Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
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