When it comes to LGBT representation in video games, things may be slowly improving over time. But there's a long way to go before LGBT playable characters are normalised, rather than a rare surprise. One aspect of this that's especially noticeable is that, while more LGBT characters are showing up in games, their LGBT status is often separated out from the main game itself and presented in secondary 'non canon' forms — comics, twitter statements from creators, or short stories.
I want to point out some of my favourite LGBT characters that you might not know are LGBT, and how in some cases a game has sidelined this information on a standard playthrough. It's interesting how many come from enormous franchises and how well-hidden their LGBT status is — and wondering how many fans of these games are even aware. There can be a thin line between inclusivity and tokenism.
The Taken King — Destiny
Oryx is the titular character of Destiny: The Taken King, and he’s a transgender male character. He’s a king of darkness who had the power to bend reality to his very will, had been designated female at birth and transitioned to male during the ritual that granted him these godlike levels of power and strength.
The reason few players were talking about this groundbreaking piece of mainstream video game transgender representation is because it isn't actually acknowledged within the game itself. This fascinating piece of Destiny lore is hidden away in unlockable text logs that can only be read outside of the game on Bungie's website.
You collect Calcified Fragments in an area known as the Deadnaught, which allow you to unlock excerpts of something called the Books of Sorrow, which details the lore of an in-game race called the Hive. This all happens outside of the game itself, and you have to be willing to first unlock the content and then leave the game to go read it on your online Bungie account, either through a mobile app or the official Bungie website.
Sathona, Xi Ro and Aurash all made a proverbial deal with the devil in Destiny, taking part in a symbiotic relationship with a parasitic species to gain massive amounts of power and even immortality for themselves. Where things get interesting is when the Books of Sorrow discuss the third sister, Aurash, accepting these powers.
The worm grants you power over your own flesh, Aurash. When you’ve taken the king morph, what will your adult name be?
Auryx. It means Long Thought. We approve.
Up until this point in Destiny lore, Aurash is referred to using exclusively female pronouns. After taking this deal he begins to use male pronouns exclusively and the new name Auryx. The Taken King, Auryx, was designated female at birth. During his life took on a new name and began using male pronouns instead. Eventually, he switched from Auryx to the spelling Oryx.
Oryx didn’t just gain power, he changed his gender as part of doing so. The Taken King is a transgender man, but you'd never know from the game itself.
Tony — Earthbound
Earthbound's Tony is another of those characters who is never confirmed to be gay within the game, and we only know about it because of interviews with designer Shigesato Itoi.
In-game, Tony is a best friend to primary party member Jeff in boarding school. He's characterised as being fairly attached to Jeff and invested in his wellbeing, even to the extent of helping him escape the school knowing he won't be able to leave with him. He's portrayed in-game as a devoted friend, but not much more beyond that.
When discussing Tony's sexuality in Earthbound, Itoi talks as if he's written some relatable queer icon that was meant to be picked up on as gay during the in game narrative.
I designed him to be a gay child. In a normal, real-life society, there are gay children, and I have many gay friends as well. So I thought it would be nice to add one in the game, too.
But by having zero indication of Tony's queer status in the game itself, it feels like Itoi wanted to include a gay character without the risk of anyone being turned off from the game. This is a theme we see pop up time and again with queer video game characters. Announcing homosexuality later on, from a safe distance.
Janeva — Horizon: Zero Dawn
Janeva is a warden at a Carja military prison in Horizon Zero Dawn, a role only men are permitted to partake in that society.
Janeva has a voice that sounds coded to be feminine, and is played by a non-trans actress, which can lead the main character Aloy to inquire about Janeva’s status in the royal guard. Janeva may have short hair and be enlisted in a male profession, but Aloy still feels the need to assume that Janeva is a woman.
“I’m not one of your sisters,” Janeva says. “No woman can wear Carja armor. When I was young, I chose to become a soldier.”
