Romance Was Always An Option: How LGBTQ+ Game Characters Portray Positive Relationship Role Models by Ruby ModicaPosted: 22 Jun 2023
From the infancy of gaming as a medium, romance has played a large role in how we empathise with pixelated human characters. Since the “(male) hero rescuing the (female) princess” trope has existed for millennia, gaming’s early days gave players a similar motivation when working for a romantic ‘good ending’. Unfortunately, this frequently came with a ‘heteronormative’ worldview where being cisgender and straight became ‘the norm’ for gaming.
As such, there are very few games from even 20 years ago that depict romance across the spectrum, such as asexuals, polyromantic individuals, or even bisexuality (let alone portray them in a positive light). However, as technological and societal boundaries have broadened over the past few decades, more positive romantic possibilities have been explored for gamers of any romantic orientation.
Romance, along with gender and sexuality, wasn’t given much thought in the first few generations of games compared to the freedom on offer today. Hindsight has allowed for characters like Link from the original Legend of Zelda to be considered non-binary by today’s standards, since the creator at the time stated Link was not made with a specific gender in mind. However, later games have arguably enforced a more masculine gender definition on Link’s existence, which could be seen as potentially ‘straight-washing’ a character’s origin and potential for romance. This example outlines the broader scope of how gaming franchises tend not to prioritise romance and its diversity among players, not to mention the unfortunate implications that come with forcibly changing a character’s sexuality or romantic preferences.
Thankfully, there are games which seek to expand and normalise LGBTQ+ romances for all audiences. Numerous games and their creators stand by the proud opportunities they’ve created for non-straight couples that are on display, without the need for fan interpretation or unfortunate implications. These frequently show up in visual novels and the Choose Your Own Adventure categories, but other genres can still showcase LGBTQ+ characters in positive romantic settings without an overt depiction.
Verdant Skies is one such example of normalising polyamory in a subtle manner; as a life simulation game based on titles like Harvest Moon, romance is a prominent aspect of gameplay. Despite this, it manages to lift the boundaries firmly grounded in other life sim games by allowing for the player character to befriend/date whomever they wish to. This even includes the possibility for poly relationships in which the player can romance more than one person simultaneously if they wish, denoted in-game as “Dating (not exclusive)” when the option arises. As such, multiple named characters of different genders are happily open to this concept, allowing for a beautiful collaborative effort for every new playthrough.
Boyfriend Dungeon also succeeds in presenting polyamory as a viable romantic path without infidelity or negative implications. The game combines dungeon-crawling with romance in a unique way: dating the weapons you find. Despite the title, the player character can romance male, female and non-binary characters/weapons in almost any combination, with a variety of different paths and endings based on player choice. Conflict is minimal, meaning the only real factors are personal preferences and/or playstyles. These are just two games that showcase polyamorous relationships in a positive manner, and hopefully will see an upward trend in the years to come.
By contrast, asexuality is perhaps the strongest example of ‘different’ romances still lacking fair representation in modern media. Since many equate love and sex to the same thing, this results in overtly sexual undertones and even scenes for a relationship of any gender pairing. Therefore, individuals under the asexual banner and allies would understandably prefer to see non-sexual loving relationships between ace people in the games they play.
Several games prominently demonstrate ace characters who want love but not sex. The Magical Diary series and Backstage Pass are visual novel dating sims which offer asexual romantic interests to the player, with well-developed backstories and social interactions that do not crowbar any sexual intentions into dialogue. Where VNs have been criticised for being “playersexual”, an informal term referring to characters that bend their sexuality purely for the choice of the player. For example, this would entail a male player character given the option to date a male NPC who is otherwise straight and their dialogue is written as such. This could also be interpreted as ‘queerbaiting’ from creators who attempt to put LGBTQ+ options in games without giving them equal care and attention to cis and straight couples.
Bisexuality in gaming is frequently seen in both overt and subtle ways. Some games portray characters who date regardless of gender/sexuality (inclusive of other terms under the umbrella term of ‘bisexual’ e.g: pansexual, skoliosexual), whereas others prefer to leave it more subtle through dialogue hints and perhaps even game-related secrets. Noting the positive instances helps strengthen the validity of attraction to more than one specific gender, and bisexual people as a whole.
One overt example of a visual novel that nurtures this mindset without fully promoting it is Quantum Suicide. This psychological battle of wits against a murderous spaceship AI features many characters just trying to survive, but the possibility for players to pursue romantic endeavours frequently occurs. Unlike other “playersexual” games, the player can choose to play as male or female, and not every possible relationship pairing is reciprocated. Some happy ending paths still result in the player’s potential partners choosing to just stay friends, cementing their preferences in a respectful manner. The innate survival instinct is perhaps strongest when these upstanding and ‘normal’ individuals express love, contrasted against a non-feeling and coldly logical AI.
The Metal Gear series is a more covert example but still something to consider. While sexuality doesn’t play a big factor in the series, there are many LGBTQ+ pairings and relationships mentioned, for better or worse. While some content from the early titles has come under scrutiny, the later games present positive portrayals of bisexual characters. Solid Snake can also claim being the first video game character to mention “bisexual” in Metal Gear Solid 2 released during 2001. A lot of these interactions are inferred or suggested in things like audio tapes and secret dialogues, but series creator Hideo Kojima makes an effort to portray bisexuality in a positive way.
Romance between consenting adults is a multi-faceted and beautiful experience whatever time of year, and the above LGBTQ+ examples are no exception. Despite the often outlandish setups and storylines present in these games, portraying LGBTQ+ relationships in such an understated natural manner helps to normalise said relationships for the world around us. Representation of love is something to be praised regardless of gender or sexuality. From the murky beginnings of game limitations, the unbound future of gaming conventions will hopefully allow for even more freedom for gamers to be and see themselves.
Ruby Modica is an independent content creator, editor and writer.
She loves sharing insight into video games and discovering new things, with a desire to work in the media/gaming industry full time. Most days she is busy at her computer working on her next big project.