Thoughts On Playing Female in Fallout 3
This is the first of my two-part series on Fallout 3 (the second will be specifically about the DLC).
Minor Broken Steel spoilers. Don’t read if you haven’t finished the original main quest.
I finished Broken Steel last night. Everybody knows by know what happens in the original ending, so I’m not giving anything away here: when you wake up at the beginning of Broken Steel, you are lying on a hospital bed across from the inert body of a female compatriot, Paladin Lyons. The strange thing is that, until this moment, I had largely forgotten that I had been playing the game as a female. On waking, Elder Lyons addressed me as “Sarah” (the name of my girlfriend, after whom I modeled my avatar). But he also referred to his comatose daughter (Paladin Lyons) by the forename “Sarah.” Was this a fluke of the way I had named my character or a glitch in how the dialogue was programmed, or does the game procedurally match her name to yours if you play a female? I’d like to leave this question as a personal mystery, instead of finding the answer from others… because, regardless of whether this was designed or not, it bound me to her. More on this further along.
L.B. Jeffries and I had a conversation in Savannah, while sipping Victory Prima Pils, about the difficulties of writing well about large, open-world games. How could we be sure that we were getting to the important stuff, that we were “playing it right?” I played it right, if doing so means min-maxing to such a degree that the game quickly becomes a sadly simple process of one-hitting any enemy I come across. One way to maximize your total damage output in Fallout 3 is to roll a female avatar and then select the Black Widow perk. This is only available to female avatars, and it does extra damage to male characters (males have a corresponding Perk called Lady Killer). The reason Black Widow maximizes potential damage is that there are numerically more male NPCs in the Capital Wasteland.
Here’s one question: was it slightly colonizing that I rolled a female avatar just because I knew that I would do more damage that way? Answer: yes! Follow-up: would I have been able to write this piece without doing so? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
The most common complaints about Fallout 3 that I have found from female gamers (thanks to Jonathan Mills, Kateri, and Denis Farr for the links on related posts by Twyst and Heroine Sheik) is that the tailoring of graphics, dialogue, and sound effects to a female avatar have been handled poorly by Bethesda. No arguments here: NPCs shouted the word “Bitch!” during combat (I quickly selectively listened against this), clothing found on the ground is always in its “male” state, and there were frequent errors wherein an NPC would refer to me as “brother” or “man.” Also, in the original ending montage one screen will always mistakenly show you as a male. What these programming errors show, as explained by Brinstar in the Iris Network forums, is that Bethesda added the functionality of the female player character as an afterthought. My experience confirms this—although I was a male playing a female character, I forgot this fact over the course of my playthrough; this highlights the fact that Bethesda approached the subject of gender neutrality by ignoring gender altogether (which Others female players on a meta-level).
One note by Twyst finds her annoyed at the dialogue options (or lack of them) that the Black Widow perk opens up. Basically, if a female avatar with Black Widow speaks to certain male NPCs in the game world, she will have the option to instantly persuade them to perform an action unavailable to male player characters in the same position. Usually the characterization of the Black Widow dialogue option is that of seduction. Twyst doesn’t go into much detail as to the reason for her annoyance here, but I’d like to posit that there are at least two feminist reactions to the feature.
Naming the perk “Black Widow,” with its connotations of castration anxiety, is likely to aggravate across the board. A second wave feminist will probably find the Black Widow option to be colonial on the part of the game designers—basically this form of feminist thought would color the interaction as women being only able to interact with males based on a sexual model holding the woman as desirable object. This is a valid criticism; however, a third wave feminist or postfeminist (with the possible exception of the riot grrl) might see the Black Widow option as sex-positive and female-empowering—asserting that women have the right to use every means at their disposal to draw weak male minds out of their position of power. For instance, one such male holds the fate of the town of Megaton in his greedy hands; a Black Widow can persuade him to simply leave town on a false promise of possible sexual reciprocation.
