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.

Comments

It's always a joy when characters are allowed to be humans instead of stereotypes.

You know, I've been wanting to load this game back up and run through it again for the last two years, and this may make me do it. For those who haven't yet experienced its subtle pleasures, you can buy it at GoG for $5.99 (Certis — is that referral link correct?). Then, go talk about it and other wonderful adventure games both classic and new in this thread.

Excellent piece, Rob.

Minarchist wrote:

You know, I've been wanting to load this game back up and run through it again for the last two years, and this may make me do it. For those who haven't yet experienced its subtle pleasures, you can buy it at GoG for $5.99 (Certis — is that referral link correct?). Then, go talk about it and other wonderful adventure games both classic and new in this thread. :D

I popped in to make the same point about The Last Express being up on GoG Great piece, makes we want to revisit the game.

Rob very astutely wrote:

So many gay characters across all media are defined by their sexuality, and it is the catalyst for almost all their conflicts.

Ding ding ding! Without getting into the politics of homosexuality, I think the vast majority of media inadvertently do the gay community a HUGE disservice by doing exactly this.

Very well put. I'll add my +1 to the whole making sexual orientation one part of the many faceted whole. Stories are so much richer.

I cannot express what an awesome piece of prose this is Rob.

Beautifully explored. Lovely.

Just throwing in with my admiration of the article. I've got to play with game, now.

Kannon wrote:

Just throwing in with my admiration of the article. I've got to play with game, now.

+1

Beautiful writing, Rob.

I hate well written articles about adventure games. They always make me go play the game, only for me to hit up against some arbitrary roadblock that expects me to know to use the honey to stick the pigeon to the balloon and I stall out.

So, umm yeah. Beautifully written piece Rob.

Great piece. Written simply and directly but also so captivating that I was just pulled through from beginning to end. The only criticism I can lobby is at the irony that an article about lesbians has spawned a comment thread full of something that sounds like felicitation.

Wow, thanks for writing that, Rob. I never had the chance to play the game, and I'd always heard it was really good. After reading that, something tells me that there's a lot to mine from the game in terms of story and character, and I need to put some time into it post-haste.

I haven't played TLE, but one thing I liked about your description was how subtle the characters were. There's no hitting you over the head with it so you know every facet of their personality the moment you lay eyes and ears on them, but the information is there to find and piece together.

I think Rob just sold a sh*t load (*) more copies of The Last Express. Someone pay him royalties.

(*) By sh*t load, I mean something along the lines of a baker's dozen, since TLE doesn't have enough modern warfare in it to be sold by the truckload.

One of the characters in Southland was recently revealed as being gay, in a throw-away scene so brief that if you looked away for just a moment you may have missed it. No later references, no discussion, no related conflicts. A character with far more pronounced traits that define him than just his sexuality.

Quintin_Stone wrote:

One of the characters in Southland was recently revealed as being gay, in a throw-away scene so brief that if you looked away for just a moment you may have missed it. No later references, no discussion, no related conflicts. A character with far more pronounced traits that define him than just his sexuality.

I don't watch that show, but I caught an episode...I think it was this past weekend? Was the character

Spoiler:

one of the male cops...blondeish hair? If so, I know what you mean. First time I see him, he's getting out of bed with a dude after some...interesting sound effects, and then no reference to it at all for the rest of the show, to the point I assumed his homosexuality had already been established earlier in the series.

Mytch wrote:

I don't watch that show, but I caught an episode...I think it was this past weekend? Was the character

Spoiler:

one of the male cops...blondeish hair? If so, I know what you mean. First time I see him, he's getting out of bed with a dude after some...interesting sound effects, and then no reference to it at all for the rest of the show, to the point I assumed his homosexuality had already been established earlier in the series.

Yes. AFAIK, that was the only time any reference was made, ever.

Mytch wrote:
Quintin_Stone wrote:

One of the characters in Southland was recently revealed as being gay, in a throw-away scene so brief that if you looked away for just a moment you may have missed it. No later references, no discussion, no related conflicts. A character with far more pronounced traits that define him than just his sexuality.

I don't watch that show, but I caught an episode...I think it was this past weekend? Was the character

Spoiler:

one of the male cops...blondeish hair? If so, I know what you mean. First time I see him, he's getting out of bed with a dude after some...interesting sound effects, and then no reference to it at all for the rest of the show, to the point I assumed his homosexuality had already been established earlier in the series.

I think they actually hinted at it in the first or second season, in another very subtle way (when he was buying drugs in a club bathroom, I believe). I was impressed with how they handled it in the new episode.

Great article, Rob.

The Women in Compartment E sounds like one of those randy horror films starring nubile female cast members from Glee, Gossip Girl, and the like. Get cracking on that script, Zachny!

Quintin_Stone wrote:

One of the characters in Southland was recently revealed as being gay, in a throw-away scene so brief that if you looked away for just a moment you may have missed it. No later references, no discussion, no related conflicts. A character with far more pronounced traits that define him than just his sexuality.

The Wire did something similar with

Spoiler:

Rawls. There's just that one brief scene where he's hanging out in a gay bar.

Muttonchop, I always thought we would get more on that but it never came up. Even Omar and Kima weren't particularly defined by their sexuality. Although Kima's later situation was pretty specific to a lesbian couple.

muttonchop wrote:
Quintin_Stone wrote:

One of the characters in Southland was recently revealed as being gay, in a throw-away scene so brief that if you looked away for just a moment you may have missed it. No later references, no discussion, no related conflicts. A character with far more pronounced traits that define him than just his sexuality.

The Wire did something similar with

Spoiler:

Rawls. There's just that one brief scene where he's hanging out in a gay bar.

If Chicago Code has taught me anything so far, it's that skin color and sexual orientation mean far less than where you fall on the Sox–Cubs divide. I think that's something we can all agree on.

Great piece. Games as a whole will be much richer when the women in compartment E and the Grace Holloways from Bioshock 2 become the norm. Cultural references can only enrich the story.

Not to pile on, but: great piece.

I really loved this game. I'm sure most people here already know of it, but there is also that long Chris Remo piece about the making of the game. Also fantastic. TLE is really one of the most beautiful games made. I wish someone would pick up that thread and run with it.

wordsmythe wrote:

If Chicago Code has taught me anything so far, it's that skin color and sexual orientation mean far less than where you fall on the Sox–Cubs divide. I think that's something we can all agree on.

+1

Oh! And +1 on the great article Rob. My interest has been piqued by this game since I read about its re-release but I don't sit in front of my computer to play games enough to pull the trigger. For $6 though, I probably should just do it.

I would be totally down to read more about it, though.

I had already been waffling on adding The Last Express to my ever-growing GOG pile of classic adventure games, but consider this write-up reason enough for me to get it. That sounds awesome -- particularly as an understated sub-thematic element to the game. If the rest of the game carries that much care and consideration, then I'm in for a treat, it seems.

Rise thread! Get with the times! The iOS version of The Last Express comes out in mere days!!

trailer!