It's been a year of (mostly) ups and (some) downs for queer representation in games. Here's our wrap.
In 2016, I organised the Heroes Like Us: Queer Representation in Games panel at PAX Australia. A group of wonderful queer folks working in the games industry gathered to talk about our favourite examples of queerness in games, explicit and implicit representations, pronouns, character creation, and playersexuality.
This year, PAX Australia featured a bunch of awesome queer panels, so Heroes like Us was free to evolve into the ‘2017 State of Queer in Games’, which was organised by Ashton McAllan as a way to look specifically at recent releases. We were able to leave behind some of the most talked about titles to instead tell audiences about how new games are representing queerness, and to move the conversation forward.
Ashton organised a group of ‘expert queers’ - including Charlie Francis Cassidy, Saf Davidson, Jess Zammit, David Hollingworth, and myself - to discuss the most notable victories and stumbling blocks from 2017. Here’s what we covered…
Horizon Zero Dawn is my favourite game of all time (for now). Although the queer content within this game is fairly sparse, it’s definitely there, contributing to the overall inclusiveness of the game world. Horizon Zero Dawn is one of many games this year that championed incidental queerness, where queer folk have been included in the space without any fanfare. It’s the type of ‘palatable’ queerness that triple-A games can more easily incorporate, and while it’s not the only queerness we should see in games, it is indicative of a shift in the industry.
Shooty Skies was released by Charlie’s workplace, Mighty Games, and Charlie spoke about how proud they are of the content the studio released this year: Shooty Skies made a public statement in support of marriage equality in a pop-up within the game, and also released the Rainbow Riders, a collection of diverse riders in rainbow colours designed to stand beside the queer community. It’s encouraging to see studios deliberately hiring diverse teams and actively speaking out to support diverse communities.
Tacoma doesn’t focus on queer stories and experiences in the same way as its predecessor, Gone Home, but it does feature a significant relationship between Nat and Bert. These two women have several exchanges via the AR system on-board the ship, which demonstrate their supportive bond, and there are several other clues around the ship indicating the nature of their relationship - like a ‘Just Married’ poster and a box full of sex toys. Saf was surprised to find their relationship, and enjoyed the way Tacoma handled it.
Miss Fisher and the Deathly Maze was another of Saf’s favourite examples from this year, for its cute flirtations between Dr. Elizabeth ‘Mac’ Macmillan and a theatre assistant. This is another example of an endearing queer interaction, and one that’s incidental to the plot without being a source of conflict. Queerness is often a plot twist or a struggle for characters, so seeing narratives where queerness is established and is then simply allowed to exist is a nice change.
Criminal Case: Pacific Bay was one of Jess’s favourite examples for similar reasons. Hannah, one of the protagonists of this mobile game, has a girlfriend who is occasionally mentioned, but the relationship doesn’t impact on the narrative and nobody makes a fuss about it. Even in an exchange where Hannah comments on a biker woman’s appearance, it’s made clear that even though she is dating somebody, her sexuality is still her own and she’s allowed to find other people attractive.
Night in the Woods was mentioned by Saf as another example of games incorporating incidental (and endearing) representations of queerness. The game includes a same-gender couple, whose relationship is accepted within the game world. Night in the Woods also has a bisexual protagonist, and features nonbinary representation.
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To Love and Protect was given an honourable mention for its alternative approach. Instead of implying queerness, this game explicitly uses the word ‘bisexual’ in dialogue. Anybody who has tried to find explicit bisexual representation in games will know that it’s difficult to come by, but in To Love and Protect, a main character specifically describes when they came out as ‘bisexual’. Jess shared screenshots of this exchange with a bunch of friends after finding this scene because she was so excited by this rare sight.
Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator is an awesome queer-centric game released alongside many examples of incidental representation this year. I mentioned this on the panel, as I particularly enjoyed this wholesome and heart-warming narrative when I had the chance to review it earlier this year. This dating sim revolves around your player-character dating other dads, but also manages to cover many other important topics about parenting, work-life balance, self-acceptance, and more. It also features a trans character, and the option for the player-character to be trans, and each of these representations is handled particularly well.
Pyre was another release from this year that handles representation well, and could be used as an example going forward. This interactive narrative allows the player to select they/them pronouns at the beginning of the game, and also provides options for fluidity, as the player can change their pronouns in the menu at any time.
But discussing Pyre was a transitioning point for the panel. Although this game itself is fine, Charlie argued that this shouldn’t be something to celebrate anymore. Providing they/them (and other gender-neutral pronoun options) should be standard now—but while there are several great examples of nonbinary options, developers on the whole need to do better. This discussion led us to the second half of our panel, where we discussed games that stumbled in terms of queer representation this year.
A Normal Lost Phone provides an uncomfortably voyeuristic look into the life of a trans woman by encouraging the player to rummage through her lost phone, discovering her journey towards coming out. Because the game requires the player to learn about Sam without ever meeting her, it removes her voice and agency. A Normal Lost Phone gives the player some valuable information and insight, but its overall premise is problematic.
Hacknet Labyrinths was mentioned by Ash as a comparatively better approach to a similar type of character discovery. In this game, you’re a hacker, so you’re all about snooping through information that isn’t yours. At one point, you are going through the documents of a character when you discover that they have a prescription for testosterone; this environmental storytelling implies that they are trans, without it being the central plot of the game, and without asking the player to log into safe spaces like queer forums while playing detective (as you do in ANLP).
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South Park: The Fractured but Whole was also mentioned when talking about the places where queer representation fell down this year. One of the major issues with queerness in The Fractured but Whole is that the player is able to select whether they are cis or trans and, regardless of their choice, an NPC immediately fights them on the street because of their gender identity. It’s one thing to subvert the narrative - having an NPC fight the player-character because they are cis could be an empathy-building experience - but there’s nothing to gain from mirroring what is often the reality of trans folks who face abuse for being themselves. Of course, this is South Park, and we can hardly expect them to handle anything with grace, but it’s unfortunate that this is an opportunity for biting commentary that was wasted on poor representation.
Mass Effect Andromeda was a more subjective source of disappointment for David, who said that despite some of the positive representation in indie games this year, the triple-A space was particularly lacking. He had hoped to see Andromeda carry the torch for queerness in triple-A this year, but was let down. However, this wasn’t a game we could all agree on - unlike some of the other stumbling blocks we mentioned; Jess loves Andromeda and was quick to remind us of some explicit and positive queerness that might have slipped us by. Despite these instances of positive representation, there’s no denying that the catastrophe of Andromeda deadnaming a trans character in dialogue (which was soon patched out) shows that even developers like Bioware - who are known for their diverse representation - still have a long way to go.
We found during this panel that we had some clear favourites in terms of representation this year, but there were also many examples of terrible decisions. This year seemed to focus heavily on incidental or implied representations rather than making narratives that spotlight queerness, and it would be nice to see more of a mixture of these types of representation across the industry. It’s apparent that representation of queerness in general is increasing, but there’s still a way to go—particularly when something like adding nonbinary options to character creation screens is still so rare.
We ended the panel with our ‘demands’. In addition to seeing nonbinary options become standard in character creation, we would like to see more asexuality and aromanticism in games, and more explicit bisexuality (rather than the usual ‘playersexuality’). And it would be awesome if some of these representations didn’t involve aliens or robots or both (but also, don’t avoid aliens and robots entirely because Saf loves them too much). These ‘demands’ are mostly optimism for an industry we love: we hope that when we meet again, we may have seen even more progress towards helping the queer community feel included in the games we play.