Where Were All The Queer Video Games In 2018?
The tides were turning. There were queer characters on television that hadn’t died yet, and we were a whole six months in. Feature film Love, Simon was released at the cinema, and while it wasn’t perfect, nobody could take away the thrill that came with sitting in an actual movie theatre and seeing the trailer for a trashy romcom about someone who wasn’t straight. It seemed like 2018 might be a year for queer people to be offered a seat at the table, and given more of a place in mainstream media.
So, we waited and hoped for games to follow suit. Everyone was still scream-singing The Greatest Showman’s ‘This is Me’ (everyone does that… right?) in the hope that doing so would ritualistically summon some games celebrating queer characters out of the aether to save us from 2018’s dearth, and to remind us of the joy that we felt the year before when it seemed like maybe the games industry was ready to take that step.
Six months in, at E3, excitement grew. Breaths were held. Days passed without anything, and yet we held on.
There was a queer protagonist, being given her seat at the table.
On the third day, it finally happened. First, the announcement of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, and with it, confirmation that it would be set in ancient Greece. And really, that setting mixed with the information that there’d be options for romance… even without any further clarification, you can infer that they might not all be straight.
From there, it only got better. Before anyone had time to celebrate the potential of this announcement properly, the unthinkable happened. On a big screen, at E3, in the new trailer for one of the most anticipated games of the year, we saw That Kiss. There was Ellie – beautiful, brave Ellie, sharing a tender and very real moment with another woman during the calm before what one can only assume will be the devastating and death-filled sadness storm that is The Last of Us 2. There was a queer protagonist, being given her seat at the table. It was a big moment for queer gamers.
But if that’s true, then why did 2018 overall feel so small?
The answer lies in the fact that despite these big moments, despite this illusion of progress, 2018’s inclusion of queer characters in mainstream games has otherwise been almost non-existent. Because while this isn’t an article about the best mainstream game of 2018 that featured queer content, the list of contenders for that title is so small that it might as well be.
That isn’t to say that there weren’t any games with queer content released at all – there absolutely were. Creators are releasing smaller, self-published games all the time. But we’re talking about mainstream, big-enough-to-be-mentioned-on-Wikipedia games, where things look a little scarcer.
…despite this illusion of progress, 2018’s inclusion of queer characters in mainstream games has otherwise been almost non-existent.
There has been some positive change. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey was mostly as queer it promised to be. Whether you chose to play as Kassandra or Alexios, you were free to gallivant around Greece, taking time to be both a killer in the streets and then also, occasionally, in the sheets. Regardless of your gender or theirs, these optional romantic partners were down to have a good time as long as you turned on the charm. It would have been nicer if these encounters had felt like anything more than a sexual exchange, given many of these characters were only around for a few quests at most and then never seen again, but progress is progress.
In 2015, Ubisoft included a bisexual protagonist in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, confirming this fact through a ‘word of god’ announcement outside the game itself, and now their bisexual protagonist is front and centre, chatting up members of both the same and opposite gender for all to see. That’s a step forward. It still allows for the player to avoid this queer content entirely, which carries with it its own problems, but given it’s the highest profile queer representation of the year, perhaps that’s a battle that can wait.
As exciting as the trailer was, The Last of Us 2 isn’t scheduled for release until 2019, so it technically doesn’t contribute to 2018’s list. But if you wanted to see a queer storyline for a young girl that we have been supporting through a zombie apocalypse for more than five years now, you were still in luck. The most recent series of Telltale’s The Walking Dead included the possibility for much-loved young survivor Clementine to pursue a relationship with another woman, despite plenty of negative discourse around even the idea of this prior to the game’s release.
Unfortunately, Telltale’s dramatic closure and the worthy discussion surrounding that situation may have put conversations about Clem’s immediate future on the backburner in favour of focusing on whether or not she (or the series) has a long-term future at all, but it’s worth mentioning. In small ways, 2018 gave us some wins. But it still isn’t enough.
Part of representing queer people is putting the player in their shoes, giving them a voice and some insight into the perspective from which they see the world.
There were some more minor instances of representation to celebrate, with the inclusion of a lesbian couple in State of Decay 2 (is there something about the zombie apocalypse?), and Connor and Hank’s short interaction with two androids in a lesbian relationship in Detroit: Become Human, but these are fleeting. It was nice to see that those two android women could teach a gruff detective about the possibility of androids feeling love, but it would have been even nicer if they’d been able to do it while fully clothed and not on the run from their jobs at the more-than-unpleasant robot sex club.
Incidental representation, or the inclusion of queer characters in the background rather than in prominent roles, is great and important but it has to go hand in hand with queer characters being put in the spotlight. Part of representing queer people is putting the player in their shoes, giving them a voice and some insight into the perspective from which they see the world. Background inclusion alone doesn’t allow for that, and neither does making a game’s queer content entirely optional. So, again, representation like this isn’t enough.
In 2017, things were better. Games like Life is Strange: Before the Storm explored queer narratives in a deeper way, focusing on real and relatable characters like Chloe Price. Mass Effect: Andromeda allowed players to pursue more meaningful relationships with crewmembers of various genders, in the way that Bioware has pioneered for many years now. Indie darling Night in the Woods was about a pansexual, exceedingly anxious, millennial college drop-out, and it was multi-award-winning, destroying the idea that games featuring queer characters won’t receive acclaim.
There was even Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator, a game about being a dad and dating other dads, filled with dad jokes and the world’s worst puns, and it gave me the most relatable protagonist I’ve ever inhabited the dad-bod of.
The success of games like these paved the way for an amazingly queer 2018 in the world of gaming that just never came. The Life is Strange series continued on, switching from a focus on queer characters to no representation at all. A few big games gave us queer characters and romances, most of which were either overly sexualized or easily missable.
The time for change was now, and it didn’t come to fruition. But with The Last of Us 2 in development, and a world of possibilities out there heading into 2019, it’s entirely possible that the future will be more colourful – we just can’t celebrate yet.