Analysis, LGBTQA

A Heteronormative Beginning: My Issue With ‘Fallout 4’

Fallout 4

Remember when Fallout 4 was finally officially announced and the internet collectively shouted with glee? In June 2015, Bethesda finally told fans that yes, Fallout 4 was indeed A Thing, and during their E3 showcase, it was the main attraction. I was actually playing Fallout: New Vegas at the time and was having a ball, so needless to say, I was pretty pumped myself. 

While I did not have the chance to attend the Bethesda showcase in person, I got to watch it live on Twitch with other fans who couldn’t make their way to California either. Showcases are meant to promote upcoming games and their technology, and Bethesda did a damned good job of making the viewer want to buy the game and its accompanying merchandise. Fallout 4 was presented as a trailblazer in the frontier of next-gen gaming that retained the spirit and lore of previous entries in the franchise. I couldn’t wait until November 10th, but there was a certain aspect of the gameplay demo that had me worried. 

When Bethesda presented Fallout 4’s character creator, they showed that you could play as a man or a woman, represented by a married couple standing in front of their bathroom mirror. However, the method used to choose your character and their spouse’s gender was left slightly ambiguous, raising the question of whether you could choose your spouse’s gender as well. In my mind, this situation could have either been a pleasant surprise or a total letdown. This meant that you would either be able to completely customize the type of romantic relationship your character has (a welcome addition to gaming) or you would have to put your character—which many players view as a representation of themselves—in a heterosexual relationship, regardless of your orientation.

November 10th rolled around, and lo and behold, Bethesda opted for Option B. Even though you can completely customize both yourself and your spouse, and the husband and wife’s story roles are completely interchangeable, you can only be in a heterosexual relationship where both spouses are cisgender. I’ll take Hopes Completely Crushed for $60, Alex.

Fallout 4

While the character creation I was hoping for would probably stick with “male” and “female” body options as opposed to a gender neutral character creator that our writer Teddie discusses the need for, it would still be a vast improvement to LGBTQIA+ gaming. You would not only be able to customize your player character, but their life partner as well, opening up a world of possibilities. For instance, if you were a butch/masculine woman who’s interested in other butch/masculine women, you could have your fictional relationship reflect that. You could even base your fictional spouse off your real spouse or partner! But I guess that all went down the toilet.

Folks who aren’t too bothered by this aspect of the plot often point out that since the Fallout version of the future is heavily influenced by the 1950s aesthetic, the presence of LGBTQIA+ people just wouldn’t fit in. I’ve even seen someone write that there weren’t any LGBTQIA+ folks back then (!?!?!?), as opposed to that population having to pretend to be straight and cis so they wouldn’t get targeted. Some simply posit that it wouldn’t mesh with the morals of the 1950s, which the Fallout pre-apocalypse world mostly held on to. However, it turns out that there’s a lesbian couple right there in the trailer. They’re holding each other lovingly on their front lawn where all of their neighbors can see. So even that’s not a worthy excuse, since apparently everyone’s cool with it.

Others argue that your character and their spouse must be heterosexual and cisgender because your biological son, Shaun, is a crucial character to the plot. (Heh. I wonder if he has a brother named Jason.) A major plot point is that you are searching for him after being in cryostasis for 200 years. (This happens in the first part of the game, so no spoilers here—don’t worry.) Shaun’s appearance is a combination of you and your spouse’s appearance, just like how the children in The Sims series have appearances based on their parents’. They’re trying to emulate real life. I get it.

Fallout 4

Here’s the thing, though: Fallout 4 isn’t real life. I know, I know, some of us, myself included, have floating robot butlers called Ms. Sexy Toeeater. In fact, mine’s giving me a foot massage right now. It’s fantastic. But some people—namely everyone who has ever existed—don’t have that luxury. That’s because Fallout 4 is a video game set in a fictional apocalypse based off an American 1950s vision of the future. If they can implement rocket cars and nuclear shelters that can sustain people for hundreds of years, I’m pretty sure they can manage a nonbinary or gay trans person who has a child with their partner, considering that it really happens. And the cis gay relationships? Gay science babies. Make it so. Or Bethesda could have skipped this whole mess by making Shaun an adoptee. Multi-million dollar companies have tons of creative options at their disposal, and ideas such as these are not outside the scope of their abilities.

