Video games finally embrace LGBTQ+ romance

BY COLIN CAMPBELL


It’s not often that a video game trailer makes me go all gooey, but this one for The Sims 4 My Wedding Stories is a gorgeous festival of romantic excess. Timed for the Valentine’s Day season, the trailer promotes a new addition to Electronic Arts’ human life simulation The Sims 4, in which players plan the wedding of their dreams. The trailer is a mini-movie about two women who fall madly in love, and throw a beautiful marriage ceremony.

The trailer is an indicator of how far video games have come in portraying the LGBTQ+ community and relationships, which were once an extreme rarity in video games. Until recent years, queer characters in games were usually presented as negative stereotypes. Gay men especially have been depicted in Village People garb, or as confused, effeminate characters.

Even The Sims series, which has generally embraced diversity, made early mis-steps. The original game, released in 2000, featured same-sex romance but couples could only attain the status of “roommates” instead of full romantic partners. Later, The Sims 2 (2004) included same-sex relationships as a clear option.

ROLE-PLAYING games diversify

Eventually, fantasy and science fiction role-playing games led the way in affecting change. RPGs are all about allowing players to create their own personas in strange worlds. It’s a genre that values individual freedom.

One of the few LGBTQ+ friendly games from the 1990s includes Fallout 2 (1998), a post-apocalyptic RPG set in small town America. In the years that followed, leading developers like Bioware included LGBTQ+ options in landmark series like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age.

Back then, there was plenty of push-back from social conservatives who complained that these games had some sort of socio-political agenda. Reactionary attitudes both inside game companies, and among vocal consumers stifled LGBTQ+ representation in games. But the trend toward diversity gathered pace as major hits began to include LGBTQ+ themes as a matter of necessity. Majestic fantasy adventure The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim (2011) included same-sex relationships, and went on to sell 30 million copies.

Gone Home (2013) was an award-winning indie game about a girl in high school who falls in love with her best friend, triggering a crisis in the family. Polygon called it “the most important game of the decade”, because of its influence on other game creators. Sony-owned developer Naughty Dog cited the game as an influence for its The Last of Us series, which stars gay protagonist Ellie.

Award-winning LGBTQ+ stories

In April, The Gayming Awards are due to take place, celebrating games that include intelligently written LGBTQ+ characters and themes. Now in its second year, the awards demonstrate how far same-sex relationships have progressed across a wide variety of platforms, embracing both indie and big budget productions.

The game-of-the-year nominations are a good guide to the increasing sophistication of interactive storytelling, as game developers embrace a far more diverse outlook than in previous years.

Life is Strange: True Colors is the story of Alex Chen, a young woman who senses other people’s emotions through color. In the murder-mystery story, Alex can choose to pursue a relationship with either a man or a woman. But whereas the option to kiss a same-sex character featured in the original Life is Strange (2015) – leaving the character’s preference as a binary player-choice – Alex is specifically bisexual.

Alex Chen from Life is Strange: True Colors (2021) [Square Enix]

Boyfriend Dungeon is a dating sim / dungeon crawler, in which players can date whoever they like, at a level that makes them feel comfortable – romantic, asexual relationships are an option, for example. Pronouns are variable, according to the player’s wishes. As in real life, some of the potential partners are troubled, including a stalker. 

In his review for Pink News, Ed Nightingale wrote: “It’s very clear the message of the game is that dating is for all, no matter who you are, as long as it’s loving and consensual.”

Psychonauts 2 was a big hit this year on Microsoft’s subscription service Xbox Game Pass. The zany platform game features a love story between a married couple –  Bob Zanotto and Helmut Fullbear  – which Gamespot called “the most beautiful love story in video games this year, or perhaps even the last few years”.

Unpacking is one of the biggest indie hits of the year. It’s a home decorating puzzle game in which the player moves house multiple times, and must literally unpack their belongings and place them in a pleasing manner. But as the main character moves from one place to another, we join her in her journey as she explores her sexuality.

SHOOTING STARS

While the quantity and quality of narrative games with LGBTQ+ stories and characters is rising, so too is the option to take on (or create) queer personas in more genres like action, and strategy.

Multiplayer shooting games are notoriously homophobic spaces, but publishers are increasingly keen to adopt LGBTQ+ friendly content. Fortnite released a “Rainbow Royale” event last July which included wearable pride items. League of Legends characters Leona and Diana are canonically LGBTQ+. Overwatch’s beloved warrior Tracer was introduced as a lesbian character back in 2016. Apex Legends‘ Gibraltar is an openly gay African-American man, while Bloodhound is a non-binary character who is only referred to with them / they pronouns.

Leona from League of Legends (2012) [Riot Games]

In recent Assassin’s Creed games, such as Odyssey, set in Ancient Greece, players can take on the role of a man or a woman, and can choose to romance both men or women.

Historical simulation Crusader Kings 3 launched with the ability to hook up with same sex concubines. A new update, released last week, allows kings and queens of old to marry whoever they please.

None of this erases gaming’s history of either ignoring LGBTQ+ characters, or of offensive and cliched portrayals. Prejudice still holds sway among our own communities, and in countries around the world. EA announced just last week that The Sims 4 Wedding Stories would not be released in Russia, due to that country’s so-called “gay propaganda” laws.

But as gaming embraces a broader conceptualization of its audience, and as the industry gradually increases its diversity of writers and creators, stories like that depicted in The Sims 4 trailer are finally creating a more welcome space for LGBTQ+ players.