When the credits started rolling after the final installment of Life Is Strange’s episodic series, I was more than a little numb. You can listen to how I somehow managed to articulate myself, as my sister and I recorded a raw playthrough of “Polarized” with all our organic reactions, but even after I’d powered down our Xbox, that initial funk lingered like a particularly visceral nightmare. I felt thirteen again, gawky and shivering in my middle school locker room after gym class, listening with rapt attention as a few girls discussed why our teacher should be fired because she was “clearly a dyke.” There was lead in my stomach, then. My whole body felt like it was rooted to the floor in a mixture of dawning realization and horror.
It’s taken me a long time to feel comfortable writing this, mostly because it springs from such a deeply personal place. For the record, I consider myself pretty comfortable with my own sexuality. It might’ve taken the better part of twenty years to get there, but I did finally make it over most of my internalized hangups, and I’m proud of that. Still, even after everything, that kind of hard-worn self-assurance never quite takes the sting out of situations like these. You play a video game to escape into a world that isn’t the same as your own, but what happens when that experience reflects the ugliness you’ve had to face in real life?
This isn’t going to be a review of Life Is Strange. I honestly think I laid far too many of my own hopes and dreams at the feet of its developers, willing them to “confirm” the romantic relationship between two women beyond any reasonable doubt. That wasn’t necessarily fair of me, which is likely why I reacted so negatively when faced with the inevitable Bury Your Gays vs. Hide Your Lesbians endings. But just once, just once I wanted to see my own sexuality reflected in a popular game, something that developed organically between two characters that wasn’t snatched away during the moment of truth.
Why do we always step away from confirming a queer ship, but bait our audience in order to keep them hooked?
Let’s dig right into this. (Haha. Get it?) By now, everyone’s heard about the Kill Screen interview with Rhianna Pratchett, lead writer for the reboot Tomb Raider series, where she spoke on the topic of Lara Croft potentially being a queer character. While Pratchett seemed receptive to the idea herself, she said that, “There’s part of me that would’ve loved to make Lara gay. I’m not sure Crystal [Dynamics] would be ready for it!” That, as we all know, doesn’t mean it wasn’t still hinted at in the storyline. Let me explain.
Most reputable sources assert that the Lara/Sam ship is considered to be utterly without canon evidence, and that these young women had no more chemistry than any other strictly heterosexual friendship between two women. And that’s if they even discuss it at all. The ship itself, however, didn’t materialize out of the fandom ether in order to generate AO3 fanfics. There’s an utterly fascinating four-part article series, “Become Who You Were Meant to Be,” which analyzes the way in which Lara Croft has been a coming-of-age icon for queer people all over the world long before the reboot version hit shelves. Sam was merely a new, certainly welcome addition to the long-established fanon for many of us.
We already identify with many of these same characters. Their struggles are our own, and when a close queer relationship with another character begins to blossom, a sort of fandom frenzy begins. This could be it. They could be the one! But even as fandom (beautiful, wondrous fandom) raises up a character as potentially one of their own, it’s … literally almost never confirmed or even acknowledged by the wider industry as “canon.” A character must proclaim themselves queer in the same breath that they’ve introduced their own name, or risk falling into the trap of speculation and all-out erasure.
“The manner that [LGBTQIA+] characters are being introduced to a broader audience in major games is through this same blowback-wary method of diligent self-policing. The writers allow space for an audience member to overlook or deny the homosexuality of a particular character if that’s the way they would prefer to see things.”
There’s a name for this phenomenon. It’s called queer-baiting, and let me tell you, all of us are aware of what it feels like to be deliberately enticed to buy a game when the developers have absolutely no intention of delivering on any tangible diversity. What’s more, I don’t think we need to “slowly, quietly” introduce queer characters to major games at all. That’s a disservice to the countless people who buy games, play games, and have existed long before the latest cis straight romance was featured in another blockbuster title. We get little hints here and there like following a fishing line, but just as we’re close enough to snatch it, the possibility is ripped away from our line of vision. And that’s if we even get that much.
There’s the barely decipherable hint at a queer relationship that fans have to translate and interpret as something maybe approaching representation. When you’re queer, you learn this language as earnestly as you might study the Classics. For the uninitiated, the above gifset (which is actually longer) surfaced on Tumblr as potential confirmation that Aveline de Grandpré of Assassin’s Creed could, in fact, be read as something other than the straight and narrow. “A game of flats” is 18th century slang for sex between women. This tiny little part of the gameplay could be easily dismissed, and therein lies the problem. I can’t dismiss the staggering amount of straight ships, yet I have to play capture the flag in order to find anything even approaching something I can identify with.
I’m by no means the first to point any of this out, either. We have an LGBTQIA+ category with almost 40 articles written precisely to explore these very topics, and I’m so proud of the people standing up to voice their experiences. I think there’s something uniquely beautiful about fandom in that we’re constantly creating the stories that are never told, and it challenges us to envision worlds far beyond their source material. For instance, I’ve only ever caught very brief Let’s Plays of Until Dawn, but I already know that I’d be in very good company if I ever decided to jump into its fandom. There’s a fierce sense of community among geeky, queer gamers like us. I wouldn’t trade that for the world.
The heart of the problem here is that I’m getting really, really tired of being a footnote. I’m tired of being so easily dismissed, erased, or killed off. While I think there are certainly far more pressing issues in terms of representation within the gaming industry (or the continued utter lack of it), it’s truly unsettling that we even have to prioritize basic diversity for anyone. None of us are the convenient tools shaped to bolster a marketing campaign. We’re real people, we see what you’re doing, and we’re getting tired of the smokescreens. These marking ploys aren’t “edgy,” they’re just sad.
To bring this discussion full circle, I’ll leave you with a quote from Sloane’s interview with Ashly Burch, the incomparable voice actress of Chloe Price. I feel very strongly that this exemplifies the overall spirit of what we’re trying to accomplish here. While Life Is Strange may not have delivered what most of us are yearning for, Ashly gives me hope for that elusive queer ship still on the horizon.
“I think the biggest thing is to try to approach these subjects responsibly. Games can be an incredibly powerful, cathartic tool for players, and can help people feel like they’re not alone. I think it’s amazing that games are starting to explore subjects like these. It’s just the responsibility of the developers to know what they’re putting into the world, the effect it might have, and to handle each topic with sensitivity and awareness.”
Give us a seat at the table, developers. We might even bring cookies.