Comic Books and Soap Operas
Just over a month ago, Robert Kirkman sat down for an interview on BBC America to discuss what makes his series The Walking Dead a transmedia success. Amid groans and jokes from other men on set, Kirkman spoke about his series for what it is: a soap opera. He explained that “Twilight is to Dracula as The Walking Dead is to Romero movies. I’m the Stephanie Meyer of Zombies. I watched Romero movies and I was like, yeah, but what if they had more kissing?” (BBC). Kirkman agued that it isn’t the zombies that make his comics and show so popular, but rather the traditional soap opera elements such as romance, betrayal, and sex. The zombies are merely the backdrop, the fictional conditions which make the show and the comic socially acceptable to like.
In the years before watching this interview, I had drawn similar conclusions while following the series. The comics’ driving conflict has little to do with the titular hordes of the undead (though they remain ever-present), and instead relies on typical narrative tropes of romantic melodrama and relationships through its one hundred-plus cast. The story is ripe with lies, love, murder, sex, cheating, pregnancy, jealousy, mental illness, friendship, family, sickness, and mourning. The Walking Dead comic privileges human contact over all else, and it is as much about sex and romance as about the shambling horrors and the apocalyptic milieu. Like in many post-apocalyptic narratives, the characters are visibly concerned about finding food, shelter, and weapons, but these details are mechanical rather than pivotal to The Walking Dead’s thematic interests; the primary concern is instead attaining and sustaining human contact.
In narratives of survival we tend to buy into an idea that surviving is the chief reward in itself. Yet in Kirkman’s world the characters only live — only desire to survive — if they have something, specifically someone, for whom to keep living. In The Walking Dead comic, this reason for carrying on becomes the sexual partner, and this character interaction is the primary reason to keep reading. As the story progresses, almost every character in the comic partakes in coupling at some point, and every character without a partner is constantly on the lookout for another survivor who could function in this role.
Interestingly enough, the coupling and sex therein functions as a type of post-apocalyptic survival technique. Sexual intimacy becomes the most readily available and effective form of comfort for the characters. Instead of using the commonly employed trope of increased conservatism in a dystopian climate, sexual interaction becomes much more frequent, accessible, and necessary. Many characters realize that tomorrow might never come, so they may as well enjoy their todays as much as possible. If one isn’t sufficiently “living” as a sexual or romantic being, then he or she may as well be one of the zombies. Thus, those in the community actively having sex are those that remain furthest from the dead in a psychological, existential sense. For more examples of these recurring themes in The Walking Dead comics, check out my blog post at Get Some Action Comics.
Considering the importance of relationships in the comic series, you can guess my expectations going into Telltale Games’ iteration. I knew it wasn’t a direct adaptation, but I was expecting there to be similar types of sexual and romantic interactions between characters. The interactions between the characters, and the decisions you’re asked to make, feel extremely important, and seriously change the experience of the story even though the decisions don’t really change the gameplay itself. In many ways, the game creates emotional connections between consumer and product much more effectively than the television series, and almost as effectively as the comic. But oddly, romantic and sexual relationships are largely absent. Despite believing that the game deserves every one of the 80 game of the year awards it received, I couldn’t help but wonder while playing, “where is all the sex?”
I think that The Walking Dead game works as a prime example for discussing why there is so little sex in video games for two reasons, First, because of its relationship to other transmedia renditions of The Walking Dead, most specifically its source comic, which contains abundant amounts of sex and romance. And second, because sex and romance could have been so easily incorporated into the narrative and ludic structures of the game. Even though sex and love are vital components of human existence, I understand that many video games do not include sex because it might be unnecessary to the storyline, or just extremely out of place. But Telltale’s The Walking Dead is a great example of a game in which a romantic or sexual subplot could have been easily incorporated and used to tell an even more compelling story than the one that I played.
What’s this game about?
The Walking Dead is a point and click adventure game in which the gameplay focuses around talking to characters and making decisions that affect others. These decisions could be as mundane as “should I lie or tell the truth?”, or as dramatic as, “who lives and who dies?” Like more traditional adventure games, there are puzzles to solve and tasks to accomplish. Yet, more in the vein of traditional dating sims, the game’s emphasis is not on the end goal, but instead on the relationships that you foster during gameplay. The protagonist and player’s avatar is professor Lee Everett, who had been convicted of murdering a state senator who was sleeping with his wife. The zombie apocalypse breaks out as Lee is being transported to jail; he subsequently escapes, and soon stumbles upon a young girl who needs his help named Clementine. The rest of the game focuses around Lee’s attempts to protect Clementine from the world’s threats both living and dead.
