Video games are far from the most inclusive medium, as any extended period of gaming on Xbox Live will attest to, so there is little reason to question that people are scared of putting gay protagonists in games. Ubisoft Montreal lead writer Lucien Soulban, an openly gay man himself, made that suggestion in a recent interview. Specifically, when asked whether we would be likely to see “a mid-30s stubbly-bearded brown-haired white guy with a raspy voice who is gay as a lead character in a AAA title.”, he aptly sidestepped the clear shot at the homogeneity of male protagonists (thats another topic for another day), and replied “Not for a while, I suspect, because of fears that it’ll impact sales”. He went on to say that if we were to see a gay protagonist, it would likely be “a bait-and-switch like the original Metroid with Samus Aran” where it was only revealed to the player on the final screen that Samus was a woman, or that it would “come out of left field with Rockstar, Valve, Naughty Dog or Telltale, perhaps”.
The first suggestion is interesting, as we already have a reasonably similar case with J. K. Rowling revealing after the conclusion of the Harry Potter series that Albus Dumbledore had been written as a gay character all along, however due to his sexuality being essentially irrelevant to the narrative this was never addressed at the time. Imagine at the end of Gears of War, a game already joked about containing Top Gun levels of homoeroticism, if two of the absolutely stacked super-soldiers shared a passionate embrace. Would it really change our whole understanding of the previous 12-or-so hours you spent wading through pools of alien viscera, high-fiving your fellow squad mates? Would it shed a different light on the characters’ action up until that point? The fact that sexuality already plays a less pronounced role in games than it does in movies or television means that, social statement aside, it isn’t likely to affect your enjoyment of the game at all.
The second suggestion references development teams who place a great deal of emphasis on telling coherent and relatable narratives, something that is hard to come by in the gaming industry, but he does so with good reason. Naughty Dog’s 2013 opus The Last of Us features two characters whose sexuality is implied but never explicitly explored. The first, named Bill, is implied to have had a partner named Frank, who is later found dead. However Bill’s sexuality is portrayed entirely through subtle hints, and if you aren’t paying attention to every piece of dialogue you might miss this thread completely, especially considering his manner and frame are about as far from the gay stereotype as you can get. In fact, the US Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) were so impressed they wrote on their blog regarding Bill: “There weren’t many new LGBT characters to be found in mainstream video games this year, but one of 2013’s most critically acclaimed featured a particularly interesting one.”
The other character is Ellie, the game’s fourteen year old protagonist who grapples not only with the harsh wasteland of post-apocalyptic America, but also with being a teenager fuelled by emotion and angst. Like Bill, Ellie’s romantic feelings are nuanced, and are further complicated by her age. In the downloadable content Left Behind, it is heavily implied that Ellie has feelings for a female friend of hers named Riley, and after a particularly emotional scene they share a kiss followed by Ellie saying “I’m sorry”, obviously embarrassed by the outburst of emotion, to which Riley replies with a smile “For what?”. It seems like such a simple exchange, but moments like this are depressingly rare not only in games, but in all big budget media.
Luckily, there is plenty of terrific independent media that better explores relationships and LGBT characters. Check out the films that were shown at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and show your support for content creators who actually bother to make a genuine attempt at portraying LGBT issues. And lastly, to bring it back into gaming, if you have a PC or Mac you owe it to yourself to buy Gone Home. Due in particular to the subtlety in the way the relationships are explored, I really can’t praise and recommend it enough; it’s cheap, it’s easy, it’ll take you as long as a movie to complete, and it’s one of the most subversive and powerful experiences you’ll have with a narrative in any medium. Games like Gone Home and The Last of Us are evidence that the gaming industry is heading in the right direction, and hopefully the popularity of those games will go towards proving Mr Soulban wrong in the long run.