We Talk About Queerness In Games, From Overwatch Ships To E3 Smooches

We Talk About Queerness In Games, From Overwatch Ships To E3 Smooches

We celebrated Pride this week at Kotaku with stories from queer staffers about Street Fighter ships, queer fandoms in Overwatch and in K-Pop, and our desire to see queer characters survive and thrive in the games we play.

Before we take down the beautiful rainbow logos that festooned the site this week in celebration, we wanted to discuss all those big gay smooches at E3 this year, and the state of queer gaming in 2018.

Screenshot: Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey

Maddy Myers: Hi, Riley and Heather and sadly not Gita since she’s busy. Thanks for coming along with me on Kotaku‘s very first Pride Week.

To wrap things up, I wanted us to get more big picture about the triple-A games that we saw coming out (ha) at E3 this year. The Last of Us Part 2‘s heroine smooching a lady, and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey‘s inclusion of queer romance options, have been the talk of the town.

For me, while watching footage of the long-awaited Kingdom Hearts 3, I kept thinking about playing through the first two Kingdom Hearts games with my first serious girlfriend and how much we longed for the games to confirm that Riku and Sora were in love (canonically, they aren’t).

I have so many conflicting feelings about these massive, big-budget projects that require huge teams to make finally taking the “risk” of including canonical queerness… even if those stories end in death.

But I’ll open it up to the two of you. How did you feel about these announcements? Anyone else on an emotional roller coaster about what we even want from these games, and what we get?

Heather Alexandra: I think it’s always fair to say that I’m cautious – I wrote an entire piece this week on how games tend to use some well-worn cliches when tackling LGBTQA+ characters – but I’ll also say that I’m glad to see mainstream steps towards inclusion even as I brace myself for the potential stumbles. We’re here and games can’t really ignore that any more!

Riley MacLeod: I’ll start here with the Take I didn’t manage to pull off for Pride Week, because I am a very busy editor: I feel sad that these queer inclusions are both romances.

I hate romance options. Partially because I am bitter and loveless, but also because I think most queer characters in games are shown through romance, when our social lives are so much more rich and varied than that.

I was thinking this week about the very weird way in which I came to be the trans man I am today, in part because I was sort of raised by a bunch of ACT-UP era queer men, and how much I’d like to see those sorts of friendships in a game, instead of just “here’s another queer, do you want to smooch them?”

Maddy: Where is the My Lesbian Experience Of Loneliness of games? That sounds like a joke, but I’m serious. Not just because I’m currently a single gal and could totally relate to that.

I like the idea of flirting with ladies (while being one) in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, much as I’ve done in BioWare games past, but it definitely presents a fantasy that doesn’t represent my real-life queer experiences, which tend to revolve around elaborately trying to figure out if women that I meet are interested in dating girls or not and, then, trying to date them and failing.

Shit, I didn’t want this discussion to be sad! Shit!

Riley: I’m mostly really happy being single, for what it’s worth. Anyway this is Kotaku, not Tinder. Moving on.

Maddy: I’ll make sure to code my new hit game Is She Into Girls? in Twine right after this.


Screenshot: The Last Of Us Part 2

Heather: That’s the difficult thing, isn’t it? Part of the Struggle is trying to not be defined by the Struggle, which usually reminds us how limited the scope of current media is.

So we measure victories by degrees, and those come side by side with complications. Tracer is gay! She’s on the box of Overwatch. But her gayness is as token as Pharah’s retroactive First Nation status or whatever.

And talking about that can be rough. A reminder of the work that needs to happen.

Maddy: I think part of the work that we’ve seen happen, which is some very by-the-books queer romance between thin white people, doesn’t feel just tokenising but… safe? The least “objectionable” queer content.

And it is also something we are supposed to feel “thankful” for, so there is always a part of me that feels some guilt for wanting more or different things.

I think a couple of things have helped push that line forward in games: Queer indie games that take more risks, and also queer fans who keep making their own art and ships (Gita has covered two different fandoms that have done that this week, and I covered my own non-canonical Street Fighter ships).

The State Of Gay Games still currently includes a lot of work on the part of fans to fill in the gaps.

That’s two separate thoughts, maybe. But they are interconnected. Like, the Overwatch fandom has definitely made Overwatch seem a hell of a lot gayer than it really is, you know?

Heather: I think there’s a growing realisation that offsetting this to your fandom is no longer sustainable, which is why you see a franchise such as Assassin’s Creed take steps to accommodate queer players.

Riley: Yeah, it does in a way seem as though developers are realising queer people play their games and want to see themselves in them, or at least growing more unable to ignore it. And that’s a net positive, even if it isn’t everything I wanted.

I kind of freaked out at The Last of Us 2 kiss, for instance. With everything going on in the world (a phrase I think everyone in the world is saying too much these days, haha) it felt really wild to me to see this big company start their briefing with two women kissing.

I screamed out loud, I think – and then my radical queer cynicism immediately set in and I crossed my arms and “bah humbug”ed.

