Talented RPS writer chum Patricia Hernandez asked us if she could write about the influence of RPG-classic Fallout 2 on her life. We agreed, and what she came back with was a stark personal tale of how videogame fantasy can inspire interest, provoke thought, and ultimately change how we see the world.
One of my most vivid memories of elementary school involves playing hooky after recess with a few other kids--two boys and one girl.
At some point, our grade decided that the boys with us are attractive--that we should, in our urgent attempts to play house, “want” them. The girl, in her unfettered giggles and whispers, tells me as much anyway.
I laugh too, but it’s a nervous laugh--we shouldn’t be there. The girl grabs my hand to make sure I don’t go anywhere, and this calms me a little.
“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” one of the boys smirks.
I don’t know what this means. Not that it matters--it’s not like we understand romance or attraction. Some of us don’t even know how to tie our shoes yet, but still think we know how love is "supposed" to work. So, unflinchingly I say:
“What’s wrong with you?,” she angrily asks me. I don’t say anything. “And why won’t you let go of my hand?” This question disarms me in a way I don’t understand yet. I feel a panic setting in. It’s the same one that rears its head whenever the adults ask me why I don’t like dresses, why I only play with the boys, why I’m so unladylike. I toss her hand away and start running again.
Fast forward to my being twelve, maybe thirteen. I am locked in the bathroom, holding my knees. My mother is outside, holding a belt while she screams at me.
I look at the bra on the floor and am overtaken with a sense of humiliation at the mere thought of putting it on. Not being used to them yet, bras feel suffocating, always present. The boys at school have started treating me differently even though they are my only friends, even though I try to erase our differences by wearing baggy clothes. Putting a bra on feels like cementing that boy-girl divide that started happening the year prior.
I’ve tried to hold this moment off for a while now by wearing two or three shirts at a time so that it's harder to make my breasts out. My mother is having none of it now. I’m getting older and it’s a new school year, so I should finally be presentable--or else.
I put the bra on. I look at myself in the mirror and feel a rage swelling as I notice how the embroidered patterns on bra through the shirt. Feeling defeated, I start to cry while I open the door.
“Was that so hard, Patricia?,” my mother laughs.
Fights like these were always followed with days if not weeks of tension. My mother diffused this one via peace offering: she picked up a box of computer games for me in a garage sale. Being that up until that point, I’d only used the computer to play educational games, she assumed that all games are educational--isn’t that what the computer is for? Learning? (Oh, dearest mother...)
This box had a lot of junk in it alongside copies of Myst and Civ II. But the game that caught my eye was Fallout 2. The premise of a post-nuclear California sounded fascinating, though baffling: how could the greatest country on Earth be destroyed, atomic bomb or no? That could never happen! It’s ridiculous! I had to play it to see what it was going on about, of course.
My family moved to this country in 1990 in an attempt to get away from poverty and civil war. My mother grew up with friends and family members who got drafted against their will, who sometimes disappeared, who would get tortured. But salvation was attainable: all she had to do was get to the United States. The myths were that you could make a living there, you could raise a family there, and the government was fair and took care of its citizens there. So she chased after the dream, and found herself on American soil by age 18.
It was all true, as far as she could tell--in comparison to the life they she led back home, America seemed like a haven. So my family adopted the language, the holidays, the attire and even the brands that Americans liked. Can’t seem like a sipota chorriada. As if putting on the right clothes and knowing the pledge of allegiance erased the fact that the country didn’t want us here in the first place! I also believed in that dream--until I played Fallout 2.
I still distinctly remember the first couple of hours of Fallout 2. Fallout 2 was the first game I picked up of my own volition, and the first game I finished on my own. It would also be one of the only games where I played as a woman--it’s one of the rare instances where, though obviously largely written for a male audience, I still felt acknowledged.
