Exploring the wasteland in a red dress

I’m just finishing a playthrough of Fallout: New Vegas, which I bought when it came on sale as a bundle with all the DLC — none of which I’d played my first time through. In this playthrough, I’m playing a female Courier (I’ve long said that if I always choose playing a woman in the games I get that give me the choice, I might come close to 40% female representation!). I have just completed Dead Money, during which playthrough I obtained Dean Domino’s tuxedo — on him, it’s a three piece with bowtie and albeit dirty, still looks damn dapper after two hundred years of consecutive use by its previous ghoul owner.

I put it on my Courier, and like the formal wear the tuxedo is based on, it becomes a pink dress. It’s still CALLED “Dean’s Tuxedo”, mind. But nothing in this game is more jarring than taking a piece of armour off of someone and having it appear completely different when you try to wear it yourself. Something similar would happen if I was playing a male Courier and I tried to wear Vera’s rose-adorned dress. Suddenly, it’s a red and black tuxedo, looking nothing like the piece of fabric I picked off that skeleton.

Today, I saw rumblings that apparently that sort of clothing metamorphosis will no longer happen in Fallout 4, which should have been a happy improvement in the series. That news was incidental, though, obvious only in a segment of trailer displaying a burly male protagonist playing dress-up for his dog through a series of bad-ass and silly outfits then suddenly the outfit is “red dress with a sledgehammer over one shoulder”. (At 9 seconds in, so you don’t have to wait long.)

Okay, it ends immediately thereafter with what looks like a Five Nights at Freddy’s cosplay, but still, it was in there as the penultimate costume sandwiched between the bear-head and the space suit specifically played for a laugh. At least they didn’t show a dog reaction to it like they did to the other outfits, because no matter what reaction they were originally planning, one can only guess it was going to be one of confusion or disgust or interpreted as such.

It’s telling that what should be a good feature, one that I’m guessing was added by devs in response to the long complaint that armours in Bethesda games should maybe look roughly the same regardless of who’s putting them on, was inserted into the trailer as what amounts to a transphobic or at least transmisogynistic joke. Ha ha, big burly guy puts on a dress for laughs. One Gamergater who is ostensibly trans tweeted “instant mad – just add (*slur*)”, predicting that trans and feminist quarters would be upset, and somewhat ridiculously, being mistaken as a cis feminist as a result. She’s right that there’s upset among these quarters, but from what I’m seeing, it’s not because of the mere possibility of putting the dress on your male character.

So, game shops. Real talk. Yes, we get it. Gender is difficult. Gender is simply performance, where people have a preconceived expectation of what your role should be, based on what they think you are physically, and an enculturated revulsion to anything that deviates from their expectation. Giving people the option to perform their gender in a video game differently might also introduce the need to program others’ reception to that performance, having to produce reactions to guys-wearing-dresses and girls-wearing-tuxes, making your work creating a living world that is somewhat like our own more difficult lest you portray everyone as utopically gender-blind and universally tolerant (in a world where people will attack you for political differences — sure). Handling gender in a character creation engine is obviously difficult, because every option you include exponentially increases the work both inside the creation and outside, so most game shops opt for the fewest options possible to still count as a “creation” engine. Having only two available options in character creation — for large man or curvy woman, like in previous Fallout and Elder Scrolls games, for instance — makes things far simpler for your devs.

But that introduces its own problem. If your character creation choices only let you pick Body Type 1 or Body Type 2, making the tuxedo morph into a dress is compounding and emphasizing the sense of same-ness you get about every person you encounter. Every single human being in Fallout: New Vegas is the same height and build, varying only in skin color and shape of hair, and only certain outfits (e.g. Cass’ unobtainable plaid shirt and jeans) might alter the character model and make that person somewhat unique. The fact that clothing isn’t clothing, but an actual body you’re attaching the character’s head to, is a limitation of the engine, sure. So development-wise, it keeps you from having to remodel a tux to somehow be super-feminine to fit the curvy default woman, or ridiculously baggy in order to conceivably be the same material, if you just make it morph magically into a dress that was made to fit the one-size-fits-all human beings. It solves the technical problem of having the character still be the character without suddenly growing three inches and trading breasts for pecs.

But that’s less a limitation of the engine, per se, than it is a limitation on what details you’re willing to spend time (and thus money) putting into the game — and game devs might have lots of ideas that they can never bring to fruition because nobody’s willing to pay for it. So, that the devs modeled the dress to fit on a male character, and Bethesda didn’t throw the model out but kept it to the final game, well, that’s in itself an impressive detail, and says something about Bethesda. Since every action is political, choosing not to ignore the possibility of a man wearing a dress is a political action, just like choosing to ignore that possibility in previous iterations was a far easier, far more comfortable political action. Either they ordered that up, or the dev volunteered it and Bethesda didn’t nix it. It shows their commitment to versimilitude and willingness to fix something from previous iterations that breaks the sense of mimesis you had in putting a traditionally female-gendered outfit on your apparently cis male and having it become a three piece tux.

How they applied it in the trailer as a joke is shameful.

However, we may want to see how it plays in the game proper before judging the feature, even where we’re perfectly fine criticizing the reveal. Maybe the trailer including the dress was a tone-deaf signal by a marketing team that didn’t get the point the devs were trying to make when they asked that the ability for a man to wear a dress be included. Maybe that marketing team thought that their target audience was the white boy in the 18-24 range and anyone else expressing interest is somehow an outlier, and apparently that demographic of white boys is very xenophobic and Gamergater-like and would find that funny rather than off-putting. But most probably, they were just playing to a joke that they knew would connect, because even in uber-progressive Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Tip O’Neill in a dress is funny” was an actual line spoken in an actual episode guest starring Joe “Of-All-Fucking-People” Piscopo.

Maybe the game will handle things better than the marketing team are letting on here. Or maybe the game will have a bunch of men in dresses in the middle of the Fenway Park settlement. Playing to straw-trans tropes the way they were in GTA 5. Wearing this transphobia on their sleeves the way Rockstar does and has done about every culture, including “rich white guy”. Never mind that mocking everyone equally hurts the already-disadvantaged disproportionately — punching a healthy person and punching a person on their deathbed will have grossly differing effects after all. Either way, we won’t really know til it drops.

It’s a shame. I think the protagonist rocked that dress. Too bad so many people evidently didn’t think so, be it in Gamergate or in the marketing department of Bethesda. I only hope for the dev that modeled it, it was a labor of love, not derision.

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Exploring the wasteland in a red dress
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2 thoughts on “Exploring the wasteland in a red dress

  1. 1

    Can crossdressing be played for laughs without it being transphobic? Maybe I watched too much monty python, but I didn’t get the message you got from that. Also, the dog’s head is moving after the space suit because of the fly in the video at 7 and 8 seconds, I’m not sure it’s actually reacting to the costumes, the head tilt looked more like an idle, unless there’s voice over that I’ve got muted, but I don’t remember them talking about the dog having opinions on the character’s attire.

  2. 2

    Right, not-an-impostor, I’m sure the dog animations are actually game idles, but the way they were cut together, the narrative of the trailer indicates that the protagonist is playing dress-up and the dog’s reacting and/or bored (thus distracted by the fly).

    I don’t think crossdressing-as-a-joke IS anything but transphobic, honestly. If you’re crossdressing, fine — which is why I don’t have a problem with the protagonist wearing the dress in the first place. Because it might not be a “joke” to them. The fact that it’s a joke to others is, actually, the problem. That some people don’t get to perform their gender without being viewed as jokes is a problem.

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