video games

Just Guys Being Dudes: Male Intimacy

"What's better than this: guys being dudes."

Men in popular culture are confined to a few specific roles: the strong, powerful hero, the possibly nerdy underdog, the more effeminate-looking villain, or the father figure. Sometimes there's some overlap, such as the father or husband who is motivated to save his wife or daughter—or to enact revenge after she's died, yet another reoccurring trope. In isolation, these character types are not bad, but they're certainly boring because of their overuse. But what lurks behind these masculine heroes and less masculine villains or comic relief characters is a fear of intimacy.

When you look at the more well-known male icons (Superman, Batman, James Bond, most of the action heroes played by Bruce Willis, etc.), you see muscles, grimaced faces, and usually a lack of emotion beyond anger. Video games often use violence as a motivator for the plot because that's easy to design around to compel a player forward, but that's also coupled with male dominance and power. We're seeing more complex stories that give depth to male characters, but there's still a lack of intimacy between male characters.

I'll be talking about Tales of Zestiria primarily further on for this article, but first I want to talk about a similar game called Final Fantasy XV. Like Tales of ZestiriaFFXV is a game multiple characters who are on a journey or quest together. FFXV departs from the norm in its series by having a cast of playable characters who are all male. They're basically on a roadtrip together, spending cozy nights together in a tent. As Alexa Ray Corriea writes at Gamespot, these guys act with each other with a sense of comfort, like they can behave intimately in a way that guys might only act around their closest friends. They're not "bro-ing" it up in a "Hey, I love you, bro, but no homo!" way. This sort of closeness stems from a fear of homosexuality and clings to the hypermasculine ideal that stresses physical strength over emotional openness. What we know about FFXV's male intimacy is confined to what people have seen in the demo because the game is still in development. While I'm optimistic, I'm also hesitant about the intimacy that will be portrayed in the game considering how the game sexualizes the first female character they encounter in the demo.

Sorey and Mikleo act in a way that makes us believe they’re comfortable with each other.

Tales of Zestiria also exhibits some sexism in character writing, but I can say it goes all in on a male intimacy that is believable and heartwarming. Sorey and Mikleo grew up together since they were babies, and they're cared about each other for as long as they can remember. They've been exploring together all that time, going on adventures as kids and now as teenagers. They both developed an interest in archeology. They bicker. They stand closer to each other. They rest their hands on each other. They reassure each other with physical touches. They're completely at ease with each other because they trust each other unconditionally. 

In Tales of Zestiria, Sorey can fuse with the spirits who have entered a contract with him as the Shepard. The game never explains the details of this fusion to the extent that Cartoon Network's TV show Steven Universe does with its fusion, in which characters can fuse together to become someone stronger. Steven Universe depicts fusion as something inherently personal; in order to keep a fusion stable, characters have to be in sync with each other. At least in Sorey and Mikleo's case, I see their fusion working the same way because they love each other and know what the other person is going to do just as that person decides to do it. Because Sorey is an empathetic person, I can see fusion overall in Zestiria functioning similarly to that of Steven Universe

Before Sorey and Mikleo can fuse together, Mikleo has to become a Sub Lord to Sorey. Sorey and Mikleo get in what is certainly not their first fight, but it's the first one we see, and they get into this fight because of how much they value each other. Sorey doesn't want Mikleo to enter that contract because he wants Mikleo to follow his own dreams rather than feel compelled to follow Sorey's. Mikleo is offended that Sorey is pushing him away and doesn't want him to help. After all, Mikleo wants the same thing that Sorey does: save the world, and explore the world. Prime Lord Lailah asks Mikleo to give Sorey his true name, a name that few know in the ancient language, and Mikleo replies that Sorey already knows what it is. And once the two make up, they have a tickle fight.

Just guys being dudes.

Just guys being dudes.