I modified one of the starting characters, Chitsa. I appreciated that she was optimized for diplomacy, though I tweaked her to have high intelligence (“like me!,” I thought) and got rid of her sex appeal perk. No, I didn’t really want to "have a way" with the opposite sex--not in the manner the game implied, anyway. Not realizing I wasn’t “supposed” to be playing this game this young, I was confused as to why I couldn’t make my character younger than 18. At least I could rename her--and to this day, that Fallout 2 character is the only character I’ve named after myself in a game.
It all seems so appropriate, now. The village my character is from is “backwards”--like, spear-holding, ritual-performing type archaic. My half “indian” family crawled out of a jungle deep in El Salvador with a machete. They're all fervent believers of Christianity, shamanism, and strict gender roles. Most didn’t have an education past first grade, if that. So when my elder in Fallout 2 told me that the fate of the entire village rested on my shoulders, it wasn’t a tired video game cliche to me. It felt like a role I already knew, what with my family banking on the idea that I’d be the one that got an education, I’d be the one that’d go out and earn six figures (which I'd give to the family), and I’d be the one that would sponsor everyone for citizenship.
Even early on, it was obvious that Fallout 2 was full of choices--and this seemed remarkable when I felt like I barely had any in real life. In the real world I didn’t have a say in what I wore, what I did, or in the messianic responsibility my family forced on me. With men in particular, you don’t ask questions and you do as you are told, remembering to only speak when spoken to. Men work hard for the family, the argument went, and it's the woman's job to acquiesce to a man's every whim. And if they cheat, hey, they’re men. It’s their need.
One of the first challenges in Fallout 2 was to prove my worth to the tribe. I was supposed to do this by making my way through an ancient temple....but then I noticed that the only thing standing between me and the village was one guy.
I didn’t realize how much resentment I held against those gender roles until I became obsessed with killing this guy standing in my way in Fallout 2. He told me that no, I had no choice but to go through the temple. And what if I didn’t want to, you bastard? Why should I listen to you? What if I put this spear through your skull? So I did that instead, and to my amusement, it worked. The rest of the game fascinated me in this way, always giving me multiple ways to pursue a problem, many of them utterly clever.
I’d leave Arroyo on my own terms, and quickly found myself in the sleepy farming town of Modoc in my search for the village-saving GECK. Here I’d meet Miria, the daughter of Grisham the butcher. Imagine my astonishment when the game gives me the option to flirt with this woman. I hovered over the option for what seemed like an eternity--prior to that very moment, I had no idea a woman could desire another woman.
Even in the realm of homosexuality, my family ignored women. Men could sleep with men, and I’d very occasionally heard of those “sinners.” But lesbians? Inconceivable. Looking back now, it seems absurd that this was the case when you consider the constant anxiety driving my family to police my gender as a little girl, fearing that there might be something "wrong" with me, sexuality-wise. And yet the word lesbian was never uttered--let's not even talk about bisexuality, which to this day, I can't seem to explain to them. So back then I had no clear understanding of what it was that they feared, just the general knowledge that I wasn’t being a "proper lady," whatever that meant.
Picking the paramour conversation options made me feel mischievous--partially because I knew it was wrong, as far as heterosexuality was concerned, but also because I genuinely...enjoyed it. I wasn’t supposed to be enjoying this, right? Prior to talking to Miria, I spoke to her brother, Davin. I could seduce him too, but that option seemed boring. I didn’t think much of this, then.
The flirting transgression lead to the classic fade to black and all I could think was "holy crap, did they…?" When I saw my gear sprawled on the floor, my character pretty much naked, the answer to my question became clear. But then her father bursts into the room, and accused me of dishonoring his daughter. Hah, what? But she jumped me! I’m baffled as he asks me to marry Miria to set things right--as of this writing, California, the state Fallout 2 takes place in, still hasn’t legalized gay marriage. But it was an option in a game made in 1998, amazingly. In 2012, most games still don’t include gay romance options, much less gay marriage.
