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.