A crucial part of being LGBTQ is finding places to see yourself, whether it’s in your community or in the media. For me, as a bisexual teenager, I sought out books and movies and TV shows that highlighted queerness—even when they were stereotypes played for laughs, dehumanizing in their tragedy, or when I didn’t relate to them at all.
I found ways to connect with LGBTQ media, to reaffirm my identity and my humanity, even when the media was flawed or even harmful. I imagine I’m not alone in that.
Games have been just as flawed a medium as television and films. It has progressed slowly and more or less steadily, from 1986’s text adventure Moonmist—the first game with a homosexual character—to Tracer in 2016’s Overwatch. Every time there’s a queer romance option, or if there’s subtext, or some B-plot involving NPCs, it’s important, because it fills in the void of representation and is a place for LGBTQ gamers to see themselves.
I’ve chronicled games with queer content that meant the most to me as a queer gamer. By no means are these the “best” examples in terms of positivity or non-toxic content, nor is the list comprehensive in terms of LGBTQ games. These are the games that resonated with me, often messy or complex—or just subtext.
I jumped on board the Sims train in 2004 with the release of the Sims 2. I went to my local Big Box store; bought the game; spent hours installing the game from its four discs; went back to the Big Box store for an exchange when my copy turned out to be damaged; and then spent yet more hours installing.
Then I proceeded to build a gay mecca. It was a veritable paradise filled with Sim versions of myself, my favorite fictional characters, the girls I had crushes on, random Sims with hairstyles I thought were cute—any whims I had, I indulged.
I played out my id fantasies with gay men, bi women, lesbians, and if there’d been an option for trans characters I’d have put them in the mix too. I used the Motherload cheat until my many houses were exquisitely decorated and filled with a queer cruise ship’s worth of Sims. I don’t think there was a heterosexual in the bunch.
I think the Sims outed me to some of my family, actually: two of my male cousins booted up the game and had to ask, eyes averted, why the dudes were making out with each other. (I think that time it was Professor Snape and Legolas in an unholy union.)
Even then, I had no shame and no regrets and happily spent hours in my queer playground. This wholehearted, T-rated excursion was so necessary for me. I needed space to fool around and indulge in a queer universe where I felt safe, where the only real danger was forgetting to put smoke detectors in every room so that my Sims inevitably died when a fire started.
In 2004, I was watching Queer as Folk, The L Word, and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, trying to soak in as much LGBTQ content as possible to combat the heteronormativity I was otherwise inundated with. I saw signs in defense of traditional marriage everywhere. I was in high school and learning how to own my identity instead of just feeling guilty about the way I felt around girls.
And I was playing the Sims and designing my own safe little world where none of that mattered. It was possibly the most therapeutic thing I could have done for myself.
Oh, boy. When I said messy and complex and just subtext, Persona 4 is all of those.
Kanji Tatsumi, one of the game’s playable characters, is confused about his sexuality, and the game’s narrative explores that in uncomfortable, clunky ways. Presented initially as kind of a high school badboy with piercings and a leather jacket—and a propensity for skipping class—it becomes apparent that he’s also a sweet dude who likes stuffed animals and cute things and cares about his mom.
He’s also terrified of being seen as gay or as feminine.
If this were the extent of his narrative, he’d be an interesting and sympathetic character whose struggle with the expectations of maleness would make for some interesting meta.
Persona 4 takes it further than that, though. Characters encounter their Shadow Selves (which they must defeat and accept to receive their Persona) which embody certain traits. Kanji’s Shadow Self is campily gay—he turns up half-naked on a bed of roses in a bath house, for freaking serious—and taunts him about liking boys and hating girls.
His sexuality and his masculinity are not handled delicately. While at the game’s conclusion it’s evident he’s probably bisexual, Persona 4 makes queerness a running gag (at one point he’s in drag as Marilyn Monroe), and even has another character, Youske, worry about being alone with him.
Each time I felt Kanji gain ground with unpacking his masculinity and his sexuality, the game would sucker punch me with something awful. The more Kanji was jeered at by his Shadow Self, made into a joke by the game itself, or asked by one of his friends if they were safe alone with him, the more I felt kinship with him. I wanted to protect him the same way I’d want to protect myself as a confused, queer teen.
