Are the two teenage girls who star in Life Is Strange falling in love? Or are they just two teens sharing a chaste flirtation that will never go anywhere? There have only been three episodes of this game so far, and although I’ve been rooting for these two, I can’t tell yet whether their relationship will ever go beyond queer-baiting. Queer-baiting refers to how mainstream media creators might include a homosocial relationship that never goes beyond flirtation and heavy implication. This is an attempt to impress progressive audiences without alienating homophobic people. Playing it safe in this fashion doesn’t really work, though, because it frustrates the heck out of people who crave true representation and are expected to settle for subtext.
Here’s a very mild spoiler for the most recent episode of Life Is Strange: it features a kiss between the two girls, except this kiss is played off as a “joke” between them. Also, Chloe finally admits to having a “crush” on her missing female friend, Rachel Amber, but she remains vague about whether the two of them had a relationship. Even the word “crush,” in context, could be construed as innocuous.
In other words, I have no idea whether I should be crediting this game for including a romance between two women, or shaking my head in frustration. I’ve been doing both in turns, in much the same way that I did for 2013’s Tomb Raider reboot. The relationship between Lara and her best friend Samantha had a lot of subtext, but the game doesn’t end with a kiss—not even a joking one. In a Kill Screen interview about the game, lead writer Rhianna Pratchett said: “There’s part of me that would’ve loved to make Lara gay. I’m not sure [the game’s developer] Crystal would be ready for it! But we’ve not spoken about it directly, either.”
A lot of folks interpreted this one quote as confirmation that Lara Croft was in the closet—except that’s not quite what Pratchett said. In that same interview, she elaborated: “You know, we didn’t actually touch on Lara’s sexuality in the game… People have talked about Lara’s boyfriends and stuff like that, and I’m like, ‘No, no, I don’t want that to be part of it!’ This is about her. I didn’t feel like a boyfriend or that side of things fit into it.” She also says, “It was interesting that with a female [protagonist] like Lara rescuing a female, people sort of projected that there was more going on to that relationship because of that.”
In other words, just because Lara has a female best friend who ends up cast in a damsel-in-distress role, the two women are just friends. Write all the fan-fiction you want—in the end, Lara will remain single.
Personally, I’m disappointed by this, and not only because I believe that actual representation is a lot more important than queer-baiting, whether that baiting is intentional or not. I’m also disappointed by the way that these relationships have been represented in-game. Lara’s original incarnation felt like a simple gender-swap on tropes set forth by hyper-masculine characters like Indiana Jones, which at the time was revolutionary enough to blow a lot of people’s minds (frankly, it still is revolutionary to do a simple gender-swap on a game without changing anything else, but that’s an argument for another day). The reboot added a lot more characterization to Lara, showing how her experiences as a woman in a male-dominated field might change her perspective and her outlook; the inclusion of a clueless male professor who undermined Lara’s work throughout the game served to elucidate how Lara’s life would have differed quite a bit from the career trajectory of Nathan Drake or Indiana Jones.
But I have to admit, I’m a bit confused about why she doesn’t get to date anybody. Why would being in a relationship undermine her or distract her?
I’m starting to get the same weird feeling about Max Caulfield in Life Is Strange. Max’s name is likely inspired by Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye, a character with a similar caustic watch-the-world-go-by-without-participating worldview. I like how this has played out in terms of Max’s social interactions; it’s clear that many of her classmates find her self-absorbed and obnoxious, whereas her friends find her brooding introspection to be endearing. In other words, she seems like a real person to me, in spite of the fact that no one on the Dontnod team has any idea how to come up with realistic slang terms that teens might actually use. Much like the reboot of Lara, I appreciated seeing a lady heroine written with flaws and nuance.
However, much like Lara, Max seems to have pretty bad luck when it comes to dating. Max has a male friend who clearly has a crush on her but who I’ve chosen to rebuff time and time again because I’ve been assuming Max to be a lesbian—except that Max keeps flouting me in her own dialogue, so I could be wrong. In Episode 3, I chose a “boys are gross” option in dialogue, only to have Max polish off the line with “none of the boys at school like me, anyway.” Damn it, Max, I was trying to make it clear that you don’t care whether they like you! You’re trying to get with Chloe here! Or are you?
It’s not just that I feel like Life Is Strange is holding back on letting me date Chloe because she’s a girl—it also feels like the game just wants Max (and all of her female friends) to be unhappy, like some sort of tragic Batman. Unfortunately, though, by not making it clear whether or not Max even can be with Chloe in the first place—since it’s not made clear in the dialogue what either girl’s sexual preference is, beyond “jokes,” so far—I can’t tell whether their lack of relationship is meant to be interpreted as tragic due to their bad luck, or tragic due to the developers not writing in a damn relationship for them. All in all, it’s hard not to see this writing as another form of queer-baiting—which, again, may not be intentional, but is nonetheless frustrating to play.
Many women heroines in games seem to suffer from the same type of problem. Even though our male heroes seem to be able to date whoever they want, our heroines don’t appear to deserve the same happiness, no matter their sexuality. It’s not that these women are written as canonically asexual or aromantic, either—instead, they are presented as characters who would date if it were possible for them, but choose not to because a relationship would somehow demean them, or cannot date because of external forces. I assumed that Nilin in Remember Me, for example, would end up in a relationship with the cute bartender she meets at the beginning of the game—but then it never went anywhere. I recall some rumblings at the time about how male players would have too much trouble playing as a straight woman in a relationship with a guy, but I don’t think that’s the whole story here, given that we haven’t even seen a game yet where a woman romances a woman and it ends happily. I think the bigger problem is that we just don’t have an example of a heroine in a relationship that’s actually healthy, period.
Samus Aran had a controversial relationship with a superior officer in Other M, a relationship hated by almost everyone because it was a relationship that did diminish her since that officer kept treating her like crap. This example is often held up as a reason why heroines shouldn’t date anybody; Samus has been single in all of her other games, and her sexuality isn’t even brought up. Basically, no one has figured out how to write the type of guy (or girl) with whom a “Strong Female Character” might be able to have a healthy relationship. I think the problem is that we keep assuming that these women characters are supposed to be with someone who does diminish them, and since we can’t envision a relationship that doesn’t do this for women, no one has been able to write one.
Before you all rush to tell me that the triple-A gaming space is no place to expect to see good writing or healthy relationships, let me remind you that Nathan Drake and Elena Fisher are often held up as one of gaming’s most grounded couples. I don’t necessarily mind that Lara Croft and Max Caulfield don’t also get to have that same form of partnership; maybe they really don’t want it. Maybe Lara will turn out to be a canonically aromantic character, which would be a lot cooler in my eyes than having her be a woman who doesn’t date because it’s somehow impossible. With Max, however, Life Is Strange has already made clear that romance is desired—and that those desires may end in tragedy no matter what Max does.
I just don’t see why even our grittiest and most bad-ass heroines never get any opportunity for love or stability at all. Even Batman gets to hook up with Catwoman, once in a while. We should be able to come up with ways for our heroines to be happy, too—even if that happiness can’t last forever.