OSWALD: I have great affection for you, Bruce.
Telltale’s latest venture, Batman: The Telltale Series, is a wonderful little romp through familiar territory. I’m not even that much of a comics fan, and yet I found myself swept up in all the excitement of Gotham’s seedy dive bars and dimly lit alleyways. I desperately wanted to unravel the secrets lurking behind the Wayne family, and I was utterly delighted by the complex discussions regarding Harvey Dent’s health. Therapy option? Better mental health facilities? Hell yes. Telltale even subverted the time-honored tradition of fashioning Catwoman into a walking trope, offering her agency and motivation in spades.
And yet, it was the introduction of Oswald Cobblepot that gave me pause.
Since attending grade school with Bruce Wayne, Oswald has gotten himself into quite a bit of trouble — there’s a laundry list of illegal activity and jail-time, which visibly upsets Bruce. You see, the two used to be very close as children, and Oswald wants to meet up again after all these years. Their little reunion is sidetracked by a flurry of close combat, and you have to fight off a few criminals alongside your old flame. After, Oswald licks his thumb and reaches forward to tenderly wipe a bit of blood off Bruce’s face. The moment is undeniably charged, and Bruce doesn’t so much as flinch — as if he’s familiar with that kind of intimacy from Oswald.
But you never get the opportunity to seal the deal. Unlike with Selina Kyle, who you also fight alongside and share a romantic moment with, there isn’t any dialogue choice to close the distance between Bruce and Oswald. You’re not allowed to explore bisexuality in Batman: The Telltale Series, and as I reflected on all the games I’d played from them in the past, a distinct pattern began to emerge. Every time the leading men of Telltale edge closer to a revelation that challenges their heterosexuality, the narrative rushes to reassure us that the moment never took place. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!
Let’s take a look at what signals the characters are sending us, shall we? There will be some minor spoilers for Tales From the Borderlands, and a major spoiler for Telltale’s Game of Thrones.
VAUGHN: It’s just … I know it’s weird to say, but I’m having a great time.
RHYS: Vaughn, I feel the same way.
Telltale edged closest to outing their leading man as bisexual (or at least very questioning) in Tales From the Borderlands. Despite the obvious hints that Rhys is attracted to Fiona and Sasha, the mounting sexual tension between Rhys and his friend Vaughn actually reaches a fever pitch in the second episode. So much so, in fact, that Telltale saw fit to backpeddle as hard as they possibly could in the very next scene. Why was that necessary? Because only a little while ago, Vaughn had removed his shirt and effectively rendered talkative Rhys completely silent. This wasn’t a prolonged stare from a friend and co-worker nonchalantly observing someone else’s physique, this was the visible shock of someone realizing they might be aroused.
Later on, Vaughn seems to return the sentiment when he recalls a memory involving the two trying to sneak into a party. “You were as much of a nerd as I was, which was hilarious,” he says with no amusement in his tone. “But you … look like you do … so, you could fake it.” In the seconds you’re given to respond to Vaughn, a complicated tangle of emotions flit across Rhys’ face. Surprise, sadness, regret — all the hallmarks of someone realizing they could have initiated a relationship with their crush years ago, but missed their chance.
Even if you apologize to him, Vaughn continues on, nervously not-quite confessing his feelings in a stilted, one-sided conversation. Watch Rhys closely during this whole sequence, because he’s also displaying clear signs of reciprocation. He drags a hand through his hair, shifts from foot to foot, and crosses and uncrosses his arms. If you choose to reinforce your bond with him, Vaughn launches himself at Rhys like he can’t stand another second passing without touching. No amount of shouting “BRO!” again diffuses the underlying sexual tension here — not for a second time.
This is what it looks like when a man is obviously, painfully attracted to his best friend, but I suppose the consequences of returning those feelings are just too high to offer it as a dialogue option. Why else would Telltale dangle the possibility, only to snatch it away?
COTTER: Sylvi, I’ve known Gared a while now. He may not be one of us, but I trust him.
SYLVI: I’ve been waiting months for you, Cotter. And when you finally come home, it’s with some crow who can barely build a fire?
Even other characters take notice of these unusually strong bonds — and they don’t approve. I’ve written extensively about Telltale’s take on Game of Thrones (which is brilliant, by the way), but I didn’t linger too long on Gared Tuttle. Admittedly, he shares quite a bit of sexual tension with other members of the Night’s Watch too, namely Finn, who seems just as confused about his queer identity as Gared does. But while Finn hastens to boast about all the women he’s had sex with, it’s Cotter who we’re meant to interpret as queer and comfortable about it. “You … fuck potatoes?” Gared asks, and both young men look horrified — and a little bit intrigued — while Cotter explains himself. This joke is played not once, but twice, signaling a metaphor for queer identity.
From there, Telltale’s venture into
The Gay Game of Thrones gets increasingly more interesting. After trading plenty of sideways looks and crooked grins, Cotter finally leans in close to Gared and reveals his secret: he’s part of the Free Folk, one of the “wildlings” that live beyond the Wall. The scene that plays out is deeply reminiscent of someone coming out to their closest friend, desperately trying to reaffirm that the revelation won’t change anything. Whether you decide that Gared remains loyal to Cotter doesn’t change the atmosphere of the scene at all — in fact, Frostfinger interrupts their quiet interlude, and the two boys jump apart as if they’d just been doing something other than talking. Hm.
Cotter is the one who springs Gared from Castle Black, and the tension between them heightens, particularly when Cotter is wounded. Gared is gentle and attentive, carefully dressing his wound and looking after his recovery. All things a friend might do, except Cotter’s sister Sylvi finally gives voice to those unspoken feelings simmering just beneath the surface. She confronts them and says she strongly disapproves of the match her brother has clearly chosen, insisting that a crow can’t consort with a wildling — it just isn’t done. Starting to sound familiar? Cotter is forced, again and again, to choose between his family and his first love, and it’s heartbreaking to watch.
That you actually require Cotter’s heart — his literal, beating heart — to complete the final ritual in the end is a metaphor so obvious Gared might as well have shouted “I LOVE YOU!” from every rooftop in Westeros. And yet, we never get that option. You must choose between a blade and poison, but never your words.
JONAS: Zachary! Thank God.
Telltale is known for its complex characters and branching storylines, offering up a truly original gaming experience in almost every conceivable way. I love what they’re doing, and I’ll certainly continue to throw my money at every project they embark on, but I’m finding this continued trend rather strange. Why aren’t any of these protagonists allowed to explore what they so clearly want to? When will we be given the opportunity to choose a different path from the heteronormative? We catch a glimpse of a loving relationship between two men in The Walking Dead: Michonne, but it happens so quickly that it’s easily missed. (Don’t be gay during the apocalypse. It really, really won’t end well for you.)
Personally, I have a lot of hope for Telltale’s future. They’ve diversified their games, provided deeply complex women with compelling storylines, and woven stories beyond our wildest imaginings. Now we just need to take an axe to the closet they’ve locked all their protagonists inside and we’ll be good.