Love By Any Other Name — Implicit Gay Romances in Gaming 1

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This month is Romance Month! All of our arti­cles in April deal with romance or rela­tion­ships (or both!) in games.

Video game romances large­ly exist as func­tions of game mechan­ics — the romance exists to fur­ther the power esca­la­tion nar­ra­tive of the typ­i­cal­ly male, straight avatar, by sup­ply­ing anoth­er quest to com­plete, anoth­er vir­tu­al good to acquire, anoth­er sta­tis­tic on an invis­i­ble spread­sheet to max­i­mize. Unlike film and lit­er­a­ture, where romance exists as a dis­crete genre, main­stream gam­ing does not rec­og­nize such a genre, except­ing the world of visu­al nov­els which almost cer­tain­ly require sep­a­rate analy­sis. While romance as such is rare through­out the medi­um, there are even fewer main­stream games that fea­ture gay or les­bian romance. These romances gen­er­al­ly exist with­in the par­a­digm of romance‐as‐quest, not counter to it, and resist the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of their char­ac­ters as LGBT per se. Rather, these romances tend to be func­tion­al equiv­a­lents for their het­ero­sex­u­al coun­ter­parts. Thus it is that we have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to look at implic­it romances in games, a way of read­ing romance gen­er­al­ly and gay romance specif­i­cal­ly into exist­ing nar­ra­tives to tease out poten­tials with­in the game expe­ri­ence that may not exist oth­er­wise.

One such gam­ing expe­ri­ence is the PS2/Vita game Persona 4, a main­stream Japanese dungeon‐crawling RPG which shares a sub­stan­tial amount of DNA with the roman­tic visu­al novel. Persona 4 does, in fact, fea­ture LGBT char­ac­ters, but its han­dling of them removes them from play as queer romance pos­si­bil­i­ties. The nar­ra­tive tries very hard to strip the LGBT char­ac­ters of their iden­ti­ties and rein­te­grate them back into the plot as “nor­mal”, per­form­ing for the remain­der of the story as heterosexual/cisgender indi­vid­u­als. This first occurs with Kanji, a soft‐hearted artist who repress­es his same‐sex attrac­tions by fronting as a tough guy and join­ing a gang. The Persona team frees him from the dun­geon of his neu­roses — a bath house, nat­u­ral­ly — and he decides that he is free to pur­sue his artis­tic, empath­ic side, but not free to pur­sue his homo­sex­u­al incli­na­tions. For the rest of the game he is repeat­ed­ly made fun of, pri­mar­i­ly by the protagonist’s best friend and con­fi­dant, Yosuke.

After free­ing Kanji from social ostra­ciza­tion at the expense of what seems to be an authen­tic homo­sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion, the game nar­ra­tive turns to Naoto, a trans­gen­der boy who wants to be a detec­tive. Similar threads are pur­sued — the team does not at first real­ize that Naoto is trans­gen­der and takes him to be cis­gen­der. Then, when Naoto is held cap­tive with­in his own dun­geon and threat­ened with gen­der reas­sign­ment surgery, he too “real­izes” that all he want­ed is to be a detec­tive and that he can go back to iden­ti­fy­ing as female. Once the thick‐headed Persona team dis­cov­ers his “real” gen­der, Kanji is relieved, since he had been attract­ed to Naoto, and the knowl­edge that Naoto was born female absolves him of the inter­nal­ized homo­pho­bia expe­ri­enced while being attract­ed to anoth­er boy.

This is the way LGBT char­ac­ters are treat­ed in Persona 4, arguably one of the more pro­gres­sive of recent main­stream Japanese games. It seems that LGBT iden­ti­ties can be fetishized, but not fully real­ized — they can be erot­ic, but not roman­tic. Thus it is that if we are going to look for gay romance, we will have to look beyond the estab­lished nar­ra­tive itself. It is here that we come to Yosuke, who func­tions as an implic­it homo­sex­u­al romance path for the pro­tag­o­nist of Persona 4.

