Flirt, Flirt, Romance: Fallout 4’s Problems with Queer Relationships

Note: I’ll be spoiling portions of Fallout 4 liberally throughout this piece, both in terms of companion relationships and the main plot.

 

Bethesda Studio’s recent hit, Fallout 4, has received a lot of attention for the way it handles romance. Specifically, it allows for same-sex relationships, as well as allowing the player to have multiple ongoing “romances” at the same time. And, so, there are plenty of people hailing it as a great advance for both bisexual and polyamorous relationships, including a recent article on the Daily Gazette by Kyle McKenney.

The problem is, Fallout 4 is anything but revolutionary. The way that it has actually handled the presentation and possibilities of being queer or polyamorous speaks more to developer laziness than actual careful reflection of minority experiences. The haphazard implementation of gender-neutral systems, present in one way but conspicuously absent in the next, hints at the fact that the inclusion of same-sex romantic possibilities, or simultaneous romantic relationships, are more a “throw it in” afterthought.

I have, and do, enjoy Bethesda’s sprawling games. And while they’ve always been well loved for their care in crafting environments and spectacular settings, I would not be quite so quick to lavish praise on their writing. In Fallout 4, your character’s driving motivation is to look for your son, who was taken away as an infant by a nefarious shadowy organization some time ago. Absolutely no prizes for guessing who turns out to be the main villain in the nuclear wasteland. Its plot, and its character work, is not particularly groundbreaking, instead relying on plot twists that you could spot from space. You can see how I was a little puzzled, then, when pieces started cropping up to praise it for its sensitive handling of gender and sexuality in post-apocalyptic Boston.

In short, I think that Fallout 4 allows for same-sex relationships, but not queer ones; simultaneous relationships, but not polyamorous ones. The distinction is that, in both cases, the latter requires more thought and deliberation than what can be found in this game. This starts with terminology: romantic relationships are usually called “romances”. For example, you could talk about “going for a Piper romance” to mean that you are trying to start a romantic relationship with your companion Piper. Thus, plenty of articles talk about Fallout 4’s inclusion of bisexual and polyamorous “romances”. This implies a sort of cookie-cutter approach to relationships, one that is mechanically completely accurate. You do things that character likes (saving puppies, not being a cannibal, being generally a nice person), then go through three progressively-harder skill checks as their affection for you grows. At each of these stages, your character’s Charisma skill is compared against a difficulty threshold, a virtual die is rolled, and you’re told if your flirting’s succeeded or not.

This is how you “romance” every possible love interest. From stalwart idealist Preston Garvey, to intrepid reporter and secret romantic Piper Wright; from the by-the-book career soldier, to the singer at a noir-influenced lounge. You pick the dialogue option labelled “flirt” three times, and hope Lady Luck’s on your side. The last time you do it, right before your relationship becomes “officially” romantic, the option will be labelled “Romance”. If you fail at any point, you can simply try again. As a representation of the complexities of romance, it’s laughably simplistic. As a representation of the enormously complex world of queer romance, it’s even worse. This is not a problem that’s unique to this game, or to Bethesda, by any means; the medium as a whole is notoriously bad at dealing with questions of romance or even just intimacy. But knowing this is important for understanding just how shallow these placatory attempts at queer inclusivity are.

Your character, male or female, begins the game in a loving heterosexual marriage, a picture-perfect nuclear family complete with baby boy and robot butler. The game’s opening features a few minutes of alternate-universe 2077, on the day the bombs fall. Your neighbors across the street are an interracial lesbian couple. In the finest traditions of gay and lesbian onscreen representation, they are shortly annihilated by nuclear fire—not the greatest start.

Aside from said couple, the only indicator of same-sex attraction I can find that does not come from the player’s choices is this one awkward attempt at flirting from your companion Piper. In a world where queer relationships and polyamorous relationships are supposedly the norm, isn’t it odd that no one, apart from you, seems to be doing any of this in the wasteland?