I’m not saying that Fallout 4 is automatically a terrible game because of a plot element that mainly exists in its first hour. Currently, I’m saving up for a Playstation 4, and it’s definitely on the list of games to accompany it. Metacritic’s scores from major critics seem pretty happy with it, too. Nonetheless, it’s incredibly frustrating to see a game publisher that has a history of decent LGBTQIA+ representation (at least within the scope of current AAA games) base one of their plots around a concept that can be alienating to that exact population.

Anyway, my robot butler just told me that my sweet roll is done, so I’ll see you in the comments. Make sure you’re wearing your spurs that jingle jangle jingle when you come, or it’ll be awfully embarrassing.

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17 thoughts on “A Heteronormative Beginning: My Issue With ‘Fallout 4’”

  1. Pretty much my thought when I booted up the game. Whilst I do love the idea of searching for your son- because that works as a good motivation for your character to pursue the main plot- I think the idea would have worked just as well if you were searching for your younger sibling, for instance.

    You can be as queer and as poly as you like after the apocalypse, though. At least in terms of your relationships.

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    1. My thoughts exactly, they could have circumvented this issue entirely by not making it about the baby. And I thought it was okay after you get the beginning it out of the way, but it’s nonetheless a shame that they made it so central to the plot.

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  2. What was also really disappointing, was that the default starting character and significant other were always WHITE. I can understand (very minimally) that you start out male, since there’s that first narration you hear with a male voice. But why, oh why, must the default couple be white?? Why couldn’t the skin/characteristics for the couples be randomly generated? Cause everyone’s going to go in and customize how they want anyway. That bothered me more actually (as a bi Latina), even though yeah I agree we need to stop with heteronormativity as default.

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    1. And they always use the default characters in promotional materials, so they basically represent the game. They totally could have either used different main characters for different promotional materials or stuck to the person in power armor that they use a lot.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I was disappointed as well; I kept thinking who is this Nora chick? I fancy a guy in there to flirt with me while I do my hair in the mirror.

    I hadn’t thought about the race but that’s a good point too! Though the town does seem to have a lot of diversity instead of being whitewashed. Eh.

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    1. I mean, look at it this way: It’s frustrating that they managed to have a lesbian couple in the neighborhood, but they couldn’t manage to allow the main character to be gay, right? Because the straight couple is front and center. I’d imagine it’d be a similar case with race.

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  4. It is not bad to portray settings with unidealized formulations of gender and sexuality, any more than it is bad to portray settings with unidealized political systems or methods of crop production or weather. That elements of the setting are arbitrarily fantastical does not suggest that any other elements must or should be arbitrarily ideal.

    It is okay if a game isn’t made for your particular interests, and while that can be a valid reason to feel disappointment or dissatisfaction from your perspective, it doesn’t really reflect on the game generally. I am disappointed with other aspects of Fallout 4, but much like your own problems with the game, it’s more likely that there was never much intention to address my particular preferences than it is that Bethesda tried and failed to. And while that’s personally disappointing, there is nothing compelling anyone to make games for me or you specfically. It’s okay to not really be the intended audience for a thing.

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    1. My point is not that that Fallout 4 is inherently bad because of its lack of representation–check out the second to last paragraph in the article:

      “I’m not saying that Fallout 4 is automatically a terrible game because of a plot element that mainly exists in its first hour. Currently, I’m saving up for a Playstation 4, and it’s definitely on the list of games to accompany it. Metacritic’s scores from major critics seem pretty happy with it, too. Nonetheless, it’s incredibly frustrating to see a game publisher that has a history of decent LGBTQIA+ representation (at least within the scope of current AAA games) base one of their plots around a concept that can be alienating to that exact population.”

      Basically, what I’m trying to say is that while I’m excited for this game, the intro puts a bad taste in my mouth, you dig? Not to mention that Bethesda markets Fallout 4 as a game that that gives you “choice and liberty,” (https://www.fallout4.com/games/fallout-4) so by only giving you the option to have a different gender attracted character, they’re effectively taking that liberty away.

