When the COVID-19 pandemic hit our shores and Sydney was spun into an initial lockdown in March last year, I gave myself a total makeover. Gone were the black skinny jeans, striped anime-printed tees, and hoodies off RedBubble, replaced with non-conforming fashion, bright colours patterns, and clothing ripped from a Sesame Street-inspired lookbook.
Think vintage button-ups and pants in leaf green, fire red, and yellow; vests embroidered with flowers and farm animals that put Stardew Valley to shame; wacky-patterned pants, corsets, cowboycore clothes and skirts; and a questionably large amount of cow print.
Let’s just say that if I were in a video game, you’d be spending a lot on microtransactions to look this good. But while I owe a lot of my new love for fashion and self-expression to the changing nature of my surroundings in life, I can profoundly trace it and my own journey to accept and embrace my sexuality to two of my favourite video game characters from the last decade.
Growing up queer in a non-queer world
Growing up in an all-boys school, I had a very weird relationship with my sexuality, fashion, and self-expression. Our uniform was school-branded ties, grey blazers, and trousers, like most private schools. I didn’t know anything about fashion or even how you could express yourself in what you wear. I just felt like part of the pack, even though I knew I wasn’t.
Unlike the school’s elite athletes and cadets, I’d jump from sport to sport like the unwanted parcel in an absurd game of pass the parcel. I’d call in sick for swimming carnivals. I’d lie about how I had a crush on my French teacher at school. I’d even buy an issue of Zoo Magazine on a month-long school trip camping just to prove to the other kids I was like them.
In Year 10, someone in my year came out. He had just started that year; I didn’t know him well enough to reach out, and he left the school shortly after. But, after he did come out, I never saw him again. As rumours circulated his departure, I noticed how his friends were now treating him. They misplaced his belongings in class, talked behind his back, and gaslit him.
When a teacher came by one day to ask to speak with him, I thought he was in trouble. Society conditions you that way. It was less normal for queer people to be themselves, than it was for bullies to be reprimanded and punished.
Seeing the way his life changed harshly reminded me to keep my sexuality a secret. I may be wearing the same uniform and be sitting in the same seats as my friends and peers but I wasn’t the same, I’d say to myself. I was different.
This fear bled into the way I carried myself and the clothes I wore. I’d wear whatever my Mum would kindly buy for me, anime shirts from conventions and pieces that in retrospect did not match nor flatter me. But I didn’t care. I was hiding underneath my clothes. Still, I was dealing with another fear—a fear of how my queerness would make its way to the rest of my body and personality like a parasite consuming me of all I had.
Watching the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras on TV and seeing photos of my Mum in the parade (she was always an ally, through and through), I felt repulsed. Masculine-presenting shirtless men in pink and sequin danced to a flamboyant pop anthem. Others wore thigh-high heels and mini-skirts, twirling ribbons and raising flags as they marched down the street.
Is this what my future has installed for me, I’d think. Gross. I didn’t want to be that kind of gay.
Like anyone with an overthinking, anxious brain made of worms, I’d spend hours deep into the night overanalysing and spiralling further into a senseless existential crisis. What did it mean to be gay? Where did I fit in now that I exist in this weird space as a boyish queer boy with a lot of masculine features, especially when I felt like I was too much of one for the other community? What if being gay was all people saw of me? What would I become? Were the people wearing thongs and harnesses at Mardi Gras my future?
It was then that I met him: another high schooler going through a similar experience, thousands of miles away, questioning their sexuality buried beneath an exterior that was easier for others to see.
“C’mon! Make me a man!”
Kanji Tatsumi, the blonde queer coded punk himbo from Persona 4 Golden, is one of the first party members you meet. He’s belovedly out-spoken, abrasive, hyper-masculine, combative, a bully, and a nightmare for local businesses. He’s also dealing with a lot of his own trauma, having reinvented his looks and personality to be “more of a man” after his dying father tells him that a man needs to be “strong”.
Kanji’s shadow is a camp, hyper-effeminate queer caricature, flirting with your male party members while wearing nothing but a towel around his waist. Like the other shadows in the game, Kanji’s shadow is the hyperbolic manifestation of his personality and identity that he’s afraid of.
Kanji’s afraid of being seen as queer like I once was.
When I played Persona 4 Golden in late 2014, I’d finished high school. Still repressed, but free of the toxic pressure of an all-boys high school. So to deal with the depression and long-term isolation, I turned to video games and the bottomless well of JRPGs. And, amidst all the other video game characters I met over that period, there was always something about Kanji that resonated with me more than anyone else.
As I discovered that he, too, grew up without a dad, I felt mirrored. Represented. I still felt repressed back then but for once, heard. Looking back, Kanji was me.
“Fabulous, isn’t it darling?”
Unlike Kanji Tatsumi, Dragon Quest XI’s Sylvando is everything I want to be. He’s a flamboyant circus performer who joins you on your quest to save the world from an impending ancient evil. He’s camp, endearingly goofy, kind-spirited, effortlessly charming and confident.
In dialogue, he describes people with affectionate and effeminate terms like honey, darling, and sweetie. It isn’t surprising to find him dancing and drumming along with feathers and fans while you freely roam around a town.
In combat, he wields rapiers and whips. Unlike your other male party members whose abilities are based on strength, agility and wisdom, Sylvando’s abilities are based on a stat in the game called charm. Dressed like a suave court jester, he blows kisses at enemies, pirouettes, juggles, and plays the clarinet to rally his party like an adorable member of your own cheer squad.
The best part? He’s the pure unfiltered definition of queer joy. When Mordegan steals the Sword of Light and destroys the world tree, sapping the planet of all its life force, Sylvando literally starts a pride parade to inspire the world to believe in themselves and love again.
Called the Soldiers of Smile, they’re a carnival-like group of once deserted and abandoned young men wearing pink, feathery dress shirts, and hosens, touring the world putting smiles on survivors of the world tree tragedy. And folks, the audible scream I made when I first played through that section of the game. To put it simply: sign me up.
Unlike how I felt when I was getting to know Kanji, the modern me isn’t afraid of being like the gays I saw on TV. Today, I’ll happily attend Mardi Gras, dress in skirts, crop tops, makeup, and fall in love with a JRPG circus performer who starts their own goddamn float.
Sylvando is seen by some as a queer-coded character and an offensive walking stereotype, but to me, he’s a queer power fantasy. Dragon Quest‘s fairy tale epic stars a camp circus performer embracing his flamboyancy without being ridiculed, judged, or feared for it. His party members and own father embrace Sylvando for who he is and treat him like everyone else, just as my friends and family do now.
Looking at my own queer journey, it’s no surprise Sylvando is one of my favourite characters. Because while games are an amazing medium that entrances many with art, gameplay, gripping stories, or rich worlds, often our love for these virtual worlds is tied to when we experienced them. For me, it’s why I fell in love with Inaba’s punk high school himbo and Erdrea’s legendary circus performer.
Thank you, Kanji and Sylvando, for making me better.