Sorey and Mikleo act in a way that makes us believe they're comfortable with each other. They rest their hands on each other. They stare at the sky together. And their relationship is always treated as the most important one in the narrative. Traditionally in Tales games, there's a male hero and his female companion who follows him and supports him (e.g. Lloyd and Colette in Tales of Symphonia, Cless and Mint in Tales of Phantasia). While there have been close male friendships in the series before (primarily Yuri and Flynn in Tales of Vesperia), these have always been presented within the game (not talking about fanfiction) as platonic. Sorey and Mikleo never have that Big Kiss Moment, but that's hardly a thing in the Tales series to begin with, and you don't need that to know they are each other's significant others, whether that's sexual or not. Their relationship as a human and a spirit who get along is seen as an ideal for the world, where humans and spirits have grown separated from one another. The people around Sorey and Mikleo hope to see more relationships like theirs between humans and spirits around the world.

Zaveid is interested in looking at babes. Sorey is only interested in looking at Mikleo.

Zaveid is interested in looking at babes. Sorey is only interested in looking at Mikleo.

Truly, it's noteworthy that this relationship is so important in a wider context because relationships like these are rare in video games, especially. However, it goes beyond male intimacy being seen as rare; we need to change the perception that men can't have close relationships where they hug each other tightly or hold hands—things that women do together without being portrayed as romantic. And yet, we also need more happy stories about people who are gay! In the last TV show you watched, how many characters were gay? Did they survive to the end of the story? Are they happy? I challenge all of you to reflect on the last TV show you watched, the last movie you watched, and the last game you played (one with a narrative) on how it represents sexuality and intimacy between the same gender. It won't be until we recognize the problems in our media that we start to make changes, and if the media we consume shows healthy relationships between friends and partners, then maybe that'll persuade some people to stop clinging to an outdated and unhealthy ideal of emotional stagnation in men.

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Sometimes the Blue Curtain is Just a Blue Curtain

I know I'm not the only one in an English class where a teacher or another student has tried to find every little piece of meaning in the setting or a character. Sometimes I'm grasping at straws when looking for symbolism, and I can't deny the enjoyment of playing connect-the-dots with setpieces in literature with guesses as to what the author meant. But sometimes that blue curtain in the character's room isn't blue to represent sadness; sometimes it's just a color.

More meaningful than curtains are actions characters have done, whether this is depicted to the reader or if it's described to the reader as something that already happened. Our hobbies and interest say a lot about us. What we choose to do with our free time shows what we care about, what we choose to invest ourselves in. Were those curtains already there, or did the character pick them out? Were there other curtains? Why blue? There doesn't always have to be a reason, but some of the character's design choices should be a statement. In Dontnod's episodic game Life is Strange, we get to learn a little more about each character by seeing what their room is like. For example, Max, the protagonist, has a dorm room similar to the one I, and probably lots of college students, had. From pictures and posters on the walls to her acoustic guitar and plant, Max seems like a pretty normal middle class girl. When we see her best friend's room, we see Chloe has a more rebellious streak. She's handwritten on the walls in permanent ink, her room is smokey from doing weed, her lights are usually dim, and it's a mess.

Characters' rooms should, in most cases but especially in dormitory situations where students have freedom to decorate, be just as important to character design as the clothes they wear. However, moral judgments make their way into writing and character design. When we only see antagonists and "evil" characters liking certain things, we're drawn to a conclusion that only bad people would like that sort of thing.

This came to mind as I played episode 4 of Life is Strange, "Dark Room." I've written about Life is Strange before, finding some truth in how the writers portray how embarrassing Max can be, but I was also worried the writers thought women who are intimately close will get engaged in romantic activity together but treat it like a platonic friendship. I'll have to wait until the final episode to get a firm grasp on how the writers are treating Max and Chloe's relationship, but I'm less worried now. Instead, something else caught my attention. Spoilers for Episode 4.
Inside Nathan's room we see lots of dark-themed imagery as well as NSFW pictures of women. In this case, we see pictures of a woman being spanked with a paddle, blindfolded, etc.

Since episode 1, Nathan Prescott has been a dangerous kid to himself and others. He has an explosive temper and carries a gun. He tried to intimidate Max with violence, and he assaulted Warren. In episode 2, he texts Max and her family, breaks into Max's room and leaves a terrifying message for her. If that wasn't enough, Kate opens up to Max and tells her she thinks Nathan drugged her at a party.