Yosuke is writ­ten as exclu­sive­ly straight, of course — to a fault. He express­es his het­ero­sex­u­al desires and self‐identification loud­ly and more often than almost any­one, other than per­haps Kanji, who has a vest­ed inter­est in con­tin­u­ing to deny any sort of non‐heterosexual desires. Of course, Yosuke takes it upon him­self to be the chief ques­tion­er of Kanji’s inten­tions, con­stant­ly con­cerned that Kanji is going to try to take advan­tage of him. While it is true that Yosuke might protest too much, this kind of vis­cer­al denial of homo­sex­u­al­i­ty should not be unfa­mil­iar to any­one famil­iar with anime and Japanese video games.

Regardless of the sur­face level expres­sion of Yosuke’s pro­cliv­i­ties, how­ev­er, there exists with­in the writ­ten nar­ra­tive a strong under­cur­rent of homo­eroti­cism. Yosuke devel­ops a deep attach­ment to Persona 4’s unnamed pro­tag­o­nist of the Frodo/Sam vari­ety — an unflag­ging loy­al­ty that rais­es eye­brows and sets fan­f­ic writ­ers to work. As part of the friend­ship build­ing mechan­ic — the “social link” — Yosuke will dis­cuss his feel­ings of loss about a girl he loved at length and seek to be com­fort­ed by the pro­tag­o­nist and not anoth­er girl, he will spend time in the protagonist’s bed­room, and he will get in a fist­fight with the pro­tag­o­nist to prove their friend­ship, after which they lay in the grass togeth­er and the social link is com­plet­ed. While ele­ments of homo­eroti­cism exist in other male social links, the rela­tion­ship between Yosuke and the pro­tag­o­nist holds the most poten­tial for a queer read­ing and sub­ver­sion of the game’s oth­er­wise pre­dom­i­nant­ly het­ero­sex­u­al per­spec­tive.

The Yosuke rela­tion­ship can fill this role of implic­it romance because Yosuke is not scru­ti­nized by the game’s nar­ra­tive. Where overt homo­pho­bia and homo­eroti­cism col­lide in sev­er­al of the other male char­ac­ters, Yosuke is seen as above sus­pi­cion. His story has the most poten­tial for actu­al homo­sex­u­al love indeed because no effort is made to cir­cum­scribe his iden­ti­ty. What’s most fas­ci­nat­ing about this rela­tion­ship, how­ev­er, is that it stands on its own regard­less of being made explic­it. Enough time is given to the rela­tion­ship that it has its own iden­ti­ty beyond the game­play mechan­ic of lev­el­ing up the protagonist’s “social link.” Similarly, at a broad­er level the whole romance/friendship game­play com­po­nent of Persona 4 stands on its own with­out the heavy dun­geon crawl­ing. We could look at Persona as a game in cri­sis — like Kanji, it doesn’t know which side it wants to play for, although it’s pret­ty clear to us as gamers and read­ers that a strong iden­ti­ty is emerg­ing.

Persona 4 is notable not just for its main­stream suc­cess but because it shows that a genre game can devel­op past its trap­pings and become some­thing that gamers can iden­ti­fy with on a level beyond the good vs. evil tropes of JRPGs. Rather, by lay­er­ing the expect­ed nar­ra­tive with  of romance and friend­ship, Persona allows gamers a deep­er per­son­al con­nec­tion with the char­ac­ters and a there­fore greater lat­i­tude in devel­op­ing idio­syn­crat­ic read­ings of the estab­lished nar­ra­tive. As games have devel­oped, a gram­mar of gam­ing nar­ra­tive has been grow­ing that allows for sub­text and rein­ter­pre­ta­tion beyond the bounds of game design. While ide­al­ly game writ­ing will con­tin­ue to mature and we will see more fully devel­oped gay romances (as well as just more romances and relationship‐based games in gen­er­al), the fact that these kinds of implic­it con­nec­tions can be read into char­ac­ters is evi­dence itself of a more sophis­ti­cat­ed trend in game writ­ing and crit­i­cism that leaves enough room in nar­ra­tive struc­tures to allow for these kinds of inter­pre­ta­tions.

