There’s a moment in the fourth episode of Telltale Games’ Tales from the Borderlands when protagonist Rhys disguises himself as the cocky, hypermasculine douche bag executive Hugo Vasquez. Rhys has everything he needs to play the part, from the pressed suit to the gold pinky ring, and in an effort to blend in in his new role as a corporate scumbag, he has the option to ask two guards, “Sup ladies? What you been doing? Talkin’ about boys?”
Telltale’s signature style of games often gives players multiple dialogue options to choose from. Someone told me that when it comes to shaping your dialogue decisions in these games, if you don’t go with the in-character choice, you should go with the funny one. There were a few other choices in that particular dialogue exchange but most people I talked to made this one because it was the funniest. It was the most likely thing Rhys would say while impersonating an executive at a company that is known for destroying towns and killing civilians. He’s playing a stereotypical corporate jerk and that’s the kind of thing one would say—at least, according to tradition.
However, even better is the response from the guards: “No. Just discussing casual misogynism and how it manifests in corporate executives,” one of them replies, followed by, “And boys—Captain’s brother is finally marrying his boyfriend.”
In this exchange, Telltale was able to utilize the humor inherent in Gearbox’s Borderlands franchise, from which Tales of the Borderlands is a spin-off, to invoke satire in regards to itself. The Borderlands games are not known for their progressive portrayals regarding gender roles, even if the developers have created some three-dimensional female characters as the games continued. The development team points out that the kind of masculinity Rhys is imitating is almost hilarious in how ridiculously sexist it is.
What “Tales” points out then are the issues with the other side of the gender equation. It’s not just that games lacks many female protagonists; they also don’t often feature men that aren’t stereotypically “masculine.” The Borderlands franchise has generically macho depictions of its male protagonists, whether it’s the hyper-muscular Brick or the chiseled, strong soldier class in Roland or Axton. This doesn’t differ that much from other mainstream games, which include our Nathan Drakes (Uncharted) and Adam Jensens (Deus Ex), usually looked at as the standards of male characters in gaming. But what about Rhys? Where are the men that are considered more in tune with the real world?
According to “real world men,” they’re not really in our media. There is less of a wide range of different personas and more of the same: macho, muscular, sometimes perverted guys, said Keith Richman, the CEO of Break Media, in 2012. In a study Break released that year, Richman noted that, “while this may have historically been true, what our results showed is that these characterizations aren’t reflecting the behavior and aspirations of today’s men.”
Citing Richman and the survey, how men view themselves differs greatly from these stereotypes. Those polled described themselves as “good-hearted,” “a good friend” and “well-rounded,” as opposed to “stylish” and “good in bed” on a list of 12 characteristics, according to a Forbes article on the survey. If men want to see themselves as something other than typical masculine depictions in media, they’re going to have to look harder than they would like.
This is hard in Western games especially, where the personality types range from the silent and tough Gordon Freeman in Half-Life to the talkative and tough Marcus Fenix in Gears of War. He’s typically either a silent protagonist or a beefy, macho soldier in the midst of ultra violence. There are exceptions to the rule, and in different countries the standards of masculinity might differ. Japanese games, for example, often feature tall, slender, boyish types, but when it comes to standard character types depicted in each culture, there is very little variety.
Going off of the Borderlands games that came before it, Tales from the Borderlands takes a chance with Rhys and Vaughn, its two male heroes. They’re not masculine, according to society’s terms. The people who get promotions and get ahead at Hyperion are those like Vasquez and the villain Handsome Jack—ruthless, sociopathic killers with narrow goals who engage in violence without a second thought (one of the first things we hear about Vasquez doing is shooting a person out of an airlock into the vacuum of space). Rhys, while starting off the game wanting to be like Handsome Jack, can’t handle the responsibility. Jack, Vasquez, and other characters see him as a wimp. Even with having Handsome Jack in his head giving him advice, he often becomes the victim of physical or verbal abuse and can’t follow down the same path.
The seeming lack of masculinity is even depicted in Rhys’ physical appearance. Vasquez wears a nice suit and is able to afford hair implants to smooth out his appearance. Scrawny Rhys wears a vest and mismatched pants. He’s not a fighter either. He can’t hold his own in battle and ends up having to either run away or get rescued by Loaderbot, a battle mech who takes out most of the enemies for him. In the first two or three episodes, he is incapable of taking care of himself, let alone being a hero to others.
Vaughn is considered even less of a man. He’s portrayed at first as small and skinny (he’s revealed to be in very good shape later, but I’ll get to that in a bit). He wears glasses and cowers out of violent or tense situations, something of an issue when you’re stuck on Pandora, a planet known for its guns, psychos and explosions. The two protagonists, when first on Pandora, find themselves out of their element and quickly become overwhelmed by the environment and the people, who often play to this more common picture of masculinity.
This works in contrast to the personalities of the other two leads, Sasha and Fiona. As just two of the female characters in the game, they act as the more manly members of the group of four. Or, at the very least, the least generally feminine. Sasha, for example, is a gun fanatic, headstrong, and fearless. Both she and Fiona don’t always think before running into dangerous situations and often put themselves at risk to get a job done. Their influence is what gets Rhys and Vaughn through the first few episodes alive. They were raised in Pandora’s environment and therefore conform to it.
The problem though is evident In the first two episodes, where Rhys and Vaughn’s meekness is played off for comedy, acting as a counterpoint to Fiona and Sasha. We’re supposed to laugh at how inept the two Hyperion fugitives are, how they can’t hold a gun, or how they manage to screw up every situation they run into. They have what many people would call a “bromance,” but even that is made it into a joke when, in a hilarious moment, Fiona, as unreliable narrator, recalls a moment when they just called each other “bro” for about two minutes straight.
It’s after these initial situations that Rhys and Vaughn are able to grow into their own people apart from their weaknesses. It’s shocking to find that Vaughn, when he takes off his shirt, is ripped and sinewy, and thus more “masculine” than we thought. Meanwhile the more Handsome Jack tries to manipulate Rhys, the more our protagonist rebels and becomes determined to not become like his former hero. While Jack tells him that he has no choice but to be ruthless and stoic, Rhys asserts that he will find another way to exist on Pandora. Vaughn goes on to lead a pack of Hyperion refugees, not only becoming a leader to others, but a man on his own terms.
In Tales From the Borderlands Rhys and Vaughn are atypical men as compared to others in the “Borderlands” universe, so it’s a shame that Telltale plays them mainly for laughs in the first two episodes. This is rectified over the course of the second half, with the two men discovering ways that they can be independent and taking charge against the systems that demeaned them. They become “men” in this regard.
Telltale has given players two male characters that don’t conform to generic masculine character types. Putting the comedy of the early situations aside, it’s refreshing to see. Rhys and Vaughn aren’t drawn like a video game power fantasy, with inhumanly broad shoulders and square jaws. There isn’t that combat experience or the sexual prowess. They are two dudes caught in an unfamiliar situation who have to grow to detach themselves not only from a broken capitalist system, but also from a dangerously masculine one—and they succeed.
Carli Velocci is a pop culture and technology writer in Boston. When not working on her webzine Postmortem Mag, she’s writing for places such as Paste Magazine, Motherboard, and others. You can find her on Twitter @velocciraptor.
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