November 19th, 2008

Gender is a tough thing to get right in an open-ended game. Sadly, I haven’t had time to play as much of Fallout 3 as I’d like, but what I’ve seen so far I’ve enjoyed. Still, I can’t help but gripe about the treatment of my character’s gender. At the literal moment of your first-person birth — yes, that may even top first-person porn — you get to decide whether your avatar is male or female. From what I can tell, however, your decision doesn’t really change things. The story of you breaking free from the vault appears the same. Only the way people speak to you is different.

Well, kind of. This game is heavy in dialogue, but the only real change there is the addition of a few gendered pet names, like “girl.” Men will still speak to you coarsely and expect you do to dirty jobs like setting off bombs. Prostitutes will still talk to you flirtatiously. Every so often the game will throw in a word or two as if to say, “Yeah, I remember you’re female,” but really, you get addressed as if you were male.

On the one hand, I appreciate that Fallout 3 gives players the option to pick their genders — unlike, say, Far Cry 2, which offers a whole cast of killers to pick from, none of whom are women. At the same time, in a game that’s as heavily scripted as Fallout, I can’t help but think that leaving gender up in the air was a bad idea, artistically. Sure, you could call it empowering. Whatever a man can do, why not a woman? But frankly, people speak to girls differently than they do to boys. If the dialogue was gender accurate, we’d be hearing a lot more, “What do you think you’re doing with gun, little missy?” and “Oh, you’re going to blow up my town? Haha, I’m so scared.” Whether we like it or not, even our most basic communication changes depending whom we’re addressing.

Nice try, Fallout 3, but at the end of the day it sort of feels like you stuck in the female character option so male gamers could have acceptably curvy asses to stare at while still acting/being talked to like men. And if you approach it that way, that’s a pretty wimpy thing to do. We wouldn’t want to upset anybody by treating them as if they were actually female, right? Don’t worry though, Fallout 3, I still heart you.

Tags: female characters, gender, language, new games

64 Responses to “Hey Fallout 3, don’t call me ‘girl’”

  1. Duoae Says:

    I’ve been playing as a guy on my first playthrough but was planning on being an evil-based female (on hard difficulty) as my second playthrough – partially because the black-widow perk will allow me to easily kill all the men in the game (as more of your enemies are men in my experience)…. but i was also thinking of roleplaying a ‘vampiress’ with the night person and cannibal perks.

    Can’t wait :)

  2. I Wanna Be The Guy Too Says:

    If Fallout made more NPCs condescending towards female players they’d get a backlash, which is what they’re avoiding since the Oblivion topless backlash. Misinformed people would think “Topless orcs and now pejorative npcs? hmm… Could Bethesda be misogynistic?”

    Besides, Fallout 3 doesn’t seem to be the kind of place to discriminate against race or gender too hard, as there are plenty of strong, violent, threatening and frightening female characters in the wastes as there are men.

  3. Andreas Says:

    First off: Love your blog, great combination of topics.

    Second: I’m thinking maybe this is one of those either-way-you-lose scenarios. If the producers had made the dialogues too gender-specific it probably would have come across as stereotypical and annoying. Still, I see your point.

    It makes me think of Mass Effect, which I loved partly because it was so gender-neutral (or, perhaps I should say masculine-neutral). Apart from the heteronormative sexual episode – which, frankly, didn’t bother me too much – the dialogues and storylines were identical no matter your gender. And, considering this was in the future, the optimist in me kept thinking “well, maybe feminism actually has come somewhere in a few hundred years”, making it believable. The fact that a lot of the people you socialize with aren’t even human – making the probability of them falling into a human sexist routine even slighter – only makes it even more believable.

    So, hey, it’s 2277 in Fallout 3. Maybe only the not-sexist folks survived the nuclear holocaust. :D

  4. Tina Says:

    One thing that annoys me a bit is how the gamedevelopers make their games “gender neutral” in a way that is clearly male-centered. For example, yes, as a female character you still get flirty invitations from female NPC’s – but they don’t even put any flirtatous men in the game to avoid male gayness but still be able to say their game is not sexistic, since the NPC’s respond the same way to male and female characters. This is something you can see in Mass Effect, where the xenosex was with a “Well we’re actually both male and female but we look and talk female”-character for females as well as males, making people doing the wave for not being homophobic. You can see it in Fallout 3 (not to mention Fallout 1 or 2, can’t remember which, where girls can marry wither a boy or a girl but guys only can marry the girl). I recently played the maybe four year old game Vampire: The Masquarade – Bloodlines, where there are plenty of girls – from random human girls in bars to a slave to vampiric night club owners – who will respond flirtatously to you unregarding the gender of your charachter. No male blood dolls though.

    What I’m trying to say is that it’s OK to treat girls the same as guys, but not the other way around – and that’s depressing.

  5. Andreas Says:

    And while we’re on the subject (kinda), the same kind of silent homophobia sort of put me off in Fable 2.

    Well, ok, it’s probably one of the better games on the market in offering gender-open relationships, but specifically male-male desire evidently still has to be packaged in this rather twee, semi-tongue-in-cheek way. I’m specifically thinking of the prostitutes in Bloodstone: The male prostitutes are the funny, for the heterosexual masculine player non-threatening fatso pathetic stereotype, while female prostitutes were the sultry, sassy kind. Tiring.

