[Editor’s Note: British spellings have been preserved upon request.]
Hi, FemHype crew, and welcome back to “Leading the Pack.” This time around, I want to look at a character who’s a little different from those in previous installments: Nora, one of the possible “Sole Survivors” from Fallout 4. This post will contain spoilers!
I use “Nora” as a shorthand for the Sole Survivor since it’s her default name if the player chooses to play as a woman, but of course this is a Fallout game, and the Sole Survivor’s gender and name are player determinant. More than that, the Sole Survivor’s personality, looks, and skill set will never be exactly the same for any two players. Additionally, while “Leading the Pack“ usually praises developers for creating detailed and interesting characters, Bethesda totally fumbled on how they handled Nora. This is less a celebration and more a discussion about greatness that was stumbled upon by accident.
Much virtual ink has been spilled on this subject, and I don’t want to delve into it too closely here, but suffice it to say it is clear that Bethesda expected players to choose Nate (i.e. the Sole Survivor who is a man) as their playable character. For example, at various points throughout the game, poor scripting will mean the wrong pronouns are used if Nora is chosen. Additionally, the opening cinematic of the game shows Nate talking about his military background and his desire to protect his family; Nora gets no voice in this introduction.
We first properly meet both Nate and Nora in the pre-war segment that opens the game. At this point, both are barely fleshed out, no matter how much time you spend in that wonderful character creator. (Personally, my first Nora was a quick job, as I wanted to get into the main part of the game, but when survival mode comes out, I’m planning a replay. There will be some serious time put into making my new Nora look perfect.) They are a married couple with a new baby, Shaun. As I said, Nate was a soldier, but instead, Nora has a law degree and it is implied that she was not working both prior to and following Shaun’s birth.
Again, this is Bethesda’s mistake. It would certainly have made sense for both Nate and Nora to have military backgrounds. Forget the “It’s the ’50s” excuse, since the Fallout series is actually set in the 23rd century with only ’50s aesthetics—not morals or gender roles. There was no reason that Nora should be a lawyer and probable housewife. There’s nothing wrong with being those things in real life, of course, but we’re discussing Bethesda’s narrative choices here and all of the decisions detailed briefly above that separate Nora’s backstory from Nate’s must have come from lack of thought at best, and misogyny at worst.
Overall, it’s clear that Bethesda did not take the same care creating Nora as they did with Nate, and often, she seems like an afterthought despite every previous Fallout title also allowing players to choose their main character’s gender. It’s disappointing, and Bethesda should not have made these kinds of mistakes. However, some of these mistakes contribute to interesting dimensions of Nora’s character. They do not absolve Bethesda, but they do make Nora’s character a fascinating one that is worthy of in-depth study. So let’s take a look at Nora’s development throughout the game.
After the pre-war opening sequence as described previously, Nora and her family witness a nearby nuclear explosion before being whisked underground and cryogenically frozen without their knowledge or consent. Some time later (actually 140 years, but Nora doesn’t know that), she awakens from her cryogenic slumber to see Nate killed and Shaun kidnapped. Immediately, then, playing as Nora removes the gendered element of fridging from Fallout 4’s plot. Fridging is usually the process of killing off a woman for the character development of a protagonist who is a man. It is generally considered sexist, as it’s so prevalent in games and media as a whole, meaning there are literally hundreds of fictional women who only ever existed to die.
Notably, the player character’s mother in Fallout 3—Bethesda’s previous Fallout game—also suffers this fate. Admittedly, even when the genders are reversed, it is generally considered a cheap tactic to make the audience feel sorry for the surviving character and to give them an easy motivation without properly developing their personality, so it’s still fair to criticise this part of the plot. At least choosing Nora prevents yet another underdeveloped and then quickly killed woman being added to the already long, long list.
