Fallout 4 is a story of revenge.
After you watch the murder of your spouse and abduction of your infant son, Bethesda’s apocalyptic RPG launches you into a sprawling, god-forsaken world with two goals: find your kid, and make the kidnappers pay. The main quest tries its hardest to be an urgent one, with a host of character to aid you and wasteland to explore on a trail of blood. But all the character action in the world don’t take the focus off you. After all, this is your story, your mission, your desperate quest.
It’s not at all unique. Revenge has long been the supporting structure for a character’s motivations, and Fallout does little to distance itself from the cliché.
But there is one way to drastically change the tone, feel, and value of the story: play as a female character.
History has taught us that revenge is a man’s tale. It’s a lesson derived from classic Alpha male archetypes and gender expectations: man loses something important to him (often family, especially wives/daughters) and launches on a quest to regain what (or who) he’s lost and bring the perpetrators to justice.
In these stories, there’s often a discordant juxtaposition between the man’s attachment to what he’s lost and what he does to gain it back. He’ll crack skulls, blow up buildings, and mow enemies down to get to his objective, and we’re expected to believe a character with a sadist mentality has a deep love for whomever he’s lost. It’s the Nathan Drake and Kratos principle: destroy hordes of “bad guys”–even the Gods themselves–to enact justice and fulfill his goal.
This narrative is flipped on its head when you choose to play as a female character in Fallout 4. You are a woman frozen inside a Cryo preservation chamber who looks on as your partner takes a bullet to the skull, and your infant son–whom you’ve presumably carried to term and thus already formed a literal physical bond with–is carried away by shadowy figures.
If there’s one thing the damsel archetype has taught us, it’s that women are helpless creatures who depend on the aid of others to survive–and here you are in the Vault, frozen and helpless. But instead of waiting around for a hero to never arrive, you decide to act and save yourself, despite knowing so little about the world in which you’re about to enter.
And what a brutally inhospitable world it is.
It’s bad enough to be even the most hardened warlord in the irradiated wasteland. But to be a (technically) new mother venturing into the commonwealth after 200 years of Cryo sleep? Especially a woman who lived a life of luxury and privilege in the suburbs? It’s difficult to find the adjectives adequate to describe how jarring that would be.
Fallout 4 is very much shaped by a player’s actions, but there’s a natural progression to a character’s journey. You start off clueless, attempting to piece together an idea of how this deadly new world functions. Gradually, you take on the appearance and attributes of a survivor, donning gear and brandishing makeshift weapons in a fight for survival. Over time, you progress from the know-nothing suburban softie to a hardened, gritty survivor capable of commanding settlements and clearing bandit outposts.
Playing as a woman in Fallout 4 makes this all the more meaningful, because it subverts tropes and breaks down the archetype of the damsel to create a strong female character. Not the tough-as-nails sidekick who has to be saved by male companions halfway through. Not the Smurfette-like lone token female presence in the wasteland. Not the damsel screeching for help from unseen heroes.
Instead, she’s a capable and pragmatic character who exercises agency and makes her own decisions in the best interest of her and her son’s safety.
It shares a lot of parallels with the Ellen Ripley/Newt dynamic in the 1986 film Aliens. Ripley is an established character in this film after proving she’s capable of taking care of herself when faced with the horrors of a murderous Xenomorph in Alien. During the sequel, Ripley exercises compassion and a nurturing attitude toward Newt, a little girl who has managed to survive the alien infestation. Throughout the film, Ripley acts in the best interest of hers and Newt’s safety, regardless of how dangerous the situation is.
Having the option to play as a woman can also untangle real-world stereotypes in interesting ways.
Mass Effect’s universe sells itself as being at a level of near gender parity, but when viewed through the lens of the lack of gender parity in the real world, its option to play as a female character is remarkably emboldening, almost revolutionary. As a commander tasked with saving the galaxy from an ancient threat, Shepard leads a crew on a series of dangerous missions combining tricky combat and diplomacy situations necessary to obtain peace.
It’s a common occurrence for women to be decried and labeled in many harmful ways for being assertive in leadership positions, often being called a “man” or any variation simply for taking charge. This is never made into an issue in Mass Effect. In fact, playing as a female Shepard while keeping this in mind serves to strengthen the character and make her into a multi-dimensional being. Yes, she’s assertive, brash, and sometimes forceful, but those moments of raw leadership are interspersed between others where she interacts with crew members on a personal level, often with options to act with empathy toward them and their respective plights.
Her existence conveys an important message simply by undermining the harmful stereotypes many women in power face today: women have the capacity to be brave and wise in a leadership position without ever having to sacrifice their personal identity.
Fallout 4’s campaign is not a work of narrative genius, but it does illustrate a powerful case for diverse characters–situations change based on who has been placed in them, be it a person of color, or a character of a different gender or sexual orientation. The human experience isn’t universal, and our choice of characters shouldn’t be, either.
Games can be a lens allowing us to see both different perspectives, and the mirrored image of ourselves as heroes. Embracing this leads to a host of interesting stories, both recognizable and unfamiliar.
Editor’s note: Many Fallout 4 players have correctly pointed out that playing as a woman also nets you gendered slurs from raiders etc. (e.g. “I’m going to find that bitch!” and “Hey, little girl!”) that you don’t receive when you play as a male character. This is one of the more disappointing aspects of playing as a woman in Fallout 4, as it subjects female players to the same kinds of catcalls we have to deal with in real life. Is it realistic? Yes. Necessary? No, and it not only breaks the immersion, but detracts from our enjoyment of the game by reminding of us of real-life threats. This issue wasn’t addressed in the article because the focus was on how playing as a woman effects the story–but we were remiss in not mentioning it, as it obviously effects the gameplay experience.