Cass rejects the player's advances in Fallout: New Vegas

At its QuakeCon expo back in July, Bethesda Softworks announced some new details about Fallout 4, the upcoming entry in its long-running post-apocalyptic series. One interesting tidbit stuck out among the revelations: You’ll be able to develop romantic relationships with some of the companions you meet in the new game. It’s a notable announcement because, of all the popular and long-running role-playing game series, Fallout is the one that has most aggressively resisted the addition of romantic elements.

Fallout players have launched nukes, battled aliens, and saved the world multiple times over, but they’ve almost never fallen in love. That romantic reticence has its roots in Fallout’s tonal core: a deep cynicism—toward both human nature and, specifically, the family-focused idealism of the 1950s—that resists artificiality at every turn. Fallout is a series with little respect for the human animal and its romantic needs, and its signature disdain for sentiment has manifested itself in every installment since its debut in 1997.

More so than any other game in the series, the first Fallout is a story about survival. When banished from Vault 13, the bomb-shelter-cum-underground-society you call home, on a fool’s errand to recover a new technology that might alleviate a water shortage, the player character is weak, poorly armed, and completely ignorant about the outside world. Post-apocalyptic California is a brutal place in 2161, and the game doesn’t undercut that with the suggestion that there’s a lot of time for moonlit walks down past the brahmin pen. Fallout is a world where survival comes first, and love a very, very distant second.

In between the two, unavoidably, is sex. After all, no game with a worldview as jaded as Fallout could go for long without presenting an array of characters (mostly female, since 1997 was pretty early in the rise of progressive sexual representation in game design) with whom players can buy or flirt their way into bed. The simple fade-to-black that results from these encounters comes across as a sneering little joke from the game’s designers, like the Dungeons & Dragons dungeon master who mocks a player for sleeping with every tavern wench they come across: Congratulations! You just paid 50 caps to “have sex” with a video game character. Was it good for you?

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Those sexual aspects were amplified in the game’s sequel, along with everything else. Fallout 2 is notorious for the way it took a game that was a serious look at a post-apocalyptic world—albeit one laced with a vein of gallows humor and science fiction—and transformed it into a full-blown satire. Hints about the moral weaknesses of the pre-war government become the genocidal Enclave. The dystopian environment of the Vaults became the results of sinister experimentation by the smiling executives at Vault-Tec. And the original game’s seeds of cynical sexuality blossom into the ugly, alluring flower known as New Reno.

The Cat’s Paw brothel in New Reno

That glittering gem of depravity serves as a good taste of what Fallout 2 thinks about romance in a post-apocalyptic world—especially since it was the brainchild of new-to-the-series designer Chris Avellone, who’s gone on to be a major influence on both Fallout and the development of role-playing games in general. Avellone is on the record as being opposed to traditional video game romances, and as a result, New Reno is jam-packed with those saucy, inconsequential fades to black; the player is presented with prostitutes, groupies, and even the opportunity to make some money working as a star in adult films. There are hints of romantic affection, too, but when it crops up, it’s rarely as a strength and almost always as a weakness to exploit.

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Take, for example, the player’s possible dalliance with Mrs. Bishop, the wife of one of New Reno’s warring crime bosses. The player can flirt with her, impress her, and ultimately seduce her through the proper use of dialogue. The result? A fade to black and some revealing information about life with her husband. The reveal of her softer side would almost qualify the subplot as a sincere, if truncated, stab at romance, if not for two things: the clarity with which Mrs. Bishop establishes that she sees the player as little more than a piece of meat for her sexual gratification, and the fact that her bed is the easiest path to assassinating her husband without bringing his troops down on your head.

This idea that affection can be weaponized was codified in the later Fallout games with the “Lady Killer” line of special perks, which allow players to seduce the appropriate target into a compromised position. It’s not that love doesn’t exist in the world of Fallout 2. Bishop loves his wife in his own way. His rival crime lord, Mr. Wright, loves his spouse, too, even if he spends his days lying to her about the source of the family’s income. But those relationships are kept strictly out of the player’s hands, and they’re never presented as sources of strength.

