mean maybe someone with a better eye for government systems can help me out here, but yeah, that's the gist.
The Bioshock comparison also helped me realize something about Quintessence: I want it to be a bit like Adam/Eve. Quintessence can do a whole lot of good... but at some significant cost. The city's functioning relies on it, without this stuff it falls apart at the seams. At the same time, this substance is also slowly killing portions of the population. Unlike in Bioshock, no one has a monopoly on its production. Instead, Vesh itself as a city holds as much power as it does partially because unlike other cities, there's no regulation on its production, so people can go ahead killing themselves to get it. Granted, Northreach does this too, but they're running out of resources and must expand. Vesh's one advantage is that its freedom means that artists still try to survive, people still really believe in religions when they believe at all, and so there's still sources. Northreach is running dry, and often they resort to using blood magic from dissenters since their government regulated art programs didn't work so well when the artists knew their stuff was just going to get processed into quintessence.
Point being: Quintessence should be like ADAM. It won't kill you/make you nuts/mutate you right away, but it'll happen eventually. Unlike ADAM though, if you're using the end product (ex, a magic wand, a potion, experiencing a simulated world) you're far less likely to get sick.