Monday, September 13, 2010

Something Fallout 3 did Wrong (12/30)

While riding my bike the other day, I was struck by this thought: Science Fiction is set when it is written...sort of. When we write speculatively, we're often writing about our present worries enlarged to the point where they threaten the girl/the world/humanity. And I was thinking about Fallout 3, which is sorta 1950s-style "retro" SF. And while Bethesda studios did a pretty good job capturing the aesthetic of that imagined future (with personal robots and atomic cars, etc.) I think they missed out on the social aspect of the 1950s. See, when people in the '50s imagined the future they could envision wondrous technologies...but they did not presage even an imminent social force like first wave feminism. Or for that matter much of the civil rights movement. I think it was William Gibson wrote that this "raygun gothic" style draws an eerie parallel to the striking architecture of the Nazis; a utopia for white man and white marble.

I was thinking that Fallout 3 is really more of a paean to that old futurism, presenting a lot of the flavour of 1950s society, but it misses a lot of the gender issues: opression, denial of female sexuality and independence...I'll give them the ghouls as an OK treatment of racism, but on sexism they dropped the ball. I was stammering my way through this to JAZ, who pointed out that no one really wants to be penalized for a choice like using a female avatar. And that's where I'm stuck, because I think that's pretty valid. I can't really condone a game that penalizes a character for being female, and yet if we don't...we're getting oddly revisionist about our history. And I don't think that the men who could conceive of free men on the moon but not free women on Earth should get off scott-free. I think the best solution I can imagine is if they could portray a struggle between the people desperately trying to preserve the remnants of prewar society (ie. The Brotherhood of Steel), and those who believe that you can't really separate the achievements and knowledge of a culture from its underlying values, which in this case seem quite probably sexist. That provides room for empowered females within the narrative of the game - PC and NPC - and introduces what I think is an interesting debate: whether it's better to rebuild on past success (note: the society whose heritage the BOS are preserving ALSO nuked itself to death), or blaze a new path. And it's not even too much at odds with existing faction goals, ie. those of The Enclave.

The only reason that I don't buy "well, maybe sex and gender are nonissues as of 2077 in the Fallout world?" is that it feels like a sort of developer fiat; "oh yeah: the rhetoric, clothing, hairstyles, personalities...they're all IRONICALLY retro, you see? The actual implicit sexism is totally gone!". Fallout wouldn't be Fallout without the 1950s aesthetic, and the 1950s aren't the 1950s if we overlook all of the things we did and thought incorrectly. I guess I'm just not a fan of the revisionism? I think Red Dead Redemption is an interesting counterexample, because they actually went ahead and put one strong female character into a man's world...and while her dialogue is occasionally a bit "nudge nudge, wink wink, I'm inventing suffrage" she works. If they had put a tough female gunslinger in her place (and there could be one in the game, I haven't finished it yet), it wouldn't have felt as authentic*. Bonnie McFarlane is a strong woman, but she's still a sorta-kinda believable historical character, which I think helps immersion.

*Revisionist Action Girl is kind of a played-out trope anyhow. If Rockstar got Gina Torres to do voice work for one, though, I'd be so down!


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