Going back to Miria though--what a high price to pay for what was supposed to be a quick lay, eh? So now I was stuck with a character that frankly, was kind of useless--mechanically speaking, I mean. Fallout 2 was a difficult game for me to begin with--by comparison, the modern Fallouts feel absurdly easy, like they start you off as a powerful character and the rest of the game is an adventure in becoming super duper overpowered.
What I’m saying is, staying married in Fallout 2 was no easy feat. I did it anyway. I could have divorced, I could have sold my wife off to slavers, I could have even let her die. But instead I resisted temptation and I made sure to run away from deathclaws and super mutants regularly. Survival meant cutting down on heroics. I didn’t know why it was important to me that she stayed alive no matter how much of a burden, but it was. And when she watched me slip into power armor for the first time, it felt significant. Partially because it was such fantastic, difficult-to-acquire gear, but mostly because the body of the person underneath disappeared. I wasn’t a woman. I was a force not unlike the antagonist of Fallout 2, Frank Horrigan.
During this time, I also attended a history class unlike any of the ones I’d taken before. It was a real history class, basically. The teacher was young, having the sort of punk-rock aesthetic (piercings, funny-colored hair, that sort of thing) that makes parents worry about their child’s education. You could tell that she took up teaching because she was the type of idealist that wanted to give back to the community, and to her this meant dropping truth bombs on us impressionable kids. The hope was that this real talk would allow us to go further than we might if we believed the wrong history books or believed the things said in conservative Spanish media.
So when I started asking about the United States government and their ethics, my mother was quick to blame that professor--oh, she must've been poisoning my mind! What my mother didn’t know was that it was good ol’ video games that were corrupting me, making me ask questions.
It was playing through a version of history where Americans drove themselves to destruction because we refused to stop relying on oil that made me wonder about this country. It was playing through a reality where we valued being a formidable war force above all else that made me worry about this country. It was playing through something where the government cared so little about its citizens that it would knowingly construct vaults with the purpose of experimentation that made me feel sick thinking about what this country was capable of. It reading about how corporations like Vault Tek got away with manipulating the populace for personal gain that made me find out that corporations sometimes have more rights than actual human beings. And so the reason all Fallout 2 felt compelling was because its version of the future wasn't so outlandish.
The education I was receiving at the time told me how the war on terror was actually over oil, how the government had experiments on certain parts of the populace without consent in the past, and how we even had internment camps at one point. If history class taught me about the United State's horrific past, Fallout 2 projected a possible future that scared me, made the archetypal elements of “being American” seem too gross to want to aspire to. If the Fallout franchise is incisive here, it’s because it reveals a darker side of the society it depicts, masked under the absurd hilarity of the wasteland and its denizens.
The clincher came when I learned that the civil war my family ran away from was actually funded by the United States government--that their safe haven was actually responsible for their great misfortune. But my family, so in love with the American dream, so unwilling to look past the better living conditions, didn’t believe me. How could they? America was, and always will be, the great country that gave them the opportunities their own country would never afford them. But for me, finishing Fallout 2 and seeing my hard-working mother being relegated to a lifetime of cleaning toilets (what a dream! what an honor! She wanted to be a doctor, once...) marked a crucial shift in how I saw the society I was part of.
There are things that we need to believe in--for my parents, that’s the American dream. It makes being in this country easier; there’s always a hopeful fortitude that keeps them going, especially in the face of adversity. Despite being disillusioned myself, I don’t want to take that away from them.
And for me, the thing I needed to believe in above all, the thing I used as a weird form of rebellion, was the idea that I was straight--that, regardless of what “signs” my family picked up and tore apart, I could prove them wrong, that I could hate such austere gender roles without being queer. Revelations can be liberating, or they can destroy everything you once knew. If they ever see the American dream for a charade--and given the economic crisis, which has gifted them unemployment and a pile of never-ending bills, I fear that they will--I don't know what type of revelation it'll be for my parents. But one can only pretend for so long.