Here’s how Automatron went for me: my Sole Survivor, a woman, followed a distress signal to a fight from which only one robot survived. Ada, as female as a robot can get, enlisted my Sole Survivor’s help, and the two of us rescued Jezebel, a female disembodied brain from Ivey, a woman who leads a gang of raiders, and built her a new robot body. Then Jezebel pointed us in the direction of the Mechanist, creator of all these hostile robots suddenly occupying the Commonwealth, whom we defeated, and who turned out to be – you guessed it – another woman, named Isabel Cruz.
In fact, I just got done with the DLC, and I can’t think of a single named, living male character. And since Fallout 4’s base game is only a third female, it’s particularly noticeable.
On one hand, I’m thrilled. Automatron’s world is populated by wrenches, oil cans, great feats of engineering – and female characters. It is not the association that we would typically expect; Automatron builds a traditionally masculine world, and then fills it up with women.
On the other hand, not one of the main women (excluding the optionally female Sole Survivor) has a lot of autonomy. I feel fundamentally skeevy changing aspects of Ada’s body, and it’s even worse when Jezebel tells you that she is unhappy with the construction you have made for her, but there is nothing that you can do about it. Ivey exists just to be killed, and Isabel never gets to improve her robots so that they actually help people as she intended rather than being accidental killing machines.
The overall thematic implication of Automatron do not help here. Fallout 4’s base game investigates the thorny morality of owning sentient machines. Automatron even has a faction known as the Rust Devils whom Ada condemns for building robots to do their bidding, including taking parts from other robots that they have killed. But this is exactly what the player is asked to do, without any prompting to question the ethics of this decision.
And while synths look like humans of all kinds, it’s difficult to make a male-coded robot in Automatron. It’s possible to give them a male voice, but visually your options are limited to non human (Mr. Handy, Protectron, Robobrain, or Sentry Bot) or clearly coded female in the case of the Assaultron pieces. Ada’s own female coding makes full use of the hip-to-waist ratio and suspiciously breast-like chest plate of this model. Thus, along with the female characters having little autonomy, the robots made and controlled by players are more likely to be female coded.
(It’s worth noting that many of the game’s assaultron-styled robots are also sexualised. While a specialised scrapbot might be known as a “basilisk” - i.e a giant mythological snake - a specialised assaultron might be known as a “succubus” - i.e. a mythological female demon thought to seduce men.)
The overall dynamic of Automatron goes against the grain of Fallout 4 regardless of its gender dynamics, but they add to the discomfort of the DLC. Since real life autonomy issues are gendered, Automatron’s many female characters and female-coded robots could have been the perfect opportunity to explore this added facet. But when the DLC refuses to explore these ethical issues in the way that the main storyline does, and instead expects the player to uncritically accept women with no autonomy and participate in the ownership of sentient robots without question, it leaves the experience feeling shallow in both thematic and gendered terms.