Queer Lovin’ Blues — Part 1: Insert Hollow Token Here

This month is Romance Month!  All of our arti­cles in April deal with romance or rela­tion­ships (or both!) in games. We are still accept­ing sub­mis­sions for guest arti­cles, so feel free to send drafts and/or pitch­es to Bill Coberly at editor@ontologicalgeek.com!sims3queer

It’s hard for me, as a queer woman, to enjoy romances in AAA games. They just aren’t made for me. Whether it’s the dearth of queer romances in main­stream games or their clum­sy and prob­lem­at­ic pre­sen­ta­tion when they do appear, gam­ing these days isn’t quite ready to fully rep­re­sent LGBT* peo­ple in the roman­tic parts of their games. More than a sim­ple gripe from a loud minor­i­ty who won’t be sat­is­fied until we’ve com­plete­ly uproot­ed soci­ety and remade it in our fell image,1 this is actu­al­ly a sig­nif­i­cant prob­lem.

In games where choice is the order of the day and romance is one of the side dish­es, we’ve start­ed to see a trend toward queer rela­tion­ships. Why limit the play­er to Nice Guy-ing an NPC of anoth­er gen­der when hav­ing the option to romance one or more char­ac­ters of a match­ing gen­der would make the game look pro­gres­sive and bring in sales? I’m aware that this is a cyn­i­cal view of actions tem­pered with gen­uine good­will, but through­out the his­to­ry of the queer “romance option,” it’s been han­dled with such a lack of tact or respect that I can’t help see the strings attached.

Most of the time, romance of any kind isn’t some­thing that impacts the actu­al game­play sig­nif­i­cant­ly. The wall between game­play and cutscenes in most games is still solid enough to where they gen­er­al­ly have lit­tle bear­ing on each other. But gam­ing is very much a sto­ry­telling medi­um, and these sto­ries impact the char­ac­ters we play and our per­cep­tions of them. While the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of LGBT* char­ac­ters in gam­ing is slow­ly on the increase, and I hope to see the trend con­tin­ue, this arti­cle is not a roll call. I’m focus­ing (as this is the Theme Month for such things) specif­i­cal­ly on queer romance options and rep­re­sen­ta­tion of queer romance in games. Hopefully I can shed some light on why the cur­rent state of the field is so trou­bling.

My first real expo­sure to queer love in gam­ing was Fable. For those of you who don’t remem­ber, Fable offered you the chance to marry almost every sin­gle char­ac­ter in the game. Many adult NPCs could be flexed at, flirt­ed with, fart­ed upon, and gift­ed to until even­tu­al­ly you were given the option to marry them. Though grand in its vision, this open­ness didn’t mat­ter. With no per­son­al­i­ty or sig­nif­i­cance given to the avail­able cit­i­zen­ry, the pres­ence of the choice was incon­se­quen­tial. It’s a cold com­fort that there are so many fish in the sea if they all taste like chick­en.

Not only is romance so bland as to be near­ly point­less2, gay rela­tion­ships in Fable are not given equal weight as straight ones. By a cer­tain point in Fable (the orig­i­nal, mind, before the choice of PC gen­der was grant­ed us), when your Hero has become renowned enough, vir­tu­al­ly every female NPC will have a huge pink heart over her head. Some of the male NPCs will have sim­i­lar hearts, but not near­ly as many.

Moreover, and I feel awk­ward even address­ing this because I fear even men­tion­ing it evokes prob­lem­at­ic stereo­types and images of male homo­sex­u­al­i­ty, in my many hours play­ing Fable I’ve never seen a man avail­able for romanc­ing who wasn’t, shall we say, soft. None of the guards, for exam­ple, are romance-able, nor are any of the men who are engaged in more tra­di­tion­al­ly mas­cu­line activ­i­ties (such as tend­ing bar, haul­ing bar­rels, or black­smithing). No, much like real-life “gay­dar,” you can tell if a male NPC is or will be hot for your Hero if he has a cer­tain voice. I’ll say no more about that, nor will I deign to describe the voice. If you go back and play Fable (which oth­er­wise isn’t a bad game), you’ll be able to spot it.

When you final­ly man­age to find the man for you, pro­vid­ed he’s recep­tive you can marry him! The mar­riage process in Fable is pret­ty sim­ple. Give your love a ring, own a house in the city they inhab­it, and you two are mar­ried. For het­ero cou­ples, we are given a cutscene that pans over a paint­ing that unlocks in the Chamber of Fate (where momen­tous occa­sions in your Hero’s life are com­mem­o­rat­ed). For gay cou­ples, your groom claps and cheers in cel­e­bra­tion. No paint­ing in the Chamber of Fate, no fan­fare beyond that of your man. But real­ly, if you truly love each other, that should be enough, right?

Skyrim has the same prob­lem. Though there is more def­i­n­i­tion of the NPCs avail­able for mar­ry­ing this time, it doesn’t make that much of a dif­fer­ence in-game which one you choose to marry. Skyrim, of course, has a lot of other prob­lems with not apply­ing sig­nif­i­cance to play­er action, but keep in mind that early on peo­ple were mak­ing a big deal (most­ly pos­i­tive­ly) about Gay Marriage in Skyrim like it was such a big deal. But when NPC companions/merchants/money trees are basi­cal­ly fun­gi­ble and have no real bear­ing on a player’s rela­tion to the world, it’s pret­ty hard to see the “ges­ture” as any­thing more than for­get­ting to include an “If #PCSex =” check. When the mar­riage mechan­ic itself is incon­se­quen­tial, Bethesda does not get a cook­ie for mak­ing the computer’s job eas­i­er. Am I bit­ter? Yes. I real­ly want­ed to like Skyrim.

