By: Mary Beth McAndrews
You’re looking for a new video game to play. You turn on your Playstation 4 and browse through recent game releases. You’re bombarded with images of women in tight outfits showing off ridiculous cleavage, images of hyper-masculine protagonists smashing apart aliens and images of men with bulging muscles holding busty damsels in distress while blasting villains in the face. It all looks very exciting, but you aren’t motivated to choose any of them. You’re searching for something a little more thoughtful and a little more inclusive of someone who isn’t so aggressively heterosexual. But those types of games seem impossible to find.
Game developers need to look outside of their limited scope and create more inclusive games, particularly for queer audiences. These games shouldn’t just be created for appearances; they should also help foster a more welcoming and open gaming community. Jess O’Rear, a PhD candidate at University of Texas at Austin in public performance, and a queer gamer himself, stresses the importance of queer representation in video games to help LGBTQIA gamers feel validated.
“Video games specifically are an interactive escape from reality," he says. "When people who are marginalized in reality escape to another world, they don't want to escape from their identities, but rather, the society by which their identities are marginalized."
Despite a domineering heterosexual presence in video games, there are a handful of recent critically-acclaimed indie releases that incorporate queer romance. The success of these indie games shows the necessity of and the desire for the normalization of queer relationships in video games. Their success also illustrates how thoughtful storytelling can create powerful, inclusive narratives that can loved by both queer and straight audiences alike.
When "Gone Home" was released in 2013, it was hailed for its innovative method of storytelling and how it pushed the player through the game without any direct exposure to conflict. The player sees the game through the perspective of Kaitlin Greenbriar, a college student who has just arrived home from a year abroad. She comes home to an empty house and is trying to unravel the mystery of where everyone has gone. As the story progresses, it becomes apparent that the game is about how Kaitlin’s younger sister, Sam, is falling in love with her friend, Lonnie. This game was an example of creating complex queer female characters without relying on stereotypes or over-sexualizing them.
This use of thoughtful storytelling and how it portrays the frustration of a first love, especially when parents don’t understand, both normalizes queer relationships and makes this specific relationship relatable to all players. "Gone Home" earned multiple Game of the Year awards for creating a deeply personal story that investigated complicated relationships.
A more recent release tackles queer romance head on. Released in late July, "Dream Daddy" is, according to computer-gaming platform Steam, “a Dad Dating Simulator game where you play as a Dad and your goal is to meet and romance other hot Dads.” The entire goal of the game is to date and achieve romance without any direct exposure to conflict. The player creates their own dream dad, who can be cis, trans, gay, pansexual or bisexual, and tries to figure out which of the seven featured dads they would like to date, all while trying to navigate single fatherhood.
While "Gone Home" and "Dream Daddy" use queer human characters, the next two games create anthropomorphized characters with whom to fall in love. The first is "Undertale," which took the gaming world by storm when it was released in 2015. Despite a slew of criticism from more “traditional” gamers, it regularly appeared on Steam’s best sellers list and received “universal acclaim” according to MetaCritic. An reason for this success was its inclusion of a queer relationship between two female characters, Alphys and Undyne. Bringing them together is specifically a side quest in the game and many of the characters the player meets are eagerly anticipating the fruition of their relationship. This relationship side quest is meant to culminate in these two female characters falling in love.
“I loved that a mutual crush between these two girls, heroes in their own right within the game, was central to your understanding of their characters and your progression of the game toward its ‘true’ ending,” says O’Rear.
"Night in the Woods," released this year, has two of its main, non-playable characters, Gregg and Angus, in a queer relationship. Not only does "Night in the Woods" include a gay couple, but it also gives their relationship depth. Throughout the game, both Gregg and Angus discuss their anxieties about breaking up and how their own personalities could cause it. They even talk about how much they want to move away from Possum Springs, but are concerned about their financial situation. They also discuss how much they love and support each other, especially since they are the only queer couple in their tiny hometown. This isn’t just a relationship thrown into a game to seem progressive; it is included to show the anxieties involved in any relationship.
“I saw in their relationship something very recognizable — that feeling of finding someone who gets you in a place where you previously felt like you don't, and will never, belong,” says O’Rear. “And that's not a queer-specific feeling, but having a relationship between two male characters demonstrate that feeling is powerful, and as a queer person, I appreciated it.”
"Undertale" and "Night in the Woods" can be tricky, however, as these two games use animals or monsters to represent healthy queer human relationship. “I feel like even in Undertale and Night In The Woods, it's easier for people to accept and cheer for Undyne and Alphys or Gregg and Angus because they are cute, 2D cartoon anthropomorphic creatures,” says O’Rear.
There is still work to be done to create a more inclusive gaming community. There are examples of recent “triple A” games—games with higher budgets and higher promotion— that attempt inclusivity by providing players more agency in character creation. Games like the Mass Effect series, Fallout 4 and Skyrim provide players with a male or female “template” whose physical appearance that can be customized. From there, some of these games allow players to choose what relationships they engage in, whether they be straight or queer.
Michael DeAnda, PhD candidate at Illinois Institute of Technology, studying how games construct queer masculinities, says that games need to shift towards having queer relationships as the focus of gameplay rather than just a player’s choice. “Recent titles in game series, such as Mass Effect and Fallout, allow for players to engage in relationships with other characters of the same gender. Yet, I think we need more games that center on queer relationships as opposed to having it as a play option,” says DeAnda. “Designers and developers should consider how to design games that focus on queer relationships and identities.”
As the above examples show, many indie game developers are moving towards more inclusivity in their games. With the help of crowdfunding campaigns and indie development platforms like Steam Direct, marginalized game developers are now able to create the stories they want to tell without needing support from a less flexible AAA developer or publisher.
That said, not all of the burden in this area should be on the shoulders of indie developers. Big developers can make an effort by hiring more diverse staff. “The key to [better representation] is, I think, first and foremost: hiring different types of people," says O’Rear. “We need more queer people in the industry, more women, more people of color — there are plenty of talented and skilled people out there who are not straight white cisgender men and we need them in the room where game production happens.”
DeAnda believes queer representation will help eliminate the stigma around coming out as LGBTQIA, as well as affirm queer identities. “Lack of representation is a way of keeping queer people in the closet and perpetuating the stigma placed on queer sexual and gender identities, DeAnda says. “Queer representation in video games, while it would provide opportunities to discuss equality, affirms the identities and relationships of queer people.”