Subject: Happy Pride Month everyone! (And some rambling about cool representation ish)
Posted on: 2021-06-08 16:42:00 UTC
...Geez, I'm a whole week late. I meant to write this earlier but Events Eventuated.
Anyways, it's pride month! Yay! I'm pretty introverted so I never actually attend anything, but hey, still awesome. And the PPC has been a huge part of making it that way. This was one of the first places where I felt comfortable exploring my identity and just... being me. So that's a huge deal. Hence my writing this post.
And because it's pride month, we get to talk about Awesome Representation in Things! Or at least, I am. Please provide your own awesome examples of representation, or whatever other pride stuff you like. I'm gonna talk about videogames because quite frankly I've been pretty burnt out which has kept me from reading things as much as I might want to, so it's what I've been experiencing lately.
First off, for some very real life representation. Every Pride, I like to take some time to commemorate Danielle Bunten Berry, who deserves to be better known not only as an influential LGBT figure in the development of videogames as a medium, but as an important figure in the history of gaming. She died too soon, but her legacy is a series of games which, while obscure, predicted and shaped the future of gaming. Seven Cities of Gold was one of the earliest 4X games, attempted (with mixed success) to teach about history and the very real atrocities of its period, and influenced a young Sid Meier towards developing games like Pirates! and Civilization. Modem Wars was a real-time tactics game (not Real Time Strategy as we know it, I should note) that could be played against other players over a modem link and supported distributeable replay files (letting you share your match with other players on bulletin boards)... in 1988. Berry's work was characterized by a real interest in gaming as a social pasttime, and this manifests in the fact that most of her games were designed around multiplayer --- long before most others were even seriously considering multiplayer computer games. And this shows most plainly in her most influential design, M.U.L.E. A four-player turn-based real-time (your turns are played in real-time with a time limit) economic strategy game originally released all the way back in 1983, M.U.L.E. is widely considered one of the greatest games period by people who are old, and has influenced and been referenced by countless videogames. M.U.L.E units appear in Starcraft II, M.U.L.E is a very direct and obvious influence on the considerably more cynical real-time economic strategy game Offworld Trading Company, and famously Shigeru Miyamoto cited M.U.L.E as an influence on Pikmin. Will Wright dedicated the very first version of The Sims to Danielle's memory soon after her death, but so, so few people are aware of or have experienced her work.
Now onto the fun stuff, and while everything here is decidedly PG-13, I should warn you that I'll necessarily be talking about sex and sexuality. So things might get a little bit risque.
I've been playing Dragon Age Inquisition (the Second Worst One™), and that is a great game for LGBT representation. Well, by the low standards of AAA gaming at least. It helps that Dragon Age's lead writer, David Gaider, is himself gay. Which is... something you can kinda notice. Not only in that it's common for gay characters to get a little bit better of a romance arc than lesbian characters (or so sayeth by Rabid Dragon Age Fan Friend, who would know) but also there's something... a little bit more real about the way gay characters get portrayed than you often see in these sorts of games. I think a part of it is that sexuality is actually considered seriously by the team when these characters are getting written. A lot of games, Elder Scrolls, for example, go the "PC-sexual" route of just making every single character who can be romanced romanceable by every possible PC with essentially no change in the writing. When a Dragon Age character is bisexual (two of the four romance options in the first Dragon Age, everyone in DA2, some percentage I don't remember for DAI...) they are bisexual. It's part of how they are written, and whether or not it comes up, that informs their character. Some of them have dated and slept with the same sex before, some of them might not have. As I recall, Zevran from DA1 dabbled with polyamory. The relationships and sexuality of these characters are written with same the care and attention that made Bioware the defining Western RPG studio for a solid 15 years (that's not a typo, Bioware had a huge hand in defining what we expect from an RPG over the course of the late 90s and 2000s). And I think their willingness to write sexuality with some deliberacy really shines in the case of My Maybe Favorite Character from Inquisition and the first actual gay (not bisexual) character in the series, Dorian. It's pretty obvious why Dorian is written as exclusively gay---he left home when his father actually attempted to forcibly make him straight, a conflict that began because Dorian rejected an arranged marriage in a society obsessed with breeding and lineage. This (sans the magic elements) is not a new story beat. In fact, it's a very old one. What makes it different is what Dorian's arc actually is, which is the part where I think that it shows that someone involved in this was actually gay and had these experiences. In most media where you see this kind of story happen, the character's arc is about accepting their own sexuality, about working through their own self-loathing. But while Dorian has self-loathing to spare, he's not uncomfortable with his sexuality. In fact, he takes refuge in it, very deliberately exaggerating those aspects of himself to provoke as a sort of defense mechanism. Because what Dorian actually is is lonely. Painfully so. Before joining the party he has few friends, and while he's sexually experienced, he comes from a world where you're either in the closet, at least keeping up appearances, or you came out as transgender, married a dwarf for love, and now are agitating for social reform inside the Wizard Senate and thus fending off five political assassinations before breakfast (Maevaris Tilani is awesome, but sadly she only really appears in side materials, not in the game per se). And one thing people forget (or, if the film is PG, deliberately omit) about societies that closeted is that any kind of intimate encounters are very much sexual in nature. Dorian wants emotional intimacy but he's so used to getting denied or rejected that he's deliberately walled off that aspect of himself. If you romance him, his ensuing arc will be about learning to believe that kind of connection is possible. If you don't, he'll develop a friendship with you, for a similar sort of growth. Either way he will flirt with you shamelessly, male or female, because that's just how he is.
