Blizzard recently revealed that one of their most popular characters, Tracer, had a girlfriend. The move delighted many members of the LGBT community and people who like to draw a certain sub-genre of fan-art, and infuriated people who own body pillows of fictional characters.
After hearing the #Overwatch news, I thought back to the recent examples of LGBT characters in video games over the last several years, and the strides we've made in representation. Then I got to thinking about the movies I'd seen featuring #LGBT characters, not just how many there'd been, but what kind of characters they'd been featuring in comparison to games, and the stories they told about them. I got to thinking, are #VideoGames just doing it better?
Are Games Doing LGBT Representation Better?
There's been a fair few high-profile LGBT films out of Hollywood in the last year or two. The award winning Carol told the story of a fledgeling lesbian romance in the 1950s, the controversially casted The Danish Girl told us about the life of Lili Elbe, one of the earliest candidates for sexual reassignment surgery.
These films were often beautifully shot and well acted, but the more I thought about them, the more I realized they weren't for LGBT, they were about LGBT people for a straight audience. Almost every mainstream film featuring an LGBT character was about their journey of coming out or discovering their sexuality, often with a tragic ending. As a friend of mine once said, "I don't need a story about how a young girl comes out to her family and they're assholes about it, I've already done that." It felt as though LGBT characters in films didn't have anything to do except figure out they're not straight or cis, tell people, then usually die.
By contrast, the LGBT characters in games just seem to have better stuff to do. They're busy people, and their sexuality is one facet of their story. In Mortal Kombat X, Kung Jin may have run away from the Shaolin Temple because he was gay, but it's a small part of his larger arc that involves learning to be less impetuous and headstrong so he can help save the world. In Life is Strange, Max and Chloe's queerness and relationship with one another are a major focus of the story, but so is exploring Max's new time traveling powers and solving the mystery of Arcadia Bay. Tracer may come back to her girlfriend at Christmas, but in between sweaters and cuddling she's trying to stop assassinations.
I've often wanted to see more LGBT characters in media, but that doesn't mean that the media has to always be about nothing but their gender or sexuality. I wanted gay space pirates with a heart of gold, trans bezerkers who are learning to manage their rage and lesbian treasure hunters trying to solve ancient mysteries. I already know people are dicks to young queer people, I want stories that let me escape that, not ones that remind me.
Is Interactivity Part Of The Charm?
Perhaps the most prolific mainstream developer studio when it comes to LGBT representation is BioWare. One of my first memories of seeing an LGBT character in video games was while playing Dragon: Age Origins and encountering Zevran, the cocky elven assassin who joins your merry band of adventurers after attempting to kill you.
Zevran was witty, funny and a little bit devious, but also a caring companion and ally who was happy to escape his conscripted life as an assassin and fight for something greater. For me personally, it was a real treat to see that rarest of characters, a bi man, be represented in games, and the fact that I could actually enter into a relationship with him was even cooler, because it meant my character could be a gay, or bisexual man as well.
The interactivity of games, especially when it comes to RPGs and adventure games, feels like a major contributor to the diversity of LGBT characters and narratives. While it can be pretty fun to play through a more grounded LGBT narrative, it's a lot easier to craft a gameplay experience around action and adventure, with the occasional bit of romance thrown in.
Because of this, it's easy to craft a character with multiple facets to their story in addition to their sexuality—suddenly we get to go on the eponymous heroes journey. By giving us control over characters we created or embody, we have the power to choose our sexuality.
Max Caulfield can be an awkward lesbian realizing that she loves her best friend, a young bisexual woman who's trying to deal with her feelings in between detective work and using her superpowers to save lives, or (if you're boring and like Warren for some reason), a straight girl who may or may not be questioning her sexuality as her town faces possible armageddon. The titular Inquisitor of Dragon Age: Inquisition can be a man or a woman, gay, straight or bi, and no matter what their relationships they may or may not enter are diverse and interesting.
Not All Sunshine
Sadly, while the first three letters of LGBT are getting a lot of support in games, transgender people are getting neglected, at least in the mainstream. There hasn't really been a major trans character in gaming, and minor characters like Mizhena have been met with psychotic hatred by transphobic gamers who can't stand four lines of dialog reminding them that trans people exist. Aside from the fact that the Saints Row series and Dark Souls 2 technically make every female character a transgender woman, playing a trans character is also mostly left up to players' imaginations.
Even minor characters, no matter how well written, seem to fall into the same casting pitfall as The Danish Girl by casting cis actors of the wrong gender to play trans characters. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, a minor character named Krem is slowly revealed through the course of the story to be a trans man, his backstory is interesting and well written and he's portrayed as a highly competent soldier and mercenary leader. There's even some cool dialogue about how Qunari society accepts transgender Qunari without question.
Unfortunately, they decided to get female voice actor Jennifer Hale to voice him. I love Jennifer Hale, she's a juggernaut of talent, but her portraying a trans man implies that the character is a woman creating a performance. It's also not very accurate, I know a trans man who's a singer, and let me tell you, his voice does not sound like a woman putting on a gruff accent. Over the course of his transition, he's gone from soprano to tenor and had to retrain his singing voice for a completely different style and role.
There are a few names in the indie scene putting in the work to include transgender characters—awesome indie creators like Porpentine and Eva Problems are creating narratives by and for trans women and games like Always Sometimes Monsters allow you to canonically have your character be trans. Let's hope that the big studios see their example and begin incorporating deeper trans narratives into gaming as well. I'm looking forward to the day when we can all see ourselves represented in awesome adventures.
Until then, I'm going to replay Life is Strange and use my time powers for the noble cause of watching people get hit in the face by footballs over and over while I laugh. Maybe I'll solve a mystery and kiss a girl when I'm bored of that.
Do you think games are doing LGBT representation better than Hollywood? Who's your favorite LGBT character in games? Let us know in the comments.