LGBTQ+ representation in games is still something that needs to be improved. A few major studios here and there are beginning to meander at a steady pace toward bettering their own writing and expanding talent behind the scenes, but indies are primarily serving as the pioneer for this shift. Blockbusters often boil down romantic interactions and queer representation to playersexual characters galore. This is mostly in RPGs where love interests are little more than a sensual distraction from the looming main quest. Mass Effect nearly pinned it down, and with the Legendary Edition’s release, perhaps it’s time for developers to take an introspective look and shift gears with the genre going forward.
Playersexual is a term used to describe companions or NPCs in games that will fall for the player regardless of gender. So, if you were to create a male or female protagonist, it wouldn’t change whether you can romance certain characters. In that regard, sexuality isn’t particularly prevalent – it’s not bi or pan, it’s just an opportunity to gradually work your way towards a bit of a woohoo. That’s where Mass Effect excels. Characters are gay, bi, straight, or pan – showing the full spectrum of sexuality and all its intracies. This allows for certain stories to be written with that identity in mind. A gay character can be openly gay, dealing with homophobia or perhaps their own personal struggles in accepting who they are in a world that refuses to let them be themselves. This isn’t necessarily how Mass Effect handles it, but showcases the door that is opened when moving away from playersexuality.
By having characters that are pre-determined to be a certain sexuality, the writers can use that to tell stories with it in mind. That’s where the crux of representation lies, otherwise, it’s left vague enough that the player can interpret it however they see fit. Or, it can be easily ignored by homophobes and those that need to understand it’s a normal part of life, a part of life that is okay, that is acceptable, to be proud of. It also hides it away from LGBTQ+ people, making it harder to see ourselves in these characters. For example, in an RPG, a player with a male avatar’s wife could still date them if they were a girl, but they would not have the experience nor narrative being bisexual. It’s purely for the convenience of the player that the possibility is there.
Representation can be used to normalize queer identities and show them in a positive light, but it’s hard to represent something when it’s barely presented. Mass Effect had its own issues such as the debacle that saw BioWare cutting queer characters in fear of a Fox News backlash. The studio made them straight before the final release, but it started on the path to something great. It sports a select group of companions with their own personalities, backstories, and goals. You can further these goals by embarking on loyalty missions in the second game, talking to them throughout your journey to save the galaxy after missions to gain insight, to see how they’re holding up, to get closer. It’s all very personal.
This is the perfect companion system for an RPG and nothing comes even remotely close. Comparing it to Elder Scrolls is like putting the Mona Lisa against the stick figures I used to draw when I got bored in school. In Skyrim, for example, marriage is done through amulets with cardboard cutouts that sport the same dialogue, becoming hollow husks after their singular quest is complete. It’s all very stiff and bland, with little in the way of depth. Going forward, more RPGs, including the likes of Bethesda’s flagship, should take note from the beloved sci-fi series and implement a smaller pool of meticulously designed NPCs. From there, by pushing away from playersexual, stories can be written that tackle tangible and relatable issues such as biphobia or transphobia, giving an insight into the impact it can have on people. Alternatively, it opens the door to have characters that simply celebrate their identity, openly embracing who they are, being proud. That’s what moving away from playersexual offers. That’s what games need to start doing.
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