      And sure, it’s not like I’m coming in The Social Justice Police Car to forbid Bethesda from creating games–everyone’s entitled to make the game that they want to. However, when the intended audience for a game is constantly a cis, white, and straight man, it’s symptomatic of a larger issue at hand with regards to representation in the video games industry. As I like to say, when you analyze a work of media, you can’t just look at it as though its in a vaccuum–you need to view it in a broader perspective of the type of media as a whole.

      Not to mention, representing gay marriage is far from idealistic–it’s realistic. Gallup has reported that in America, a little under a million same-gender couples have married just since June’s ruling. To put that in perspective, about 2,100,000 couples married in 2014. I’m sure the ratio will be much lower in coming years, but nothing that’s still not statistically significant. Two people of the same gender in a loving marriage is no more idealistic than two people of different genders in a loving marriage, and representing it hits a lot closer to home than ideal crop rotations. To call diverse marriages “idealistic” and compare them to something as trivial as crop rotations is, quite frankly, incredibly dismissive of the lived experiences of many LGBTA+ people.

      Thank you for your input here. It seems that many people disagreeing with this article have resorted to petty insults and dismissive rants in the safety of their social media. It takes guts to present an opinion contrary to others in an online environment, and I respect that. This has also given me a chance to further elaborate on certain points related to my argument, which I also appreciate.

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      1. Oh, no, I didn’t think you were saying that this ruined the game or anything. I didn’t mean that the game, as a whole, isn’t made bad by this conceit of the story, cuz I don’t think that’s a response to anything you were actually saying. I meant that it’s not bad to have this structural conceit at all. Right? I hope that’s not confusingly-worded. I think it’s fine for there to be stories in games that limit the degree to which you can characterize your character. It’s unavoidable to a certain extent in any case, and I often enjoy the results of working within constraints more than a totally blank canvas. If a conceit of the setting is a toothless, cutesy, don’t-think-about-it-too-hard 50s-esque attitude that just coughs and awkwardly turns away from answering any serious questions about what exactly that means for anything controversial in the modern real world, then I’m on board for working with that. That can be a fine aesthetic to play around in. Even if it coughs and awkwardly turns away from things relevant to me, which it does.

        Marketing will be marketing, I suppose? I don’t know that Bethesda saying the game provides choice and liberty would ever necessitate the inclusion of any one expression of choice and liberty. Fallout 4 provides a relatively greater amount of choice in some areas of gameplay than some other games do. They’re just buzzwords, though. Not every second of the game is “a fight for survival” and it’s not really the “next-generation of open-world gaming” either. I don’t think how the game is marketed reflects very much on the game itself, unless you’re trying to say that customers have been deceived in some unusual way.

        The world outside of a game is certainly relevant to the analysis of that game, but I’m really not sure how much any individual work or person can be reasonably held accountable for the world it exists in. It would be nice to have a video game industry and a world more open and welcoming to all kinds of people, but Fallout 4 didn’t create video games and doesn’t command them. And it’s not bad for there to exist products meant for an arbitrarily select group of people, be it cis white men or anything else. The problem is a pattern, not any particular instance. It’s the relative scarcity of alternatives, rather than the existence of the things that make up the status quo. So I have trouble pointing at any particular instance and saying that this one, here, should be different. I find it difficult to see this article as a criticism of Falout 4 rather than, like, a content note for people this would be of particular interest to, if you get what I mean. Like if you said the game was very violent, so people who don’t like violence should be aware of that, because the game doesn’t reeeaaaally allow you to avoid all violence. That would probably be relevant to some people, but it wouldn’t really reflect poorly on the game at all. So, similarly, if you want to play as a character who at no point is married to someone of the opposite gender, be aware that this game doesn’t allow that. That’s probably relevant to some people, but it also doesn’t really reflect poorly on the game, as far as I can tell.

        I didn’t mean that it’s foolishly idealistic on the part of the player to desire or expect the portrayal of queer relationships in media generally. It’s not. I mean that this particular setting would be idealized if it included them, like if everyone always had enough to eat, or if the weather was always nice. Living in a world that allows an open queer marriage to exist is closer to ideal than living in one that doesn’t, at least for me. But Fallout’s America, both before and after the war, isn’t ever supposed to be an ideal place to live. The series is nominally satirical towards the idealized nostalgia for 50s America, and that it includes an element from that culture isn’t suspicious, it’s reasonable. Large portions of the history of large portions of the world don’t have that element, and it’s worth portraying that, even in passing, especially in media so specifically devoted to one of those times and places. Fallout shies away from anything that controversial, like I said above, but serious commentary isn’t really a requirement for including setting conceits anyways. It’s nice! I love a good exploration of something. It would be really neat if there was a different opening to the game if you started in a same-sex relationship, having been denied military service and living secretively in a dingy apartment instead of the idyllic suburb or something. But it’s not necessarily bad if a piece of media doesn’t have serious commentary about everything it contains, and I don’t expect it from Bethesda. Maybe from Obsidian. 😉

