His Apocalypse: Normativity in Fallout 4


Fallout 4 is almost everything I want in a game of its nature: an open world, an interesting narrative, and the ability to make meaningful choices as characters who represent real, diverse people. When I first started playing, I spent at least two hours in the character creation screen trying to make the person I wanted to embody during the weeks of my life that I would sink into this world. Sadly, most of that time was spent frustrated that I couldn’t quite create the face I sought.

Character creation makes it clear that Fallout 4 has a very binary understanding of gender, and it is difficult to create characters who blur the lines. Makeup cannot be used on the male character model, with a faint lip stain or coloured face paint the closest you can get. Although you can alter face shape to an extent, it’s hard to adjust the jaw quite the right way.

There are two voice options for characters—one very masculine, and one very feminine—and they perpetuate strange gender roles. When my masculine-voiced character approaches a settler and asks to trade, he does so in a strong and commanding way; however, when a feminine-voiced character completes the same action, she often sounds apologetic, as though she is inconveniencing the settler.

For anyone who does not quite fit the feminine woman or masculine man binary gender roles of the patriarchy—or anyone who simply wishes to play as a character who does not—this creates limitations in a game world heralded for being open and full of choice.

So, I created a character who was not quite what I wanted: a thin-faced, grey-haired man (who later sported fashionable glasses and a fancy moustache) named Avery. I wandered into the wasteland with Avery, seeking settlements to save and companions to romance. It was nice to find that the player-character could romance men and women, and could even lead polyamorous lives if they chose. However, companions in Fallout 4 perpetuate the idea of the ‘playersexual’ character, a term I first saw used in Lauren Clinnick’s article, ‘Playing it Safe: Bisexual Representation in Games’.

Basically, a ‘playersexual’ character is attracted to the player or player-character, regardless of their gender, and does not have an established sexuality outside of these romantic interactions. While some of Fallout 4’s companions have romantic histories—such as MacCready’s wife and Nick Valentine’s memories of a fiancée—this canon is heteronormative and these characters never express their individual sexual identities. While this ambiguity of sexuality may not inherently bad (as not all people within the queer community go around explicitly labelling themselves), it does contribute to erasure. ‘Playersexual’ characters are a surface-level attempt to increase diversity through sexuality: just because a player can romance multiple companions of varied genders, this does not mean the ‘diversity’ box is ticked and we can all move on.

While there is some freedom—with players being able to determine the sexuality and relationship structures of the player-character—it is impossible to play as an entirely gay or lesbian character. This is because the narrative mandates the character must be in a marriage with an other-gender partner, who the player also has the power to design—within these gender boundaries—during the character creation phase. This creates a disconnect between narrative and game mechanics: the player experiences a customisable world and has the ability to choose interesting and varied romantic relationships for the player-character, but the narrative dictates that the player-character must have started their journey through the wasteland in a heteronormative relationship (which you are constantly reminded of through dialogue). Fallout 4 offers players incredible freedom to decide who their character is, but then places this restriction upon them, limiting the sexualities and sexual identities the player-character can embody.

(And don’t tell me this heteronormative relationship is necessary because the player-character needs to have a son, because this argument demonstrates a very narrow understanding of sex and gender, and of the many ways a child can be born. This also places illogical technological restrictions on a world where advancements like artificial intelligence are commonplace.)

However, some of the restrictions in Fallout 4 can be viewed as positive steps towards creating a more realistic open world. For example, some companions cannot be romanced due to their personal circumstances. This is a mechanic that could be extended so that each character has an individual understanding of who they are—including aspects of themselves like their sexuality—which could limit who the player-character is able to romance. In some ways, each companion’s existing ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’ hints at this, but I would love a system where characters care more about who the player-character is and the choices they have made, rather than simply liking or disliking simple tasks like lock picking. This would create more realistic relationships and make romantic connections with companions more meaningful.

Each of these instances of normativity are problematic on their own, but these issues are compounded when viewed through the lens of the game’s opening cutscene.

Fallout 4 begins with the narration of a white man. You can choose to play as him, or change his race and gender in the character creation scene, but regardless of how you alter the character, the story continues to belong to this man: it is his story, his family, and his apocalypse. You can play for hours—dedicating days or weeks of your life to Fallout 4—as the character you create, and perhaps you can even forget about the white man in the heteronormative relationship who appeared in the opening cutscene, but you are reminded of him when you complete the main narrative. Another cutscene appears and this white man tells you about the decisions he made regarding the fate of the Commonwealth. The difficult choices made by you and the player-character who you have grown to love are suddenly stolen, and assigned to somebody else.

No matter what you do to influence the Commonwealth, Fallout 4 is still the story of a white man in a heteronormative relationship, who lost his wife and searched for his son.

Find more writing by Alayna M Cole on her website.