Artwork by Rebecca Henderson
With the Steam Summer Sale for this year ending about a week ago, I decided to finally take the plunge and purchase Fallout 4; I had been waiting to play since it came out, but ultimately decided to wait until I had adequate time to sink into it between semesters at college. My first playthrough also overlapped with a celebration of Pride Month in June, which got me thinking about the romance options in first-person RPGs. They became highly popularized by both Bethesda and Bioware, among others, for a variety of options available to the player depending on the chosen binary gender of your character.
There are some NPCs who can be romanced by male and female characters, with one of the most popular being Liara T’soni from the Mass Effect franchise (who technically doesn’t have a gender, as an Asari, but I digress). Romances in these games are usually fairly linear affairs where the player character must fulfill certain requirements – usually a specific quest line or objective – before the romance can be attempted. Most fans are quick to choose a favorite companion and stick with them the whole game. How many characters can be romanced at one time largely depends on both the game franchise and the characters in question. The diversity of romance options blends in well with the overall theme of freedom in open-world games.
First-person RPGs are wonderful for the amount of freedom they allow the player. Even without mod support, you have a sandbox where your actions slowly seep through the world and shape it in your image. But that very freedom begins in the character creation, which has become more of an expectation with the genre than anything else. The gender you choose for your character has barely any impact on the story of a game. Most of the changes come down to minor dialogue changes or, as noted above, the options of which characters you can romance if you choose to romance any at all. So why is this an important distinction? If the game developers don’t offer much in the way of a statement on this inclusion, why bother paying attention to it at all?
Because it is one of the most direct methods of escapism where you have the freedom to fully immerse yourself in a different identity, even for only a limited amount of time. Hobbies, in general, are an effective vehicle for escapism, but they are usually taken through well-defined protagonists who, unless we resonate with them, are different from ourselves. A first-person RPG allows for complete and total control by the player over the identity of the character they will be playing. At a time when visibility for transgender and gender non-conforming individuals worldwide is increasing daily, games like Fallout 4 are a safe and comfortable way to explore your personal identity or sexuality (or both) without fear of consequence. Some players will eagerly choose to play as the other binary gender for their character, even if they don’t identify with that gender. After all, why not try it out?
So far in my playthrough, no character has seemed to be concerned with one specific identity, or who another character loves, and I don’t think that could be chalked up to the aftereffects of nuclear war. It is precisely because the open-world Fallout games set beyond the present day that I believe, for most inhabitants, the specifics of gender and sexuality are of little consequence. There may very well be the day when future generations may be shocked at how slow we were to accept certain things. I can only wonder what the generational divide will be like between mine and future generations on the topics of gender and sexuality. But though we don’t know the answer to that yet, we should continue to look to open-world games for their continued support of freedom and diversity.