Nathan is an extremely troubling kid. There are still a lot of mysteries going around as to how involved he is in Rachel Amber's disappearance and exactly what he did to Kate. We learn a lot about Nathan in episode 4, and it's a grim picture for this twelfth grader. In this episode, Max is able to investigate Nathan's room while he's out. She can read his emails to learn more about his troubling family life, look at his furniture and posters, and make value judgments — which she does frequently when snooping.

The way students choose to decorate their dorm is an important design choice. It speaks to how the character feels or wants to be perceived by others. Max has several photographs on her walls because she wants to be a photographer. Victoria, who also wants to be a photographer, similarly has pictures on her walls, and she also has expensive clothes in her closet because her family is at the very least in the upper-middle class. Kate's room was dark and closed off when she was bullied and felt isolated. Getting a look into Nathan's room should be just as illustrative of what he likes or how he feels.

Nathan's room is literally dark; a lamp in his room is broken. His shades are drawn, and he has a lot of clutter. Much of the art on his walls shows photos of women who are bound or otherwise submissive. (That's usually a little more personal, so I don't know exactly why Nathan chooses to put that on his dorm walls in case a friend walks in, but I guess nobody really likes Nathan other than Victoria, soooo ...)

Similar art is found in the "dark room" that Max and Chloe discover later on in the episode, and they also find pictures of young women from Arcadia Bay, primarily Blackwell Academy. These women look spaced out, and they were probably drugged before being taken to this room. The game sets up the dark room and Nathan's room to feel similar. Emails from Nathan's father are in the room, and his jacket is lying on a couch. Furthermore, the evidence Max and Chloe find clearly point to Nathan being a great danger to all of the girls at Blackwell Academy. Even before finding the dark room, Max learns Nathan bought GHB, the "date rape drug," just before going to the party where Kate said she was drugged.


We even find out Nathan has a mental illness and that his therapist is no longer comfortable seeing him. Everything points to Nathan being terrifying, and I truly was scared for all of the girls at that night's party. It sadly isn't surprising that the game depicts the character with a mental illness as a creepy guy because this is common in media, but it's even worse that the game uses Nathan's interest in domination and bondage as a clue that he's dangerous.

(Side note: The very end of episode 4 shows the photography teacher at Blackwell, Mr. Jefferson, has a much more heinous role to play in the game. I don't know exactly to what extent, but I believe he has before, and it's entirely possible he's the one who killed Rachel and not Nathan. So, it could be that Mr. Jefferson is into domination as well, considering most of his photography is of young women with dark or sexual themes. Even if that is true, Nathan is still used as a red herring, and we're still led to cement our suspicions of Nathan when Max gets a look at his room.)

In Nathan's case (and probably also Jefferson's), I don't think the boy understands the concept of consent, and that's much scarier to me than knowing he likes to see women tied up. A person who buys GHB and drugs a woman is dangerous; a person who enjoys being dominant in sexual play in a safe, consensual environment for all parties is not scary due to that interest.

We were already led to believe that Nathan is a dangerous guy. Showing us those photos draws on judgments that people who like domination and submission play aren't good people. Kinky stuff is supposed to be only for the morally ambiguous or evil characters.

Sometimes the blue curtain is just a blue curtain, and sometimes kinky interests are just fun play and not a moral judgment of character. We don't need every instance of dominating sexual interests to be nonconsensual ones.

Sexuality in Life is Strange

There's a stereotype that women are more open with their feelings and less shy about expressing intimacy with other women in specifically heteronormative environments. This includes but is not limited to women giving and receiving hugs, sleeping in the same bed together, and talking about personal problems. The women we see in these situations in media are usually cisgender and heterosexual. It's the "girl talk." These things feel platonic to many of us. They're almost always depicted that way in media, and they're frequently platonic in our relationships with people in our lives.

But that's a pretty limited viewpoint to hold exclusively. Because of this, we believe men who express their feelings with their male friends must be gay or "effeminate," and we are far more likely to believe women are just "really close friends" instead of romantically and/or sexually interested in each other. Take Legend of Korra as an example. At the end of the series, Korra and Asami end the story with the start of their journey together — and together with only each other — after many scenes of blushing and showing how much they cared for each other. Beyond Nickelodeon not allowing obvious declarations of love and kisses between two women, many people just assumed they were friends because of a tendency in American culture for women to express closeness.

