Bethesda made a big deal about how romances wouldn’t differ in Fallout 4 based on your character’s gender. I was intrigued enough by the claim, and fresh enough from my 2nd playthrough of Mass Effect (this time as FemShep, who I agree delivers a better experience), that I decided my first playthrough of Fallout 4 would be with a female Sole Survivor. The character-creation experience was encouraging at first. The banter of a married couple in front of the mirror reminded me of the banter between the Lone Wanderer’s mom and dad during the birth sequence in Fallout 3. After modeling my Sole Survivor after my FemShep, I settled into the prologue ready to relive my Mass Effect glory days, only this time with more power armor and ghouls, and less Krogan and Asari.
I saw a uniform on a closet shelf and while the dress you wear by default was okay, I was keen to get the fatigue-action on. Mouse-over, click…
“I’m so proud of him.”
Thus begins a huge problem that Bethesda built into Fallout 4. You can play as a woman, but in a Bethesda and Fallout franchise first a key aspect of the story (the Soldier-out-of-time) is exclusively reserved for a male main character. Given the success of FemShep among Mass Effect fans, this is a particularly bizarre decision on Bethesda’s part. But at this point in my first playthrough, I was willing to cut Bethesda some slack and assume it was some kind of weird oversight.
Unfortunately, Fallout 4 consistently goes out of its way to strip a female protagonist of any vestige of military service. The only thing left is that gameplay is unchanged, so Janet (as my first character was named) had no problem hopping into power armor, laying down withering fire with a variety of instruments of violence, and even engineering ad-hoc weapons. This begs the question: If she’s going to run around in power armor anyway, why strip away the background as a soldier? They had to write alternate lines of dialogue instead of the lower-effort ‘use the same script’ approach that made Mass Effect’s FemShep so well received.
Conventionally, the defense of this decision follows from an assumption that 2077 Fallout-Universe United States is a super sexist society because it’s based on the 1950s United States. There’s two problems with this defense, however.
First, if you’re going to play the “this society is sexist” card, then your story demands that you a) lampshade the fact – call this out explicitly in some way, within the story; and b) provide some kind of narrative explanation for how this person, absent the special training that – as prior titles have established – is required to use power armor, is able to merrily hop into a suit and layeth the smacketh down.
Fallout 4 does neither.
Second, and far more damning for Bethesda, there is canonical evidence that not only have civil rights advanced since the 1950s, but there is explicit, canonical evidence for women serving in the US Army of the fallout universe:
In the Broken Steel DLC, the Anchorage Reclamation Simulation depicts female soldiers serving on the front lines against the Chinese.
A recording available in Fallout 4 itself includes a woman being prompted into talking about facing the draft, and her feelings thereabout:
As a last, desperate recourse, someone committed to defending Bethesda might claim that it is these pieces of prior evidence that are in error, but the military reality of the Resource Wars does not work in that person’s favor. Facing conflict on that scale, after so many conflicts have already taken their toll, a nation pressed to conscription would also be pressed to begin conscripting women. The existing evidence in prior games is absolutely plausible.
Given all this, we’re back to the original problem: why can’t THIS woman be a soldier?
It’s also pretty clear that Bethesda understood they were taking something away when they made this choice, because they also didn’t make the woman a simple homemaker as the 1950’s-themed-sexism argument would demand; they made her an attorney. Or at least a law school graduate, it’s not actually clear if she passed the bar or not. But beyond a throw-away comment from your robot-butler your law degree is never relevant, ever again. This is especially problematic given the vast number of times when it could have been. It’s abundantly clear that Bethesda was NOT writing a story about a lawyer trying to get by in a violent post-apocalyptic world, they were writing a story about a soldier-out-of-time trying to get by in a violent, post-apocalyptic world.
Except I wasn’t the soldier, and Bethesda went out of their way to make sure of it.
The male dialogue features references to the oath of enlistment, the use of power armor references military training, and so on. The female dialogue is scrubbed of all of those references (because she’s not a soldier, get it?), so an effort was clearly made to not let the female character ever tread upon what Bethesda has exclusively reserved for a male character. This is where it becomes basically essential to point out that the US Military has recently opened all combat roles to women.
I have to ask: Why? Why did Bethesda do this? FemShep was such a smashing success, it certainly can’t be that they’re afraid to lose sales. Why put extra effort in – a first in the Fallout Franchise – to remove a critical part of the main character’s backstory simply because of the player’s gender selection? A female Courier in New Vegas is still the Courier. A female Lone Wanderer is still the offspring of Liam Neeson. A female character in any of the Elder Scrolls games is still the savior-of-whatever. Why was it so important to Bethesda to strip it away here? Certainly not to maintain the 1950s atmosphere, as debunked above.
In the end, I don’t have an answer to that question – at least not one that looks good for Bethesda. Given the tenor of conversations about gender and video games, and given Bethesda’s own announcement – that they were working hard to make gender and sexual orientation not matter in this game – this is a particularly visible gaffe. The extent to which they stripped the woman of any canonical legitimacy as a soldier, threw in a pity-prize law degree, and then did not at any point reference or call upon that degree does not speak well of Bethesda. They rightly deserve to be skewered for this one.
A final note here, for those who feel it’s not Bethesda’s responsibility to cater to a feminist audience: Bethesda opened the door to this when they announced that ‘gender didn’t matter’ for romances in Fallout 4. They advertised, in effect, that this was a ‘gender aware’ game. Aside from the hilarity of how they turned their own laziness (not writing new dialogue scripts for romantic companions) into a selling point there, those statements are a pump-fake and make this treatment of the player character’s gender very difficult to swallow.
Later this week, I’ll present alternative handlings that would’ve been far superior to this hot mess.