a review by the crazypnut
This article is part of an ongoing series intended to open a conversation by pointing to examples of the portrayal of women (in any light) in video games and game development.
Fallout Shelter is a free game currently available for iOS. A future Android version is supposedly in development.
With the remnants and echoes of E3 behind us this week, there’s a lot to be excited about. Publishers from around the industry strut their wares in this march to eventual glory, but this week, Bethesda pulled a little rabbit out of its hat to keep us busy until the fall release of the highly anticipated Fallout 4.
That rabbit is a little mobile game called Fallout Shelter.
As of this writing, Fallout Shelter lands at #4 in the Top Charts for Free Apps on Apple’s App Store. With an aggregate review of 4 stars over almost 20,000 reviews, there’s some solid proof in the pudding at the rollout of the game. I was quick to adopt this game upon announcement, being a Fallout fan at heart, and with that the mad tapping of my fingers began to build my Vault.
The concept is one we’ve seen often before in games like Tiny Tower, only in the inverse in art direction. Set in the post-apocalyptic Fallout universe, you are assigned as the Vault Overseer for your developing Vault Tec Fallout Shelter. As you build up your currency of Caps, you can build new rooms to provide Power, Food, and Water along with other team-building aspects to make your Vault the most efficient in the Wasteland. You assign your Vault Dwellers to these rooms based on their S.P.E.C.I.A.L. stats to maximize their output and efficiency.
Unlike previous Fallout games, however, you are developing this Vault in real-time after the bombs have already fallen. This minor detail doesn’t detract from the overall experience, however. Quite contrarily, for a tower-building game, it actually seems to be the prettiest rendition I’ve encountered. The graphics are straight out of the Wasteland Survival Guide, as your characters adopt the Vault Boy trademarks and the rooms follow suit. The display moves with the Parallax function (where you can lean your phone in a direction to lean the camera slightly) flawlessly, and zooming in on rooms allows you to eavesdrop on your Dwellers’ conversations.
Aside from the graphics, the game does a lot of things that earn it a number of thumbs-ups from my perspective.
It’s a free game that doesn’t over-emphasize in-app purchasing, and the timing mechanism for developing resources has a unique in-game option to rush production called RUSH. Activating a RUSH on a given room to produce resources immediately produces a pop up window that lays the gamble on the table for you: Execute the RUSH successfully, and you’ll get resources and extra caps and experience points. Fail, and you not only fail to get your resource, but the timer resets, and as punishment for your failure your room may be set on fire, or invaded by Radroaches, which can spread to other rooms if you don’t contain it. It’s a fun gambling system that almost mocks how ridiculous in-app purchasing for mere “in-game time” can be.
The only in-app purchase appears to be the Lunchbox item, which is a treasure chest of goodies that can help you build your Vault. It can contain large amounts of caps, Dwellers with boosted stats, or inventory items. They’re a fun add, and truly do help you move faster in the game, but aren’t required to succeed. To help secure some inventory resources, like Outfits to boost your stats or Weapons to protect your Vault, you can either open Lunchboxes with the hope of getting stronger “legendary” items, or you can risk sending your Dwellers out into the Wasteland to explore. You can outfit your Dweller, grant them a few RadAways and StimPaks, and send them out into the world. The longer they’re out there, supposedly, the better resources they’ll pick up (though in my experience, even after 10+ hours in the Wasteland, they seem to simply get more of the regular stock items). But the longer you leave them open to danger in the Wasteland, the higher risk you run of them encountering a big DeathClaw who will waste no time killing your Dweller – who can optionally be revived for a large sum of caps.
Rooms get opened based on your Vault population – so the more Dwellers you have, the more types of rooms you can build. Dwellers can be attracted to your Vault by building a Radio Room, which doesn’t always have a high degree of success. Instead, you may find that the old fashioned method of just putting a man and woman in your Living Quarters eventually results in repopulation of your Vault Dwellers.
This brings me to the one thing that I just can’t seem to get over about this game, and the real reason I wanted to write about this app…
I’m talking about the role of Women in Fallout Shelter.
The Fallout franchise’s track record of the role of women had never come into question by me before. These were games where your main character could be male OR female, and made no judgement on your sexuality or choices as a result. In fact, some Fallout games made it advantageous to be a woman with the Black Widow Perk, which would amplify damage output you inflict on enemies of the opposite sex – and there are a LOT more male enemies in the Wasteland than female ones. So it comes at such a surprise when I encountered this issue in a simple mobile app.
I’m speaking of chauvinism, if even in the most inconspicuous way.
