When it was announced that Fallout 4 was going to have romanceable characters that would be available for player characters of any gender, I was really, really excited. Whilst I recognise that there are problems with ‘player-sexual’ characters, until we see more robust representation of queer characters overall, I’ll continue to support them wholeheartedly. (And, honestly, probably even after that. But this isn’t a post about that debate.)
Nonetheless, what Fallout 4 gave us was…somewhat underwhelming. For starters, I don’t actually think the romance system really does anything. Romances in games are always somewhat flat, and involve merely saying the right things to a NPC until they like you enough to become your significant other. Fallout 4 is even worse than most. I have so far romanced two companions, Piper and Preston. (Side note, you can romance as many companions as you like at the same time, which is pretty nice). Here’s how it goes.
You travel around with your chosen companion and do enough things that they like (usually, in my experience, they just love that you’re really handy with a bobby pin) until their approval rating is high enough to trigger a quick conversation about how glad they are that they’re travelling with you. Through these conversations you can get some pretty interesting back story or personal quests, but eventually when you reach max approval you trigger the final one, which gives you a check based on your character’s charisma to enter a relationship with the character.
These charisma checks are an even more exaggerated version of the usual “say the right thing and your LI will sleep with you” video game system. In Fallout 4, these charisma checks are usually used to wrangle information or money out of a person. Now they’re being used for…well, I don’t really know. After successfully persuading flirting with them, if you sleep in a bed when a romanced character is nearby, you get a boost to your earned XP for a set amount of time because, quote, ‘you feel your lover’s embrace.’ It won’t really unlock any more discussions, except for your romanced character to repeatedly tell you that they are really happy with this situation. (Preston will also take to calling you ‘babe’ which, as a personal pet peeve, put me off this whole situation even more, but that’s just me.)
So, alright, the romances are flat and, to my eyes, vaguely creepy. That’s honestly probably to be expected, and I don’t think it detracts too much from the overall game since it’s really a trivial addition to the series. That doesn’t really excuse the heteronormativity of it all. The first thing that people noted was that it was impossible for the Sole Survivor to be in a same-gender relationship (aside from console commands) at the beginning of the game, where their family is introduced and then quickly taken away.
Well, someone might argue, the beginning of the game is set in a society where culture hasn’t advanced from the fifties lifestyle. It wouldn’t make any sense for the Sole Survivor to be in a same-gender relationship. To which I would reply, sure, but it’s not actually set in the fifties, it’s set in 2077, and, as the above article notes there’s a female same-gender couple shown right there in town. But even if my imaginary opponent’s argument was true, there’s really no excuse for heteronormativity past the first hour of the game. It’s the post-apocalypse, I really doubt that anyone doesn’t have bigger concerns than MOGAI people.
And yet it’s still more difficult to be MOGAI in 2287, after a devastating nuclear war, than it is to be straight. There’s a perk in the game that is either named Black Widow, if you’re a female Sole Survivor, or Lady Killer, if you’re male. It grants bonus damage against opponents who are the opposite gender to your Sole Survivor, and also makes them easier to persuade in dialogue. This perk was also present in Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas – and Fallout: New Vegas added a second perk, known as Cherchez la Femme for female Couriers or Confirmed Bachelor for male ones that gave the same advantages when dealing with members of the same gender as your player character.
Fallout 4 does not include this same-gender perk. And since romancing a character involves persuasion checks (again, it just sounds so shady) there is no way to boost your chances with a same gender companion. You can max out your charisma, but thanks to the opportunity to take the Black Widow/Lady Killer perk, it’s always going to be easier to romance someone of a different gender to you than someone of the same gender as you. It’s literally easier to be straight.
The options for romanceable companions are also somewhat odd. Actually, the companion demographics in general are odd. There are 12 companions. Three of them are female. That’s a quarter. This is a really confusing decision on Bethesda’s part. Now, all three of these female characters are romanceable, and only four of the men are. However, one of these romanceable female characters, Curie, is a robot. Not a synth, which are indistinguishable from human beings, but a full on robot. Like, she looks somewhat like a three tentacled, three eyed octopus. And one of those tentacles is equipped with a saw.
Listen, I’m not here to say what anyone should be into, but it seems odd to me that Curie is a romance option when the two male synths aren’t. It’s also very difficult to raise Curie’s approval as she dislikes most common player actions and likes events that are rarer. It seems possible that Bethesda realised that their female romance options were limited and decided to allow Curie to be romanced because of that. I’d hazard a guess that Bethesda would want to expand the female romance options because of the presumed straight male player, but by backing themselves into a sparse, lady-less corner, they created a weird atmosphere for queer ladies too.
The overall situation of romances in Fallout 4 is a strange one, and one that I would have overlooked as a mere additional feature that I wasn’t particularly interested in had it not been compounded by heteronormativity and lack of representation for women. As it is, they’re a disappointment thanks to the initial excitement that the game would include same gender relationships because, whilst it’s a good step to include these relationships, they were implemented poorly. And these problems wouldn’t have been too difficult to fix. There was no reason not to include the option for a same gender couple in the game’s introduction, a balanced companion roster would have gone a long way in evening out the lack of choice, and a perk like Cherchez la Femme/Confirmed Bachelor could easily have been included. In short, there was no reason for the post-apocalypse, a place traditionally free of societal constraints, to be so heteronormative.