My first brush with homosexuality was at age ten—and it happened thanks to Fallout 2. Imagine my surprise—being a girl with ultra religious parents—when I saw that given high enough charisma, my female character could flirt and then sleep with a woman named Miria in an early town. Before that I hadn't even considered the possibility of a woman loving another woman. My family never talked about such things.
But then! Should you sleep with Miria in Fallout 2, her father catches you and forces you to marry his daughter. Unless you manage to talk your way out of it, or unless you kill him, you are then stuck with his daughter for the rest of the game. Yes, even if you didn't want to get married. If you're an awful person, you can fix this "problem" by selling her to slavers later. Alternatively, there's always divorce—which you can do in the city of New Reno for the price of one bottle of alcohol. Then you can go wash all that down by becoming a pornstar in the same town.
Sex, gay marriage, divorce—twelve years after the release of the game, California—the state Fallout 2 takes place in—still hasn't legalized gay marriage, and homosexuals are still the scornful subject of the hyper-religious.
In this way, the Fallout franchise has always been progressive, and 2010's Fallout: New Vegas is no exception.
Character-building-wise, you're free to take up the confirmed bachelor or cherchez la femme perks. These allow you to pursue aggressive same-sex special options in dialogue and combat—the results of which make these perks a fan favorite.
Once out in the world, you meet a number of people who are gay, bisexual or more on the 'sexually liberated' side. JE Sawyer, lead gameplay designer of New Vegas, once went on record regarding the inclusion of such characters, "Represent marginalized groups when sensible. Diversity helps broaden the appeal of our media, can add interesting dimensions to thematic exploration, and in some cases may even generate themes that would otherwise go unexplored." Sawyer wrote this on his blog following the ruckus game websites made about Arcade Gannon—one of the recruitable companions, a doctor that you find aiding the Followers of the Apocalypse. A doctor who happens to be gay.
The argument was that Arcade was a great gay character because of how downplayed the "gay aspect" of his personality is. When depictions of gay characters in media likes to err toward the exaggerated, it becomes easy to commend Obsidian for how Arcade handles himself in the game. At best, you have just a few lines that give a nod about his sexuality, and they're not particularly explicit.
But as Sawyer wrote on this blog, it's difficult to nail characters like Arcade. You can't make everyone happy. Some people criticized the idea that the only good gay was one that wasn't in your face about it. Perhaps the best we can do is to make sure these characters are written by people who identify with the backgrounds depicted—because beyond that, what the hell are a bunch of straight people doing arguing about how to write a gay character? Or, more applicably to everyone, how can we possibly postulate the idea of a "correct" way to depict a gay person? Like they're all the same or something? Uh, no.
This stuff is complicated, but that's identity politics for you.
Arcade overshadowed the other companions who also weren't heterosexual—Veronica and Cass. I never met the former during my playthroughs (somehow), but her background story revolves around her sexuality. Being a Brotherhood of Steel member meant that her attraction to women wasn't welcome—the BoS is scarce, and they frown upon relationships that don't allow for procreation. Veronica's lover ended up leaving the Brotherhood as a result, while Veronica was shunned by the community.
The discussion of Arcade made me uncomfortable in that he became defined entirely through his barely noticeable sexuality—as if no other aspects of him existed—and with Veronica, that focus felt less like a circus act. You can't get to truly know her without learning about her struggle.
Cass, meanwhile, is a caravan owner who finds herself in a pickle. You find out about her sexuality in passing much like Arcade, but only if you happen to be a woman with the cherchez la femme perk. She tells you that once she's had enough to drink, she doesn't care who she ends up in bed with. And, if you try to recruit her despite having no room for a companion, she says "Not in the mood for a threesome," shortly following that up with "...today" under her breath. My reaction to that line? Damn.
The frisky business can get more explicit, but what do you expect in Vegas? There's Gomorrah, a casino where debauchery rules supreme and players can help a sex worker escape. In Freeside, if the player goes into the Atomic Wrangler, they can start a quest chain called Wang Dang Atomic Tango. This is the quest where one of the Wrangler's proprietors asks you to find special escorts for his customers.
If you take it on, you'll meet a number of escort candidates, including a sexbot called FISTO (whose function I hope is...evident, but if not, hey. The game allows you to test it.) You can sleep with all these characters—if you have the caps. Though I'm not sure I'd brave FISTO given the drill sounds that reverberate in the darkness as you test him. Yikes.
The interesting thing about that quest is how it treats fetishes. While it could be argued that New Vegas doesn't take fetishes seriously, it struck me as more of the tongue-in-cheek, ridiculous post-apocalyptic wasteland shenanigans. At the same time, I wouldn't blame anyone for reading this scenario as almost like, "Hey! Wow! Look at how wacky we are! Look at these fetishes, haha! Fetishes, amirite?"
Ultimately none of these things stuck with me as much as Betsy, a sniper with the NCR who suffers from sexual assault PTSD. As a means of coping, the game argues, not only is she in denial of what happened, but she also becomes alarmingly predatory with other female characters. Like, she can't stop talking about how much she wants women, even ones belonging to the faction that raped her. This is a dark situation, and it's not often that you see a game depict rape without it acting as something that builds character for women, depressingly.
What bothers me about how rape is treated in New Vegas is that it doesn't help with a common belief surrounding lesbianism: that those that turn to it must be victims of rape who need a way to cope.
And yet for all the criticisms I have of what New Vegas depicts when it comes to gender and sexuality, I can't help but stand in awe that it dares to include so many of these things, period. It doesn't get everything right, and I don't think it should get a pass simply for trying. But damn if New Vegas isn't ballsy.