Debate: How Can Games Handle LGBT characters well?

Casper: Foolishly, I was originally not planning to do much for Pride Month here on Legacy of Games, but Stian’s recent reviews got me interested in talking about some LGBT-related topics anyway. I am bisexual myself, but many of my friends hold strong opinions on LGBT-representation in video games and game-related events, which does lead to an occasional clash of opinions. Because what really is the right way to tackle this subject within our interactive medium? How can you include LGBT characters without it feeling forced, how can you explore storylines about sexual orientation without it seeming politically correct, or should we, as they say, keep our politics out of video games?

I don’t think Stian and I will be disagreeing a lot here, but I am honestly just looking for ideas and answers.

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Romance is an important aspect in Stardew Valley, which offers an equal amount of male and female characters to romance. All are open for non-straight relationships too.

Stian: Let me start off by saying that creating a video game, should allow for creative freedom, just like movies, general art-forms, or even food. It is important to experiment in order to develop, including in terms of storytelling and how to tackle subjects that can be controversial or difficult, to say the least. Because of this, I am all for doing so within any forms of media and even take a side if you have one, especially since we can choose whether we want to contribute by purchasing these products or not.

That being said, I have rarely been fond of how LGBT characters have been forced upon us. 90s sitcoms and Disney’s live-action Beauty and the Beast, for example, give the characters only their sexuality as their one and only personality trait, which is just lazy. What developers then forget, is to first make these characters human, because sexual orientation is just that: sexual orientation and nothing more or less. Series like Adventure Time or Steven Universe, create strong characters that, while they definitely have diverse sexualities, makes it rather an addition and more subtle. Because of this, you see a good romance grow, and while even general movies or series with straight characters can’t really do that well either, there is a clear possibility for this to happen.

I know I am talking a lot about this in movie-format, but that is honestly because the best or even most games I have played featuring LGBT themes, have been through Point and Clicks, which are heavy on story and focuses on puzzle-solving in order to progress a story. And since we are focusing on possibly elaborating more about this theme within a game, wouldn’t that be more fitting than say a platformer that might not even need a story? Except a prince saving the king of course.

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Newfound Courage was an LGBT-oriented game that Stian found difficult to tolerate.

Casper: I have always felt awkward debating this topic because I agree with a lot of what you say. Writers often treat alternate sexualities as the sole point of a character, which pleases nobody in the end. Those who are against political correctness cry foul because they feel the character is the token gay inclusion and people like us are unhappy because the character lacks depth. The anti-PC crowd then gets angry at us for being unpleasable, rinse and repeat.

Nobody benefits from a boring homosexual character in a game taking up screentime just so Bioware can sell their latest RPG and flaunt how inclusive their storytelling is. On the other hand, I can completely sympathize with how difficult this is to do well. If a character must be LGBT, the easiest way to get that across is by making a scene of it or pointing it out as often as possible. In reality, thousands of characters we have met in our games might have been LGBT and just never had a reason to express it. Maybe the random mountaineer in Pokémon Gold likes (Geo)dudes, we’ll never know.

That is not satisfying, however. Just imagining random characters being gay doesn’t solve the underlying problem that roughly 3% of the Western population identifies as LGBT, yet isn’t able to find characters representing themselves in a lot of these games. And when they do, the characters themselves aren’t entertaining or the narrative around them feels hopelessly forced. With that said, how do you think developers should handle establishing characters as LGBT?

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I was never fond of Zevran from Dragon Age, despite him being the option for gay romances.

Stian: Well, one thing I am happy for, is how games like The Sims 3 and Stardew Valley actually embrace same-sex marriage and lets you play out the character you want to be. So I think they are at least good at giving you the clear choice in the matter, without it being a forced inclusion. However, this is of course not about established characters necessarily.

What I do notice is that characters you often remember from established series, fit within the tone of the game. As much as I dislike Assassin’s Creed, Brotherhood, for example, had Leonardo Da Vinci quite down to earth with a clear, diverse personality. Since he was also helping the main-character (Ezio), it showcased a clear positive vibe towards him as a person, with his sexuality only coming forth in one minor scene for some comedic relief.

One thing that usually helps is romance. I mean, this is probably the most valid reason for having sexuality addressed right? Sometimes, we see simple flirting between characters to know they have a clear history together. For example, 2064 had two characters working to uphold a bar to the best of their ability, which had been a struggle for them. It simply showed their dedication to rebuild their lives together both physically and mentally, and I think that is enough.

I do remember when I tried to flirt with a policeman as April Ryan in The Longest Journey, and the policeman simply said: “sorry, but I am gay”. So, maybe it is simply about time and place, but not in the traditional sense?

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Fortunately, Stian did enjoy Read Only Memories!

Casper: I do always admire games that let players romance whatever they please. Bioware can boast all they want about the Lesbian orgy you can orchestrate if you make very specific choices in Mass Effect 2, but I have a lot more admiration for Stardew Valley that just quietly permits you to marry any character regardless of gender. To be fair, I am biased against Bioware and being a bit unfair here.

Anecdotally, perhaps one the best games to handle this right is HuniePop, which permits you to switch between male and female whenever you wish, alters dialogue to make it fit, and lets you go on with romancing its cast of girls. On a more serious note, I do agree that games are good at letting players choose their romance. Sims and RPG characters are reliably open-minded, but I do think that games also need noteworthy non-player characters having romances outside of the player’s control, and not have such romances exist just to be a flag that the player could probably intervene there and have that characters as a partner.

I do believe Leonardo is a great example of this and also because he’s a likable dude where his sexuality is but a tiny part of his overall character. Even though Ubisoft borrowed from existing history in writing his character, the way they handled it was tasteful and well-considered. Other examples are proving tough to pin down, because I feel game developers might be hesitant to give characters important scenes when the player’s relevance in them is limited. Perhaps games are just not a good medium to explore LGBT issues outside of heavily story-driven genres?

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Sims are more open-minded about romance than they are about my choice in decoration. The heck is wrong with this bathroom???

Stian: Before I get to the question, I just wanted to say that, as one who is a huge fan of Mass Effect, I do not disagree with you one bit. However, I do think you are onto something here since talking about difficult subjects like this, should be done through a medium or form that focuses on actually telling a story (as simple as it might sound).

However, this does open the doors for utilizing many game-genres that includes a huge focus on telling a story, such as different forms of RPGs, perhaps an action-game or even a stealth-title. We have even had horror-titles dealing with psychological difficulties, so I don’t see a reason to not perhaps use this to explore the struggles within LGBT themes. I do believe you have to treat this maturely, but everyone is going to have a different experience with this, so as long as a story or a theme explored is at focus, I think there are tons of possibilities for creative ways of exploring different subjects. I suppose it then will depend on the creators take on it, and for us to review it.

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