The first time I encountered this problem was with my “strategic breeding program”. Since you need a certain number of Dwellers to unlock the next room-type you can build, and citizens weren’t exactly running to my Vault from the Wasteland (the percentage of gaining a new Dweller from the Wasteland, even with a Radio Room, is very low), I took it upon myself to start massive breeding within the Vault. I took one male with a high Charisma stat and sat him in the Living Quarters, and one-by-one marched a female Dweller in. Once he knocked her up, I sent her back to work and brought in the next one, until every female was pregnant and working.
At this point, I’m saying to myself, “OK, you’re using the women to breed… but at least they can continue working, right?”
The issue of pregnancy in the working environment in today’s workplace is a strong topic. But, I was willing to brush the politics aside – these were the end-times, and you have to do what you’re required to in order to survive. “It’s a fantasy game. Just go with the fantasy.” So I set my uneasiness aside like a good Overseer and pushed forward.
Then, one day, Raiders showed up at the Vault’s front door, looking to break in and cause some trouble. Like most crises in the game (like the RUSH failure events), production halts until the crisis is resolved. We had to kill the Raiders to keep going and push on.
But there was a problem: most of my rooms were occupied by pregnant women, who represented about 70% of my workforce. And in this game, if you’re a pregnant woman (or a child), your reaction to crisis is to run screaming with your arms in the air to lock yourself in your bedroom in the Living Quarters until the crisis has been resolved.
I’m not kidding.
The result? My “defense” was down to about 30%, scattered across several rooms. It took several minutes and several deaths to finally kill all the Raiders, after which the women and children all came out of the panic room and went back to work.
The children I can understand, since that applied to both male and female kids in your vault. I was willing to let that go. But for the women, the implication is pretty unfortunate – that these pregnant women, even in the end times, resort to running in fear instead of gearing up and standing their ground. Granted, no one wants to risk a pregnant woman in a dangerous situation, but the implication that fighting isn’t even an option seemed rather ridiculous in my eyes. What if all the men were killed? Wouldn’t at least ONE woman pick up a gun and start defending the other women? Shouldn’t a woman, even a pregnant one, be given the choice to defend herself?
But this wasn’t even the worst part. Once again, I could placate myself with excuses of “it’s a fantasy game” and just roll with the mechanic. The problem really came to light when I realized how my strategy evolved after that point.
I stopped sending women into the Wasteland – I needed them to breed more Dwellers.
I stopped arming women in my Vault – they were usually pregnant, which meant at the first sign of danger, they’d run away, and that weapon could’ve been used by a male who could beat the crisis.
I stopped outfitting them with Outfits in favor of their male counterparts – after all, higher stats means better protection from crisis events or enemies in the Wasteland… and you need the men to survive to breed with the women…
It started an ugly cycle. A cycle I didn’t really identify until I was already a week into the game. I was pretty shocked with myself - I had come up with a very efficient strategy as a result of these shortcomings, and it was working better than the two previously-failed Vaults I had attempted in spades. I had created a self-sustaining machine, limited only by the number of times I could check into the app. Could I "breed" less so the women could defend themselves? It would slow development of the Vault, but at least I wouldn't be in a position to fail. But why wait when this strategy DOES work? When I realized what brought me to this point, I almost laughed at how ridiculous it was, and then I was shocked to come to the realization that this had been the end-effect from a franchise that never emphasized chauvinism and contrarily was always a great shining example in the portrayal of women in gaming.
Don't get me wrong - this game is a lot of fun, and is a very well polished product for its first release. But given my experience, can improvements be made to fix the issue I encountered? Absolutely! In only a 1.0.2 release version as of this writing, I’m sure there’s more to come, and plenty of bugs to fix.
The main problem for me is that I don’t see this as a bug. This may not have been intentional by any means, but in my opinion the implications are there. All in all, my takeaway is a broadened perspective on the unintentional and unforeseen consequences in a game’s design.
All I can hope for is acknowledgement by the developers that this happened to an innocent player looking for a good time killer, and probably other players as well, and that perhaps worst of all many players have NO idea that it’s even happening. Maybe I’m overplaying this card concerning the portrayal of women in games, but you can’t deny the implications that result in what would otherwise be considered an “efficient strategy” for a simple mobile game.
It’s a fixable issue, with a simple fix. I just hope someone besides me can recognize it.
The crazypnut put about 140 hours into Fallout 3, and grew up playing Wasteland on the Commodore 64. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram at @crazypnut. Likewise, you can argue with him about the validity of his argument here by emailing him at crazypnut @ theemergentgamer .com