In a stunning lapse of judgment, I decided to spend 70 hours playing Fallout: New Vegas just a few weeks before I started Fallout 4. In a way, it's made me truly appreciate the upgraded graphics and new mechanics. But it's also made me realize that so far, Fallout 4 is missing one of my favorite video game elements: the social power fantasy.
One of the unique things about computer role-playing games like Fallout is that they give "soft" social skills the same hyper-quantified treatment as a gun's fire rate or a piece of armor's damage resistance. In New Vegas, not only do you have a precise numerical value assigned to your speaking abilities, you've got a sliding scale of your ethical standing — from "messiah" to "devil" — plus a scale of how much you are liked or disliked by every important faction in the game world.
Having a quantified moral fiber is incredibly relaxing
This might sound stressful, like some kind of taskmaster tallying up everything you do. Occasionally, it's nonsensical — you'll lose "karma" for stealing an item off a desk, for example, but looting the body next to it is just fine. But in the context of the game, it's also incredibly relaxing. Nearly every important action is clearly marked as good or bad, and especially as you level up your stats, it's not hard to pick the right choice every time. If a group hates you, it's probably an explicitly evil group, so that's okay. The weight of moral decision is lifted off your shoulders.
Just as importantly, if you have the right stats, you absolutely cannot fail. Unlike in previous games, speech checks in New Vegas are flat minimum limits, not a metaphorical roll of the dice. Anything that requires a check is almost certainly a good option. The options quickly multiply as you get extra checks for specific statistics, special perks, and factions that you've gained support with. And most incredibly of all, you can often come back later once you've beefed up the requisite numbers. After a certain level, you can enter any given conversation knowing that you'll probably get whatever you want.
Crucially, you don't (usually) have to do it by coercing or tricking anybody. My conceit is that my character just happens to be an inhumanly kind and competent combination of therapist, diplomat, and philosopher. She logically convinces bitter rivals to become friends and coaches people through emotional trauma 30 seconds after meeting them. She never gets flustered and says the wrong thing, accidentally insults anyone, or makes what seems like a good point only to have it fall flat. She kills when provoked, but she can always forgive a repentant foe. When your stats say you're a literal messiah, it just feels like the right thing to do. "Power fantasy" is often used to describe games that let you hurt other people without consequences, but being able to help everyone you meet — to make yourself a person that everyone likes — holds its own kind of power.
I'm a decent human being, but less of a Mary Sue
In Fallout 4, that's changed. Like a growing number of games, Fallout 4 now gives short approximations of what your character might say — like "sarcastic" or "ask for caps" — instead of the actual phrases, making it harder to gauge their tone. While it marks speech challenges, it does so with basic color-coded difficulty levels, not labels and numbers. There are no more obvious special options based on my high science or gunplay aptitudes. About 25 hours in, I'm rarely even sure what I'm going to say, let alone whether it'll prove convincing. Fallout 4 counts up criminal activity, but it removes the overall karma rating, so there's no godlike voice confirming I'm a saint instead of a monster.
I genuinely believe that if you tend to play "good" characters, this has made both the gameplay and the story more interesting. Instead of gaming an obvious mechanical system, I feel a little more like I'm reading a situation and deciding how a particular person will respond. The game's general moral subjectivity has provoked real emotional reactions — when one of my companions kept chiding me for perfectly ethical lockpicking in abandoned buildings, I felt personally offended. My character is emphatically still a nice person, but there's more room to develop her as a human instead of a Mary Sue — when I tracked down a man who had done me grievous wrong, he died unforgiven.
But part of me misses that Mary Sue's infallible judgment and the world that rewards it. In Fallout: New Vegas, I once walked up to a drug dealer, said hello, and immediately got her to sell legitimate medical supplies just by saying it would make money. I had to confront a drug dealer in Fallout 4 earlier this week, too. He was selling to children, which is wrong. I very politely informed him of this.
He started shooting at me, so I killed him. So much for all that.