So today I was going to write about the development process of MidBoss, to show how I develop games and maybe teach people a thing or two along the way. Unfortunately, this isn’t going to happen as I’ve found something else to blog about. Sunday is my R&R day, so I was playing some Fallout 3. I know, I know, I’m woefully behind the times having never played any Fallout game. And I was quite enjoying myself until I got to Megaton.

The problem with Fallout 3

In Megaton, to avoid minor spoilers, there’s a shady character that you will pretty quickly come into contact with. One thing lead to another and I wound up shooting him in the face a few times because he pulled a gun on an NPC I found quite charming. Now, this shady character was wearing quite a nice suit while I was wearing a scrubby Vault 101 jumpsuit, so I was excited. I was going to take it off his corpse and look stylish!

So I did. Lo and behold the suit magically morphed into a women’s suit, complete with pencil skirt and hideously impractical pumps. That’s the exact time I stopped playing Fallout 3. Let me explain to you why.

Now, before anything else, let me preface this that ordinarily I shop for clothes at the women’s section. I’m not a transvestite, and I don’t ordinarily cross dress aside from the guy’s coat I bought in Japan, but that’s because Japanese women’s sizes don’t fit me. I have nothing against women’s clothing so that’s not why this bothered me. Let’s first examine the most immediate and obvious thing wrong with this picture.

I had just seen this NPC wearing these clothes. It wasn’t another set of spares that was on his person, because when I took them, the corpse was disrobed to his underwear. Which means that the only conclusion I - as a player - can draw is that in the world of Fallout clothes have the ability to shapeshift to a form that correspond to the genetic chromosome makeup of their wearer. I can’t stretch my suspension of disbelief that far and it ruins my immersion.

The curious case of Lord Kelvyn

Tavern clothes (Skyrim)
Tavern clothes (Skyrim)

Bethesda in particular has a long standing history of doing this in their games. Oblivion, Skyrim, Fallout 3, and Fallout: New Vegas are all guilty of these Mighty Morphing Power Ranger clothes. One particularly jarring incident happened to me in Oblivion. I randomly stumbled across the siege at Battlehorn Castle and broke the siege. The previous lord, a manly man if ever I saw one, had a stylish outfit on his body. Naturally I pilfered it being the thieving wretch I am. When I put it on Oblivion’s lore suddenly took a very amusing turn as the clothing he harbored had apparently been a flowing black and burgundy dress! Lord Kelvyn was from then on cemented as a secret cross-dresser in my head canon.

Let’s face it, games ruin our immersion all the time. In the past I’ve been taken out of the moment like this and shrugged my shoulders then continued on, only mildly disappointed that I was denied my new look.

I’ve grown up since I was younger though, become more aware of certain issues. Some of that is I’ve become more aware of the heteronormativity that we’re all bombarded with on a daily basis. That’s why this got me irritated enough to quit the game. It wasn’t that pencil skirts and pumps aren’t cool, or that my immersion was ruined.

It was that in that moment I felt like the game designer was standing behind me in spirit, clucking his or her tongue and going “oh no dear, you don’t want to wear that, you want to wear a skirt, because girls wear skirts!”. It’s condescending, but in Bethesda’s defense they’re not the only ones who do this. They’re just the most consistent about it.

Others include Dragon Age: Origins, though to their credit most clothing in that game is robes so there’s few items that will actually magically genderswap inside your inventory. MMOs also routinely like to do this.

Why this is bad

Noble clothes (DA:O)
Noble clothes (DA:O)

I want to say “this is bad because it forces a very heteronormative world view on all of us” and leave it there, but there’s a lot of jargon in there. Let’s start by explaining what the hidden message in stuff like this is.

Simply put, it reinforces a stereotypical image of what a woman should be. In this specific case, what a woman should dress like. Women wear skirts, period. When all clothing that isn’t specifically unisex is divided into pants for men, skirts for women, what else can one conclude? Why did the designers of Fallout 3 decide that if you were female you were going to wear a skirt, when on a daily basis in the Western world the majority of women wear pants?

It also tells us that to be attractive men must be suave and cool, and women must be pretty and wear impractical shoes. A single instance of this is easily ignored but we’re bombarded with these kinds of messages every day in all aspects of our lives, and they add up. Do we really need the same reinforcement of strict gender roles in our leisure time while gaming?

Now you’re probably thinking “oh get over it, it’s just a game!” and I shouldn’t read so much into things. Fair enough, so let me tell you why this is actually somewhat upsetting to me personally.