In fact, this falls in line with another recurring problem with regards to diversity and representation in games. By only displaying a diversity of options to the player, and not reflecting that same supposed open-mindedness in the actual setting, the player is the one who must take on the burden of making choices. You are the one who has to choose to initiate a same sex relationship, or to start multiple romances. The fact that romantic dialog is the same regardless of the gender of your character, that companions don’t react if you have more than one romance currently active: all that sounds like the developers removing a gender_compatibility() check. This is the recurring problem of protagonist-central morality: in an attempt to allow the player to have total freedom to make choices, their actions are also marked out as extraordinary. This explains why all your theoretically-bisexual companions never hit on other same-sex characters, only on you. This explains why no one will ever start a polyamorous relationship unless you are the one to initiate it. You, the player, operate under a different set of rules to the rest of the world, and therefore the availability of same-sex relationships or polyamorous relationships is both exclusive to you and an exception rather than the norm.

This becomes even more obvious if we take a closer look at non-player characters, since (narratively) they act purely under the constraints of the developer’s intended setting, and are not in a unique position of privilege like the player character. Right off the bat, the player character is always established as being happily married to a different-gender spouse. Of all the companions that can travel with you, two of them have clearly defined romantic histories. One of them, Nick, a male private detective, had a girlfriend, who has been dead for two hundred years (the perils of being a robot with another man’s memories). The other, MacCready, is a widower, whose wife recently died, leaving him to raise their son alone. You will never see his family in the game, just as you will never see Nick’s girlfriend. And, for that matter, your spouse dies about five minutes into the game. MacCready’s final “romance” option pops up after he opens up to you about his wife’s brutal death.

But what about other queer or trans NPCs? Well, I can think of one—a robot arms dealer who proudly and openly identifies as a woman. That’s it. As for polyamory? Forget about it. What all these articles mean by “polyamorous romance” is “flirting with other people, having already won the Romance check with someone else”. Nowhere is this more obvious than the fact that companions you’ve already romanced hate it if you flirt with people in front of them—but will have no comments and no reactions so long as you do it behind their back. That sounds like the polar opposite of an open and communicative relationship.

Once you start digging, that same veneer of acceptance starts to slough off. Simply put, this is a result of us reading silence as affirmation, when in truth it is just that and nothing more. In this light, McKenney’s comments about enemy “barks”—the stock phrases enemies yell at you so you don’t feel so bad when you hit them with a well-placed shotgun blast—aren’t really a “misstep” at all. Fallout 4’s unthinking use of gendered slurs in enemy barks is in fact a symptom of its sloppy handling of gender. It is perfectly in keeping with their unthinking, blandly palliative approach towards representation of minorities. How else do you explain the fact that the mechanical nod-and-a-wink towards sexuality caters only to heteronormative understandings of attraction, that only you can engage in same-sex relationships without immediately dying in a nuclear strike, that you are apparently the one person in the wasteland for whom it’s okay to have multiple romantic partners? More than anything, it is the inconsistency with which Fallout 4 approaches queer relationships that leads to incoherency, one which allows it to be praised as groundbreaking while at the same time remaining conservative.

So, yes. You can have bisexual and polyamorous relationships in Fallout 4. Only you. And that doesn’t sound progressive at all.

Featured Image by Kyle McKenney ’18/The Daily Gazette


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8 comments

  1. 0
    WarMachine71715 says:

    Everything in the game is overly simplified.
    You don’t just take an ear of corn and it’s magically a stalk of corn that you keep pulling another ear of corn off from every 32 minutes(or whatever the spawn time is on corn…idk)

  2. 0
    Neta says:

    I now it isn’t 100% valid in all of the LGBT squares but damn, I got me some PiperxBirgid (my female character) FEVER 😉

    I have to hand it to Bethesda with the queerness being a queer myself, but yes we have a little ways to go.

