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, ((/Sarcasm.)) 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 point­less ((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)), 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 wazoo ((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.)) 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.

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.