Maddy: I got my “bah humbug” out as well, but I did like the narrative structure of the kiss in the trailer, which seems to have been lost on a lot of people.

Ellie’s line, “I’m just a girl, not a threat,” is a reference to her assumption that men will angle for Dina’s affection, and she won’t be able to “compete” with them, since presumably Dina is straight.

It’s a sentiment that’s grounded in heteronormative gendered assumptions (women can’t ever be a sexual “threat”… a lot to unpack, there).

To juxtapose that with Ellie proving she can also be a “threat” in a very different sense (killin’ some baddies) serves to underscore her methods of survival across multiple fronts.

There are, perhaps, some interesting ideas in there about the queer experience, but maybe I’m just saying that because I’ve watched Hayley Kiyoko’s “Girls Like Girls” video too many times. It also has a narrative of queer smooches and protecting yourself from violence (in that video, it’s explicitly about a hate crime).

Heather: I think part of what makes talking about this difficult is a prevailing notion that drama demands sacrifice.

In many ways that’s true, but sacrifice comes in different forms. The competitive structure of games – oh no, I ran out of lives – obfuscates that.

The Last Of Us Part 2 can have all kinds of drama and I hope it does. Joel’s lies can be exposed, Ellie can be injured, ideologies can drive apart communities. It can be bloody and moody as the post-apocalyptic genre demands.

But maybe you don’t have to do the thing we’re all expecting, just this once.

Maddy: Yeah. And part of why I like the video for “Girls Like Girls” so much is that it ends triumphantly. Maybe that’s a fantasy – especially in, uh, the world in which we live (sorry, Riley, I hate saying it too).

So, we want the tragedies and the loneliness to be more complex (something other than “two queer people fell in love and then one of them died”), but we also want the happy moments, too. Seeing a new girlfriend not die in a post-apocalyptic game would be subversive and unexpected.

Heather: I played Secret Little Haven earlier this year and that’s a good example of a game that manages to do both.

We have the requisite confrontation with the disapproving dad and all the angst, but that’s juxtaposed with moments of friendship and straight-out fandom nerd stuff. Rounding out the experiences we see goes a long way.

Riley: I can’t remember if I’ve told this story before, but when I used to run writing workshops for trans writers, we’d do this exercise where we’d list all the things a character could want on the board.

And then I’d ask the group, “What do trans characters want?” and the writers – trans themselves! – would say, “The surgery, a name change,” all that usual stuff.

And then I would get to have my cool teacher moment and be like, “No, trans characters want all that other stuff that people want, because they’re people!”

So, like, while yeah it’s cool to see different experiences and a lot of smooching, I still really want to see queer characters doing stuff besides just walking around smooching.

Heather: Within that dynamic, it’s also key that their queerness doesn’t fade to the background.

A refrain marginalised people hear time and time again is: “We don’t care if you’re gay/black/whatever because it shouldn’t matter!” and that ignores the fact that it matters a lot.

There’s history, economic and cultural, that helps shape who you are, and while the sentiment is arguably nice, it’s misguided.

E3, even with our misgivings, shows that the visibility of LGBTQA+ characters is increasing. But visibility is not enough, especially in an industry where marginalised folks are often not involved in the writing and creation of marginalised characters.

The steps I want to see are twofold: Incorporate gayness/transness/and so on into your characters without losing it or defining them entirely by it.

It isn’t a numbers count or a matter of just having a gay character, which is something I feel many developers don’t understand. The creation of well-rounded characters who experience a range of emotions and social statuses is key to equitable representation in art.

Video games are bad at this; it’s a medium I love but one mired in tropes. It’s essential those tropes become less prevalent. I would challenge people to find ways to break that paradigm, either through hiring minorities or looking for ways to tell new stories that don’t adhere to worn-out models.

Maddy: Yeah… it’s like, queerness both matters more than anything and also is something that I desperately want to see as mundane and un-special. It’s hard to explain what it’s like to have those two sentiments dueling in my head at all times, so just imagine Ken and Ryu really going at it.

Anyway, I just want to say thanks again to both of you and to Gita for participating in our own little Pride Week.

Whether we’re writing silly posts about characters that we ship, or serious ones about characters that we just want to see live, or any sort of coverage about the queer people who work in games or play them… we’re doing those things while also being queer.

And that informs who I am, even when it isn’t in a rainbow logo on a post. It both doesn’t matter and does matter to me, all the time. That’s why I wanted to do this thing. Anyway, thanks.

Riley: I wish I’d written something! Ah well. I like that when we were first brainstorming about this I got to say in a meeting, “The best part of Kotaku is how many queers there are!” There are a lot of good things about Kotaku, including how many queers there are.

Maddy: Hell yeah. I’m gonna miss the rainbow logos. But maybe they will be back again… next year!

Heather: Can’t stop, won’t stop.


  • Just waiting for the self righteous bigots masquerading under the guise of ‘devils advocate’ or ‘its just a discussion’

    3, 2, 1

    • Honestly, this kind of comment doesn’t really help either, it just makes people automatically defensive.