The Walking Dead is primarily about human interaction, but players do not get to pursue romantic relationships with other characters the way they would in Mass Effect or Dragon Age. Furthermore, the dialogue trees are set up as if sex or sexual attraction plays no part in the decisions you do make. The player may (myself included) make some decisions based on what characters you think may be romanceable. For example, the first decision Lee makes is between saving Carley who later kisses him on the cheek, and Doug who is smart and likable, but not very helpful to the group later on. Because I assumed Carley would be one of the few romance options, I saved her without hesitation, which means Doug was dragged out of a window and eaten by zombies. In the end, my decision was misguided because at no time in the game do you have the option to engage in a romance either way.
If these games are about human interaction then why are there no choices presented for the player in which to engage in healthy, consensual, adult sexual interaction? Would this not develop further identification and attachment with the characters, or increase the indulgence and tension of the game? More broadly, are we purposely leaving a blind spot in otherwise complicated and successful narratives because we aren’t sure how to depict sex in video games?
Children and Family Dynamics
Throughout the game Lee and Clementine run into a variety of other characters who join them, forming a larger group of survivors. Because Clementine’s family is presumably dead, Lee becomes her post-apocalyptic parent and caretaker. Many other characters in the game also form similar family dynamics. For example, the player meets farm owner Hershel and his various children, a married couple with a young son named Duck, the St. Johns family living on yet another farm, as well as Omid and Christa, a young pregnant couple. The dynamic of survival within the universe of The Walking Dead totally changes because of these familial relationships.
All the importance and pressure that was put on sexual and/or romantic relationships to perpetuate the story line in the comic, has instead been placed on familial relationships within the game. This same desire to find a “someone” and a reason to keep on living is still in place in this narrative, but instead of a sexual partner being the most desirable resource, the most desirable resource becomes children. Indeed, throughout the game countless characters attempt to kidnap Clementine or try to take her away from Lee, and this becomes a key source of both narrative and ludic tension.
In The Walking Dead comic series, characters often treat their children as an afterthought. For example, one character Carol repeatedly tries to kill herself until she succeeds after she finds out that her partner Tyresse is cheating on her. Carol has a young daughter named Sophia, whom she willingly abandons to the larger group of survivors. However, in the game we see family and children as being privileged above all else; the player’s attachment to Clementine is so primary that it overwrites your attachments to all other characters. Consider these fan created memes, which demonstrate the powerful attachment players felt to Clementine.
Just Add the Sex in Yourself!?
In her article “The Strange Case of the Misappearance of Sex in Video Games” Tanya Krzywinska explains that she is not simply interested in sexual representation in video games but also the larger sexual themes. She explains that “games shouldn’t be measured simply by the use of explicit sexual imagery. Broader concepts of sex, sexuality and desire, using models that address the complexity of human sexuality, must be considered” (144). Many games include explicit sexual imagery yet very few have the potential to address the complexity of human sexuality. For many games, creating realistic sexual interaction would be difficult because the objectives of the game have little to do with character building or interaction between players and NPCs.
Krzywinska goes on to point out this irony, explaining that “we often see in games bodies that seem tailor-made for pornography, yet often these game bodies actively avoid sex – even where it might be a logical outcome of a relationship” (146). Though I would not say that any of the characters within The Walking Dead are “pornographic,” I do feel this tension within the game. Lee Everett is built from the ground up to be a very desirable post-apocalyptic mate; he is an attractive man who, as a university professor, one assumes is of higher-than-average intelligence; he is very kind and thoughtful and willing to risk anything for Clementine despite the fact that she is not his child. Lee’s only “undesirable” characteristic is the fact that he is a convicted killer. Yet in the post-apocalyptic world this characteristic is actually not undesirable. The ability to kill others without hesitation or remorse is a skill that is needed in this world as the human threat is frequently worse then the zombie threat. Despite all of this Lee’s game body does in fact “actively avoid sex.”
There were many moments in The Walking Dead game in which I genuinely felt that it was more awkward not to include sex and/or romance than it was to include it. For example, the couples that do exist within the game do not really give off any impression of romantic attachment. There are only two clear couples within the game and they are never seen touching or interacting, even though one of them is later revealed to be pregnant. There are three specific characters that I felt Lee becomes close enough to that he could have pursued a sexual relationship: Carly, Lily, and Mark. Again, a romance is hinted at with Carly, but although I initially saw Lily and Mark as romance options, Lee never has the option to flirt with either character.
Telltale is lauded for crafting endearing, character-driven plots, and The Walking Dead contains complex and well designed characters whose interactions could very much address the complexity of human sexuality. But instead, these characters seem to actively avoid sexual interaction. Despite (or possibly because of) the lack of romance fans have gone further in their meme creation to imagine the relationships that could have been.
