Well into the evening hours, I went out to a bar. Between glasses of barely mixed booze, just past a lanky fellow with a glowing sabre, I saw him. He was statuesque, decked out in leather and pierced all over, and wreathed by a rich, black mane. He was a hybrid, half man, half lion. He was ripped to hell. And what he really wanted was for me to tie him up.
Set in a pseudo-dystopic San Francisco of 2064, Read Only Memories is a classically-styled adventure game with witty writing and a cyberpunk atmosphere. Its designers are a group of gay and queer developers eager to show the industry how to do this sort of representation right.
Because of that, Read Only Memories is effusive with queer acceptance. Gay, trans and agender folks abound as part of the background and texture of the world, but there's been little in the way of sexuality in the game — until Crow came along, that is.
Sun sets on Neo San Francisco. Weather control units conjure fresh snow. Robots assist their masters and genetic hybrids take to the streets to protest for their rights. Turing guides me to a local nightclub to meet our contact. If we don't get a new lead soon, the scoop of a lifetime will be lost.
Added to the game's "2064" content update earlier this year, the character appears in one of Neo San Francisco's many seedy bars. He's a lion-man, which isn't as unusual as that sounds in Read Only Memories' genetically spliced world. Tough and imposing, Crow towers over his fellow patrons, wearing a heavy leather jacket and combat boots. He's the classic image of a rough-hewn leather daddy, a term for older men in gay/kink communities who are decked out in leather and tend to seek out younger partners. He's also a softie and a submissive.
"With Crow, we wanted to have more positive portrayals that aren't how you usually see gay people in video games," says Phillip Jones, one of the game's developers. "His sexuality is part of his identity, but it's also not the only thing to him. Still, he's the first person we let you obviously flirt with."
Your scene with Crow (at least until you take him back to your place) takes place in Pub Crawl, a bar that shows up after you finish the main story. After solving the game's noir-inspired murder mysteries, relaxing in bars and chatting up patrons is about the only thing left to do. But, while all of the bar's other patrons only present dialogue options like, "What are you drinking?", with Crow, you can choose to select "Flirt".
Historically, gay bars and establishments were one of the few places where queer people were safe-ish. If you've ever frequented a *gay bar* (which is very different than a straight bar that's gay-themed), people are a bit more open and a bit more direct because it's assumed you're there for a short holiday from the heterosexual world outside.
Crow, as he's written, groks that important bit of culture. He reveals what he needs to, saying simply that he loves to "be tied up".
"Surrendering control is intoxicating," he adds, while avoiding any talk of his actual job. He prefers to keep the chatter mundane, even making quips about how picks out his cereal. He jokes that people don't tend to like him at work, but lies about what he does, saying he has a desk job.
"He's a secret bounty hunter," Jones tells me of Crow. "He just pretends to have a desk job." That's not explicitly stated in-game, but if you're in the know, you can see how Crow's definitely written that way. Beyond contextualising some of his lines, particularly the one about how people at work don't like him — get it, because he kills them — this knowledge gives Crow's little bit of screen-time that much more depth.
"'Boring' stuff is just what we all do when we're comfortable," Crow says later. And with the exception of letting you in on his kinks, he doesn't talk about anything but normal. To him, the bar is a safe, comfortable place where he doesn't have to worry about the excitement or weight of the world.
Most games that are "queer-labelled" tend to be for adults only, says another of the game's developers, Matt Conn. Games like Ladykiller in a Bind and others have set expectations that the text-based "visual novel" style genre is supposed to have sex scenes, he says. That has, to a point, pressured the team to include something a bit more explicit, he says, leading to the addition of Crow.
Read Only Memories is quirky and tongue-in-cheek, even here. If you do choose to play with Crow, there's no drawn-out cut scene, or awkward descriptions of anatomy or technique. It's quiet and quick, framed as part of a broader process of getting to know someone, all with a jovial wink.
While the scene, taken on its own, may seem abrupt, in context it's part of the larger challenge that a lot of queer developers face. Sexual orientation can link a person's identity to their sexuality, but that's never all there is to a person.
"It was important to us to have a character who someone who fit in the world," Conn says. "A lot of games have 'player-sexual' characters." In Dragon Age 2, for example, everyone that you could "romance" would fall for you no matter what your gender or sex. Conn says that's not the way to do things.
"Obviously the ideal is that we all get along and everything is great and there's a lot of harmony… but it ignores a lot real people. Not everyone is pansexual, obviously, so it doesn't make sense for your characters to be," he says. "Crow is looking for a hook-up, so if you're not there to meet each other's needs in that way, he's not there for you."