As the LGBTQ community makes gains in real life, the community is also slowly gaining visibility in game and digital spaces. Sometimes, it feels like the LGBTQ community has made huge gains in games, and other times it feels like we keep sliding backwards. Any list of the history of queer representation in games is full of homophobic jokes and minor side characters. It can sometimes be difficult to track down more recent franchises that have sensitive, affirming portrayals of a variety of identities.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, and it’s not meant to be, so much as it’s intended to give a snapshot of the current state of queer representation in games and talk about potential ways forward. I elected to talk less about games such as Fallout 4, where love interests’ sexuality is less a part of the story and more “player directed,” although the freedom it gives players is definitely deeply important to many LGBTQ gamers.
I also, unfortunately, have not played every recent game with LGBTQ characters or themes. If there’s someone not on the list who has been important to you, please feel free to comment on Facebook or Twitter!
It feels like every article about LGBTQ characters in games I’ve read recently starts out with Gone Home, for better or for worse. The game is about the somber discovery of a lesbian relationship between the protagonist’s sister and a girl she met while the protagonist was studying abroad. The game takes place before the advent of cell phones, and leaves the protagonist to wander through a house she has never been in, uncovering the summer’s events. Through her eyes, the player learns about her sister and the relationship that changed her life.
The Last of Us
The Last of Us starts out strong with a gay character named Bill, who serves as an ally during the first part of the game. While a minor character, Bill plays an important role and is treated as an equal to protagonist Joel.
However, the game’s biggest surprise came in the Left Behind DLC, where the game’s other playable protagonist, Ellie, ended up kissing her best friend. The game’s developers later confirmed during a Reddit AMA that Ellie was written as a lesbian. This came as a welcome surprise to many gamers, who had seen much of themselves in Ellie as a capable—if often difficult—young companion.
Dragon Age: Inquisition
No list of recent queer representation in games is complete without touching on Dragon Age: Inquisition. Not only was Inquisition one of the most popular games of 2014 and 2015, it also has one of the most diverse casts in the industry. BioWare has a reputation for their LGBTQ characters, and Inquisition lived up to this promise in spades. Not only was it the first game in the franchise to feature a gay male companion in Dorian and a lesbian companion in Sera, it also features bisexual advisors Leliana and Josephine, and the Iron Bull, a companion who can be romanced by any Inquisitor and is widely believed to be pansexual.
The game also features the series’ first transgender man in Cremisius “Krem” Aclassi, as well as lesbian side characters Briala and Empress Celine, whose relationship is detailed in the tie-in novel, The Masked Empire. In certain endings based on choices made during the game, Sera and the lady dwarf Dagna will also enter into a relationship, as will Dorian and Iron Bull. The Inquisitor can also express a variety of sexual identities based on romance choices made by the player.
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel & Tales from the Borderlands
Action franchise installment Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel has one of the most well-received and positive lesbian relationships in modern gaming. During the game, playable protagonist Athena is shown to flirt with mechanic Janey Springs, and the two eventually begin a relationship and move in together.
Normally, same-gender relationships in media are limited to stories about the beginnings of relationships. In Tales from the Borderlands, players even get to see Athena and Janey working through common relationship problems such as career differences, financial considerations, and dealing with having different ways of expression affection and concern.
Life is Strange
Life is Strange was already positioning itself to be a unique game. Female protagonists in games are rare, and valuable female friendships are rarer still. Taking it one step further, many gay and bi women gamers were pleased and delighted to learn that certain choices can lead to a heavily implied romance between playable protagonist Max and her friend Chloe. While the expression of Max’s sexuality is left up to the player, it’s arguable that Chloe is always an LGB woman and is receptive to Max’s player-optional feelings.
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate
If you had told me last summer that there would be four GBT characters in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, I would not have believed you. While the series has always dealt with themes of what it means to exist within and outside of societal norms, and has included characters implied to be gay as early as the first installment, it was a surprise to many gamers to see not one, but four queer characters in the latest game.
In a particularly surprising but welcome move, one of the two protagonists, Jacob Frye, was implied to be questioning his sexuality during creator interviews, and was later confirmed to be bisexual via the official Assassin’s Creed Tumblr. Ned Wynert, unflappable thief and ally to the Frye twins, is a transgender man. Sequence 8 antagonist and theatre proprietor Maxwell Roth is confirmed to have been in love with Jacob, and one of his employees, Lewis, was stated to be Roth’s ex-boyfriend.
Momentum and Moving Forward
Incidental or more involved, queer characters are slowly being introduced to a medium that only had sparse or negative portrayals before now. We’ve created an environment where LGBTQ gamers can now watch subtext become text and see themselves as heroes—even in long-running franchises or in games from large developers. Even as this article was being worked on, we saw the release of The Division in which a female doctor NPC casually refers to her wife.
We’re moving past one-note portrayals and are starting to get games that provide a glimpse into queer relationships, showcasing a variety of LGBTQ characters with different personalities, issues, and moral alignments. We’re also starting to see a shift where queer characters show up in stories that are not about their difference, and have narratives that reflect their experiences without dwelling on them.
We shouldn’t stop here. Gone Home, The Last of Us, and Life is Strange may all have lesbian and bi female characters, but each depict young women surviving a degree of trauma at the same time they discover their identities. Examples like older, confident Athena are much rarer.
We also need to have a conversation about why creators seem to be more comfortable with queer women than men, or why the medium has yet to see big-budget, validating portrayals of transgender women. These are huge conversations that will need to happen among LGBTQ and straight gamers and developers.
But it’s also okay to celebrate the progress that’s been made! Looking at just the last four years, perhaps we can have a conversation about what the next four might look like, and the ways in which we can see this list further growing to reflect the diversity we see in real life.