Why Indie Games Continue To Lead The Way For Queer Representation
Of the many things slowly changing in the realm of big-budget video games, queer representation has come a long way. I once wrote about the lack of it (and there are still blindspots i.e the lack of gay men in leading roles) but in recent years, things have much improved. In multiple genres, it’s easier than ever to find queer characters. By which I mean characters written as queer, not characters the player can define as such through available choices. Yet, are there limitations to representation in this blockbuster environment? Sure, occasionally there might be a surprising focus in something like The Last of Us Part II but for the most part, this increased representation is delegated to multiplayer titles where heroes are made queer in ancillary material. Whether it be numerous hero shooters like Overwatch or Apex Legends or even horror-themed titles like Dead By Daylight, playable characters have been made queer by the creators over time through lore dumps or comics or whatever little side material is available.
This queerness is seldom present in-game and when it is, it’s slight and never the focus. To a degree, that can be a comfort to many fans. For queer characters to be allowed to exist like any other, without their sexuality or identity coming under scrutiny. But it has many drawbacks. So many of the titles where queer characters are present are not narrative-focused. In that way, it can often feel like a bare minimum effort, adding a small footnote to a wiki entry somewhere. I don’t want to discount the difficult work of numerous people fighting in big game studios and publishers to make these small inclusions happen. The creator of Rainbow Six Siege’s Osa (a trans character voiced by a trans actress) was brought about with the work of three consultants, who have been outspoken about the value of that work. For diversity to exist in any form under corporations, takes a huge effort from people within these studios. Every queer character has been a hard-won victory.
Still, the limits on what these characters can be and what queerness can be in AAA gaming are clear. Even in the rare occasions when representation is explicit and explored, like in The Last of Us Part II, it’s not the game’s focus or what it is about. In many examples, queerness is incidental and barely mentioned. Too often it’s little more than implied. Queer audiences understandably desperate to be seen and heard in the art they engage with, latch on and invest a lot in the scant hints of representation offered, with fan art and fiction filling in the gaping void left by the games themselves. While I understand the impulse, sometimes I feel a little sad at the intense focus on the most expensive and visible games when an array of queer creators are making queer games, for queer audiences. “Indie” games covered a big, nebulous area these days but among smaller developers are games that aim to capture much more about queer experiences.
The team behind the award-winning If Found certainly appreciates the divide in approach to queer inclusion. “With a lot of mainstream media and representation, they’re still slightly behind in terms of what the actual community wants,” Alexandra Day, producer on If Found, explains. “It’s not just coming out narratives that everybody wants. We want a diversity of media and a diversity of experiences.”
Llaura McGee, a developer at DREAMFEEL, the creators of If Found, has similar feelings. “What I look for in anything creative is the voice of the creator/creators, so people drawing on real stories, not just echoing all the maybe they’ve consumed in the past. Trans people and queer people have huge lives and most stories just focus on the same tiny parts. So just having trans people in stories is cool and new. Trans people in space. Trans people having to coach a struggling football club. Trans man becomes a chef. Literally endless possibilities that aren’t effete pale trans person crying.”
More Than Just Romance
It’s a notion Els White, developer in their own studio Spider Lily Games, who has made Retrace and is currently the upcoming Schrodinger’s Catgirl, has found to be more true as they’ve grown older. “I used to just be excited to consume literally any media with queer characters in it, no matter what it was. Fortunately, I’ve been able to become a bit pickier … I actually don’t enjoy stories that focus on romance at all! So I like games that just have cool queer characters, but that aren’t solely focused on that as the basis of the plot.” They raise AI The Somnium Files as a recent example. “One character being gay does figure into the plot, but in the same way that a straight couple might, wherein he was helping his partner in a conspiracy.”
Though Llaura also says there’s more to inclusion than just representation. “I think the most important thing is literally jobs. Trans people having security and income.”
Though there is still important value in representation and inclusion stresses Alexandra. “I used to compile the steam reviews…You spend so much time working on a game you forget the thing that’s exciting about it is seeing other people experience it…And you know, we’ve had people have their own gender awakenings through it because they realized that it is possible and you can live a happy life.”
Alexandra also explains that many indie games are born of the frustrations of not being able to tell those stories in massive studios. “A lot of people in those indie spaces are people who have worked in bigger companies and tried to push against that monolithic behavior of AAA.”
One such person is Kylan Coats at Crispy Creative, the team currently working on A Long Journey To An Uncertain End, a queer space opera and management game. “Years ago there was a popular AAA title (that will remain unnamed) that had a single gay NPC for the main character to romance,” Kylan tells me, in explaining the limits of AAA games. “It was the only gay storyline in the game and it felt so…off. The NPC talked about their previous partner but spoke about them like battle buddies, not lovers. There was no tenderness, no kindness nor vulnerability.”
Blockbusters Can’t Keep Up
So can indie games lead the way? “A colleague of mine once spoke about “inclusivity debt” at large studios. The people who founded most of the AAA studios, and are still founding them, are by and large straight, cisgender, white men. The leadership in these studios have inclusivity debt they need to pay off before being able to tell authentically inclusive stories.” Indie studios founded by queer people don’t have the same issue. “That’s why the indie games made by these studios can tell compellingly inclusive stories with more authenticity, while AAA is still playing catch up.”
So what do these creators try to bring to their own work, to go beyond the shortcomings of blockbuster videogames?
“In our first title, “A Long Journey to an Uncertain End” we thought a lot about the essence of the queer experience,” Kylan Coat answers. “Like many queer people’s experiences, the player finds a supportive family in the crew they recruit. That crew is eccentric and messy and also queer. We have an inclusivity matrix that every major character has to meet. So no crew member is straight AND cisgender AND able-bodied AND monogamous. Everyone is something. Quite honestly that feels more realistic and makes our characters more compelling as well. Who wouldn’t want to go on a space adventure with a drag queen also on the run? Or a flirty non-binary pilot? Or a disabled trans pickpocket?”
Hope For The Future
Messiness is definitely something Els White wishes to convey in their work. “I really love messy, horrible people doing messy horrible things (in fiction!), and my favorite characters tend to be villains (also in fiction!!!). But it’s hard to find evil queer characters that aren’t terrible stereotypes. I wanted to write Retrace as a queer version of a certain type of horror story that I really enjoy, that centers a love that’s become so obsessive and twisted that it makes you a villain … But as lesbians.” It’s something that factors into his next game too. “Schrodinger’s Catgirl has something similar, with the “mad scientist and his devoted and underappreciated partner” being two men, and the “scientist who is very interested in body modification and transhumanism” is explicitly trans rather than implicitly. And then the main characters are just queers.”
For Alexandra, there’s a major source of pride in If Found. “One thing I’m really proud of the game for is there’s hope in our experiences.”Casio, despite everything she goes through, emerges from that experience a stronger person and a happier person…There is hope and there is joy in our experiences.”
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