Before I enter into a discussion of specific feminine paradigms explored by the game, I’d like to assert that the primary Others of Fallout 3 are the Ghouls and the Super Mutants. Ghouls are otherwise normal humans who have been exposed, over generations of incestual mating practices, to unhealthy doses of radiation—causing their skin to crack and peel from their bodies. At late stages of Ghoul transformation, the former humans become feral. Ferals are characterized as being completely not-human: they attack regular humans on sight (non-feral Ghouls are safe from this), they “screw like animals,” and at the latest stage they become radiation-manifest: the Glowing One. Regular Ghouls still carry visible signs of gender (including feminine names and breasts, despite the otherwise decrepit bodies), but feral ghouls—despite the assertion that they can mate—display no such signifiers. On the other hand, Super Mutants—or humans who have been purposefully exposed to the Forced Evolution Virus—are neuter, and can apparently only procreate through some unseen form of test tube growth.
Regular humans in the Fallout world despise Ghouls and Super Mutants in unequal amounts. Ghouls act as an oppressed minority that is regularly banished from cities and forced to live a meagre subsistence in areas of high radiation (encouraging their descent into feral form). Super Mutants have declared all-out-war on humanity, and they serve as the primary antagonists of the middle section of the game. The question is: are Ghouls a model for racial discrimination? This is a possible move (even though there are Ghouls of multiple human ethnicities), but it’s more interesting to look at them as a possible analogy to the HIV-positive community. While racist whites treat minorities as inferior in a variety of ways, members of almost every ethnic community fear the specter of the AIDS virus. Ghoul-ism is non-communicable, yet humans fear physical contact and proximity with Ghouls—much like people who irrationally fear that HIV will be spread to them through casual contact. Thus, throughout the 70s and through today (in most locations), the HIV-positive community has been ghettoed and left to die in silence; similarly, Fallout‘s Ghouls are practically forced into advanced stages of their disease by being pushed to irradiated areas in order to seek an isolated place to live and die in peace. Ghouls are angry, tired, and sometimes hateful creatures as a result of their mistreatment at the hands of regular humans (a conflict which climaxes in Roy’s brutal slaughter of the humans in Tenpenny Tower). One other group of people uniquely treated as Other in the wastes are children, and I leave it to someone with a particular interest (more knowledge than I have) in this subject to explore this fact elsewhere.
In contrast to the Ghouls, women in the Capital Wasteland live a (mostly) egalitarian existence. Despite its masculine name, women are largely treated as equals in the Brotherhood of Steel; however, there appear to be few in positions of leadership, and the primacy of Paladin Lyons can be written off as a result of her father’s nepotism. Likewise, women are given the same status as men in Raider and Slaver communities. In fact, the only women in the game who appear to be decidedly non-empowered are the Ghoul-hating, upper-class women of Tenpenny Tower. I say this because they appear greedy, frail, and dependent on their relationships with their husbands. Unlike the hardworking women of the wastes (good and evil), these anachronistic socialites are some of the most despicable characters in the game—of course, the husbands are just as awful. Their slaughter at the hands of Roy and the feral ghouls is simultaneously cathartic and unsettling according to many player accounts (and my own experience).
All of this strikes me as a unique move on the part of Bethesda: if they characterize the world of Fallout as one without law, then what is the likelihood that women would maintain nominal equality despite the fact that it took five thousand years for them to finally achieve legal equality? Here is one possible, positive answer: the women of the Capital Waste are hard-as-nails—as powerful, dangerous, and cunning as any man. Another, negative answer would be: Bethesda was too lazy to design a world that explored the many possible gender/sexual dynamics that might emerge in the event of an apocalypse. One would do well to remember that in humanity’s early years, women commonly held positions of power in tribal cultures. Patriarchal hegemony is an artificial construct developed over the course of thousands of years. It would have been truly enlightening to be able to navigate a Capital Waste that featured communities where women were the sole leaders or, alternatively, where they were treated as chattel. This would allow for an intriguing exploration of the processes by which how women might rise to power in a future tribal society or how misogynists might take the event of a nuclear apocalypse as an opportunity to once again strip women of their equal legal standing. For now we can only hope that such a game might come around on another console, in another decade.