After avoiding this trope-y end, Nora is refrozen, and with no idea how much time has passed, reawakens and stumbles out of the vault. At this point, she has no survival or combat training that we know of, no armour, and merely a baton and a 10mm pistol to make her way into this unfamiliar and harsh environment, while also presumably suffering from the mental effects of everything that she has seen and been through.
Nora doesn’t let that stop her, though. She immediately begins to explore, making her way through this environment that is a mere shell of what she once knew. Take a moment to imagine re-entering your neighbourhood with all the reminders of how it used to look, but seeing it utterly in ruins. She is confronted by giant cockroaches, flies, rats, and even the reincarnated, but mindless corpses of her former neighbours.
Quickly, she realises that she will need to learn to defend herself with the weapons she has managed to find. Certainly, she picks it up with speed and finesse that isn’t likely to be strictly realistic, but video game characters have been doing that for as long as games have existed. Additionally, Nora has certain advantages, such as the Pip-Boy she picks up, giving her the ability to use VATS (Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System—essentially slowed down time and assisted aiming), so she actually has more reason than most to quickly pick up the basics even if she had no experience before the war.
Moreover, much of her progression through the perk tree when levelling up makes sense. For example, if you’ve gained enough experience and have the right inherent skill points (known as “SPECIAL”) to get the perk “Gun Nut,” it makes sense that Nora would have been using her firearms long enough to intuit how they work and how she might tinker with them to make them better.
As she learns, she is able to travel further into the wasteland. She begins to come across other people, and despite being hurled into an entirely new world, she takes the time to help them. Preston Garvey and his band of survivors is the first example, but unless you’re purposefully role-playing an extremely unhelpful and cruel Nora (and hey, that’s a valid choice, but not the most common one) she is bound to help many more people on her wasteland adventures. And by doing this, she can form strong friendships and even romantic relationships with other wasteland women, which is always an added bonus for leading ladies in games.
But what of these side quests? Isn’t Nora supposed to be focussed on finding her son? This is where Nora’s story becomes most interesting. Since we do not get her motivation handed to us in the opening cinematic as we did with Nate, we can interpret this in two fascinating ways. Perhaps the player focuses primarily on the main story and uses the side quests only to gain experience in order to more easily be able to find their son and avenge their husband. It would certainly make sense for Nora to do that.
Or, perhaps the player loves these side quests way, way more than the main game (I’m talking about me). In that case, we can say that upon emerging from the Vault with complete disorientation and surprise, Nora found some sense of purpose and even enjoyment despite everything that’s happened and changed. She overcame her disorientation and focused on building a new life. Though she did want to find her son, she had no idea how to, and in this huge, strange new world, it must have seemed impossible. Therefore, it was very sensible to try to set some roots down in the event that she could not find him and to stabilise herself in the meantime. So she made friends, gained new skills, grew new settlements, and tried to restore some order to the world that was just barely recognisable.
This would certainly help Nora when she eventually does find her son, and must decide whether she agrees with his methods of surviving in—and controlling—the wasteland. It’s extremely possible that she may decide she fundamentally disagrees with the now grown-up Shaun’s philosophies and wants to stop his faction from gaining prominence in the Commonwealth. Without the safety net she has built up, this would be much harder for her. Instead, there is some solace in knowing she has taken the time to build new friendships and connections to help her. Eventually, she may lose all of her old attachments and essentially become an entirely new person—perhaps even with a new beau (or many of them!).
In this way, Nora’s story is one of adaptation and change in a greater way than Nate’s, as he is used to desperate conditions and fighting from his military career. It is also one with more freedom for role-playing than Nate’s, as her motivations are never entirely spelled out by the game. Nora is resilient and never gives up, even as she is simultaneously allowed to show her emotion over the loss of her son and husband (such as during the confrontation with Shaun’s kidnapper, Kellogg). She grows into a new woman in this new world, and in turn, attempts to shape that world into something better. As much as Bethesda might wish you had picked Nate, her story ends up being one of the most compelling ones that the Commonwealth has to offer.