2017 has been an unusual year for the west. With Brexit negotiations due to reach a head in the coming months and president Trump causing controversy on a daily basis, it goes without saying that we are in a state of political chaos that hasn’t been seen in generations. There have been a number of resulting incidents of discrimination and ill-treatment of minorities which have sparked public outrage. It is for this reason that there is such a need to see diversity in the mainstream media, including videogames.
At present, the most notable studio for including LGBTQ+ characters in its games is Bioware, which saw its first lesbian companion character Juhani in Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic which launched in 2003. Since then, the company has received considerable public attention for its treatment of LGBTQ+ characters. This has prompted praise, such as with Dragon Age Inquisition, which featured Dorian, a ‘Tevinter’ (fictional region in the game) mage who also happened to be a gay male. Success with this portrayal came from the fact that, although being gay played a part in Dorian’s story, it did not wholly define his character, as it turns out being both from the Tevinter region and also an apostate mage are far more controversial issues in the Dragon Age universe. Inquisition also saw the inclusion of one of the only trans characters in a mainstream videogame; the character Crem supported a band of mercenaries known as the ‘Ben-Hassrath’. Crem was fleshed out and had a decent amount of screen time.
On the flip side, the company’s recent release – Mass Effect Andromeda has been criticised for its poor treatment of such minorities. The gay male romance companions have less screen time and design attention than the heterosexual pairings and there is a trans character whose writing was incredibly sloppy and insensitive, which has since been acknowledge and addressed by Bioware. Whilst these are perhaps by-products of an unpolished game and not hostile in intent, there was a strong fan reaction to such omissions which demonstrates the passion and demand for representation from a vocal LGBTQ+ gaming fanbase. Bioware’s history of including LGBTQ+ characters in its games has opened it up to enhanced scrutiny when it falls short in representation. As one of the only triple A studios with such a reputation, Bioware stands as an example to other games studios for how inclusion should be handled. It is for this reason that it must ensure that its representation of LGBTQ+ characters is done absolutely right.
The Last of Us is another recent example of a triple A developer including an LGBTQ+ character. In the game’s only downloadable content episode ‘Left Behind’, its protagonist Ellie shares an emotional kiss scene with her female best friend Riley. The DLC’s plot does not explicitly focus on sexuality but instead the strong relationship between the two in spite of the miserable post-apocalyptic setting. Whilst there is a case to be made that the writers played it safe by releasing this story as DLC and not part of the main game package, The Last of Us is an incredibly popular and commercially successful title and it is likely that this scene has received a large amount of exposure to a wide audience (and this has not hurt sales of the re-released PS4 version of the product or the dampened the immense hype for its upcoming sequel). There is hope then from this, that an LGBTQ+ sub-plot in a character-driven triple A title can succeed.
The products from Bioware and Naughty Dog represent the more recent examples of the western gaming industry’s treatment of LGBTQ+ characters, which are indicative of the shifting attitude towards acceptance and representation. In the past, treatment has been much less favourable, with LGBTQ+ characters typically portrayed as stereotypes for comedic or villainous purposes. This is far more common in Japanese titles, where gender-bending as a comedic tool has been around as early as Streets of Rage 2 on the Sega Megadrive (or Genesis, if you prefer) which included an offensive effeminate boss character. There are differing cultural tolerances to take into account here, but considering the Japanese dominance of the early videogame game market, these offensive tropes would have had significant exposure across markets and regions.
In some respects, videogames have a history of surpassing Hollywood in tackling controversial themes such as inclusion and diversity. With the upcoming release of DC’s Wonder Woman, there has been significant discussion on the omission of female leads in the waves of superhero films releasing in Hollywood. Conversely, whilst not always shown in the best light, videogames have featured prominent female leads since the early days of pistol-toting Lara Croft on the Playstation, with more recent examples including Faith from Mirror’s Edge and Aloy from the critically acclaimed Horizon: Zero Dawn.
There comes the question then, why are we asking for more LGBTQ+ characters in games? Many argue that themes such as sexuality and gender should take a backseat to the gameplay of a videogame. The counterargument is that if this should be the case, why is the success of so many mainstream gaming franchises driven by their character relationships and stories? Using the Tomb Raider franchise again as an example, that particular franchise has gone through a number of gameplay changes and re-vamps during its troubled history, but the strength of its lead character has always brought back fans and driven sales, even in its weaker moments. In the last ten years there has been an increase in cinematic character-driven titles, such as the Telltale series, which are visual novels and fully dependant on the strength of their characters.
For members of the LGBTQ+ community, it is oftentimes hard to connect with characters on screen, when their key motivations and interests differ so much from yours. It is not the wish of this writer that all characters in games suddenly become gay or LGBTQ+ in some way, but rather that there be a good amount of representation and some room for LGBTQ+ players to connect on this level. The Xbox 360 era of shooters featuring chiselled, white, straight men seems to have reached its end as the more successful triple A titles of the past few years have featured diverse lead characters, such as the aforementioned Horizon: Zero Dawn. Aloy is a female lead whose design does not fit the swimsuit-model visual aesthetic that some might suggest would be needed to drive sales from that audience. In that case, it seems that 2017 is the opportune time for an LGBTQ+ character to take centre stage as a figurehead for the community.