Three female NPCs stood out as particularly important to my experience in Fallout 3, shining examples of positive female paradigms in the Capital Wastes: Agatha, Leaf Mother Laurel, and Paladin Lyons.
Agatha is encountered in the quest named “Agatha’s Song.” She is an elderly woman living alone in a fairly uninhabited, dangerous section of the wastes. Some explanations for her ability to survive alone might be that she’s the most resilient woman in the realm, that her home is largely hidden from passersby by an outcrop of rocks, or that she wields a powerful revolver (the Blackhawk) bequeathed to her by her late husband. Agatha’s husband also built her a radio transmitter, with which she broadcasts her violin music throughout the wastes. This story is one of eternal and reciprocal conjugal love: her husband’s spirit—in the form of his sidearm—lingers to aid in Agatha’s protection. I’ve written before about the disruptive, female sound space constructed by Faye Wong in WKW’s Chungking Express, and for me the transmitter that Agatha’s husband built for her is a metaphor for his supportive expansion of one aspect of her femininity—a personal aural space. Agatha tames the wastes in the only ways she knows how: surviving alone and granting a dying world the gift of simple, classical beauty.
Players encounter Leaf Mother Laurel during the “Oasis” quest. In my opinion, this is the single most complex quest afforded by Fallout 3. A group of naturalists have established a community in a miraculous forest to the far north of the wastes, a forest gushing forth from the roots of a tree-man named Harold. One must decide whether to grant a tortured tree spirit/mutant his wish of assisted suicide, to limit his growth so as to hide his presence from the outside world, or to apply a salve to his heart that will increase both his growth and his pain many times over. Leaf Mother Laurel, contrary to her husband’s wishes (he wants the second option), gives you the special concoction that will bring the third choice about. I had no idea what to choose. Material gain had no bearing on the decision, and there was no straightforward good or evil choice. Harold was in pain, the High Priest wanted to keep his community safe from interlopers, and the Leaf Mother hoped that the Oasis would spread to rejuvenate the entire Capital Waste. I went with Mother Nature. I sacrificed the desires of one for the hope of the future, siding with a single female against the desires of two males. I didn’t do this because I was playing a female, but because the decision felt right to me: this is good design in the highest.
I close by revisiting the inert body of a female compatriot that opens the storyline of Broken Steel. I will not tell you if Paladin Sarah Lyons emerges from her coma or not. In the volatile bowels of Project Purity, she stood by me as I attempted to activate the water purifier. I awoke from the resulting purging of radiation after two weeks, but she was still lying there in that hospital bed. I could have chosen to let her turn on the machine herself—this was the more dangerous option, and self-preservation would have dictated that I let her take the job. But I didn’t. Why then was she punished? The path to purified water in the Capital Wastes is littered with the bodies of the selfless—my mother, my father, Paladin Lyons. At the end of the game, I realized that Lyons had been an almost constant presence throughout my main mission and growth in the wastes—evolving from a protector to a sister-in-arms. The fact that she and I worked together to activate the Eden machine, coupled by our sharing the name Sarah, was (for me) a ludic expression of Simone de Beauvoir’s thesis in The Blood of Others and The Ethics of Ambiguity—to be a woman is to be responsible for the well-being of other women. The ending of the game would have been painfully less profound if I’d played as a male, in which case my decision to go into the radiation chamber could likely be read as patriarchal chivalry.
Bethesda, despite all your faults and oversights: thank you for this experience.
Footnote: Readers, remember that “Freud is most interesting in his footnotes!” The discussions brought up in this post are fleshed out and clarified in the comments section. Thanks to Denis Farr, Nick LaLone, and Tom Cross for getting these comments going.
pictures courtesy of The Vault