At the beginning of episode 1 in Dontnod's game Life is Strange, protagonist Max Caulfield reunites with her childhood friend Chloe and learns she had some sort of relationship with a girl named Rachel before she went missing. By episode 2, Max — and by extension, the player — find out Chloe and Rachel had a secret hideout together. In their hideout they write on the walls to prove that they were there together. Chloe speaks endearingly of Chloe and at one point calls Rachel her angel. In episode 3, Chloe learns Rachel had a relationship with a man they both knew, and suddenly she feels betrayed by Rachel. From all of this, I believe Chloe is or was in love with Rachel.

Rachel has changed Chloe's life, and romantic relationships don't need to be the be-all, end-all of life-changing relationships. At the same time, I don't want that to come at the expense of romantic relationships outside of heterosexuality. Chloe is still deeply affected by Rachel's disappearance, but she's also overjoyed to see Max again. Max is a bit shy and probably still figuring out who she loves. Chloe seems to have a better understanding of that.

While the two undeniably are friends, Chloe makes jokes about Max using her power to rewind time to kiss Chloe without Chloe knowing it happened. In episode 3 they strip to their underwear and go swimming together, chatting about each other, the last couple of days, and boys. Chloe insists guys at the school must like her, and I have Max reply with, "Ewww." Chloe later on says she's been interested in guys as well, but from what I can tell, she hasn't cared deeply for someone like she has for Rachel. Her relationship with Max is progressing as well, but it remains to be seen whether Max has any romantic interest for Chloe.

But then I swear I wasn't just idly shipping Max/Chloe with little context. Max spends the night at Chloe's house like old times. They wake up and lie in Chloe's bed together for a while, just enjoying each other's company. As Max looks for something to wear, Chloe dares Max to kiss her. As the player, you choose whether Max kisses her; I went for it. Would they blush at each other and confess? Would they trip over their words as they stumble through sexuality like most young adults?

Max kisses a dumbfounded Chloe, and the game frames it as a dare and nothing more. Max laughs as if she pulled a "gotcha!" on Chloe.

Much of the dialogue in Life is Strange has sounded like it was written by dads trying to understand their teenage daughters. That's why I'm not sure these moments are supposed to be telling the audience Max and Chloe are interested in each other. If this were a straight couple, you can bet people would be declaring this to be canon.

For many of us, kissing is extremely intimate. After all, you're physically close enough to smell each other and taste each other's saliva. I think there are very few people who would kiss each other without it communicating physical and emotional closeness or desire. For it to be treated as a "haha, gotcha!" moment is insulting. However, if you talk to Chloe after the kiss but before moving on downstairs to get breakfast, Chloe says, "You better not rewind and take that kiss back." Chloe says nobody's good enough for Max... except for herself.

This sounds anything but a platonic relationship, at least from Chloe's end. Maybe the writers will pleasantly surprise me.

I hope episodes 4 and 5 will explore their relationship with that in mind. Will these two eventually date because of my decision? I really can't tell, but I hope this wasn't a throwaway moment because we need to see greater representation for women who aren't heterosexual or heteroromantic. So far Life is Strange has shown us Chloe has been interested in men, Rachel had some kind of close relationship with a drug dealer she and Chloe knew, and all of Max's classmates insist her friend Warren has a big crush on her. I can only hope at least one of these women will have a confirmed relationship with another woman. And I hope one day we'll have enough representation in media that it won't feel like I have to back myself up on the existence of these relationships whereas straight relationships are assumed to be canon.

For now, the "word of God" has stated the relationships in the game are ambiguous. Ambiguity can be interesting, but ambiguous relationships that aren't heteronormative get talked down as if they're the product of people trying to make something "more gay." I really wish relationships between people of the same gender didn't have to be depicted with a million metaphorical fingers pointing at it to make it obvious, but we're still at a point where people think two girls kissing means those girls are close friends.

And this isn't even me getting into the politics of relationships in terms of age differences, which I may talk about in the future depending on what happens in the next two episodes for a certain teacher in the school.