  3. 0
    Jamie says:

    I have a simple retort. While gay/lesbian/trans/queer may seem common today, there is a much much larger amount of people alive in the world today than there are in fallout. Being queer / gay / whatever isn’t that common in the general population now, hence why it’s considered queer. If it was the norm it wouldn’t be queer. So, it would stand to reason in a post apocalyptic world where rebuilding the world is a major priority, that people might be even less inclined to act on homosexual or ‘queer’ urges. Reproduction being a much more important aspect of life when the vast majority of the Human species died due to nuclear war.
    People write these articles like Bethesda or Activision or (insert company) owes us something. They don’t. They can make their universe however they want it to be because it’s their game. They could have chosen to make the game all fair skinned white people too and that would have been their choice and right to do so. If you like the game play it. If you don’t like the game don’t play it. It really is that simple and we don’t have to turn every single aspect into some political / social agenda and statement that it was never meant to be.

    1. 2
      John Smith says:

      I think you’re assuming that being gay is a ‘choice’. In both the real world and fallout world, gay people will still be born. Even if the nuclear war did wipe out all the present gays in the world, gays will still come back.
      And, assuming you are straight, it would be unfair and unethical to force you to have sex with the same gender, even if it means to repopulate the Earth. As sad as I say it, the world is better with less people. We were overpopulated. I don’t think that humans in the world of Fallout are underpopulated, hell, maybe they’re still overpopulated. And with raiders that seem to have no motive but to kill and live, it seems that reproducing is the last thing they’re thinking of.

    2. 1
      Jamms says:

      They could very easily reply to you in the same way. If you like the article title and summary read it. If you don’t then don’t. Just because they don’t have some written contract to owe us an inclusive game doesn’t mean that their products are in the clear for never having discourse about possible shortcomings, flaws, or disappointmens. If they wrote a game that was only fair skinned white people you could bet your ass that they’d come under fire for white supremacism whether they have any obligation to include other skin colours and races or not though.

  4. 0
    Kyle McKenney ( User Karma: 4 ) says:

    Hey Claudia! So when I heard you were writing an extensive counterpoint, gotta say, I got pretty nervous. But I really like your piece, you make a lot of great points that I agree with (well, not on the predictability of the writing), despite having a different takeaway in the end. I think you and I are definitely writing about the game in two different ways. I tried to write exclusively to my own experience with the game while I think you wrote much more to Fallout 4 as a whole. I think we played Fallout 4 in different ways as well. When I played Fallout 4 I really did get lost in its world and characters. I didn’t care to peak behind the curtain and see that yes, romance was determined by a series of die rolls, that yes dialogue options are almost, if not entirely, the same regardless of gender. Rather, I focused on my own experience. I truly enjoyed the dialogue and interactions between my character and Piper. They felt far more real than any Fallout or Elder Scrolls game before it. Yes, the mechanics of romance – the speech checks – are by no means well designed, and yet despite that the dialogue and the performances of the voice actors got me to suspend disbelief and invest in their relationship, which in my playthrough, was a queer romance. I absolutely agree with you on the issues of how Fallout 4 handled polyamory. It felt much more like dating multiple people at once than actually having a polyamorous relationship. However, I did not engage with that part of Fallout 4 and thus it really wasn’t part of my experience with the game. You also make great points about the lack of non-player character queer representation, which really is disappointing on the part of Bethesda. And yes, I do wish they had allowed me to change my spouse’s gender in the beginning of the game, which is just a glaring omission. And yet, Fallout 4’s divergent experiences – which are both a weakness and huge strength of the game – allowed me to have my own, enjoyable story that featured, in my opinion, well written women and their relationships with each other. On the whole, Fallout 4 is by no means perfect with the representation of gender and sexuality, it doesn’t even hit bars set by other AAA games like Dragon Age: Inquisition. However, in my opinion it’s a step in the right direction, and is a huge step up from Bethesda’s previous games. Like I said in my piece, I am glad that for me, Fallout 4 has been about a mother searching for her son with her girlfriend Piper and comrade Cait by her side. I think that’s why I still come away with positive feelings on the game despite agreeing with many of your criticisms. You definitely challenged my perceptions of Fallout 4 with your writing. Hope we can talk more about this and other games at some point!

    1. 0
      Claudia Lo ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

      What can I say? I’m greedy and want it all 🙂 And by “all” I mean “quests where I can’t actually just solve problems by shooting them in the face with an overpowered shotgun.”

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