        I dunno, I’m queer, and I think that my life has probably been more affected by the development and practice of a great deal of agricultural technologies than by the legalization of gay marriage. 😛 That’s a joke, but also true. Nobody can get married if they’ve starved to death.

        Thank you for your response! I wasn’t expecting one. This has also been helpful for me.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Okay, WordPress is being silly and doesn’t have a reply option for your previous comment, Dylan, but I just wanted to let you know a few more things. First of all, I’d like to apologize if I went for the defensive at first–I sincerely didn’t realize you came from a place where you legitimately wanted to start a dialogue on things rather than one where you were trying to completely dismiss my argument, and I feel like my first comment was a little harsh. I offer you this adorable picture of a cat dressed as the Sole Survivor as an apology. http://www.gamespot.com/articles/amazing-fallout-4-cosplayfrom-a-cat/1100-6432466/

    But yes, when you put it that way, I think I see what you mean. I’m of the mindset that it is important to call these things out when they happen because they reflect greater problems in the industry as a whole, but I get what you’re saying about using that energy for broader critiques instead. I guess in my mind, it’s one of the biggest AAA games out at the moment, so it’s important to talk about because it’s a major representative of that industry. However, at the same time, I can see your angle where you argue that we shouldn’t be pointing fingers at singular titles. It’s definitely a “your mileage may vary” sort of situation when we discuss exactly what needs to be done to change the current state of gaming!

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  6. can I just point out that the game is set in a 1950’s social world, now it’s no real secret that homosexuality wasn’t exactly smiled upon during the time period nor was racial balance in terms of rights. While fallout is a video game made now it mirrors a lot of socialistic ideas and often those of the time period it is set in. Not trying to say it is right in doing so though merely something to consider.

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  7. You must remember the fictional world the game is set in. It is heavily influenced by American culture from the time of the Red Scare – a time when heteronormativity was barely even a word. While less “traditional” relationships are welcomed 20 years later, one must assumenter that their character is, at least during the intro, living in a world where anything other than heterosexuality is considered taboo. Given that, writing a story starring any other kind of relationship would be incredibly difficult, and almost certainly feel forced.

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  8. Personally, I understand the thought process of the developers. It’s very hard, if not impossible, to give near infinite amount of options for your starting character.
    I do, however, enjoy how they leave the rest of your background open to interpretation and the head canons of the player. My character was a lesbian who grew up in a tough neighborhood, and had to work to make something of herself. Along the way, she needed to pretend to be straight in order to survive in that time. Throughout all this, she realizes after the gets frozen that she was suppressing herself. That’s why, when she gets to the events of the game, she’s actually more comfortable than before: she’s in her element, and allowed to be who she is.
    That being said, I don’t really have an issue with what they did. It’s pretty accurate for their time period, and it doesn’t suffocate you with the choice.

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  9. Fallout 3 and New Vegas had dialogue options for gays and lesbians and even perks. This being gone is a huge disappointment for me.

    The customization options are a joke. I get better customization from Saints Row 2 (where my lesbian character could flirt with women) and Mass Effect. Huge letdown by Bethesda.

    I wholeheartedly agree with your article.

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  10. Well, I’m glad I know not to buy the game now, I guess. I was worried when I saw the character creation screen, but they really went there. Thank you for the clarification.

    I do not play RPGs to feel trapped. This looks really painfully unprofessional on the part of Bethesda; if they were thoughtless enough to do this to players’ “freedom of choice,” I can’t trust the quality of the game as a whole.

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  11. Hi- just wanted to make this known- there are options to have romantic relationships with a few companions, male and female, regardless of gender. So while it’s still pretty shit that the original couple has to be heterosexual, I personally liked being able to be a lesbian in the future at least, haha

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