    (At least I can’t recall seeing any serious attempts at sensual male prostitutes, I may be wrong here though)

  6. Duoae Says:

    @ Tina, that’s a very good point and i think it stems from the society (specifically US and UK since i don’t really know the others well enough) producing these games. Let’s face it, men are coming around to the idea of other gay men – we’re up to the point of intrinsic pseudo gayness in heterosexual male activities and bonding rituals (which i don’t think existed 50 years ago) so progress is being made.

    At the same time we’ve got stuck in a bit of a rut with the stereotypical ‘gay female’ while simultaneously ignoring the gay male aspect so @Andreas, yes it is annoying that the prostitutes aren’t equal but then there’s the opposite side of the coin to look at as well. Most of the gay male populace of Bowerstone were fit, healthy not bad-looking men while the gay women were all pretty dull and frumpy and plain in contrast to the prostitutes.
    I think that at least games like Fable 2 are addressing the fact that these elements of society exist and don’t put them under the rug. It may all be cartoony but once the idea is seeded in the general populace that immediately starts to open the mind to the facts and eventually leads to acceptance in some of those people.

    With regards to VtM-Bloodlines, i thought there were men who you could seduce in the clubs as well? I remember being a male vampire (the seducing ones – i forget the name) and not being able to interact with the men but with the women so i assumed that the men would be there for female characters? If that wasn’t the case then it’s a shame.

  7. Naseer Says:

    The bugs don’t help either. I’ve been called guy and dude in dialogues, when I should have been called gal and dudette.

    Of course, as a gal, you do get a couple of unique perks.

  8. Ben Abraham Says:

    At the risk of coming across as though I’m trying to dismiss your entire argument, didn’t you at the start call out Far Cry 2 for not including a female lead protagonist? If the alternative was to go the Fallout 3 route and treat the gender differences as cosmetic, then why would you then equally criticise a game for choosing to avoid that issue?

    Seems a bit like wanting to have the cake and eat it too. Okay, maybe not exactly, but it’s not as if it’s a small thing to re-write and re-record every line of dialogue in the whole game to account for your difference in gender. I can’t think of a single game that’s pulled that one off successfully (closest I can think of is Mass Effect, but I think even it suffers from some of the same problems you identified in Fallout 3).

    Finally, if you wanted to be really pedantic, you could say that the entire storyline might potentially need to be modified and re-written because of the different possible treatments and reactions of a male or female character. That’s actually fine by me, but it won’t go down well with the publisher. ;-)

  9. Thoughts On Being Female in Fallout 3 « Chungking Espresso Says:

    [...] (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 [...]

  10. SomeUnregPunk Says:

    i wish game developers would create true gender differences in games like entire conversations being changed to fit the gender or the race.

    Like the game of Saint’s Row 2, you can design an stereotypical gay male but no one treats you any different than if you created a stereotypical gangster. It’s kinda of annoying that they’ll give you the option and yet no change comes to the game other than what you look like. I played a really fat black nudist guy and other than hearing the bystanders yell, “That only works if your a hot chick” none of the other conversations really changed.

  11. Fallout 3 Broken Steel man Says:

    My sister tried to play the game Fallout 3, she did not like the game she likes to flash dressing, as I do not like games for girls.

  12. Hunter Says:

    Hey, if you´re putting it that way, they had to choose the lesser of two evils. It was either some girls ranting about how they are not being treated as female or getting accused of being misogynists. They were going to “blow it” either way, because you just can´t please everyone. I´m a girl and personally, I don´t mind at all. I get enough discrimination in real life already, thanks. See, when I play, I don´t think of myself as a female gunner; I just see myself as a gunner.

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  16. Joe W Says:

    Excellent piece Bonnie

    Unfortunately I think it’s more a matter of laziness on the part of Beth’s writers.

    I often considered when playing Oblivion; why do so many characters say the same lines with different voices? Think about it;

    Breton voice: “Why, you’re the hero of Kvatch!”
    Kahjit voice: “Why, you’re the hero of Kvatch!”
    Nord voice: “Why, you’re the hero of Kvatch!”
    Argonian voice: “Why, you’re the hero of Kvatch!”

    Replacing the Khajit phrase with something that meant the same thing but used different wording would give the game more variety, give you more of a feel for the races and potentially save space in terms of the actual sound files themselves. The only explanation is laziness in execution.

    New Vegas has included sexist responses from Ceasar’s Legion but even then, sexism was sort of used as a mark of evilness rather than represented as all-pervasing within the game world. Skyrim has similarly been criticised for having overlty racist Nords whose reactions to the player don’t really change according to their race.

    I’ve often thought of doing a Fallout: London mod and thought of having skinhead and yardie factions where your starting reputation is directly affected by your race, even if their are no explicit dialogue references to it.

    Remember that the commercial gaming industry will always just do what it knows and what it can get away with; it’s up to modders to provide the alternative and as we’ve seen countless times (especially with Valve’s titles) the alternative representations put forward in the modding community will eventually trickle up (Hopefully).

    @Andreas, New Vegas did “gayness” a bit better; with Archie who was written as gay but with it never explicitly referred to; i.e. it’s part of a character’s backstory as opposed to a 2-dimensional piece of tokenism.

    @Hunter; that’s fine if you’re playing games where you’re a “gunner”, but games that revolve specifically around Role Play and player customisation should’nt work like that; it’s poor form on the part of developers to not acknowledge such player choices.

    - Joe (some feminist sympathising game academics dude)

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