The Women in Compartment E
Why travel if you're going to worry about the same things as at home? You are free. You just don't know it yet. - Sophie de Bretheuill, The Last Express
The first time I played Jordan Mechner's The Last Express, I was struck by the strange friendship between two of its passengers, an Englishwoman named Rebecca and a Frenchwoman named Sophie. At first they just seemed like a couple college-age girls going on a summer holiday together, giggling at their elders, ogling the occasional boy, and manufacturing drama when conversation ran dry.
As young and inexperienced as I was, it took me a long time to realize they were gay. But The Last Express is so well written and nuanced in its characterizations that I understood far more about Rebecca and Sophie's relationships than I had words to express. I knew their friendship went deeper than most, and was complicated by jealousy and fear. But I did not quite know reasons.
I was barely fourteen when the game came out, and homosexuality was not yet a real concept for me. It was something you did not want to be, of course, if only because there was always some asshole who would try to tell everyone you were gay, or trick you into admitting you were. So then you would exasperatedly protest that no, you were not gay and no, you were not HIV positive. Beyond that, I did not particularly want to acknowledge the matter. In the Inquisitorial sexual politics of middle school, it was dangerous to contemplate heresies.
So I had a hard time identifying the lesbian couple in The Last Express, because they seemed so normal. Yet, as my character eavesdropped on their conversations during the long train ride across Europe, it got harder to dismiss the romantic undercurrents between them. On the second day of the journey, my ability to delude myself was severely strained by their quarrel, in which Rebecca seemed heartbroken at some slight from Sophie. Sophie had broken some kind of promise to Rebecca, who asked, almost tearfully, what had changed since Paris. Sophie shrugged, offering a non-explanation that sometimes her feelings just change, and it's no use asking why.
"Well that was weird," I thought.
Later, when I understood more, I felt bad for Rebecca. She seemed so shy and cautious, hesitant to engage with anyone but her best friend. She was always writing and watching, and I could recognize quite a bit of myself in her reserve. I did not think Rebecca had many friends, and now she had placed all her trust and hope in this flighty, reckless French girl as they left home behind. For Rebecca, the Orient Express was not taking her on a vacation with a friend, but bringing her the possibility of a new life and a new relationship.
But Sophie seemed like a bad bet. She was always changing the rules on Rebecca, and threatening to transfer her interest to someone else. The balance of power in their relationship clearly tipped heavily toward Sophie, and I knew that whenever they reached their destination, Rebecca would find that depressingly little had changed between them. For Rebecca, their trip was a chance to get away from the watchful eyes of friends and family, for the two of them to finally be together. It took a lot more time and more experience for me to understand Sophie's motivations.
For a long time, Sophie seemed like the daring adventurer. She was the capricious rebel who led Rebecca away from London and Paris to a more exotic life. She could be passionate, or she could be coldly pragmatic. But as I replayed The Last Express over the years, I started to see that her liberal attitudes and transgressive tastes extended no farther than her whims. Sophie gives every impression that whenever this romantic getaway with Rebecca concludes, she will proceed into the life prepared for her. She will marry well and live comfortably, and Rebecca will be nothing more than a youthful dalliance. An experience from before her real life began.
So many gay characters across all media are defined by their sexuality, and it is the catalyst for almost all their conflicts. But Mechner never stoops to making Rebecca and Sophie simply "the lesbian couple," or using their story for titillation. He doesn't rely on clichés. He places the issues of their sexual orientation in a complicated context of class and character. First and foremost, they are young women struggling with their identity, keenly aware that they have only so much time before they will be pushed into matches and trapped by the obligations of class. One of them is so reserved that a diary is her primary means of interacting with the world, while the other is more outgoing and confident. Now, to make matters all the more excruciating, they are in the process of converting their friendship to a relationship that might prove impossible.
Sophie and Rebecca are minor characters in The Last Express. They play no plot-essential role, and you can easily miss most of the story that plays out between them. But like everyone else in that game, these two incidental characters are in the midst of a story as interesting as your hero's. When I say that The Last Express is one of the greatest games ever made, their story is never far from my mind. There are entire worlds of experience contained in the 5 cars of The Last Express.