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Though initially stereotypical and unsympathetic, there have been queer characters in video games for at least thirty years—the first exemplar (from a then-major publisher) being Ultima VI: The False Prophet in 1990. However the first game to make being queer an integral part of the protagonist, rather than a choice in a single scene with little impact on the rest of the plot, would not come for a further six years. This was Sierra’s Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh, whose protagonist was explicitly bisexual. Yet the first game with large numbers of queer characters to penetrate outside the so-called ‘gamer community’ was EA’s 2001 title The Sims, which was explicitly advertised on the basis of allowing all characters to be bisexual.
This did not mean there were large numbers of games with queer characters released in any given year: it was not until 2004 that five major games with queer characters were released in the same year, and even then at least one (Rockstar North’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas) used a highly stereotypical portrayal, designed to insult the main antagonist faction at that. More recent games, however, tend to be more genuinely inclusive of queer characters, even though they can otherwise be problematic. The Mass Effect series is a case in point; the ability for the player character to act like what amounts to a racial supremacist is hardly made up for by the inclusion of at least one bisexual non-player character, with later entries having characters exclusively attracted to their own gender. Dontnod Entertainment’s 2015 title Life is Strange is problematic in a different way; even though both female leads are explicitly bisexual (and can enter relationships), the game’s climax forces the protagonist to choose whether to save the other female lead or their home town, with the former choice being directly responsible for the town’s destruction.
Games not made by major companies are often more inclusive, possibly due to the lack of need to please conservative shareholders and marketing departments. The highly abstract Dys4ia is a good example. Coded entirely by Anna Anthropy the game is designed to emulate the high levels of frustration often felt by those seeking to medically transition—in an attempt to create empathy with that section of the queer community. Read Only Memories is another good one as, not only does it include characters from a range of different sexualities and genders, it also allows the player to specify what pronouns should be used, even allowing for entirely custom sets. Highway Shadows focuses on the relationships (romantic or otherwise) between its protagonist and her social circle, as does Brilliant Shadows—the former even skips the tired coming out subplot.
These advances in the quality and quantity of queer representation should not be settled for. Rather than simply accepting the presence of queer characters, no matter how shallow, we need games that fully integrate queer people into their world and plotlines, that treat us as a market worth catering to in our own right. Yes, things are vastly better than they were thirty years ago, but the existence of organised reactionary groups such as Gamergate means that we cannot just sit back and relax. Doing nothing will condemn us to the status quo; if things don’t go backwards. History shows that if we wish to be tolerated, let alone liberated, we must fight for it.