Fiona and Rhys in 'Tales from the Borderlands'
There's a reason why so many of us cheered at the end of Pacific Rim, when Raleigh Becket and Mako Mori didn't kiss, despite the obvious sexual tension that was prescribed between the two during their combat training scene (a.k.a. the sexiest non-sex scene in video game history). And it's because the bond between Raleigh and Mako made more sense—and stood to be stronger—with the two being friends, rather than lovers.
I celebrated again when playing Telltale Games' Tales from the Borderlands, when Rhys and Fiona—the two playable characters and protagonists of the game—didn't develop a romantic relationship. It's not that I don't want to see every female gaming character at some point reduced to merely a love interest—although, yes, there is also that. Tales showed the gaming medium that using friendship as a focus for conflict, drama, and happiness in a story is just as worthy, bold, and important as exploring any romance that may (stereotypically) blossom from the connection between characters.
What struck me the most about Tales—and believe me when I say there was a lot that struck me profoundly about the game—was the way it so heavily prioritized friendships and platonic love, and all that comes with it, as the driving force behind almost every major conflict resolution. The game deftly allows you to develop and explore important friendships with almost every character: between men, between women, between women and men, between humans and robots, between robots, between major characters and supporting characters, and between supporting characters.
The way in which the flashback-style story is framed—a masked character has kidnapped Fiona and Rhys, and is forcing them to tell their sides of the tale that's led them to this unlikely state—revolves entirely around trying to understand the very nature of friendships, and how trust and respect operate within them. This is all summed up when the masked character is about to reveal his or her identity, telling the pair, "I am your friend." While ostensibly a story about vault hunting on the surface of the savage Pandora, Tales is much more than such a simple sales pitch—it's a beautiful, charming, hilarious, and endearing game that has touched the hearts of even those who previously disliked the Borderlands series, mainly because it positions friendship as the very backbone of its narrative structure.
This focus on friendship is also part of what made Dontnod's (similarly episodic) Life Is Strange so powerful, and impossible to turn away from. Life Is Strange takes the various friendships surrounding a not-quite-ordinary adolescent girl, and has the confidence to turn the friction these connections produce into the lifeblood of a major video game. While Max's ability to rewind time is cool, it's at its most meaningful when she's either helping or hindering friends and schoolmates by messing with their timelines. Ultimately, her power means next to nothing without the heavy focus on her evolving friendships and rivalries. This is what makes every interaction with the supporting character Kate so poignant: Max is burdened with a whole new level of responsibility when it's evident that her power can be used to potentially save somebody's life—and it might not always be there right when you need it.
In these games, friendships are king. It doesn't matter whether you build them or destroy them—they are the axis on which everything else in the game turns. And it's great that the precedent set by these 2015 releases is continuing into 2016 and beyond.
The recently released Oxenfree offers the same experience as Tales from the Borderlands: an exciting world teeming with possibility, stories, and the promise of something more just at the edge of the map. Developed and published by Night School, Oxenfree is a game about being teenagers on an empty island (Edward's Island, namely), trying to have fun and getting into more paranormal trouble than they expected. Edward's Island works like Pandora in Tales: It is its own world, and it feels like it continues to exist even when the game is turned off. (Unsurprisingly, one of the creators of Oxenfree was also a writer on the first episode of Tales from the Borderlands.) And just like Tales, what makes Oxenfree more than just an aesthetically attractive game with a high creep factor, is that friendships are positioned as the ultimate narrative driving force.
Oxenfree is a charming game—well, as charming a game about terrifying ghosts and possessed teenagers can be—where the main challenge lies in how you develop, or fail to develop, friendships with the people around you. While there's a lot of exploring to do on the island, the crux of the gameplay is conversation based. Playing as a girl called Alex, your choices in various calm discussions, crucial debates, and heated arguments can influence how the other four kids (including your soon-to-be step-brother, Jonas) stuck on the island feel about you—and also how they feel about each other. This elevates the way the game talks about friendship; it realizes and respects the fact that two people talking about a third person, who's not present at the time, can lead to a different perception of said third party when next encountered. Peer pressure is a powerful force, and Oxenfree takes the responsibility of conversation between friends seriously in a way few, if any, other games do.
The way the conversations work in Oxenfree are with simple mechanic dialogue options, each assigned to a single button press. It feels right at home in the game's gorgeous and scary setting. While the plot unfurls naturally, somewhat inevitably towards shit being increasingly lost as the night passes, there's emotional weight to the game that's a direct product of how it presents its group of friends. There are tensions between them, and glimpses of potential; every friendship in the game is somehow tested across its course, and the player gets to see this without haunted cabin hook-ups getting in the way of, and ultimately derailing, meaningful character development.
Similarly, this is a theme and focus that I am looking forward to seeing in Fumito Ueda's next game, the long awaited The Last Guardian. The Last Guardian explores the relationship between its boy protagonist and Trico, a griffin-like creature that can assist its human companion in many ways, but must also be cared for. From what we've seen of it so far, The Last Guardian looks like it's going to be all about friendship, and how the best of these relationships can weather any trouble—a theme not unfamiliar to Ueda, the mastermind behind Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. Ueda admits to designing Trico to feel and act like a pet, even up to the petulance that pets can have when learning new tricks. What I'm really excited to see in The Last Guardian is the way the game will (hopefully) build the cooperative element of this relationship, how the two characters develop their individual strengths while also becoming stronger through their shared exploits and intimacy. Much like the exchanges we witness between Loader Bot and Rhys in Tales, the friendships we build with non-human counterparts are sometimes just as important to our growth, understanding, and self-acceptance as those we have with our own species.
These important games don't simply show us that friendship is a fine narrative device to employ, above the clichéd route of connecting male character with female character and dimming the lights, but also that friendships between a diverse selection of characters, between very different friends, can relate the stories games tell to entirely new audiences, and progress the medium for the better. We see friendships between women of color, between people of different socioeconomic backgrounds and life circumstances, as well as friendships between humans and non-humans. All are valid. They're all different, but they're all real. And I for one can't wait to see more examples of gaming leads remaining "just good friends" in the future.
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