Exploring queer characters and stories in video games is important - but it's also got to be done right.
People have been whispering about romance in Mass Effect Andromeda since the title was announced, curious to see how relationships will work in the soon-to-be-released next instalment of the Mass Effect series. Mass Effect—and BioWare titles more broadly—have become famous for their representations of relationships. While Mac Walters told Game Informer that BioWare games are ‘often about characters, about drama, and romance just seems to fit in that realm’, players seem to value the relationships within these titles more than if they were simply one of many ways to create drama.
For a lot of players, the key difference is the way BioWare incorporates diverse sexualities as part of their relationship systems. The impact of these representations of sexuality—and queer identities more broadly—was made apparent in the results of Queerly Represent Me’s 2016 survey, with the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series being mentioned more than any other game or franchise. BioWare titles have become a touchstone for queerness in games.
But BioWare games are not primarily about queer identity—and Mass Effect Andromeda will be no different. These role-playing games are epic adventures about exploring and fighting in sprawling settings while fighting the forces of evil. These games are not trying to focus on the experiences of the queer community—or any one community in particular; instead, BioWare is hoping to normalise queer experiences by introducing characters who are more than their diverse sexualities and genders.
For a lot of players, the key difference is the way BioWare incorporates diverse sexualities as part of their relationship systems.
Mass Effect hasn’t always done this well in the past. BioWare has been criticised for merely pandering to the queer community, making the sexualities and genders of their characters diverse without exploring the impact of these identities. A mistype in an IGN article late last year caused controversy when they claimed every romanceable character in Andromeda would be bisexual (which is also referred to as ‘playersexual’ in this context). With the Mass Effect series seemingly improving its representations of the queer community with each instalment, adopting a playersexual system—like the one used in Dragon Age 2—was seen as a huge step backwards. Playersexual game mechanics restrict the characterisation of non-player characters, which is particularly unhelpful in a game series said to be ‘about characters’.
Thankfully, this error was corrected by IGN, but not before online communities made it clear that playersexual mechanics are not the best approach for representing diverse sexualities. In his interview with Game Informer, Walters clarified that Andromeda will ensure sexualities are relevant to each character: ‘It has to be a part of who they are,’ he said. Hopefully this means representations of sexuality will be more realistic in Andromeda than in BioWare titles before it, and will give the queer community more representations to identify with.
Although BioWare is improving its approach to queer representation, it's still providing audiences with a particular model of ‘queerness’. The concept of ‘improved representation’ of queer identities cannot be encapsulated solely by an examination of Mass Effect Andromeda and the BioWare titles that came before it.
I recently asked a non-queer friend what he would consider ‘improved representation’. He responded: ‘More queer characters where their queerness isn’t a big deal, right?’ In some ways, he’s right. In others, I disagree.
For many members of the queer community, our queerness is a big deal—or at least, it can be. Only representing queer characters in ways that are incidental and designed to normalise our experiences could be seen as a form of erasure. These narratives of normalisation need to be told, but so do narratives that are queer-centric. Games that are centred around the experiences of the queer community help audiences to identify and empathise with these stories.
Gone Home received critical acclaim for being a game that revolves around the lived experiences of the queer community. I was reminded of Gone Home recently while playing the recently released A Normal Lost Phone. Both of these titles involve the player-character exploring the belongings of another to understand what happened to them. Both use ‘queerness’ as a mystery to solve.
This is not inherently bad. In many ways, queerness is a mystery. In a heteronormative society where everybody is assumed to be heterosexual and cisgendered unless otherwise specified, discovering that somebody is queer is often just that—a discovery. Even your own sexuality or gender identity is sometimes a mystery solved only by time and self-reflection.
A Normal Lost Phone presents the player-character with a phone and asks them what they will do with it (and, unfortunately, immediately handing it in to the police is not an option). The game starts by showing you messages from the father of the phone’s owner, Sam, but quickly encourages you to also read emails, dating profiles, and private forum posts. The act of infiltrating the safe spaces of the trans community—including locked threads filled with photographs from a pride parade—goes beyond voyeuristic and into disturbing. The game hinting that you should send a photograph of Sam to a man she is chatting with on one of her dating profiles is a huge violation of privacy.
I’m not the first person to feel this way about A Normal Lost Phone. A Kotaku article indicates similar distaste at the invasive nature of this game and its mechanics. A representative from Accidental Queens told the author of this article that ‘a trans person was involved directly with the project and that numerous trans people were interviewed about their experiences’, but consulting with the queer community does not always lead to a perfect game. Although the representations within A Normal Lost Phone are interesting, revealing, and authentic, the premise that allows the player to access this representation strips the queer community of its agency.
Gone Home revolves around the experiences of a queer character who is also not present for the events within the game, and who is also named Sam. Instead of playing as a stranger reading text messages and emails, the player learns about this Sam by reading notes she left behind, many of them explicitly addressed to the player-character—her sister, Katie. Both games are about queer characters named Sam who are running away from home, both games encourage you to find this out by exploring what they left behind—but there’s a huge difference between doing this as a worried sister and as a random stranger.
Just as A Normal Lost Phone has been criticised for its invasive, voyeuristic premise, Gone Home received some criticism in the queer community for its use of ‘horror’ genre tropes. Entering a dark, empty house while a thunderstorm rages outside primes the player for a jump scare. When the ‘horror’ turns out to be the queer identity of the player-character’s sister, this creates some interesting implications.
Of course being queer is not something that should be synonymous with the zombies and other monsters that have taken over the horror genre. However, it could be argued that many people already consider the reveal of queer identity to be ‘horrific’—a queer person might come out to friends and family members, and be met with such a response that they may as well be telling them that they are a monster.
While at first glance, both A Normal Lost Phone and Gone Home have a premise that could be considered problematic, Gone Home’s connection to the horror genre reveals a lot about how society still sees queer identity, and hopes to fill the player with relief when they realise that this game doesn’t intend to reveal anything worse than a coming out story. When choices and subversions are implemented deliberately and thoughtfully, their implications and impacts are generally more positive for their audience.
And that’s the takeaway here: whether representations of queer identity are being included incidentally or as the focus of a game narrative, it is important that these representations are designed thoughtfully. Mindlessly attempting to incorporate queer perspectives leads to the use of playersexual romance mechanics or the accidental removal of agency for queer characters, and these accidents can have significant impacts on queer audiences.
It’s nice to see the team working on Mass Effect Andromeda considering the impacts of sexuality on individuals. It’s also nice to see more independent games being released that contain queer-centric narratives. What I hope is that developers learn from the successes and mistakes of each new attempt, and that representation in all its forms continues to improve.