In the same way, Tomb Raider is a game that invites this kind of queer read­ing, although it plays on dif­fer­ent expec­ta­tions and is writ­ten pri­mar­i­ly for a Western audi­ence. In the game, Lara Croft and her crew are ship­wrecked, and while Lara and her best friend Sam sur­vive and are quick­ly reunit­ed, Sam is just as quick­ly kid­napped by the game’s vil­lain Mathias. Throughout the course of the game, Lara will mur­der an unspeak­able num­ber of island pirates and work her way to the castle/monastery where Sam is being kept and res­cue her from a rit­u­al to res­ur­rect an ancient queen at the hands of the insane Mathias. At a top level view, the plot con­forms to a typ­i­cal com­bat power fan­ta­sy struc­ture in which the play­er expe­ri­ences first a sense of achieve­ment through win­ning com­bat, and later a greater sense of achieve­ment by res­cu­ing the damsel in dis­tress, but the inter­est­ing spin on this damsel­ing cliché is that both char­ac­ters are female. Given that this well‐used video game trope tra­di­tion­al­ly occurs between char­ac­ters who are either relat­ed (which Sam and Lara are not) or roman­ti­cal­ly involved, it once again leaves the rela­tion­ship open to being read as inti­mate, though it is not writ­ten as such. Tomb Raider’s lead writer, Rhianna Pratchett, has denied that this impli­ca­tion was inten­tion­al, and that she didn’t want to write a “male char­ac­ter with boobs”, But while Pratchett cer­tain­ly had great suc­cess work­ing with­in the con­straints of AAA game devel­op­ment in craft­ing the most nuanced Lara Croft to date, the fact remains that Lara as a char­ac­ter and avatar remains a woman per­form­ing a tra­di­tion­al­ly male role in a nar­ra­tive struc­ture that con­forms to male‐dominant stereo­types.

The expect­ed audi­ence for Tomb Raider may actu­al­ly be quite wel­com­ing of a gay Lara, if only because les­bian romances seem to be more accept­able with­in young straight male gamer com­mu­ni­ties than gay male rela­tion­ships (see: Mass Effect 1). However, this places a writer desir­ing to focus on a les­bian rela­tion­ship in some­thing of a double‐bind, where an authen­tic romance could be seen as too fringe or unwant­ed in the male‐performative space of video games, but on the other hand could be seen as tit­il­lat­ing or fan‐service for the core audi­ence of young males, and thus debas­ing to the integri­ty of the nar­ra­tive.

Once again, we see a game in cri­sis. Tomb Raider excels when it func­tions out­side of its expect­ed role as male com­bat fan­ta­sy and when the nar­ra­tive tropes and stereo­types it does cater to are sub­vert­ed. The first hour of Tomb Raider is at moments uncom­fort­able (such as when the vio­lence against Lara verges on voyeuris­tic) but as a unit is stronger than much of what fol­lows. It is the seg­ment of the game most divorced from the core game­play mechan­ic of man‐killing and is all the stronger for it. Lara hunts, sur­vives, explores, and gen­er­ates gen­uine empa­thy for her­self and her crew­mates. It is these moments that remain strongest through­out the game — the inter­ac­tions with Lara’s friends, the explo­ration of the hand­ful of option­al tombs, the build­ing up of a female hero that doesn’t need to con­form to expec­ta­tions of male per­for­mance. Unfortunately this expe­ri­ences com­prise the minor­i­ty of game time, but that they do exist is won­der­ful and gives the expe­ri­ence of Tomb Raider some­thing spe­cial amidst other AAA action‐adventure titles.

