by: Caelyn Ellis for I Need Diverse Games
November 18, 2015
It’s easy to be disappointed by the outrageous heteronormativity of Fallout 4’s first hour. The, admittedly excellent, character generation takes the form of a het couple taking turns in front of the bathroom mirror. The man is in the army, the woman a lawyer (though she’s taken time off to look after the baby, obviously) and you are firmly trapped in a saccharine retro-future suburban cliche. To make it palatable, it is important to remember one tiny detail: all Bethesda RPGs start off in prisons.
Oh, it’s more explicit in The Elder Scrolls, but Fallout 3’s vault served the same purpose. The wonderful irony in Fallout 4’s opening sequence is that the apocalypse, and the subsequent freezing and fridging, frees you from the American Nightmare. Even if you throw yourself into the main storyline, it’s almost comedic how inconsequential the fate of your spouse seems. The vast majority of dialogue choices revolve around your kidnapped child or plain old revenge, with the protagonist mostly unperturbed by their recent widowing.
Liberation remains a strong theme throughout the game, as does the transgression of societal norms regarding gender and sexuality. I’m pretty sure that it’s the first AAA game to feature a trans woman who isn’t designed to be a joke. Without delving any deeper into spoiler territory, much of the game revolves around the rights of various robots and other created beings and Bethesda make good use of the material. I’m confident in stating that Fallout 4 is Bethesda’s strongest title in terms of story and writing by a long shot. As a huge fan of their games, I know it’s not exactly a high bar, but this is the first time I’ve felt that these aspects have been a positive, rather than something to merely tolerate.
In many ways, Fallout 4 gives the impression that Bethesda have been paying close attention to the mod community around their franchises and using it is a checklist of what their fans want. Animation is much improved, with even a staunch first-person perspective advocate like myself appreciating idle poses that don’t make me want to claw my eyes out when trying to admire my shiny new armour. Barbers and plastic surgeons are easily accessible from early on in the game, and offer appearance options not available on the initial character creation screen. In a lovely thematic touch, your initial hairstyles and other choices are restricted to those appropriate for the game’s pseudo-1950’s pre-war setting. Once you’re in the wastes proper, you’re free to shave half your hair off, smear yourself in dirt and daub your face with an assortment of intimidating warpaint. I found myself frequently returning to the surgeon in order to change up my makeup, or add a new scar or two.
Yes, this is a game that lets you escape the banality of cishet suburban life, get an undercut and tattoos, and go out in search of all the lady-smooching you can handle. Companion romances can be pursued regardless of gender and the game fully supports bisexuality and polyamory! Though Cait did dislike my flirting with Magnolia. Ahem.
Despite a few misteps, like a slight over-reliance on gendered insults and ableist terms, Fallout 4 is remarkably progressive and socially conscious game. It doesn’t shy away from difficult subject matter, but neither does it revel in it. Appropriately, it reminds me of Mad Max: Fury Road in how it handles such things. It’s a harsh, violent world filled with bad people doing worse things, but it’s never exploitative and always has room for showing a better way. Bethesda use visual storytelling and notes from previous occupants to give life and character to each “dungeon” location, building on the techniques they used in Skyrim, and this delivers some surprisingly poignant and human moments. My personal favourites include an understated scene of a wheelchair sat behind the recruiting desk at a National Guard training camp, and a wonderful treasure hunt for safe keys misplaced by the elderly residents of a care home. Fallout 4 is a game with more to say about humanity than Grand Theft Auto ever did, and manages to do so without cracking transphobic “jokes.”
My biggest concern about the game going in was that I much preferred the Obsidian-developed Fallout: New Vegas to Fallout 3, which always felt like a somewhat ramshackle collection of interesting locations bolted together with a few recognisable DC landmarks thrown in. Pleasingly, the Commonwealth looks a lot more like an actual ruined cityscape than the Capital Wasteland ever did. It’s safe to say that Bethesda were taking notes and post-apocalyptic Boston feels like much more of a coherent place, both in terms of location and the various communities scattered around.
I can’t finish this review without an ode to Fallout 4’s glorious power armour. Previously, power armour was just strong late-game armour, no different to any other outfit. In Fallout 4, it has been transformed into a mini-vehicle, which is powered by fusion cores and has the most satisfying entrance/exit animation. Found early on in the game, it consists of different armour components attached to a powered frame. Each of these components, like most of the weapons and armour in the game, can be upgraded and customised. With it’s use limited by the need for cores, it starts off as a fallback for those “shit just got real” moments, but by the time you would have gotten access to power armour in previous Fallout titles, you should have enough for continuous use. This neatly side-steps the common RPG issue of having to switch between combat gear and more suitable social attire, whether for stat bonuses or pure role-playing. I happily stomped about the wasteland in my power armour, only to step out of it and reveal my charisma-boosting sparkly dress and fabulous shades whenever I rocked into town.
Ultimately, Fallout 4 is a Besthesda title. It has all the freeform, explory highs and glitchy, slightly naff combat lows we’ve come to expect from them. However, it’s a clear evolution from both Fallout 3 and Skyrim and showcases a stronger, more confident Bethesda. The writing isn’t best-in-class, but it’s pretty damn good. The combat is a weak point, but it’s perfectly entertaining. It’s still that huge, open, messy playground that you already love or hate. It’s just that this time, it has a lot more life and a lot more heart than I expected, and I enjoyed rifling around in people’s lives as much as I did in their trash.
Caelyn is an Amazonian lesbian who writes on games and comics. Aspiring comic writer. Chaotic Asexual. WILL FIGHT YOU. My gender is hardcore lady type