In a recent blog post for Ubisoft, lead writer Lucien Soulban stated that it’s unlikely that we’re going to see an openly gay protagonist in a big budget videogame any time soon. He went on to suggest that, though ground is being made, there are too many factors in place to allow a gay protagonist to be a feature of a game. In particular, he sites the impact such a move could have on sales.
So when are we going to see that gay protagonist in a triple-A game? Not for a while, I suspect, because of fears that it’ll impact sales[…]”
This is a disappointing, but understandably real viewpoint of the videogame market. As we’ve discussed before, the LGBT community is under-represented in the media in general; videogames being particularly slow on the uptake until very recently.
Soulban, however, went on to suggest that the introduction of homosexual characters will be done slowly and quietly, with very little fanfare, he then refers to an interesting piece of videogaming history:
So either we’ll see a bait-and-switch like the original Metroid with Samus Aran where we’ll find out damn near after the fact[…] or it’ll come out of left field with Rockstar, Valve, Naughty Dog or Telltale, perhaps.
His reference was to the discovery that Samus Aran turned out to be a ‘surprise’ female protagonist at the very end of the original Metroid on the NES. This ‘bat and switch’ approach was also used for the revelation in the recent The Last of Us DLC chapter, Left Behind, that Ellie (the game’s beloved protagonist) was, in fact, gay. This was shown to gamers long after they’d first met Ellie and played through her story – and was met with some controversy.
However, it was this reference to Metroid that got me thinking- has sexuality ever been that important in games before now?
Back in 1986, revealing a game’s protagonist to be female sent shock and awe through the, albeit comparatively small, game industry. Samus was revealed to be a woman. A 6’3″, long legged, bad ass of a woman at that. This, for some, has also been a bone of contention. The fact that when women were portrayed in videogames, they were basically generic male-type, macho characters with female parts and long hair stuck on.
As for sexuality of videogame characters, it is undeniably true that gay characters have not been well represented. However, When I looked back at the most popular games over the last 30 year, I realised the same could be argued for heterosexual characters. The vast majority of the best selling games, from the retro era to the modern, have not represented sexuality at all. Of course there is the occasional exception, but the majority of the top selling protagonists are not portrayed as gay or straight.
Mario, for example, is a much loved Italian plumber who goes to the ends of the Earth (or the ends of numerous castles at least) to rescue a Princess. A nice guy going beyond the call of the plumber, but no romance is involved.
Likewise, Samus was revealed to be a woman – but not a gay or a straight woman. Link, in the ever popular Zelda series, was about as sexless as they come until the romantic suggestions of 2011’s, Skyward Sword. In fact, in the top 50 best selling viedogames of the 90s, a mere 10% of them had any suggestion of sexuality at all from the main protagonist. Of those, one of was a film license (Goldeneye, 1997) and two others were Final Fantasy games that featured a cast of characters, some of which had romantic sub-plots, whilst others sexuality was remains a mystery. The final game, Metal Gear Solid, certainly had a female character show a romantic interest in protagonist Solid Snake, but Snake’s sexuality is another one that was not really explored.
It’s a remarkably similar situation with the top selling games in the 2000s. Aside from Grand Theft Auto’s unique take on exploring its main character’s sexuality (you can choose to date multiple women or none at all in some of the games), there are very few games where a character’s sexuality is deemed to be even remotely relevant to the story line.
In very recent years, games have started trying introduce emotions into characters, sexuality has grown in importance- but it’s not like heterosexuality has been rife in the industry before now. I’m not denying the claim that ‘games have been made by men, for men, starring men’ – historically speaking. But how many of our latter day, muscle bound protagonists were actually portrayed as straight? We have no idea, because it’s actually never been an issue.
More recently, huge, big budget, critically acclaimed franchises like Mass Effect, Fable and Dragon Age have given the players the freedom of choice. Being able to choose if your character is male or female, then having the option to pursue a heterosexual or homosexual relationship. This is a great path to finally have opened for players, but it doesn’t lend itself to many genres outside of RPG games with romantic sidequests (a fairly niche market at the moment).
I think it’s fantastic that games have reached a point of portraying believable emotional development in their stories. This opens a path for themes of romance, love, loss, sexuality and more to be handled delicately, with the subtlety required. We’ve seen some jarringly horrible attempts before now that help you appreciate why the industry has shied away from such themes in the past. Anyone who witnessed the sex scene in Fahrenheit (aka Indigo Prophecy) in 2005 will be able to attest that games were not ready for believable romance back then. Though the writing and ideas were up to the task, the technology was not able to match. What transpired was an awkward, wooden and emotionless performance.
Today’s technology, combined with the budget of a top tier game, is paving the way for believable and emotionally charged performances. The use of motion capture and level of detail in character’s faces completely changes the way we as gamers receive the stories told. Further to this, the fact that developers of next generation games are now moving beyond mo-capping just the body and adding full facial motion capturing too.
Lucien Soulban could very well be right. It may be a long time before we see a gay protagonist. But the fact that we’re seeing characters like Ellie in a game as big as The Last of Us being portrayed as homosexual is a big step for an industry that has really only just started to deal with any kind of romantic emotion and related sexual preferences.
Perhaps the introduction of homosexuality into videogames is necessarily subtle? If a protagonist were to be ‘openly gay’ what exactly would that look like? If the character’s sexuality is of paramount importance to the game’s story, it becomes the focal selling (or non-selling) point of the game – as Soulban suggests. Could the same not be said of a straight character? Name a game in which the protagonist is necessarily straight. Outside of the truly terrible Leisure Suit Larry series, it’s a struggle to think of one?
On the flip side of the coin, if the character’s sexuality is not a hugely important factor, you can make the character gay, straight, bisexual or transgender. Allow that part of the character to be part of the back story or have some plot elements that allude to it, but let the gamers get on and play the game. Or take the Mass Effect approach and have the player choose to explore or ignore that path.
Regardless of sexuality, even prior to The Last of Us: Left Behind DLC, the success of games like The Last of Us, Beyond: Two Souls or Heavy Rain (the most completed game of this generation) has shown that video game audiences are maturing, they can handle and engage with a lot more than the investors maybe realise. It will still take a brave few to keep taking those perceived risks before it becomes more mainstream, but the exploration of any emotional relationships in video games is a good thing.
Will games have openly gay protagonists? It’s hard to know that, but what we do know is that games have never been more ready to try than they are now.
Richard is a father, teacher, gamer and writer. He believes that The Last of Us is the finest game ever made, feels that the StarWars Saga should only be watched in ‘the Machete order’ and once cleared Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in one sitting. Took him 20 hours, four cups of tea and a sausage roll. You can follow him on twitter @vigilantesanta.