Why is this important?
Perhaps you are wondering “why is it important that there is sex in video games?” From my perspective, in which I examine media from an intersectional, sex-positive feminist perspective, ignoring the existence of sex and sexuality leads to sexism just as much as ignoring the existence of gender and misogyny. Pretending that sex and sexuality don’t exist in movies, in books, in life, is only contributing to further sex-negativity. It would be beneficial for us to consume more media containing genuine, natural, and healthy sexual interactions instead of the sex negativity that is prevalent across most media in which women especially are often sexualized, but almost never depicted as sexual in an aggressive or equal sense in advertisements, film, and video games. Normalized consensual depictions of diverse and enjoyable sex help to perpetuate equal gender roles, and comfort with expressions of sexuality.
We know now that sex in games can work as Bioware has convincingly demonstrated. Earlier this year Dragon Age’s senior writer David Gaider gave a talk entitled simply “Sex in Video Games.” In his talk he made many bold and important claims revolving around the changes that need to take place in the gaming industry in order to create more interesting and inclusive games not targeted solely at 18-25 year old white men. Gaider owns up to a sort of censorship of sexuality that took place in earlier games, claiming there was a lot of nervousness involved in including same-sex relationships in the map of romance possibilities. On the topic, Gaider claims, “the moment [BioWare] broached the subject of romance and sex, we were saying something about what was acceptable, and what was normal, and who we thought our audience was . . . We said that whether we wanted to say anything or not. We said it by virtue of what we included, as well as what we didn’t include. Those were statements” (PC Gamer).
I agree fully with Gaider in this statement. These inclusions and exclusions hold weight. Obviously, not every game needs to include sex in the same way that not every game needs to have a female and a male protagonist, but it would be nice to see more healthy female protagonists, and it would be progressive to see more depictions of healthy sex and sexuality as well. The inclusion or the purposeful exclusion of sex and romance is in fact a statement about gender and sexuality. Because of the history of The Walking Dead and because of Kirkman’s love for romance, I couldn’t help but read the exclusion of sex from this story line as a statement that sex, in the context of this game, was not considered- to use Gaider’s terms – “acceptable and normal.”
In conclusion, I’ve always considered The Walking Dead an indulgent narrative because of its ability to allow us to invest ourselves in the idea of a post-capitalist soap opera that includes wish fulfilling adult themes. It allows an indulgence in a world in which sexual relationships, and life in general have become simpler because of the forced participation in day to day survival. Living at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, all you have to do is try not to die. The sexless world of the game focuses on narratives of various families, leading me to believe that maybe this game is actually just as indulgent as the sexualized narrative of the comics but the desire is not for a partner, but for parenthood. I believe the popularity of apocalyptic narratives for generation Y and Z is very much based on our collective realization that capitalism is too prevalent to escape, leading to a desire for the world’s end.
At the same time, many members of today’s youth have started to realize the financial impossibility of responsible parenthood for many in this particular time period of overpopulation and economic doubt. Many young adults may want to have children but feel it is financially, and possibly ethically, irresponsible. The Walking Dead game sheds the comic’s narrative of searching for a partner in post-capitalist America and instead takes up the theme of finding a parental relationship in which every member of the “family” cares about nothing but protecting the children, and making sure they survive in order to carry out a lineage. Apocalyptic narratives are all about exploring the impossible, and Kirkman’s comic narrative is very much about being a better person in the “new world” than you were in the “real world” of the past. Logically, The Walking Dead game is about indulging in the possibility of parenthood at the end of the world. This again can be seen in fan created memes that have been shared around the internet that examine the maternal feelings that players felt for Clementine. Below is a meme created by one particular fan who claims that his paternal feelings for Clementine were so strong that he has completely reinterpreted his stance on fatherhood. For those who shared this meme, this indicates that it is easier to imagine parenthood at the end of the world, then it is in the one we currently live.
Kirkman, Robert, and Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard. The Walking Dead: Compendium One. Berkeley: Image Comics, 2011. Print.
Kirkman, Robert, and Charlie Adlard. The Walking Dead: Compendium Two. Berkeley: Image Comics, 2012. Print.
Krzywinska, Tanya. “The Strange Case of the Misappearance of Sex in Video Games”. Computer Games and New Media Cultures. New York: Springer, 2012. Print.
Wilde, Tyler.. “GDC 2013: BioWare’s David Gaider asks, “How about we just decide how not to repel women?”. PC Gamer. March 29th 2013. Web.