Since its inception in the late 19th century, film as a medium has had a rather rocky journey to depicting relatable, realistic, and above all sympathetic gay characters. From the Hays Code of the 1930s banning what they referred to as ‘sexual perversion’, to Love, Simon in the 2010s providing inclusion and love for gay teen audiences, it’s fair to say that a drastic evolution has taken place. Similarly, mainstream video games have experienced a change for the better in terms of representation, but in less than a quarter of the time. And like film, some of the earliest examples are uncomfortable to remember now.
One of the earliest and arguably most degrading examples of a confirmed LGBT character in a video game is Final Fight’s Poison. She was originally conceived as a cis NPC for the protagonist to fight, but after the developers thought an American audience would be offended by hitting a woman, was changed in some regions to be trans. This normalization of violence against trans women also promotes the idea that they are not ‘real women’, and still stands as a low point in LGBT gaming history. Another early and negative example is that of Ash in Streets of Rage, who is depicted with stereotypical traits like ‘effeminate’ movements and tight, bondage looking clothes. Although these aspects of characterization are not inherently negative, in Ash’s case as a game boss he has no defining characteristics aside from this and is clearly designed to be mocked by the player, though interestingly he was cut out of the game in PAL and US regions. Whether this was because the character was homophobic or because he was gay at all is unsure.
However, some more positive representations start to arrive in the late 1990s with the advent of greater player choice in RPGs. An example of this is in the Fallout games, with the second installment allowing players to have sexual encounters and even marriages with several characters regardless of gender. This idea has also been carried forward in more recent series like BioWare’s Dragon Age and Mass Effect, that encourage character customization and fairly deep relationships between the player character and NPCs, with many characters being gay or bisexual. Although this was definitely a positive step for representation, critics have argued that this isn’t enough, with games that have fixed narratives still essentially never showing gay characters in a prominent or positive way.
This has changed in the 2010s with games like Life is Strange, a narrative-driven experience that features a bisexual protagonist in Max and a gay love interest in Chloe, who is also shown to be attracted to another gay character in the game, Rachel. Telltale Games, a company is known for story driven games like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us series respectively, also have the Tales from the Borderlands series that depicts a loving romantic relationship between two female characters. Whilst not showing a relationship explicitly in the game, the Overwatch character Tracer has been confirmed as gay by creators and in comics, and lead writer for the game Michael Chu has stated that ‘multiple heroes‘ are LGBT.
Progress is certainly still to be made in terms of trans characters and LGBT POC, but largely video games have come a long way in a very short period of time. As long as more LGBT creators keep putting out content, I’m optimistic about more games like the later examples being made.