        • Sorry if it sounded harsh, apologies if it did and there’s definitely truth in what you said.

      • I do find it interesting that in a number of articles like this, there are more comments like that before anyone even says anything else.

        It’s almost as if their intention is to instigate bullshit purely so they can later pat themselves on the back and go, “See?! See how correct and righteous I was in making my comment?!”

        • I’m open to both sides weighing in opinion equally, as long as it’s respectful and based on being open to others opinions as well. Unfortunately, that seems to be rare these days :\

    • Not defending bigotry in any way here, but as far as i can tell KotakuAU hasn’t been branded for or made any reference to Pride week. It’s possible that some comments were a reaction to a lack of context to articles that AU was posting without any sort of preface.

      I was overseas for part of this week and directed the the U.S Kotaku which had a Rainbow banner etc – the prevalence of LQBTQI articles made a lot more sense.

      Again, not defendig the idiots, but i think they are a very small minority in the AU comments section. Most people seem pretty nice.

    • Well, take a look at your downvotes, they’ve helpfully self-identified. And surprise, surprise, it’s the usual posse.

  • Great article, very insightful into the topic. Always enjoy roundtables where people get to share ideas and perspectives, especially liked the comments on what was observed in the trans-writing room, those little things that never really crossed my mind before. Thanks for publishing it, great read 🙂

  • AAA Games need to be profitable so having tokenism or not going in depth with minority/LGBTQ+ is the only way to get representation while still selling to a broader audience.

    Indie games can take a bigger risk as most have lower cost and can cater to a specific audience without worrying too much about sales.

    Personally I see all straight romances being generic one dimensional and lacking any real depth, it’s all just push the right button say the right dialog, end of the day it will never feel right or capture what real love is.

    Any games that can capture it to a degree though, usually the sexual orientation or gender of the characters are irrelevant as the personality and emotions could be transplanted to anyone.

  • In terms of sexuality options in gaming, there is definitely a need for more diversity, just so long as we don’t end up with another Anders. So you said something nice to this one guy and now you are shagging, ok.

    • Is Anders anywhere near as bad as that one elf guy in Dragon Age: Origins? I really don’t remember any female characters throwing themselves at everything that moves quite as much as he does. (Morrigan at the end doesn’t count)

  • I think historically mass effect have done a pretty good job with this right? they set the bar high in that respect.
    Also could someone please explain to me because im legitimately a little confused, im not the smartest in this area and this is how im seeing it now.
    lgbtqi want more representation in gaming (which is fair enough), but dont want to be given preferential treatment, they want to be in the spotlight but also not when they are.
    so how does a developer include a character thats ill just say queer, without being “wow this guys so queer you guys are so represented”?
    would the goal just be: ‘Hey heres your character, oh he/ she is gay, lets go save their partner’
    rather than ‘wow im so queer’ because the first way alienates straight people and queer people by painting them in that way.
    the hard thing i see about catering to such a diverse view, which in my opinion the lgbtqi community is, is that any one character wont be able to represent them without leaving others out.
    me personally, i would get right behind saving the main characters partner, because really dont we all kinda project a little onto the main character? i know a few times ive shouted “NOT MY SON YOU FUCKER”.
    Sorry for bad grammar.

    • Ok, so I’m straight, so take what I say as a “from what I understand” perspective and not as someone who has the answers.

      I think the question here is “what is the end game?” Basically, this is a transitional phase for media and to make any real change in a non-glacial timeframe, you’re going to have to have some things that are a bit artificial feeling. Until you force a change, you won’t get any change. It’s kinda inevitable that a big shift is going to feel somewhat “forced.”

      The end goal would be to have whatever story or representation that the artists want to have for their own art, but until people who aren’t already part of the status quo get some sort of signal that they’ll actually get a fair go at it, they won’t bother to try. Or worse, they’ll try and be told by marketing or whoever that it has to be redone to look like the status quo, making it effectively useless.

      What we have at the moment is the awkward teenage years. Some of the new stuff feels like quotas and forced change because that’s what it is. It’s better than what was there before, but there’s still a long way to go. It’s going to be awkward for a while more, because until the “let them make whatever art they like” means that the art is going to end up being made by people who like other things than bald space marines, or muderdads or whatever, the art they like is going to be samey as hell.

  • I’ve enjoyed the range of pieces in Kotaku’s celebration of pride week, and this wrap up is just great. Thanks for taking the time and effort to present a series that touched on so much.

  • 100% expect them to kill the girl ellie is kissing
    The bury your gays trope is too strong and will not stand for happy living queer partners

    Because game writers are lazy, and this article expects them not to be, and sure you can always hope they wont be lazy but even in the best games there is a lot of lazy tropes being used

    Just once i want a queer character whos partner isnt dead or wasnt abused by their parents or isnt there for you to kiss and is just THERE and being themselves and its just normal and okay for them to be there

    Like black characters and interracial couples dont have that problem in media much (anymore, used to be they were deathbait and sadbait all the time too) cant it just be normal like that?

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