I Am A Synth: Fallout 4, Autism, and Embodied Difference

[Content Note: Minor Fallout 4 spoilers ahead.]

My time the past month has been consumed by, in no particular order, marching band, monster theory, and Fallout 4. So let’s talk about Fallout 4.

Specifically, let’s talk about synths.

Synths (short for “synthetic humanoids”) are Fallout 4’s bump in the night. While none of them feature as the actual antagonist of the game, the player kills a fair number of them in various quests, while periodically being aided by and/or having the option to ally others. Several of the game’s eleven player companions are synths as well.

To the people of the Commonwealth (the postwar post-Massachusetts hellscape in which you, the player, find yourself), synths are terrifying. The fear of being kidnapped out of one’s bed in the night and replaced with a synth is very real, and several Commonwealth residents actually seem to know someone who has, or whom they suspect has, been replaced by a synth.

Amplifying the fear – and making it harder to address – is the fact that unlike their Gen 1 and Gen 2 predecessors, Gen 3 synths are utterly indistinguishable from actual humans. They’re completely biological entities, with no machine parts except a “synth chip” located in their heads, which the player can only recover by actually killing one.  (If you kill someone and there’s no synth chip, congratulations, you just murdered a human.)

The synths’ creator, a shadowy organization called the Institute, does in fact appear to model certain synths after living humans and send them to the surface to take their doppelganger’s place. At a randomly-generated time and place in the game, the player can encounter two identical men named Art, identically dressed, in the middle of standoff in which one Art is pointing a gun at the other Art’s head. Both Arts insist that they are the “real” Art and the other Art is a synth sent to kill “real” Art and assume “real” Art’s place. It is only by passing one of the game’s hardest speech checks – or by choosing a victim at random – that the player can determine which Art is the human and which is the synth.

Quick: which is the human and which is the synth? The player character (left) encounters Art vs Art (center, right).

Art vs. Art isn’t a one-off threat, either. As part of Fallout 4’s open-universe gameplay, the player has the option to build settlements throughout the Commonwealth and to attract settlers to run and defend them. Synths can infiltrate settlements, tanking the location’s happiness rating and eventually turning on the human settlers. While player theories abound as to how to identify the synths in your settlement, the only sure method is to round up your settlers,  execute them, and pick through their remains in search of synth chips. Not a good way to keep your supply lines running.

The fear of being replaced by an uncannily Other version of the self lurks behind a number of human myths, folklore, and sci-fi, from changelings to replicants to androids who dream of electric sheep to the “doppelganger” itself. Faced with the fantasy threat made real, it is perhaps unsurprising that the people of the Commonwealth have developed a number of methods for determining who is and who is not a synth. One of these, the SAFE test (familiar to Fallout 3 players as the GOAT), comprised of a list of behavioral interview questions, boasts a 70 percent accuracy rating – which sounds pretty good until you discover what happens to the other 30 percent.

Other tests are less accurate, but perhaps more human. John Hancock, formerly John McDonogh, says of his brother “Mayor” McDonogh’s takeover of Diamond City, “And then he smiled. That hideous, fucking mile-long smile. He never smiled like that when we were kids. I didn’t even recognize him.” Although Hancock doesn’t say it (or seem to realize it), it doesn’t surprise the player to learn later that Mayor McDonogh is a synth. And then there’s the guard in Diamond City who has developed his own test: “Broke up with my girl. She kept the cap off the toothpaste. Know who does that? A synth.”

For all the talk of autism being an “invisible” disability, one of the things autistic adults hear quite commonly is “But you don’t look autistic!” This, of course, leads us to wonder immediately what autism “looks” like – but it also points to a less conscious assumption: that if you are sufficiently different enough to be labeled different, you must look different. There must be some embodied, physical marker of your status as an Other. There must be some way to tell that you’re not “one of us.”

Autism might be an invisible disability (I’m not weighing in either way here), but it is not an invisible diagnosis. Under both the DSM-5 and ICD-10 criteria, autism is diagnosed via (typically, non-autistic) observations of behavior. In this way, it’s not unlike the Commonwealth residents’ attempts to distinguish synths from “ordinary” humans of the type not grown in labs and not possessed of a computer chip that can erase their entire personalities with the recitation of a short recall code. Evoking Phillip K. Dick’s Voight-Kampff test, the SAFE test relies on a series of behavioral interview questions, asking what the test-taker would do in certain scenarios. (Oddly, it does not seem to matter how the player answers these questions; even the most obviously violent and anti-social responses will still get you into Covenant – but then, we already know the player is human, right?) Hancock’s observations of his brother are behavioral; it’s the smile that has changed. And the Diamond City guard broke up with his girlfriend because her toothpaste habits were just plain weird.

Of course, there are key differences between being autistic, having an autism diagnosis, and admitting to either of the first two. There are differences among Gen-3 synths, too: some know they are synths and hide it or treat it as a non-issue, some know they are synths and are hell-bent on causing chaos, and some don’t even know they’re synths. Some non-synth humans suspect that they themselves are synths. Nearly everyone exists in a gray area: Am I a synth? Are you? How will either of us ever know?

In both cases, there’s a wasteland of passing, or of attempting to pass. In the case of autism, it’s a wasteland made wider and more desolate by the fact that the most popular “treatment” for autism, Applied Behavioral Analysis, seeks to improve the target’s passing abilities. Most ABA practitioners freely admit that they cannot re-wire the brain; they cannot change the underlying autistic neurology. What they boast of being able to do, instead, is to change an autistic person’s behavior until it is indistinguishable from that of a “real” human. With enough gummy bears, anyone can put the cap back on the toothpaste.

Changing autistic behavior to non-autistic behavior – effectively “invisibilizing” the autism diagnosis, taking the body out of the embodied difference – becomes particularly skeevy through the lens of Fallout 4’s synths. The Gen-3 synths who don’t know they’re synths generally go on leading human lives; in at least one case, they even take up arms in the interest of protecting “real” humans from the synth threat. The ones who do know they’re synths invariably land on one of two sides: that of protecting both humans and synths from the Institute’s nefarious human-replacing synths, or of being one of those synths who has replaced a human for nefarious ends. The former typically give up any hope of passing as human; the latter spend considerable time and energy on the practice of passing.

Passing thus inflicts violence not only on the individual attempting to efface their own embodied differences but also on those around them. In the case of autism and ABA, passing is often trained and enforced with violence, whether in the form of harmful aversives or in the subtler form of gaslighting, duress, and coercion. In Fallout 4, passing serves violent ends, but it is also enforced through violent means: one encounter the player may witness inside the Institute is of an SRB staff member (the Institute’s law-enforcement and synth-control arm) verbally abusing a synth worker and threatening her with a memory wipe, while another is of an Institute staff member harassing a synth worker for not mopping the floor properly.

Which leads me to the question: Which is worse, visible difference or invisible difference? Would the “normal” human rather know we are “not-normal,” or not know? If the difference of autism is such a threat that not immediately seeing it evokes the proclamation, “but you don’t look autistic!”, why do we pour so many resources into a “treatment” whose goal is to hide that difference? If hiding that difference is so important, why does successful “passing” provoke such anxiety when it is revealed as passing? Do you want to know there is a monster in the closet, or don’t you?

And yes, I am absolutely checking the cap on your toothpaste.

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