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As in other Avellone-touched works—such as Planescape: Torment, where a woman’s love for the main character is leveraged into an agonizing psychic anchor that the player is forced to use to survive—Fallout 2 doesn’t characterize love as a beautiful freedom but a limiting of options. Nowhere is that clearer than in the game’s only “real” romance side-quest: the player’s potential husband or wife. As it happens, Fallout 2 is the only game in the series—to date—that allows players to get married. “Get” isn’t exactly the right word, though. The ceremony that takes place in the sleepy rural town of Modoc is the kind with a shotgun pointed at one of the participants’ heads. It’s all thanks, of course, to one of those damn irresistible fades to black.

Upon entering the town, the player can make the acquaintance of farmer’s daughter and farmer’s son Miria and Davin, respectively. With little coaxing, either of them can be lured into bed (regardless of player gender, which makes certain permutations of the following scene one of the first instances of same-sex marriage depicted in a video game). But the tryst is interrupted halfway into the act by their father, who forces the player to either flee, naked, into the night (leaving behind precious supplies) or get hitched. Those who opt for the latter option are treated to one of the nastiest “romances” ever portrayed in a video or computer game.

It’s not just that Miria and Davin (they’re functionally identical) can’t fight for crap and take up a precious party slot that could be occupied by more useful companions. It’s the way they constantly declare their love for the player and won’t take combat orders, even when it’s for their own good, choosing instead to stay close and “protect” the player. It’s the way they won’t take a hint and just leave, no matter how many times you try to dismiss them. The player’s “relationship” with their spouse is never presented as anything but a burden. “Here’s someone who loves you with all their idiot heart. How’s it feel?” Kinder players can relieve the situation by bribing a priest for a divorce (in New Reno, of course). The less lovingly inclined don’t lack for options, either; whether they’re sold into slavery, lobotomized, or just shot in the back and left in the desert to die, Miria and Davin gain nothing from their one-dimensional love for the player but heartbreak and pain. That’s what “romance” looks like in this particular incarnation of the Fallout universe.

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And maybe that goes some of the way toward explaining why players didn’t see another “real” Fallout game for more than a decade; the Miria/Davin subplot is unrelentingly bleak, the sort of thing that can engender either a weary sadness or a fit of cruel laughter, but very little in the way of affection or positivity. When the series returned, it was now in the hands of Bethesda, and things looked very different.

Amata Almodovar, the childhood friend of Fallout 3’s main character

It’s difficult to overstate the importance graphical advancements have had in the development of video game romances. BioWare, who’s achieved a kind of lordship over the form, started on them in earnest as early as 2000’s Baldur’s Gate II, with nothing but painted character portraits to give players the sensation of staring into their “lover’s” eyes. But it’s difficult to deny that the experience of looking closely at a virtual character’s face—the conversational perspective employed in the majority of Bethesda’s recent games—helps to foster a certain emotional intimacy. (It probably goes without saying that, among the handful of characters to get the close-up talking head treatment in Fallout 2, Miria and Davin don’t make the cut.) Even so, the company’s first attempt at making a game in the Fallout universe didn’t immediately abandon the romantic cynicism at play in the earlier games, even if it did reflect some of the trends of virtual love that had cropped up in the intervening years, in the form of the occasional female character staring flirtatiously into the camera and praising the hero before being quickly shuffled off the stage.

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But there’s plenty of evidence that the new writers and designers of Fallout 3 understood that love in this universe is as much cruel delusion as genuine feeling. There’s a subplot about a priest whose inability to reconcile his lust, his love, and his faith can end up driving him from the church, for instance. And there’s that Lady Killer perk (and Black Widow, its female equivalent) and the powerful effect it has on one particular victim.

Mr. Burke, a fellow you can meet in the game’s first town, Megaton, is not a nice man. He wants you to re-arm the bomb at the center of the settlement so that his equally unpleasant employer can blow the place off the map. Burke, all slow, soft speech and menace, can’t be bought or intimidated out of his mission, but he can be seduced. And the effects of that course of action are hilariously tragic: The poor bastard falls immediately, helplessly in love with the player. The love plays out in a series of letters, which make it clear that, despite the entire relationship occurring in a single click of the dialogue box—there’s not even a fade to black!—he’s now helplessly enthralled by your charms. It’s the standard video game love story—choose the right dialogue, reap the romantic rewards—boiled down to its most intensely absurd, and it goes a long way toward suggesting that romantic cynicism is as much a part of the new Fallout as the old.

