A history of LGBT+ characters in video games – Reader’s Feature
A reader offers a spoiler-filled critique, not of The Last Of Us Part 2 itself but the negative fan response to it.
Everybody’s gone gay!
The landscape for LGBT characters in the media has exploded in recent years and the representation of diverse and realistic gay characters has come a long way. TV has always been ahead of the curve, from Mikey and Ian in Shameless to Lavern Cox’s trans character in Orange is the New Black. The stories have been varied and interesting, and with the recent popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race it’s almost as if the gays are taking over your screens. And let’s face it, things are far more fabulous that way.
But the gaming landscape has been slow to pick up on the hype – both PlayStation and Xbox put out social media posts in support of Pride last month, to the dismay of the more backwards right-wing gamers. But even with both platforms’ outward support of the community there has been surprisingly few LGBT characters in video games.
Sam Greer of GamesRadar+ found that in 2018 there were only eight playable LGBT characters in video games, where the characters were pre-written as queer instead of being a custom character created by the player. So I’m looking back over some of the more popular characters that represent the rainbow flag and how we may be going into a golden age of LGBT storytelling.
The Japanese and the 80s
The 1980s was a strained time for gay relations and the general public, an era with the rise of AIDS and very little support from those in power. General LGBT representation was low across all mediums and was often demonised, especially in the USA and UK. One of the earliest examples of representation came from Nintendo and Super Mario Bros. 2 where the character of Birdo was described as ‘a male who thinks he is a girl’. It’s not the most politically correct terminology, but for 1988 it was a pretty bold choice.
Japanese developers were really the only ones who were willing to represent the community, with various examples of side characters being gay. Pretty much any Western characters at the time were treated with ridicule or jokes and more often than not were censored, with their ‘gay tendencies’ being taken out. An example being Phantasy Star’s USA and UK version of Usvestia saying male characters ‘look smart’ instead of ‘look cute’, as in the Japanese version. 1994’s Streets Of Rage 3 had a mob boss named Ash who was portrayed with tight clothes and ‘effeminate’ movements but he was still censored in many Western versions of the game.
Gay for play
Role-playing games have been the best place for representation, with BioWare’s Jade Empire and Lionhead’s Fable being some of the first Western games to allow the playable character to engage in homosexual activities – Fable even allowed gay marriage in its world before the UK or USA did. As the world was starting to turn in favour of the LGBT community so too did game developers, but as games were still portraying women with oversized proportions, appealing to a predominantly heterosexual male audience, the characters were still underdeveloped and rarely playable.
Major Japanese publisher FromSoftware had openly gay character Makoto in the 2006 role-playing game Enchanted Arms – Makoto openly admits his love for a fellow male character and though he is portrayed as a stereotypical camp man, he is a leading character with a major influence on the game’s story and playable in combat sections later in the game.
Rockstar, surprisingly, haven’t shied away from featuring LGBT+ characters in their games, as both Bully and Grand Theft Auto have featured them, The Ballad Of Gay Tony from GTA 4 being the most famous example. Playable character Trevor in GTA 5 is also presented, but not confirmed, as being pansexual. Although not necessarily a positive representation of the community, to have a multi-layered character feature in one of the biggest games of all time is a big deal.
Huge strides have been made in recent years; Mortal Kombat featured their first gay playable character with Kung Jin, nephew of Kung Lao. The Life Is Strange’s Chloe Price is a deep and flawed character, whose mental health problems will resonate with many LGBT youths as she struggles with her sexuality and her place in the world.
Obsidian Entertainment’s The Outer Worlds gave us the delights of Parvati; a sweet, caring and shy young woman but also a capable mechanic and fantastic friend, she quickly became the most popular character in the game. Even more impressive was her relationship with Junlei and the difficulties they face with their physical relationship, something rarely explored in any kinds of narrative and depicted with the utmost respect.
Naughty Dog have been pioneers of storytelling in the video game medium and with The Last Of Us Part 2 we go on a journey with lesbian character Ellie. What makes this game so special is Ellie’s sexuality is never exploited, it’s also not shied away from either. We see her as a powerful woman with a lust for revenge, as a mother navigating a broken world and as a human coming to terms with her grief. It is an excellent character study from Naughty Dog, it will hopefully lead the way with more playable gay characters in future AAA games.
Things are progressing slowly and some vocal minorities would like to see LGBT characters erased. It doesn’t seem to have affected game sales though, with both The Outer Worlds and The Last Of Us Part 2 selling well – so it looks like going ‘woke’ doesn’t lead to going ‘broke’ after all.
Dontnod’s upcoming Tell Me Why will feature the first prominent playable trans character in a video game, which will hopefully tell a unique story with different point of view – it’s a bold move and one that will be scrutinised by those on both the political left and right for different reasons. It’s a balancing act for any game studio willing to take on the challenge.
By reader Jay Johnson or Ladonna The Drag Queen
To see my list of Top 10 LGBT characters in video games visit my website here.
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