“There was talk about what I was. So I’d say ‘Test me, and I’ll break your arm.’ After enough arms had been broken, there was less talk.”
The term transgender is never used, but it’s implied that Janeva was designated female at birth before choosing to live as a man and pursue a male profession. When Aloy misgenders Janeva, he corrects her firmly, makes his stance on his own gender clear, and moves back onto the topic at hand. In addition to this, Janeva discusses having to prove himself through violence to be accepted as male and capable of the job.
One reason so few are aware of this particular LGBT character is that explicitly trans terminology is never used in-game for Janeva, so the character's queerness can be disregarded. By coding him as trans but not outright saying it, the game lacks the courage of its convictions: Janeva is technically an example of trans representation, but his character is designed to avoid upsetting those who would be annoyed by trans inclusions. This is such common practice it deserves its own phrase; easily ignorable inclusivity.
Erica — Catherine
Erica as a trans woman character is something that a lot of gamers missed out on, due to the fact it's only revealed in one of Catherine's multiple endings. If you finish the True Lovers ending to the game, you'll come across a scene where it was revealed that Erica is a trans woman, whose pre transition name was very similar to their current name. Primary cast member Toby is instantly shown to feel regret for sleeping with a trans character, implying that he no longer sees her as a real woman.
Unlike past examples, there are actually hints at Erica's trans status in the main game if you know what to watch out for. From being told she wouldn’t be able to enter a women’s wrestling team, to having her opinion of how it feels to be a woman disregarded, the cast more than once imply that she’s not really a woman in their eyes and her angry and upset reactions to this do a fantastic job of showing both how upsetting these things can be for someone transitioning, but also how the transitioning person often has to maintain a happy face in spite of comments being made. It sucks having to remain professional in a workplace where you’re being called male pronouns when you’re female.
But there's a seriously big issue here. Erica also gets the nightmares that only male characters in Catherine get, implying that she's viewed by the creators of the game as inherently male. This is a really gross way of approaching the subject due to the implications it makes about her "true" gender, and it gets worse. In the game's end credits, her pre-transition name is used for some inexplicable reason. Erica is in some ways a thoughtful presentation of a trans woman, but the creative choices made in parts of her story completely undermine any good work. Plus, you know, the vast majority of endings for the game never acknowledge her trans status.
While over recent years we've started to see LGBT characters in video games more directly acknowledged, many are still confirmed as queer outside of the original source material as a form of distancing. While you probably know the next few characters are LGBT, you wouldn't know it if you just played the original release of each game.
Tracer — Overwatch
One of Gaming's first lesbian women to be the cover star of a video game, and a playable character at that, Tracer's status as gay is never acknowledged in either Overwatch itself, or in the game's highly watched animated short films. Tracer's status as a lesbian is confirmed primarily in the Overwatch tie in comic book, which showed her with a female partner once for a brief section. Her status as gay, as opposed to bisexual or otherwise, was confirmed via a tweet.
Ellie — The Last of Us
Ellie in The Last of Us is a queer woman, but you'd never know it by playing just the core game. Revealed in an optional DLC after launch via a kissing scene with a close friend, and later confirmed as gay in interviews, Ellie is another character who is pretty widely known to be gay, but whose confirmation came from the non-core game and staff comments outside of the original work.
While many know these characters as LGBT, that knowledge isn't a result of the piece of media they star in. It's part of a trend with LGBT representation in video games where it's considered going far enough to have gay characters confirmed outside of the source media, but not within the main story. For a great non video game example, look at the way J.K. Rowling confirmed Dumbeldore from the Harry Potter books as gay via a tweet. It's attempts to throw in inclusion that isn't supported by the base text of the piece of media.
It's progress, sure, and I'm happy we have more queer characters to look to in games. I only wish that they weren't being shuffled in at the edges, left to spinoffs, or confirmed as such outside of the game. Inclusivity is a work-in-progress for the games industry, and meaningful inclusivity is one of the next big steps.