I left a lot about Dorian's character out of that because I'm talking about representation and not talking up my favorite Dragon Age characters, and there's more to a character than Gay. I'll leave that discussion for once I've finished the game. But that theme of loneliness, of the inability to connect with someone they way you want to because they or you are trying to hide who they are from the people around them, shows up a lot in gay media. You might have noticed it in the year's most sexually explicit and offensive-to-conservatives hit song of the year so far, Lil Nas X's "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)", which is one of the most awkwardly parenthesized titles of the year as well. I... have not listened to this song much, but I kinda love it? Everyone talks about the music video, which was probably intentional, but I'm gonna say that the song is actually better without it. Because quite frankly it doesn't need an eye-catching video to be interesting. This is a song about sex with a guy, and it hit the top of the charts. But it's also explicitly about sex with a guy who is in the closet, and as much as Lil Nas says he's "not fazed" and "only here to sin", the song doesn't end with more casual sex and drugs, it ends with pleading. "Tell me you love me in private". "I do not care of you lyin'". That's not what you say when you're emotionally uninvested in someone you're hooking up with. I mean, maybe it is, I certainly can't speak with authority on the subject, but at the very least that's not how it reads to me. It reads like a song about being romantically interested in someone who's only willing to be with you sexually. And that hurts. Or I assume it does.
Where LGBT representation is most common in videogames is, of course, indie games. Last year's Hades, in addition to being one of the best hack and slashes and the best roguelites of the entire decade, as well the moment when the world at large seemed to suddenly discover what I and many others had known for a long time--that Supergiant Games, the company behind Hades, does exceptional work and has some of the best writing, art, and music in the whole industry. But it also let you enter a polyamorous relationship with a fury and the God of Death. I... don't have as much to say here, other than to once again reiterate how awesome Hades is. In part because it's actually kind of hard/time-consuming to get into a relationship in Hades so despite 100 hours on record (and more like 80 in game if I'm being honest), I still haven't completed the romantic arcs. But, also because as well-developed as Zagreus is as a character, I don't think his sexuality is ever all that deeply delved into. Which... makes a lot of sense. This game isn't really about that (as much as it's joked that Hades is the year's best dating sim...), but also nobody cares. This is an ancient-Greece inspired setting. Bisexuality is, to some extent, a sort of default (yeah, I know, sexuality in Ancient Greece was a little more complex than that but I said "inspired"). So of course there's not a lot of focus on it or angst. And as much as I just praised Bioware for the opposite, there's a lot to be said for that. If you're LGBT, you get enough angst in your daily life. Sometimes, escapism is fun. Also, it helps that, like Dragon Age and every other game I will mention in a positive light here, Hades puts in the work to make its characters feel fully realized and relatable.
The other place LGBT representation happens is in adventure games and in visual novels. "Walking simulators", games like the famously gay Gone Home (which I haven't played and thus won't talk about), are known for their artsier aspirations, but their more gamey cousins share the sort of low-budget development (or are even lower budget), making it easier for small, underfunded developers to get interesting games that tell more experimental interactive stories out into the open. Interactive Fiction (text adventures and such), have been known for being a great space for queer work for a long time, with highlights like Brendan Patrick Hennessy's very queer teenage mystery/romance Twine trilogy composed of Bell Park, Youth Detective; Birdland; and Known Unknowns... oh hey he made a new also gay game called BOAT PROM I should probably play that. Adventure games are probably a bit less into the whole representation thing because of their historical ties to places like LucasArts and other less experimental companies (although Sierra did make the insanely risque for the time Phantasmagoria 2, a horror game that did actually have a gay plot thing going on). And then Visual novels are... weird. Visual novels have ties to Japan, which has a really regressive attitude towards homosexuality... but also has an entire division of NitroPlus, one of the largest Visual Novel studios in the country, called Nitro+CHIRAL, dedicated to writing BL/Yaoi visual novels directed towards a female audience. And some of them are actually even kinda good? Like, I enjoyed the parts of DRAMAtical Murder that I played, even if it was kinda trashy (for those who are unaware, I despise roughly 99% of Yaoi). Meanwhile, western developers use the visual novel as a format for generally queer, specifically lesbian, gay, or gay and also furry narratives all the time. Although the most famous case of a gay furry visual novel actually came out of Japan---Morenatsu, a perpetually-unfinshed game about coming home to your small town on summer vacation and dating your best friends who are all anthropomorphic animals, originally started on Japan's legendarily volatile 2chan message board (imagine if 4chan was somehow worse...). Over here, itch.io is the visual novel central, and games vary from entirely explicit to sweet romances and coming of age stories to somewhere in between. My personal guilty pleasure is the recently-made-SFW Minotaur Hotel, but there's a lot of good and... deeply questionable content to choose from.
Sorry I couldn't talk about more, but I have an actual job now and this has already taken me something like an hour to write. So I must leave further talk about good representation and such to all of you. Please let me know what your favorite good representation is because I love a good recommendation and I don't just talk to hear the sound of my own voice.