Despite the fact that we’re in the year 2018, it can still be incredibly hard to find positive portrayals of LGBTQ+ characters in our video games. While queer characters have been in video games for decades, with the earliest appearance being (according to Wikipedia) an unnamed lesbian artist in Infocom’s 1986 game Moonmist, it still seems surprisingly uncommon even today. Why is that, though?
In 2016 the ‘Siege of Dragonspear’ expansion for the PC game ‘Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition’ contained a minor character called ‘Mizhena’, who, through dialogue with the player character, reveals that they are a trans woman (i.e. someone who was ‘born a boy’ but ‘became’ a woman). This revelation was met with outrage from some corners of gaming fandom, being called everything from ‘pushing a political agenda’ to ‘SJW pandering’, and the writer of the expansion, Amber Scott, received harassment online. Was it ‘LGBT tokenism’ as some said? Well, as Amber put it herself: “I get to make decisions about who I write about and why. I don’t like writing about straight/white/cis people all the time. It’s not reflective of the real world, it sets up s/w/c as the ‘normal’ baseline from which ‘other’ characters must be added, and it’s boring.” Simply having LGBT characters isn’t a political statement in itself, the same way the mere existence of LGBT people in society isn’t itself inherently political.
While Moonmist is the earliest known example, a more famous early example of an LGBT character in video games comes from 1988’s Super Mario Bros 2, and one of its villains: Birdo. Birdo’s the egg-spitting mini-boss you know and fear, though you may remember them better as “pink, alternate universe girl Yoshi” from various Mario-themed sports games. The manual of Super Mario Bros 2 revealed a surprising detail about Birdo’s life: “He thinks he is a girl and he spits eggs from his mouth. He’d rather be called “birdetta.” Birdo, at least in Super Mario Bros 2, is a trans woman. In later games & publications this was changed & retconned, but as recently as Super Smash Bros. Brawl her gender was given as “indeterminate.” While Birdo’s gender status was present in almost all localisations, the same could not always be said about Final Fight’s Poison. When localising the game to North America, the Japanese development theme believed that her status as a female enemy character the male protagonist would fight might prove controversial in the States, so they wrote her as a ‘newhalf’ or pre-op trans woman. While this did nothing to help her inclusion in the American port of the game (she and her palette-swap Roxy were replaced with generic male thugs), her gender identity has been ambiguous ever since. While Capcom have never officially had an official position on Poison’s gender, various statements from people who worked on games, or even some in-game descriptions lead to people believing that she was either a pre/post-op trans woman, or a man who cross-dressed as a woman. Yoshinori Ono, producer for Street Fighter IV, said in an interview: “Let’s set the record straight: In North America, Poison is officially a post-op transsexual woman. But in Japan, she simply tucks her business away to look female.” Either way, Poison is another example of an LGBT character’s identity being changed or altered in localisation.
There’s a lot of space for inclusivity when it comes to RPGs and the ‘blank’ player character. The Mass Effect series contained many same-sex romance options, as well as the (essentially) genderfluid Asari aliens, which meant that your character can truly have whatever sexuality you want, really. This is a bit more common than I would’ve thought in RPGs, but generally the same-sex love interests are random NPCs with little story to them. In Mass Effect these characters are major characters with deep, immersive backstories. And the way these romances are handled, as perfectly natural, normal things with little fanfare, is exactly what you want. In fact, if it wasn’t for some public controversies relating to the Asari, I doubt a lot of players would even realise that their Commander Shepard could be gay, or bi or pansexual, if they just willed them to be.
Talking about things that flew under the radar, one game this year really surprised me with how in-depth, subtle and supportive its inclusion of LGBTQ+ players was, and it really did come from the most unlikely of places: South Park – The Fractured But Whole. Responding to (mild) criticisms that the player character in the first game in the series, The Stick of Truth, could only be male, the developers (and Matt Stone & Trey Parker themselves) completely revolutionised the concept of gender & sexuality in role-playing games. You get to a point where the school counsellor asks you about your gender and sexuality, though it’s fairly basic at this point. As soon as you leave the school, a group of ‘rednecks’ start trouble with you because of your identity. I had picked a somewhat queer character, so this wasn’t outside the realm of imagination, but this event happens regardless of what you pick – even if you’re a straight, cisgender man. Later in the game the counsellor calls you back to the office, and asks you some more in-depth questions, after which he says what he thinks you identify as. If you say that he got it wrong, then you have a nearly endless list of options to choose for your character’s sex, gender and sexuality. And I was gobsmacked. As much as I love South Park, it had just come off the ‘PC Principal’ season, and I was not hopeful or even expecting something like this in The Fractured But Whole. But the South Park team took what games like Mass Effect did, and took it to the nth degree, showing the rest of the gaming world how it should be done.