Video game stories are far from perfect. If it's not a gameplay issue, it's usually a crappy story keeping you from getting immersed in the action. Sometimes stories aren't bad because the writing is terrible so much as they are bad because they don't understand the environment in which they operate. This happens a lot when we're talking about the south of the United States.
Let's Dive Into The Turbulent Relationship Between Fiction And The Southern United States
Despite the apparent lack of finesse, we continue to see #VideoGames take on this loaded setting. The amount seems to increase as time goes on (The Last of Us, Resident Evil 7, Mafia 3, The Walking Dead, Virginia and so on) as if the South and its history has been recognized as some sort of untapped potential in storytelling. That's not necessarily wrong, but the approach so far certainly has been.
Fiction's Got Beef With The South
Everybody's South is a little different. While mine had the same abundance of fried food, sweet beaches, wide open fields and barbecues that others love and enjoy—my version of the South also featured boyfriends afraid to take me home to their parents, shoes thrown at interracial couples in the halls and friends that showered me with praises like "You're not as black the rest of them," and "We love you because you're an Oreo!"
It certainly took me a while before I realized that there were parts of the South that made it special outside of the rampant adherence to "traditional values" that tends to produce this behavior. It's never as black-and-white as it seems! But you wouldn't believe that if all you ever saw of the South was what you see in games or even on television.
In fiction, the South and its people have consistently represented the antithesis of progress. This kind of thing simply does not happen with larger cities elsewhere. New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago—while fairly homogenized—have never been defined by this apparent resilience to progressive thought and the complexities therein.
How did we get here and where is the middle ground?
The South Tends To Be A Bit Backwards
Digital Visitors: Mafia III & Virginia
The South has this reputation of being where progress goes to die—or at least where it goes to sleep. The passage of time has slowed or stopped and people are still walking around enjoying life in its so-called purest moments. In stories, the cost of this purity is often transparency—there are secrets hidden in the corners and behind closed doors.
I grew up in North Carolina, a state that was nicknamed "The Rip Van Winkle State" in the early 19th century. We always made jokes about how we never really shook that judgment, but as I got older, I realized that it was more and more likely that we hadn't and things got to be a little less funny. This is only one side.
There is a contentment in these spaces that doesn't always yield the backwards or half-baked negativity that has defined most mainstream portrayals of the southern United States. That complacency has created a stability that reflects itself in the standard of living, education and cultural abundance that makes the South what it is. Unfortunately, sometimes, what it is seems to be too much.
But The South Is More Often Terribly Dangerous
Digital Visitors: The Walking Dead, Resident Evil 7, Left 4 Dead 2, Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened
The "backwards" narrative slowly gives way to one that (rather cheaply) relies heavily on what can only be described as hixploitation and the dangers of ignorance. Occasionally, this storytelling gesture is complemented by a clear perversion of "southern hospitality" that seems to permeate most popular fiction—think Marguerite Baker's fascination with serving you dinner in #ResidentEvil7 and her violent reactions to your "disrespectful" attempts to escape.
Remember the St. John family from season one of Telltale's #TheWalkingDead? When you first meet them, they are a symbol of humanity's deep capacity for kindness and generosity even in the midst of the apocalypse. The St. Johns invite you to a feast while you walk around their farm helping out and getting to know the men of the family. Turns out they're cannibals—they kill an injured member of your team to use as meat for the feast.
This lens facilitates the systematic dehumanization of southerners based on their degree of... well, southernness. The Baker Family was somehow vindicated by the late-game revelation that they were just good and normal people ruined by their chance encounter with Eveline. In that moment, Jack Baker spoke quietly with a softer accent and became instantly non-threatening. The Bakers were turned into people again, but not before they were "de-hicked". What gives, video game writers?
The Mythical & Fantastical South As A Breath Of Fresh Air
Digital Visitors: Gun, Red Dead Redemption, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
What are these places? These are the spaces that are usually somehow exempt from the majority's idea of what constitutes the South but, at the end of the day, are either regionally or conceptually identical by property of having underwent the same historical and ideological processes.
When all else fails, the conceptual re-imaginings of non-southern Southern spaces like Miami and Texas seem to fill the void. It's not hard to see where these interesting but convoluted depictions fall apart, but we continue to love them just the same.
Moving to Miami didn't instantly turn you into a drug lord and chances are, if you were a cowboy, you probably weren't white—but our fascination with these stories of a time that's passed reveal the capacity for stories with more depth and color.
The Confusion Isn't Specific To Video Games Either...
Mainstream television and film appear to suffer from the same issues when it comes to giving the South the right amount of depth in its depictions. Hollywood has truly approached the region from every angle imaginable. From The Color Purple to Spring Breakers—if you can think of the story, there is probably a film or show to match.
When all else fails, the conceptual re-imaginings of non-southern Southern spaces like Miami and Texas seem to fill the the South and its perpetual struggle with racial narratives. While, in the case of True Blood, it was more about vampires trying to find a way into day-to-day life—the obvious allegory was impossible to ignore. It was also highly reductive and populated with every southern caricature you can imagine.
We see our dangerous South pop up in a range of horror films in the spirit of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. We've also got plenty of historically accurate (and exaggerated) pieces of work to remind us that these ideas do have some support. Either way, it's hard to place the video game problem without keeping this precedent in mind. It shows us that there are moments when fiction does not have to be so wrong about the South as we know it.
What's It Like When It's Done Right?
That's not an easy question to answer. As with most spatially dependent stories, it depends on the story you are trying to tell and the time in which you are trying to tell it. Nevertheless, a commitment to acknowledging the complexity that there is in a way that generates more multi-dimensional interpretations of the South would make a difference in itself.
There simply has to be more sides to the story. Mafia III represents a step in the right direction on one end. Its depiction of racism in the 1960s is a valuable one that rarely ever makes a showing in modern fiction. But, as with most entities, there is also a side of the South that represents a great deal of good.
Where is all of that good? It's admittedly not lying there right on the surface but it's there—in the music that was born in the swamps and in the food that first found its footing on the stoves of slaves. There are many historical greats that got their start by adopting those "evil" southern values in the best ways they knew how.
We can find the good, pair it with the bad and—next time around—tell the whole story. We'll tell it again and again until the "hicks" have met their match in every other shade of southerner that the creative world has to offer.
Does the South deserve a second chance in our video games?