Let’s talk a little history. I don’t know how many of you were around and conscious of what television in the 90’s was like. Much like the film industry, it produced some of the biggest garbage in the world. You had shit like Friends and Full House, both of which got unbelievably popular due to nostalgia that people seem to believe the entertainment was so much better back then. These people are what people like me call “clinically insane.” But here’s something you may not remember – the 90’s didn’t always write gay characters very well. Some of the biggest stereotypes about the LGBT community came into being then. Now, the thing is that they aren’t negative stereotypes. In fact, they were overwhelmingly positive. There is a reason for that. Maybe it was making up for old negative stereotypes, or people just not being able to write these kinds of characters very well. Whatever the reason, they were all bad.
Here was the problem – these characters all had a bad habit of announcing that they’re gay to everyone they meet. They are so damn proud of being gay and they are damn sure going to make sure that everyone knows it. It was bad writing in the worst way. All of these characters had a bad habit of the fact that they are gay being their entire life. It isn’t one facet of it, but every facet of it. Everything in their lives centers around the fact that they’re gay. It was lazy, terrible writing that led to some of the most one-dimensional characters we ever got to see.
Time went by, however, and writers were able to get past whatever hangup they had and were able to start writing very rounded gay characters who were characters first, gay second. They had rich personalities and issues with life that are part of the issues everyone has. It led to some truly fantastic characters, like my favorite anti-hero, Omar Little from The Wire.
That sure was a long intro to talking about what this post is going into. Gaming is at a similar crossroads. What led us here is the fact that a lot of gamers are now part of an older generation. The average age of gamers is closer to 30 than 20. It’s become a part of popular culture, and is quickly overtaking Hollywood in telling engaging narratives that people can get wrapped up in. As such, it’s only natural that we see games taking on more and more adult themes. Things like the nature of marriage and ’til death do you part (Uncharted 4), the price of fame and losing one’s fame and selling out to greed (Persona 5), justifying evil for the greater good and the redemption that comes with being willing to change (Mass Effect 2 and 3).
Something that comes with writing narratives that are more complicated means having characters that are more complicated. After all, people are not one-dimensional. And it also means looking at other parts of life. Like different kinds of relationships. It was only natural that the gay community would make an appearance in this medium sooner or later. Now sure, the core gaming audience is men. That’s just how that goes. The CoD games will never tackle this sort of thing. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the fact that narratives involving LGBT characters will typically be niche.
For a medium that has a real problem with subtlety, looking into something like this should be a niche thing. There’s a reason why. Let’s look at one of my favorite examples of it being done right and then it being done wrong.
In The Last of Us, you meet a character named Bill. Bill is kind of a crazy man. He’s weird, unwell, and has a real problem with Joel’s tiny companion. Granted, they meet with her smashing a pipe on his arm. That’s something. However, as you go on with his narrative, he tells Joel of a person that he had to look after. At first, he calls him his “partner,” and really doesn’t want to get very specific about him. There is genuine venom in his voice when he talks about this guy. What happened between these two? When you get to a house after escaping the school, you find out. He’s hanging from a noose that he rigged to stop himself from becoming one of the infected.
It’s here that we see another side of this. At first, he’s clinical about it. He’s looking over the body and seeing what happened. But as you listen to him talk about him, there’s real pain in his voice. Pain, anger, all sorts of emotions. It’s a testament to what a good performance the voice actor does how much depth he brings into talking about this guy. As I was playing this with my gay girly-mate Erin, she had this to say, “they had to have dated.” To which I asked, “how do you figure?” “Easy, you don’t hate someone this much unless you’ve dated.” Well put. Bill lives a life where everything is regimented and safe. When you find Frank’s letter, it tells of a man who was angry with Bill. He wanted more from life than Bill was willing to give, and it ended in him leaving. In his last letter, he says how much he hated Bill and wanted more from life than he wanted to give.
What happened between these two? We never know. It clearly must have been a very damaged relationship. The audience can see some of the history and it’s enough to tell us a tragic story of two men who ended up hating each other because of irreconcilable differences in how they lived. In a world where love for a gay person must be unfathomably hard to come by, to lose that relationship must have been hard for both of them. But by the end both of them hated one-another. It was done so well, and played very subtly. I love everything about the nature of that relationship. It also shows a side of Joel. He figures out pretty quickly the deal between Bill and Frank, but he doesn’t make a big deal out of it. After all, he is a Texan.
Now let’s look at this done wrong. In Mass Effect 3, you meet a shuttle pilot named Steve Cortez. He seems like an interesting character. But there is a stark contrast of narrative quality in his his story plays out, depending on if you have male or female Shepard. If you have female, it is a very interesting narrative about a man who is getting over the loss of someone dear to him. If you have male Shepard, it’s a narrative about a gay man throwing his grief away in a nano-second in order to try and jump your bones. It’s cringe-worthy to say the least. Since I preferred Femshep because she was a much more engaging character, I was able to see the story done right.
What happened? I’ll tell you – a narrative had to be spun. See, we have another player in the problem with writing gay characters in gaming right now – SJWs. Social justice decided to come in and take over the writing process of this character, all so they could call foul when the gamers were like, “this gay sex scene sucks. Where did this come from?” Good fucking question. He was poorly written in order to spread a narrative and get a subject matter talked about.
This has happened quite a bit. Gay characters are being written where the fact that they’re gay is their entire personality. Or now the big one is trans. Like how Ubisoft created an openly transgender character in Victorian London. A time when I guarantee NO ONE was open about gender dysphoria. Yet this character is all about talking about it to whoever they meet. Or the trans character in Mass Effect: Andromeda, who really had to make a big deal out of this when they have a fuck-ton more things to worry about.
I get why this medium is going to be the hardest to write these kinds of characters in. The core demographic is men. That’s a demographic that is going to see this stuff pretty black and white. Hell, in this insanely divisive culture that we live in, nuance is hard to see on any sides. This is why I genuinely believe that if we are going to see more and more gay characters, it needs to be first handled in the niche markets, where it can be handled with a deft hand, rather than a stick to beat people over the head with, despite how rarely that deft hand is applied.
But maybe there’s hope. I just got done with the latest episode to a prequel to my favorite game of 2015 – Life is Strange. That game already had a very well-done relationship between Chloe and Max, but the real stand-out example of a blossoming romance that I genuinely enjoyed playing was in the prequel. While it is miles below the original, the thing I can say is that the relationship between Chloe and Rachel that I have been able to help shape feels genuine. And this most recent episode had payoff to that. We’ll see if it can keep the trend of well-done character development happen.
*Update: The third episode of Life is Strange: Before the Storm totally fucked the relationship between Chloe and Rachel. There was no payoff. Zero. The last episode might as well have pretended their relationship didn’t exist*
The ultimate message of this ramble is that making gay characters should be about making characters first. Being gay is a part of a person’s life, but it isn’t everything. At least not if they aren’t these social justice idiots who feel the need to make everything tie back into it. It’s just one part of who that person is. That’s how these kinds of characters need to be written. Make them a character first. Make gamers like them for who they are, then ease them in. Just like how straight men can have gay friends who they are cool with, I guarantee that that gay friend knows that he can’t be too in this person’s face with how they are, because they know it would make the other person uncomfortable.
Wow, this seems like a whole lot of nothing, doesn’t it? Maybe I should have made this a RAB post. Unsure. What do you all think? Let me know in the comments.
Until next time, a quote,
“Do you think there’s a point where you’ve been acting so much that you don’t even have your own personality anymore?” – Rachel Amber, Life is Strange: Before the Storm