Obviously, I’ve never had the literal embodiment of my private fears taunt me into accepting myself, but on a smaller scale I can relate. The fear of what your friends and family will think, the clumsy, painful things people say to you, and even the idea that your sexuality is predatory, those all hit home. Somehow, despite the gross things Persona 4 casually includes, it managed to portray nuanced teenage queerness.
In 2008, it was pretty remarkable how much freedom Fable gave you in terms of your character’s sexuality: you could marry gay, lesbian, or bi NPCs and even visit sex workers of whatever gender you chose. I did one playthrough as a gay man and another as a lesbian, which was lovely and affirming (even if the game’s portrayal of sex workers left a lot to be desired).
But that’s not why Fable II is on the list. No, even though I had the luxury of choice—something rare in most fantasy RPGs—I was drawn to a murderous bisexual NPC named Reaver.
Voiced by Stephen Fry, Reaver’s bisexuality is mentioned in passing, but overall his character—and sexuality—is presented as self-indulgent, selfish, and manipulative. Look, if you give me a bisexual character who used to be a pirate and is obsessed with himself (and preserving his immortal youth), I’ve automatically adopted him. No, murder is not taking this off the table so much as sweetening the deal; I started liking villains and antiheroes young. A little bit of carnage isn’t stopping me now.
The crappier the portrayal of a bi character, the more dedicated I am to enjoying and appreciating them. And Reaver, vain and coercive and filled with murder, I enjoy and appreciate even though I’m pretty sure the game is daring me not to. Fable II was the first time I remember making that choice deliberately, when presented with a Villainous Bisexual trope, and for that it holds a special place in my villainous bisexual heart.
Dragon Age: Inquisition
“I’m gonna bang the Iron Bull,” I told anyone who would listen just before Inquisition’s release. “I’m gonna do it.”
Except then I started playing the game—my first playthrough was as a male rogue Lavellan—and got to Dorian Pavus, and it was all over but the crying.
I love Dorian Pavus. Dorian Pavus is so important to me that I have to force myself to play a female Inquisitor—though I’m the first person to espouse how important it is not just to play male heroes when given the choice. Dorian is a gay mage from Tevinter; he’s the son of nobility and money, and he’s a sarcastic bookworm who has a delightful mustache that makes me question my generally “meh” mustache stance. He’s also not white, which is super important for its rarity.
When we encounter him in Inquisition, he’s left his homeland of Tevinter, left his money and heritage behind, because his father was going to use blood magic to blast the gay out of him.
I’m pretty sure every queer gamer got to that scene and had a private moment of hurt. No matter how accepting your family and friends may be, there’s no denying that people in the world want to “fix” you and will go to extraordinary lengths to do it. I’ve met people who would happily blast the gay from me, regardless of what would happen to the rest of me.
Dorian Pavus did not go quietly; he left his family behind and became a pariah in his homeland, which saw his bucking the tradition of getting married and having more mages, and his eventual work with the Inquisition and its opposition to Tevinter’s system of slavery, as traitorous.
When his father came back into his life, Dorian’s pain and fury was the most tangible element of the whole game for me.
Going against what your family or community want, having to cut ties and escape your hometown, is an experience that many, many members of the LGBTQ community can relate to. I was fortunate in that Dorian’s experience is far removed from mine, but it still hit me like a truck. Now, in 2017, with the anti-LGBTQ political agenda Americans are facing, his pariah status is hitting a little too close to home. Dorian continues to give me a whole lot of feelings about being queer in the world.
(Apologies to the Iron Bull, who is also very lovely and an important pansexual character. I promise I’ll romance him on my next playthrough, once I’m done crying over Dorian.)
Plenty of other games made an impact on me—Mass Effect, Overwatch, and the Last of Us were all important, and I imagine for other gamers leaving out Fallout 4 and Skyrim or another game with queer rep is unthinkable—but none of them hit me as hard as the games I listed above.
I hope that in years to come I’m still touched and transformed by the games that I play. I joke about wanting the gay dating sim of my dreams, but at the end of the day, it’s not really a joke. I want that same level of immersion and ridiculousness I experienced while playing the Sims 2 in 2004.
I want to live vicariously through queer heroes and have equal opportunities for romance in every game. I want respite from dealing with the outside world, and a place to see myself.