Where Tomb Raider dif­fers from Persona is in the devel­op­ment of the implic­it romance itself. Due to Sam’s damsel­ing there is very lit­tle on‐screen inter­ac­tion between Sam and Lara — the rela­tion­ship is sup­pressed on behalf of the demands of the nar­ra­tive. Because of this, it did not even occur to me to think of Sam and Lara as lovers until after I had com­plet­ed the game. Tomb Raider’s empha­sis on the ten­sion of com­bat and its ruth­less era­sure of Lara Croft’s human needs beyond basic power strug­gle and sur­vival is so com­plete as to make Lara as roman­tic being utter­ly invis­i­ble. Yet this void demands to be filled, and like Yosuke, a nar­ra­tive refusal to com­ment is itself a com­ment. Because Lara fills and indeed exceeds the lim­i­ta­tions of the power fan­ta­sy so well, the ques­tion of her need for inti­ma­cy rises to the sur­face. The ques­tion must inevitably be read through the trans­for­ma­tive expe­ri­ence of her sur­vival, an expe­ri­ence in which Sam was her most sig­nif­i­cant part­ner and con­cern, often over­rid­ing Lara’s con­cern for her own safe­ty. Looking back at Tomb Raider in this way, it becomes dif­fi­cult to read the Sam and Lara rela­tion­ship in any other way — they are char­ac­ters on the cusp of being com­plete, and the com­plete­ness must cer­tain­ly be found in each other.

Ironically, the rea­son these read­ings of Tomb Raider and Persona can func­tion is because of their silence on or out­right rejec­tion of gay iden­ti­ties. Lara Croft is a sex­u­al­ized char­ac­ter (albeit less so than her pre­vi­ous incar­na­tions), but is not allowed to be a sex­u­al char­ac­ter. In the absence of any dis­cus­sion of gay love, and a non‐identification with poten­tial het­ero­sex­u­al romance, the silence becomes preg­nant with mean­ing. The same goes for Yosuke — because he exists in a world where gay iden­ti­ties are reject­ed and clos­et­ed, the fact that he is never under sus­pi­cion means that he is the only one with the agency to cross the bound­ary into romance.

Gaming cur­rent­ly exists in a state such that LGBT iden­ti­ties are pref­er­en­tial­ly ignored rather than dis­cussed, much like roman­tic rela­tion­ships them­selves. Most roman­tic rela­tion­ships in games exist with­in the power fan­ta­sy struc­ture of tra­di­tion­al game nar­ra­tive — if not as male power fan­ta­sy, as male‐performative power fan­ta­sy. The “romance” exists as a tro­phy for the char­ac­ter, achieved in sur­mount­ing a series of gam­i­fied obsta­cles and cul­mi­nat­ing in the acqui­si­tion of the (typ­i­cal­ly het­ero­sex­u­al female) object of desire. Gay romance can func­tion sim­i­lar­ly when actu­al­ly present in video games, but in this space where gay iden­ti­ties are silenced and thus romance can be read into the nar­ra­tive, the romance sub­verts power fan­ta­sy itself in favor of a more authen­ti­cal­ly emo­tion­al expe­ri­ence.

This is how implic­it romances truly func­tion — they give a voice to play­er inter­ests that exist apart from gam­i­fi­ca­tion and the reduc­tion of romance to sta­tis­tic tables — they open up games to the pos­si­bil­i­ty of authen­tic female char­ac­ters that are not male‐performative, and to male char­ac­ters that are not hetero‐performative. In this way the total gam­ing expe­ri­ence is enriched. The act of  LGBT indi­vid­u­als play­ing tra­di­tion­al games becomes a cri­tique of gaming’s most trea­sured sta­tus quo, the tar­get gamer iden­ti­fied as a young het­ero­sex­u­al male. While we know that gam­ing now com­pris­es many other demo­graph­ics, and devel­op­ers are begin­ning to address those demo­graph­ics, the money and pub­lic­i­ty still lies in this mar­ket. By play­ing these main­stream romances through the eyes of silenced female, gay and trans* char­ac­ters, the cri­tique gives an oppor­tu­ni­ty to not only bet­ter rep­re­sent these groups with­in gam­ing, but to uti­lize these per­spec­tives to improve tra­di­tion­al game nar­ra­tive as well. In this way the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion and func­tion of game rela­tion­ships in gen­er­al, and romances in par­tic­u­lar, will be enriched, and by being enriched will become increas­ing­ly viable as a more promi­nent com­po­nent to future game design.

Lex Tyler

About Lex Tyler

Lex Tyler is a freelance game critic, data junkie, and erstwhile Classicist. He spends his time contemplating the perfection of shag carpet and wondering which character in Love Actually he is most like.