The first gay character in a video game was an unnamed woman in the 1986 game Moonmist, who was arguing with her girlfriend over the girlfriend’s decision to marry a man. Two years later, Nintendo introduced one of the first mainstream queer characters: Birdo, the pink, beribboned dinosaur from Super Mario Bros. 2. In the game manual, she’s described as such: “He thinks he’s a girl … He’d rather be called Birdetta.” Ten years later, Fallout 2 made history by featuring a same-sex marriage option: there is no difference in gameplay, regardless of whom you marry. In 2003, Bioware began its complicated history of LGBTQ romance in RPGs with Juhabi, a lesbian Jedi Knight from the smash hit Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR). This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first gay character in a video game, and developers are barely starting to do things right.
Play any Bioware RPG series such as Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and Fallout, and you’ll see one of the most diverse casts of characters outside of games made in Japan. Play one and you’ll also see a familiar pattern emerge among them: singular hero assembles a ragtag team of colorful characters to defeat the bad thing. At least one or more of these characters will be “romanceable.” And, recently, at least one of those characters will be queer.
Unfortunately, queer romance options aren’t always handled well. Games like Fallout 4, Dragon Age: Origins, and Mass Effect 2 inject artificial diversity by making most of the characters romanceable regardless of gender. While bisexual characters would be a welcome addition to these games, simply making every character bisexual for the sake of diversity devalues bisexuality as a whole. While a few well-written bisexual characters exist, such as Liara in Mass Effect (a member of the entirely female Asari), in most cases these characters simply end up being at best no different from straight characters, at worst offensive. In Dragon Age: Origins, there is one gay option for romance, the Elf Zevran; however, Zevran fits a number of degrading stereotypes, being only interested in casual sex, not a relationship. In Fallout 4, romance, both gay and straight, has next to no meaning. The player character can raise their approval with companions in a number of ways, eventually culminating in a decision; the player can, with high enough charisma, romance their companion. Unfortunately, this decision does next to nothing. At the highest level of approval, each companion grants a unique perk, but no other benefits, making it all too easy to simply farm affection for bonuses in-game. There is no unique dialogue for romance; indeed, the only thing that happens is a unique perk that boosts XP gain if the player character sleeps next to their “partner.” And since every character can be romanced regardless of gender, the game removes any semblance of emotion from the romances. Romance exists in the initial building of friendship between characters, but no further than that. There is nothing in the way of the often-expected (and often hilarious) sex scene, and a relationship after consummation? Forget about it.
Often games try to handle LGBTQ romance in this way, with the “bi way out.” There exists a thin line between treating gay romance as what it is, romance, nothing more, and shoehorning it in as a way to placate the masses. In cases like The Sims and Fables, where the player character can romance characters regardless of gender, that line is blurred. By having there be no distinction between same-sex and opposite-sex marriages, these games treat LGBTQ romance as it should be treated: no differently than straight romance. However, there are games that treat it even better than that.
Dragon Age: Inquisition handles LGBTQ romance, and romance in general, the best of any RPG outside of Japan. Inquisition makes great strides in its treatment of the LGBTQ community. A prominent (unfortunately non-romanceable) character is a female-to-male transgender individual, and while not romanceable, is treated no differently than other male members of Inquisition‘s cast. In addition to Josephine, the Inquisition’s ambassador able to be romanced by either a male or female Inquisitor, Dorian and Sera, who are arguably the funniest, wittiest companions to have, show Inquisition‘s commitment to representation.
Dorian is a gay mage hailing from Tevinter, a little-known country that produces most of the game’s antagonists. Dorian is a suave, witty, sarcastic character with a dark past: his own father, also a mage, tried to have Dorian made straight by means of magic, a chilling parallel to the modern-day practice of “praying away the gay.” In spite of this, Dorian remains one of the most complex characters of the series. His sexuality, while defining him, does not make him into a trope. He is a stalwart friend and loyal companion regardless of romance.
Sera, the lesbian elf, manages to be even more complex than Dorian at times. Raised by an emotionally abusive human surrogate, Sera has a deep distaste for anything she deems “elfy,” making it much more difficult for a female elf to romance her. Yet, if you can manage to get her to open up to an elven Inquisitor, you will discover one of the more complex characters in gaming. Romancing Sera, in sharp contrast to romancing in Fallout 4, did not feel like a quest to gain a better perk. As the game progressed, I genuinely wanted to know more about her as a person. I was interested in her life, her fears, her likes and dislikes. I kept her around the entire game, relishing the quips that she and Dorian traded with each other and the rest of my party. My romance with Sera blossomed in a surprisingly touching scene atop the roof of Skyhold, the castle in which your Inquisition is based in. Sera opened up to me about how her surrogate mother felt guilty buying cookies from the baker instead of making them herself, so she convinced Sera that the baker hated elves to deflect suspicion. Sera went her whole life hating bakers and cookies until she found out. She then reached into her bag and pulled out a cookie, offering to share it with my Inquisitor. It was astounding how Inquisition can make a character spouting fart jokes one moment, and inspiring tears the next.
As well as Inquisition handles LGBTQ romance, there is one game that outshines it: Gone Home. While it barely qualifies as a game (having little to no gameplay and no failure state), Gone Home inspired more emotion in me than any other game, movie, or book has before. An indie game lasting no more than a few hours, Gone Home is the story of Kaitlin Greenbriar, a 21-year-old student who returns from college to find her home empty. The player uncovers the mystery of where her family has gone through miscellaneous notes, audio diaries, and environmental clues scattered about the house. I played the game straight through during a rainy night. As Kaitlin, I discovered the story of my mother’s potential romance with a coworker, my father’s struggling career as an author, and, most importantly, my sister Samantha’s relationship with Lonnie.
Samantha’s relationship with Lonnie could have been portrayed as cliché or offensive. Instead it is one of the most beautiful love stories I had ever read. Samantha and Lonnie’s relationship is rocky, messy, and uncomfortable at times. There is drama, heartbreak, and loyalty. And there is love. The game perfectly portrays a teenager in the ’90s, complete with period-appropriate posters and clothing. The house itself, rife with secret passageways due to its construction by a bizarre uncle, provides the perfect place for these two women to develop their friendship, and eventually their romance. I won’t spoil the ending, but it was one of the most touching things I have ever experienced. Gone Home represents a brilliant portrayal of a gay romance without being cliché in the slightest. In fact, it is perhaps the greatest romance in game history, straight, gay, or otherwise.
While it is clear that the treatment of the LGBTQ community has a long way to go, Inquisition and Gone Home are excellent examples of how the video game industry is moving toward a better treatment of the gay community. The days of “the gay option” are hopefully behind us. With luck, the industry will realize that when it comes to romance in video games, a gay romance is like any other romance.