Much of queer representation is often so sporadic and of dubious quality in popular media like games that those who wish to be represented find themselves hungry for almost any opportunity to feel seen or affirmed. This lack of imagery with which to identify perpetuates an inability to resolve the core issues that come with reconciling one’s identity with newfound struggles, due in no small part to how media in general and games in particular present a toolkit that many in the majority take for granted.
Representation goes far beyond simple validation or opening doors once thought shut to your home demographic, it offers an opportunity to explore issues in a way that only that kind of character could know. That’s often the reason poor representation stings harder than no representation: before you simply felt ignored, now you feel misunderstood whether out of ignorance or malice. It’s the same sensation you get when you confide in a friend only for them to miss the point entirely; it takes tremendous energy even for the most thick skinned individuals to reach out to another human being from a place of vulnerability. Whether it’s rejection or an inability to convey the topic, any failure to find mutual understanding will reinforce one’s anxieties and serve as further evidence to rationalize withholding personal experiences, to bottle it up.
LGBTQ+ individuals especially struggle with this, often already tackling issues like poor self-esteem (founded or otherwise), or simply a lack of precedence for acceptance in their own personal social circles, let alone in the larger spectrum of media. The right character, at the right time, in the right story may make all the difference in alleviating these pressures, to ease the obstacles and instill the confidence to overcome them. The audience may not even be entirely aware that these issues haunt them, potentially discovering something locked away about themselves entirely on chance.
A well-written queer character also represents tremendous value to those indirectly affected: allies, friends, loved ones, parents. One human relatable character, where the full display of their intimate thoughts and emotions can manifest is an oft effective exercise in gaining insight when trying to relate to the marginalized people in one’s life.
In the past years since the breakout indie hit ‘Gone Home’ tackled the home life of a young queer woman trying to come to terms with her orientation, there has been an increasing presence of queer narratives, especially ones of transwomen and transmen within the independent game scene. Everything from more mainstream hits like ‘Celeste’ to writer confirmation of queer characters in famous multiplayer franchises, it seems the zeitgeist is quickly learning how to accommodate the full spread of identities that exist underneath the LGBTQ+ umbrella.
Despite the utility of a fringe representation, side narratives, or background world building that establishes the queer struggles in a fictional setting, there is a long and fraught legacy of media relegating queer representation to flavor lore, sidekicks, victimization, and plot gimmicks. In the past, as a means of cultural survival, audiences have had to learn to read between the lines and seek out representation via queer-coded characters (that is to say, an individual or story with traits or tropes that are implicit, rather than explicit) during periods in which direct narratives were taboo or otherwise absent. Especially within Science Fiction or Fantasy, subtext has offered audiences the chance to identify with narratives that line up with their personal experiences, rather than their direct presentation.
It is far beyond the purview of this piece to tackle the well-documented plethora of the ways in which media fails both LGBTQ+ individuals and people of color, rather we will focus for now on the particular problem of cultural tourism in video games, particularly within the indie scene.
In tomorrow’s piece, we will build upon the foundation set by today’s piece to further critically examine several examples of queer media within the art house game scene. We will look at the ways in which even LGBTQ+ authors, much like their allies, can sometimes internalize the preconceptions hoisted on them by larger society, unintentionally reinforcing the problems they attempt to solve.
Consider this the opening to the essay, a set of tools which you, the reader, can use to further grasp the topics ahead and approach them with an open perspective and an eye for the subtext that the uninitiated would find hard to notice at a glance.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice