Content warning: This article contains mentions and descriptions of sexual assault and pedophilia.
A few years back, I was on my usual annual Fallout: New Vegas playthrough. This time around, I was finally playing on PC, so I could dive into the world of New Vegas mods, looking to mix it up this time.
With my 100 mods, and more immersed than ever, I set off (modded companion Niner to tow) to the Strip, taking the long route so I can absorb all the new content. Much slower than usual, I finally made my way to Nipton, starting the usual “killing degenerates” speech from Vulpes Incata when he introduced the Legion.
Then, I saw something that made me inexplicitly uncomfortable. In the town hall, there’s a bunch of dead town folk. But for some reason, one of the mods had sexualized some female corpses: dress torn at the chest to expose the breasts, damaged vagina on full display.
I wouldn’t blame you for thinking exactly what my good-intentioned friend said: “You’re complaining about sexual assault in a game about crucifying people? About slavery?” I agreed, and played on, not being able to shake the feeling that something about that wasn’t right, that it was somehow different from the crucifixions. It's a feeling I pushed aside for a while, but came up again when Fallout: The Frontier was finally released.
The New Frontier
Fallout: The Frontier was released last month, after a highly anticipated seven-year development. This huge mod is the passion project of a group of New Vegas enthusiasts and adds three entirely new campaigns, as well as new characters and factions.
And yet in just a week, the holy grail of the New Vegas community became scorned. While receiving praise for the impressive task of adding so many new characters and plot points, many criticized some of the writing, which was much more sexually charged than the vanilla game. Critics described it as overly self-indulgent, specifically citing the sexualization of a new lizard-like race, and the ability to have sex with a Deathclaw (“[Lady Killer]: Fuck it. Definitely ‘ain't the worst looking thing I’ve slept with“).
One or two instances could be written off as one of the quirky Easter Eggs prevalent in the series, but it bled through in other aspects of the story—most controversially, in the companion America. And this was when I got my unpleasant reminder of the sexually assaulted corpses. For some reason, the player is able to neg America (a very, very young-looking 18 year old) into being, and I quote, your "little slave girl."
In one of the first popular tweets about the character, she was described a “surrogate for the writers barely-disguised fetishes [sic],” and it isn’t hard to see why. Unlike the Legion, who pillage and conquer their way to gaining slaves, the courier just... asks. You threaten to abandon her, and that’s enough for her to agree to put on a literal slave collar, all in the space of one conversation.
In some of the worst writing I’ve seen, the very idea of the almighty courier not wanting to travel with America anymore is enough to turn her completely subservient and lose any personality and agency, compliantly serving her “master.” In the ending slide, you’re rewarded to some more slave-kink writing: “The last of her spirit broken by the Courier, America became a willing slave. She did anything asked of her. Anything to earn a few drops of affection, anything to keep depression swallowing her whole.”
This isn’t just weirdly fetishistic and disrespectful, it’s plain bad writing.
Credit where credit is due, this concerning content has been removed in response to the pushback. So where does this leave us? Do us critics just want all depictions of sexual slavery removed? Of course not, this is a mod for New Vegas after all. The base game is full of it, but that didn't leave me with this feeling of unease.
Both slave-girl America and the naked-corpse mod I encountered show a fundamental misunderstanding of the game they’re actually making the mod for. Fallout: New Vegas (and Fallout 3 to a lesser extent) already has a lot of misery in it. It has a lot of sexual assault, it has slavery because—I will concede to any detractors—that would happen a lot in the Wasteland. Your choice is either to shy away from that fact, or put the work in to do it right. And New Vegas manages to depict it in the most honest and respectful way a mainstream video game has managed before.
Real Characters vs. Little Slave Girls
To depict sexual slavery as just... being told what to do and agreeing, is bafflingly insulting. It ignores the socio-economic situations that put in people in that awful situation and reduces it to a girl wanting to impress the guy she likes by agreeing to do whatever he wants. Yes, this happens to a certain degree, but not to the point of putting a literal slave collar on and immediately saying “yes master.” It’s the result of lengthy grooming, abusing trust. Or as previously mentioned, abusing societal situations such as an uncaring/absent police force or poverty, which is more akin to the slavers of Paradise Falls or the Legion.
In Vanilla-Vegas, you meet a “sex slave,” Siri. Siri has the collar, but is still clearly a human being. She is trapped and forced to do things she doesn’t want to do, but she is only subservient because of the threat of violence, not because a guy asked her to. She is a human being with her own thoughts, and is actually one of the few people who tell you about Joshua Graham, “the burned man,” before you meet him in DLC.
When she speaks to a female Courier, she clearly wants to escape, and she warns the player that other Legionaries have discussed abusing you. Most importantly here, this awful situation is not used for shock value or to get the player off. It feels grounded, tragic, yet respectful to survivors. It adds to how brutal the Legion are, without fetishizing it.
This is far from the only depictions of sexual assault. On the other side of the river, you meet Corporal Betsy, who was assaulted by a member of the Fiends. In what could easily descend into being little more than “torture porn,” Betsy is instead one of the best-written survivors put to gaming. She tries to ignore what happened (“You don't see the others crying about every little bruise and scrape, do you?") and has become increasingly flirtatious as a coping mechanism. This is a documented symptom of Rape Trauma Syndrome, a condition many rape crisis centers have recognized, and is an attempt to regain control of her body after she lost it. In a well-crafted quest, you can talk her into realizing that mental trauma is just as important as physical wounds and get her to see a doctor.
And when New Vegas depicts less healing outcomes for survivors, it again does so without fetishizing. Throughout the game you meet sex workers who have suffered sexual abuse, and you see coping mechanisms range from talking it out with other survivors or turning to drugs. Their exploitation isn’t morbid entertainment as it is in The Frontier. It is a mature handling and a delicate issue.
Yes, You Can Still Write Tragedy
The world of Fallout is often miserable. How can it not be when the setting is a world nuked to hell and back? And yet, playing Fallout: New Vegas leaves me with a sense that I have explored the ugly faces of humanity and learned more about the people they hurt along the way. Hell, after my first playthrough, I even learnt a bit more about myself and my own trauma, and how I should take it much more seriously.
When you enslave the barely 18 America, you don’t learn anything. You learn nothing of the material conditions which create slavery. You learn nothing of the inner conflicts and trauma survivors fight through as they recover. It doesn’t thematically fit anything Fallout is about. You just get a cute little slave girl to have implied sex with. And the same sentiment goes to the nameless corpses with their nude bodies on full display. It is meaningless.
At the time of writing, Fallout: The Frontier has returned to Nexus Mods, after being taken down to remove some content, including artwork from developer, ZuTheSkunk’s, who allegedly uploaded "animated pedophilic content" to his personal DeviantArt account. The team has mentioned that he only contributed to the art of the game, however, not the writing. So it is genuinely baffling how the sex slavery got the OK in the first place, as good as it is that they listened to the criticism.
All in all, this reads like a half-baked idea to insert some of the series’ macabre elements into the mod, but it really missed the mark with the story New Vegas tells. It isn’t so much about the big bads who ruin lives, it’s about the people they leave behind. Boone, Veronica, Arcade, Lily—none of them are the protagonists of their own story, they are the victims of those who are: the Master, the Legion, the Brotherhood. Even the Courier themselves is the victim of multiple factions feuding for power, becoming dragged into the story through no fault of their own.
New Vegas isn’t a power trip—it’s about putting a spotlight on those who survive abuse from the power hungry. For all of The Frontier’s impressive visuals, side quests, voice acting, and gameplay elements, I hope the fixes it makes to the writing amend this misunderstanding.