Second-hand Embarrassment, High School, and Life is Strange's Max Caulfield

In my junior year high school yearbook, I scribbled over the faces of a few people with whom I was in a feud. So few people have seen this yearbook because I was so embarrassed about my behavior that I threw it out halfway through senior year.

High school was embarrassing for most of us -- if not all of us. Even people who seemed to "have it all" in high school -- the stereotype of being on a sports team, being in a relationship, having good grades, etc. -- probably look back on their four years of high school with some level of shame. Or at least I hope those people, some of whom I knew to have harmful views of students from poorer areas, will one day be hands-over-the-face "I can't believe I said those things" level of embarrassment.

Even today I put my foot in my mouth. I frequently wish I could rewind a couple seconds and take back something I said. In the game Life is Strange, you can do just that.

Max Caulfield (possibly named with Catcher in the Rye's Holden Caulfield in mind) is a 12th grade student attending a school away from home to focus on her photography. Max makes lame jokes, worries about giving the wrong answer in class, and is trying to navigate a space where the right decision is unclear. I was -- and am -- a lot like her.

Max gains the power to rewind time, and as the player you can use it in mundane ways. Embarrass yourself in front of your favorite (and possibly even cute) teacher? Rewind time and give the right answer. Max even uses her power in a convoluted manner to spill paint on a girl who refuses to move, blocking Max's entrance to the dormitory.

I don't want to actually go back in time to change big things I did. I'm embarrassed that my friend and I didn't speak to each other for two years because of some disagreement we don't even remember anymore. I still remember in vivid detail a Sociology class assignment where we had to describe what our ideal date would be, and mine had a ton of unintended sexual puns. Our teacher read each date aloud with no indication of who wrote them, but the laughter over mine made me more flushed than usual.

But as you find out in Life is Strange, sometimes there isn't actually a correct choice. Because the game limits how much you can rewind, you can only amend your decision shortly after the choice is presented and you see the immediate consequences. You have no way of knowing how your choices will affect things in the long-term. Sometimes both options suck. For example, when you're presented the opportunity to tell the principal of the school a student brought a gun to school, informing the principal means drawing undue attention to yourself as the principal doesn't believe you. But if you don't tell the principal what happened, he may suspect you of causing trouble. Either way, it sucks. The real point of rewinding time and considering your options before sticking with one is the act of deciding.

Even with special powers, there's not much Max can do. Being in high school tends to be a mix of feeling like you're untouchable and feeling like you lack control of your life. Max can go back in time to change a decision she made, but she only has so much of an influence. I did not feel powerful hiding in a closet when the stepfather of Max's friend hit his stepdaughter.

It was the little things that made me happy I could go make things better. After watching a classmate get hit in the back of a head with a stray football, you can go back in time and warn her to move.

If there's anything I want after playing the first chapter of Life is Strange it's reconciliation between Max and Victoria, the girl who tries to embarrass Max in class and refuses to move from in front of the dorm's entrance. Their squabbling is so annoying to watch, but it's also so typical of the dumb fights I had in school. The game tries to present Victoria as the "mean girl" at Blackwell Academy, but both she and Max fall into the same girl-hate trap of trying to be better than the other. There's healthy competition for a photography contest and then there's blatant rudeness. I encountered my share of rude classmates in school who didn't like me for reasons I still don't know, but most of the time fights are blown out of misconceptions, miscommunication, and hurt feelings. I had hope when I tried to comfort Victoria after rewinding time to set up a convoluted plan to spill paint on her. Victoria softened, and she and Max got along for a moment. And yet when the scene was over, Max wondered whether Victoria was just trying to humiliate her further. Max wanted me to go back in time and say something mean to her instead. In the heat of the moment I've misinterpreted something a person has said into an insult, and Max just doesn't understand how embarrassing her fight with Victoria is.

I don't want to go back and totally change the things that led to fights with my friends because reflecting on it helped me mature and learn how to apologize. But I would have appreciated a greater sense of reasoning out my actions and thinking about the consequences. Rewinding time isn't a mighty power in Life is Strange; it's hard to see in the moment how your decisions will affect other people.

Chapter 2 of Life is Strange is out later this month.