From Sexless to Sexy: Telltale’s Queer Trajectory
Despite a now-proven track record of developing strong narrative games, Telltale has had a less-than-stellar history of LGBT representation.
Warning: this article contains spoilers for Telltale's video game adaptation of The Walking Dead, both seasons, as well as its Tales From the Borderlands series. Got that? Okay, then.
Season one of Telltale Games' The Walking Dead was unprecedented in its diverse representation of gender and ethnic minorities – something I suspect is aligned with creator Robert Kirkman's manifesto for the franchise. A decent split of men and women and a black protagonist already puts the game ahead of the curve. Throw in a few more non-white and non-American characters and you're looking at one of the most diverse casts in gaming history.
In season one, female would-be-MacGuffin Clementine is the sole motivation for the whole story; player character Lee Everett's entire journey is based on protecting her and reuniting her with her parents. It's damseling, certainly, but it's done in such a way that develops not only Lee's character, but Clementine's as well. Not to mention the bond between the two, which becomes a genuine motivating factor for the player. While on the surface, Clementine seems little more than a lazily represented female plot device, it's a testament to Telltale's writing that she became one of the best things about the 2012 game, initially released across five episodes.
Any problems with the representation of women in season one were greatly improved in late-2013/early-2014's similarly episodic season two, and not just because of fantastic newcomer Jane. With the player now in direct control of Clementine, the character is strengthened. It's up to her to defend herself and to decide how and with whom to build relationships. Early on, Clementine is suddenly alone and has to fend for herself – a recurring theme that builds into her becoming the rock of the group, keeping her head when all about her are losing theirs.
But while Telltale's writers are increasingly catering to more and more people, LGBT players continue to be left out. An attempt was made in The Walking Dead's second season to finally include a gay couple, but it was problematic at best and insulting at worst. Continuing a pervasive TV trope of gay couples being introduced only to be killed off, the first gay character we meet in The Walking Dead is murdered after just minutes of screen time. A great way to build tension when we meet his lodge-owning boyfriend, sure, but not much fun for anyone interested in seeing actual human gay characterisation in games.
We're told that lodge-owner Walter and Matthew – the latter now deceased at the hands of one of your crew – were happy together and very much in love, but since it was never seen by the player first-hand, it's impossible to relate to. People die in the Walking Dead universe all the time, and Walter's reaction to his boyfriend's death is one we've seen before when characters are faced with losing children, friends and acquaintances. Don't tell us he's distraught – show us why. The player needs to know what he's lost in order to empathise.
Perhaps more importantly, for anyone growing up gay, positive representation of LGBT characters in media is something that can actively improve their lives. It can offer reassurance that they belong in the world alongside everyone else. That's the real reason for diversity in narrative. Not to hit some imaginary inclusivity checkbox.
'The Walking Dead' season two trailer
So it's a swing and a miss from Telltale with The Walking Dead season two, but things are definitely looking up with the same studio's Tales From the Borderlands. So much so that I may even forgive the step backwards made in The Wolf Among Us, with its lack of gays and heavy use of prostitutes-as-plot-device (although, admittedly, this is largely down to the source material).
Speaking of which, it's interesting to see the backlash The Walking Dead received when the TV show broadcast a kiss between two gay characters. There's precedence set in The Walking Dead throughout the original comics, with gay and bi characters popping up all over the place. Despite the negativity that followed the kissing scene's transmission, it feels strange to see a proper gay couple (who actually share screen time together) introduced to the TV show before the game.
But things are very different in the Borderlands universe, with a host of gay, lesbian and bisexual characters littering the world of Pandora. Perhaps "littering" is the wrong word. More like "scattering". Like sofa cushions.
Whether it's due to these established characters finally letting the writers get out their rainbow pens, or Telltale naturally becoming more confident with its continued success, the Tales approach to LBGT characterisation points to an upward trend I would love to see continue. In its second episode "Atlas Mugged", released just last month, we meet Athena, a playable character from Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! and an honest-to-goodness lesbian. She's also a bounty hunter who wants to kill you, but try not to hold that against her.
'Tales From the Borderlands', episode two trailer
During the episode you will be chased through the streets of Hollow Point by the shield-wielding bounty hunter until you finally seek refuge in Scooter's garage. Depending on the choices you've made elsewhere, Athena will either be intercepted and "dealt with" by Loader Bot, or she'll catch up to you at your hideout. If the latter takes place, she'll arrive sans-shield, her eyes a less-furious shade of red. That's because her girlfriend, Janey Springs, is waiting there for her. And as far as Janey's aware, Athena gave up bounty hunting for her long ago.
What follows is a lovely scene in which Athena attempts to hide the fact that she's returned to bounty hunting from her girlfriend. Janey swears blind that Athena couldn't possibly have been the one chasing you. She promised all that bounty hunting was over. "That's right," Athena agrees, a combination of on-the-spot awkwardness and seething anger in her voice. "Our relationship means more to me than some stupid job." All the while, her eyes are screaming: "Get me in trouble with my girlfriend and I'll end you even harder than I was already going to."
It's a strange mix: funny, sweet and a little bit tense, and it's perfect. Tales is a collision of bizarre sci-fi situations and real-life relationships, and hopefully its engaging interplay between characters of different sexual orientations is something we'll see a lot more of in future episodes. In a way, it's a shame the scene is completely skippable, if you chose to focus purely on the gameplay side of things. (Which is rather missing the point of most Telltale releases – although it's a useful option for future playthroughs.) Any game built around choice is going to involve some consequences as the result of your decisions, and judging from Athena's evident rage when we opt to make off with her discarded shield, we'll be seeing her again.
The same-sex fun times don't end there, though. Elsewhere in Tales' second episode, scrawny sidekick Vaughn takes his shirt off in the desert to reveal a body that is disarmingly buff. One that protagonist Rhys (and, later, one of the main antagonists) can't help but remark on. Positively. Distractedly. But, you know. No homo.
So good work, Telltale. Two data points don't make a trend, but if you can keep going in this direction you're going to have some very satisfied LGBT fans. Now, about The Wolf Among Us...