graphic by Liana Kindler
In video games, you can be a world hero. You can be a humanoid plant that explores and brings justice to the universe. You can be a two-dimensional square with a range of human emotions. But can you be gay?
This is a question that my friends and I ask a lot when talking about what we can or can’t do in particular video games, and it goes to show how precious any queer representation is in video games, as the form of media is slowly learning to consider audience members other than those who are cisgender, heterosexual, and male. As an example, more often than not, female armor in games is still oversexualized and impractical; you know what I’m talking about.
When there is queer representation in video games, however, it tends to fall under these two categories: queer relationships as a player option, and canonically queer characters.
The first type of queer representation, where the player is allowed to have queer relationships in their game, is present in games where dating or marriage is an integral part of the game.
For example, in Stardew Valley, a Harvest Moon-inspired farming simulator/role playing game, one of the main aspects of the game is building social relationships with other townspeople. The player can do this by giving people gifts from their farm or minerals from the mine, and after building a strong friendship and romancing them, the player can marry that person (if they’re single). The dating mechanic in Stardew Valley is not restricted by gender; the player can date any single townsperson without regard to either person’s gender, so the player can have queer relationships.
The option to be queer in a video game is great, but it’s easy for people to overlook if they aren’t actively looking to bring queerness to their game. It’s more “queer tolerance” than it is “queer representation,” and it casts queerness to the side rather than accepting it as a normal part of society. It also disregards the fact that queer people can exist beyond their dating choices and should not be defined solely by those choices.
Fortunately, the second type of queer representation, in which video games have canonically queer characters, is not as easy to ignore or sweep aside.
Undertale is a strong example of a game with canonically queer characters. The choice-based role playing game has been praised for its story and unorthodox take on mercy in video game battles, as well as its character diversity. Several characters in the game strictly use they/them/theirs pronouns, there is a lesbian romance between two main characters, a male robot character breaks gender roles as a popstar, and there is a gay romance that the player can spark between two minor characters.
All of this representation is great in that it can’t be dismissed, but the best part is that the queer characters are allowed to simply exist within the game, independently of their dating choices. Too often in media is it that queer characters are forced into a narrative of mainly suffering, almost making it seem like the only thing to being queer is suffering. Revealing queer struggles isn’t bad on its own, but when it’s the only queer narrative in media, it paints a skewed picture of “queer experiences.” Undertale has its queer characters exist with rich narratives other than simply suffering, a valuable precedent for future games and media.
And that’s what we need more of: visibly queer characters that can’t be ignored. Even though queer options and tolerance are important in choice-centered games and a good step towards inclusion, we need more canonically queer characters in video games that can’t be overlooked or erased. Intentional queer representation and examples of acceptance in video games can help people gain insight on queer perspectives and experiences, and it helps to get everyone used to the truth: queer people exist as a part of society.