During my first year of college I was popular, yet hated. I was the leader of my class, though I never volunteered for the position nor particularly wanted it. Unfortunately I’ve got a big mouth and have a pesky intolerance for injustice so I stuck up for classmates who didn’t stick up for themselves when faced with unreasonable authority figures. The hate came from girls in the other groups of the same year. They didn’t know me, but they found that I acted too assertive and too loud, qualities that are traditionally viewed as masculine.

They hated me because I was ‘too butch’. Now keep in mind that though I am a bit of a tomboy and generally prefer being called ‘handsome’ over ‘pretty’, I’m very clearly female. I don’t have a buzz cut and I don’t wear male clothing, so I’m pretty safely on the side of presenting as female. These other girls disliked me because they had been bombarded all their lives with messages that told them if they didn’t wear skirts, if they didn’t put on make-up, if they were too loud or assertive or masculine they were doing it wrong and were not being proper women. They internalized this rhetoric so much that they started espousing it and ostracizing those who went against it.

That’s one of the most easily explained instance of where I was effectively told I was ‘doing it wrong’ as far as being female, but far from the only one. It never ceases to amaze me how easily society disqualifies me from being female simply because I’m a bit of a tomboy. I shudder to think how hard things must be for women who present more masculine than me, of which there are many both within and outside the LGBT spectrum.

Being told ‘you’re getting being the gender you are wrong’ because of your preferences and who you are is hurtful. The more years I live with this, the more incidents stack up in my memory, the more upsetting it is.

Back to video games

So, when I’m told by a game that I have to wear a skirt because I’m female, that’s upsetting. It triggers memories of all the times I’ve been casually dismissed as not feminine enough to qualify as female while clearly not male, left in a no man’s land where I don’t even have what limited privilege a female-identified female-presenting person may have.

If I have to deal with this crap in my real life on a daily basis, why are game developers forcing it on me in my leisure time? No Bethesda, I will not be forced to wear a skirt on the sole basis that I ticked a box at the start of the game that indicated my character is female, thank you very much. Instead I will opt to quit your game because it’s not worth the frustration.

People like to pretend that developers do this because of some lack of resources. I call shenanigans on that argument too. Generally the model’s mesh will be the same from the waist down. So what’s actually happening is, instead of using the assets they already have, they’re duplicating the effort to also include the skirt. If this was an issue of limited resources the logical thing to do would be to force female characters to wear the same clothes as male characters all the time.

Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with adding skirts to a game. Many women like wearing skirts, some men like wearing skirts, and I myself wear skirts on rare occasions. But what’s with the forcing one or the other, even when it doesn’t even make any lick of sense? What’s with nobody stopping to think what kind of messages this is sending, what kind of ideas this is reinforcing? Why do I sometimes seem like the only one bothered by this?

Why not just let us choose. Why not add both options for both genders. Hey Bethesda, remember Morrowind? That’s right, eleven years ago you got this right in Morrowind. There were dresses, skirts, robes, pants and tunics. And either gender could wear whatever they pleased. If it was possible back then, why not now?

Honorable mentions

Women's Highwayman Suit (Fable 3)
Women's Highwayman Suit (Fable 3)

Fortunately there are plenty of games that get it right. The Fable series lets you put on any type of clothing on either gender, including female clothes on a male hero. Fable 3 in particular has a female and a male version of every suit in the game and they can all be worn by either gender. The only time suits are gender limited in Fable 3 are on special occasions like the King/Queen suit. Still, if traded those can be worn by either gender.

Saint’s Row the Third also does this well, though not as well as its predecessor which includes physical gender ambiguity as well as ambiguity in matters of dress.

The problem with Saint’s Row and the Fable series is that they do seem to allow these choices as a way to play them up for laughs. In the end though that’s much preferable to me. Other games don’t seem to have this problem either like Halo or Dark Souls. Though whether these types of games don’t throw heteronormativity at us is because of an actual choice or simple omission due to everyone wearing armor is still debatable. Dark Souls at least deserves particular credit for the realistic depiction of armor to the point where it will be impossible to tell a character’s gender beneath the bulky armor they wear.

Either way, if this stops and developers give us more choice then everyone wins. Everyone gets more choices, less immersion breaking, and angry feminist dykes like me aren’t reminded of ugly experiences from their every day lives while trying to relax with a game.

Personally, I don’t see the down side.