In my pursuit of relatable LGBT characters, I have often found myself disappointed in the way that either the writers or the developing studio has treated these characters, and even worse, I often find myself faced with characters who are very obviously written to be LGBT but are handled by studios who won’t allow the writers to openly state that a character is gay. Every time I come across an instance of poor writing, I find myself discouraged. So do other LGBT gamers.
In this piece, I plan on looking at the way that several different studios and writers have handled LGBT characters and relationships. In writing this, I am not trying to diminish the good that LGBT representation does, or talk down any one studio or writer, but gaming doesn’t exist in a bubble. The way that characters are written and presented in video games is very much a two-way mirror. It reflects not only gaming culture, but also societal attitudes.
When I think of LGBT characters in video games, I immediately think of The Last of Us. It was the first non-RPG that I had played that featured LGBT main and side characters. TLOU features four gay characters: Ellie, Riley, Bill, and Frank. The game is praised for the depth of character given to every NPC, and we see that in these four as well. Naughty Dog treated these characters with as much care as the others. Where some writers will play into stereotypes in order to write gay characters, we don’t see that with these four. Bill is surly and unlikable, Ellie is spirited and self-sacrificing, and Riley is a young revolutionary. While we don’t see Frank in-game, the note he leaves behind shows us a dissatisfied man.
None of these characters play into negative stereotypes or tropes by personality alone, but Naughty Dog has been criticized for playing into negative storytelling tropes, specifically the Bury Your Gays trope. Considering that two out of four LGBT characters in the game are presumed dead by the end of the game, and the third is an unknown due to his absence in the rest of the story, this serves as an issue. Naughty Dog has also been criticized by fans for not being more overt about Ellie’s sexuality in the main game. In the game’s only DLC expansion, Left Behind, Ellie shares a romantic kiss with her best friend Riley, but this is the only scene that explicitly shows Ellie’s sexuality in over 20 hours of gameplay. The Last of Us is ultimately one of best examples of how to write LGBT characters, but it isn’t without flaws.
Much to my disappointment, I found these characters treated unfairly by their writers. Dorian’s personal quest includes one very upsetting scene between Dorian and his estranged father, who the player learns attempted to change Dorian’s sexuality through the use of forbidden blood magic. The player has the option to force Dorian to reconcile with his father, despite it obviously being not in Dorian’s best interest. From the writer’s perspective, this is an irresponsible handling of homophobia. Even the title of the quest, Last Resort of Good Men, implies that Dorian’s father is meant to be viewed as a sympathetic character despite his violent reaction to his son being gay.
The franchise’s only lesbian character, Sera, is also treated poorly from a writing perspective. She is one of very few optional companions, and unlike the other companions, the player has the option to dismiss her at any point in the game. If the player enters a relationship with her, they can also break up with her at any point. Unlike the other romanceable characters, Sera is written to be unlikeable. She is anti-Dalish (which is an unpopular opinion among the majority of fans), and her childish outlook on the world makes her come off as annoying and immature. Sera could have been handled the same as the other romances, but instead the player is given a poorly written character, and a cast of characters who openly disapprove of the romance between the player and Sera. Compared to Josephine, whose romance is not only sweet but well written, I can’t help but feel like Sera was short-sticked because she was a female-only romance. Because of this poor writing, Sera is arguably one of the most disliked companions in the franchise. Bioware is notorious for lazy writing in the Dragon Age games, but the especially poor treatment of their gay romances in Inquisition feels particularly tone-deaf.
Tomb Raider’s 2013 reboot was another game that I couldn’t wait to get my hands on. Since it’s release, I have accumulated three copies of the game, all of the accompanying comics, the novel, and the 20 Year Celebration edition of the 2015 sequel Rise of the Tomb Raider. The Tomb Raider franchise is as old as I am, and with Tomb Raider: Legend ranking in my top 10 favorite games, I was excited for a more relatable Lara Croft in the 2013 reboot.
In particular, I was excited to explore the relationship between Sam and Lara — one I had been lead to believe was romantic. Imagine my disappointment when I was met with another case of the Romantic Two-Girl Friendship trope, when Lara’s determination to rescue Sam, their fireside cuddling, and the final scene of Lara carrying Sam bridal-style down the side of a mountain was brushed off as gals being pals.
What came as more frustrating to me, however, was the revelation that lead writer Rhianna Pratchett had said in an interview with Killscreen that she wanted to write Lara as gay from the beginning but was afraid that Crystal Dynamics would object, so she she never brought it up to the developers. The treatment of Sam’s character in the comics and book, and her absence in Rise of the Tomb Raider, speaks volumes about the popular interpretation that Lara and Sam were romantic together. Now that Rhianna Pratchett has left the Tomb Raider team, it’s doubtful that fans will ever see Sam in-game again. If Lara and Sam had been a heterosexual couple, I find it doubtful that Sam would be given the treatment that she is by the Tomb Raider team, and there would have been no question of whether or not Lara and Sam were romantic together. Instead, fans are left fighting over whether 15 hours of Lara fighting to save Sam’s life constitutes a romantic relationship.
Long story short, writers and developers have a very thin line to walk when writing LGBT characters. As a vulnerable minority, writers have to take great care when writing these characters because any bit of bad representation or bad writing can ruin a character. Writing characters poorly, or writing them with the implication of being LGBT but hiding it under bad tropes, harms the community that these characters belong to and frustrates players who play games seeking characters that they can relate to.
With all this being said, I don’t think it’s a sinking ship. As LGBT people achieve more visibility, I believe that these negative tropes and instances of bad writing will diminish, but it will take a conscious effort by devs and gamers to be observant of these problems and rectify them.