As men­tioned in the recent round-up, I’ve been play­ing The Sims 3 recent­ly, and nat­u­ral­ly I’ve been try­ing to recre­ate my life accord­ing to head­canon, which includes queer­ness out the wazoo3 Unfortunately, The Sims has its own host of issues, which can be dis­tilled down to queer­ness being a choice. Queerness is some­times seen, espe­cial­ly by those whose agen­das bias them against LGBT* peo­ple, as vol­un­tary. We choose to be attract­ed to (or act upon our attrac­tion to) peo­ple with match­ing gen­ders. This mis­con­cep­tion opens LGBT* peo­ple up for dan­ger­ous, often dead­ly abuse and dis­crim­i­na­tion.

In The Sims 3, you can choose to make your Sims quite gay, but you have to work for it. Any queer­ness must be active­ly sought by the play­er, and by default Sims are breed­ers all. In the game, the only Sims who will get flir­ty with your Sims are dif­fer­ent­ly gen­dered. I haven’t encoun­tered homo­pho­bic Sims, but I find the assump­tion of het­ero­nor­ma­tiv­i­ty aggra­vat­ing in a work that aims to be a sim­u­la­tion of peo­ple and life. Being gay, in other words, is a choice in SimWorld.

These games take a sim­i­lar approach to sex­u­al­i­ty. You wouldn’t think that any one of them ought to be looked to as queer anthem-games, but think of what the impli­ca­tions are for queer love here. Fable won’t show up to your wed­ding or send you a nice gift. Worse, it recy­cles old, harm­ful stereo­types of gay men. Your Hero is such a man’s man that his men are all women by com­par­i­son. Far from push­ing bound­aries, Fable’s regres­sion and lazi­ness are just sad.

Skyrim’s pic­ture of an equal soci­ety with­out anti-queer prej­u­dice seems refresh­ing at first, but it’s hol­low and token. The open­ing of the field de-values the rela­tion­ships. By not putting any real effort into the Dragonborn’s love story, they might as well not have includ­ed romance in the first place, instead expand­ing the func­tion of Housecarls, which is what your spouse in Skyrim basi­cal­ly is. In Skyrim, as in the patri­ar­chal nar­ra­tive, your wife, what­ev­er gen­der she may be, is your slave.

But it’s The Sims 3’s het­ero­nor­ma­tiv­i­ty that I have the hard­est time accept­ing. In a game that is so naked­ly a sim­u­la­tion, the fact that same-gender attrac­tion doesn’t man­i­fest itself, but must instead be sought out by the play­er, the sub­text is quite clear. Heterosexuality is seen not mere­ly as cul­tur­al default, but as a func­tion of Sim-hood. Sims are born straight and must choose to be oth­er­wise. This is a mis­con­cep­tion of which human­i­ty is only just now try­ing to rid itself, and its appear­ance in one of the most pop­u­lar game fran­chis­es of all time is cause for great con­cern.

It might seem a lit­tle much for me to go pick­ing on these games when they never put them­selves out there as being very pro­gres­sive. As I said ear­li­er, none of these games were out to be queer pride anthems; though they weren’t made for us, the pop­u­lar­i­ty of Skyrim and The Sims vir­tu­al­ly guar­an­tees that they have been and will be played by us at some point. And whether through lazi­ness, unchecked assump­tions, or uncon­scious big­otry, they have slapped queer gamers in the face with the mes­sage that we don’t give enough of a shit about you to even try.

As bleak as this is, the land­scape of AAA gam­ing isn’t com­plete­ly free of actu­al effort to cap­ture queer rela­tion­ships. I’ve left out a pret­ty impor­tant play­er in the Romance Game game, but that’s not because I’ve for­got­ten about BioWare. To the con­trary, I have so much to say about BioWare and its treat­ment of LGBT* char­ac­ters and rela­tion­ships, I’m con­tin­u­ing this arti­cle later in the month. Stay tuned, read­ers, for the sec­ond part of this arti­cle, where we will exam­ine BioWare’s con­tri­bu­tion to queer gam­ing, for good and ill.

  1. /Sarcasm. []
  2. Which is prob­lem­at­ic, con­sid­er­ing that roman­tic sub­plots are includ­ed in sto­ries to both offer a change in pace and pro­vide a strong lever with which to raise the stakes []
  3. I apol­o­gize if that last term flew over your head. It’s some­thing they teach in the advanced queer the­o­ry class­es and would break the flow of the arti­cle to explain. []

Chelsea L. Shephard

About Chelsea L. Shephard

Chelsea L. Shepard (formerly Hannah DuVoix) doesn't write for the Ontological Geek anymore, but she used to be our Editor-in-Chief! She is currently earning her MFA in Game Design from NYU and is probably also thinking about Fallout: New Vegas.