LGBTQ+ representation, while much more widespread in 2021, still suffers from the same issues it did in 1980.
I fully did not intend to write that. When I thought about putting together a piece for Pride month this year, I originally intended it to be a celebration. I wanted to provide a benchmark for our progress and highlight advances in LGBTQ+ representation in gaming.
It has been more than 50 years since the initial riot at New York City’s Stonewall Inn that helped spark the gay liberation movement — and we’ve accomplished quite a bit in that time. The youngest of us can look around and find queerness where the oldest never dreamed it would be. Still, however, that presence feels tarnished by one of the oldest and insidiously upsetting tropes of our time: “bury your gays.”
The Litany of Digital Tombstones
As several internet excavators have stated before me, the first homosexual characters in gaming were Vivian and Deirdre from the 1984 title Moonmist. Aside from being the classic negative take on gay vs. straight relationships — Vivian luring Deirdre from her husband — Deirdre is dead at the start of the game.
Somehow, that hasn’t improved much through the years. Mass Effect 3’s Steve Cortez —one of only two canonically gay characters in the entire franchise — is mourning his husband when players meet him for the first time. Life is Strange took a stab at a same-sex relationship only for most of the community to deem the "true" ending to be where Chloe (and Rachel, for that matter) is both queer and sacrificed to protect the town.
BioWare’s flagship medieval fantasy RPG, Dragon Age, has quite a few LGBTQ+ characters who suffer from a similar trope. Anders’ story is egregiously tragic. Dorian and Leliana’s plot lines are marred with heartache. Celene of Orlais has her relationship torn asunder by war, betrayal, and potential assassination. It seems as though the only party placing interest in the genuine happiness of queer players are themselves through the extensive modding scene.
Not even recent releases are safe. The Last of Us featured both LGBTQ+ NPCs in the first title and the protagonist, Ellie, in a later DLC suffering through the loss of their loved ones.
There's also no forgetting about the plethora of transgender characters who, if not already "too taboo" for the material to address properly, are promptly done away with for one reason or another. Or, perhaps worse, never acknowledged beyond the bones thrown at fan communities in the name of social capital.
So, all this begs the question: if queerness is stated in the lore, but no players are around to see it, does it actually leave an impact?
Erasure v.s. Invisibility
In a piece published in 2018 by Sam Greer, a writer for Gamesradar, Greer concluded that only 179 games featured LGBTQ+ characters — or, really, queerness in any form.
“Of those 179 games, only 83 have queer characters who are playable. And of those, only eight feature a main character who is pre-written as queer as opposed to them being queer as an option. Just eight." He wrote.
That, it seems, is the bandaid developers are content placing over the graveyard of LGBTQ+ characters’ happiness or lives as a whole. If a character can potentially be part of the LGBTQ+ community then, surely, that must be enough. Queer on a technicality still counts, right?
Unfortunately, no. Simply allowing the player to be themselves through a controlled protagonist isn’t true representation. What does it matter if I play Kassandra from Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey as a lesbian when another player (and the game, as we would eventually come to learn, via DLC) can pair her with a man and call it canon?
The absence of a sexual orientation doesn’t automatically make a character homosexual or heterosexual. Using the same example: Kassandra isn’t a lesbian in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey just because I choose to play her as one — not when those decisions can be erased with a new save file and certainly not when it’s so interchangeable. Her sexuality makes an even smaller impact on the gameplay than its absence.
“Playersexual,” as Micheal Deakin, a writer for Gayming Magazine, called it, is not a replacement for queerness due to the simple fact that it is not queerness.
On the Bright Side...
LGBTQ+ representation is steadily improving across the board in combating both erasure and unnecessary suffering. For all its flaws, CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077 has romance options locked by the player’s gender and presentation—effectively giving those NPCs a sexual orientation. It even allows the player to choose a "doll" rather than just pairing them up with the opposite body type provided.
Riot Games recently confirmed a long-standing fan theory in League of Legends that two playable female characters, Diana and Leona, were lovers. Sure, they may be locked in an eternal battle as two sides of the same sky, but at least they’re both still alive and have some semblance of fulfillment. Right, Riot?
Not to mention the reveal of Alchemy in The Elder Scrolls Online: Summerset as gaming’s First Lady of canonical transgender characters in MMO’s. Tons of explicitly LGBTQ+ games are flooding into the market as we speak and receiving high praise from their audiences. Queer characters in games who are actually, irrevocably queer are finally making their way into the limelight.
It’s not too much to ask for a few more Samantha Traynors willing to shut down male advances in the gaming world — or for them to actually make it to the end of the game at all.