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Oddly enough, the least cynical of all the Fallout games is the latest to bear Avellone’s name. Fallout: New Vegas takes place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland world where things might be getting better. Sure, there’s an army of slavers on the march, and in the end, the player has to choose between cruel discipline, ineffective benevolence, autocratic dictatorship, or lawless anarchy for the people of the Mojave, but at least some of its residents can live in something that resembles peace. There’s even a whole subquest about love-at-first-sight that doesn’t end in immediate, heart-stomping tragedy. But even in New Vegas, the lovelorn player is out of luck. There’s no lasting intimacy to be found in the Mojave, especially among the crew of lost souls the player can rope into following them around. And this is despite the fact that New Vegas is the Fallout game that most clearly copies BioWare’s approach to writing and endearing your party members. In those games, love and friendship with your diverse crew of followers is about agreeing with and bribing them into giving in to your requests, romantic or otherwise. It’s about solving the puzzle of their emotional wants and needs.

The companions in New Vegas are the most detailed in the series. Like your allies in those aforementioned BioWare games, each one has reams of dialogue and their own branching storylines that play out as you journey through the Wastes together. They’re diverse and distinct, with only one real unifying trait: None of them are going to let you into their pants. You can ask, and in a few instances, you can even make a compelling case if you’ve got the Lady Killer perk (or its new, same-sex equivalent). But it never happens. Maybe the companions aren’t of a compatible orientation. Maybe they’re aging super mutants who think you’re their grandson. Or maybe, just maybe, they don’t find you attractive in the first place, no matter how smoothly you talk. That’s a crazy notion, given how much of their DNA New Vegas’ companions share with their contemporaries from BioWare’s Mass Effect or Dragon Age, games where the player’s party is essentially a romantic smorgasbord.

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But BioWare romance has a nasty tendency to feel like a vending machine; the player puts in the correct responses and declarations of true love fall out. Nobody is ever simply ambivalent, provided the right options are picked. Those who resist the player’s charms are inevitably the ones who fall the hardest in the end, grateful to the hero for breaking through their walls. If that sounds harsh, it’s because it gets at the paradox inherent in video game romance: It’s an attempt to simulate a symbiotic relationship in a system where only one actor has any real control. The romances in BioWare games are a power fantasy, albeit one where the player’s emotional mastery is being flattered, not their martial skills.

The player and their spouse in Fallout 4

Fallout has always resisted the impulse to make that romantic leap. It’ll weigh the player down with lasers and power armor, let them mow their way through hordes of super mutants and ravenous death-claws, but the facts that power is a corrupting force and blind optimism is almost always a lie are built into the games’ DNA. It’s why they never let players get away with the perfect moral win—the happily ever after ending. There’s always someone there to remind you of your failures. Maybe it’s Ron Perlman, somberly narrating the fate of a community that was inadvertently destroyed. Maybe it’s a leader you’ve burnt, cursing your name for depriving them of power in a zero-sum world. Or maybe it’s just a friend and companion who isn’t interested in being hit on, shooting down your advances because, otherwise, the game would be telling you—and itself—a lie.

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The Fallout universe is a nasty, cynical place. It’s a world where human idiocy killed billions of people and selfish choices damn millions more to lives of slavery and pain. It’s not a world that thinks much of people and what they do, and in that bleak outlook on the human condition, its writers and designers have found a certain honesty that sits poorly with the emotional manipulation that has come to define video game romance. Fake grins and big happy declarations are the symbols and language of the Old World, the one that killed itself in a wave of atomic fire. The Wastes don’t have time or pity for the illusion of love. This doesn’t mean Bethesda’s experiments with romance in Fallout 4 are inherently doomed. It just means the developers are going to have to pull out all the stops if they’re going to tell a real love story that’s worthy of this ugly, bitter, beautiful world.