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 firstname.lastname@example.org!
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.