Video games are a cool medium for telling stories in new ways. Interactivity allows us to inhabit and control characters who have different lives or experiences to ourselves, and enables creators to tell personal stories and make experiences relatable.
Today is International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, & Transphobia, so we thought we would pause and take a little time to celebrate games that get things right when it comes to LGBT representation. Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people often still struggle with harassment in today's world, and part of changing such attitudes is accurate and sympathetic representation in media.
There are some unavoidable spoilers ahead, as some of these games use their character's LGBT status as a reveal. On balance, I felt it better to include them than not.
The Missing: J.J. MacField and the Island of Memories
On its surface, The Missing: J.J Macfield and the Island of Memories is a story about fearing loss. You play as the titular J.J., a young woman in university whose close friend and romantic companion Emily goes missing on a mysterious island during a camping trip. After being struck by lightning, J.J. realises she cannot die, with the ability to deliberately injure yourself becoming a core part of the gameplay.
But under the surface, it's about so much more. The Missing is a story about a young woman who moves away to university, finally escaping her hyper-religious mother, deciding it's finally time for her to live her life presenting as female full-time. You see, the playable protagonist of The Missing is a transgender woman, and while her story is set into motion by tragedy, ultimately she gets to have the kind of happy ending all too few LGBT characters get.
The Missing ends on a message of hope. Even though J.J.'s lying topless, flat chested, with short hair when Emily sees her following her suicide attempt, she still respects her name, pronouns, and identity. She's no less valid to Emily for the lack of set dressing; she's still a woman deserving of love and support. It's not about the wig, the dress, or the voice. It's about supporting her for who she inherently is. That kind of a message – that there are people out there who still love and respect you after you come out as trans – is something I wish I had known myself during the rougher years of transition.
The Missing is the first mainstream video game I can think of where a trans woman gets to have a happy ending, which is rather incredible.
Dream Daddy has a simple premise: you move to town as a middle-aged dad, and try to find other hot dads around the cul-de-sac to date. There’s trendy coffee shop dad, there’s knife biker dad, religious dad with unsettling twins, cuddly dad who is incredibly proud of how smart his daughter is, and my personal favourite, goth vampire dad who I would totally ask for fashion advice any day of the week.
When it comes to the world of dating sims, far too often the focus is on sex, tragedy, and high-stakes action. When it comes to homosexuality, all-too-often gay relationships are presented through adversity and strife. It’s rare to find a queer dating sim that makes being non-straight such an everyday part of life, as well as a dating sim that revels so much in the details of dating.
Dream Daddy focuses in on the fact that dating as a single parent has its own sets of challenges and rewards: things like finding a partner who will slot into your daughter’s life without needless friction. It balances this with letting you create a dad who is basically Goku from DragonBall Z with a beer belly, before you Pokemon-battle other dads for parenting points. Make them all marvel at the amazing things your daughter has achieved, and become the dreamiest daddy.
Night in the Woods
If there was ever a video game that perfectly managed to capture the energy of being a queer millennial with depression that spams memes on the internet to avoid thinking about how their life isn't going anywhere, Night in the Woods is that game.
The game follows the story of Mae, a pansexual woman who drops out of college and moves back home to her home town, trying to work out who she is and what she wants to do with her life. The game leans hard into exploring her very millennial brand of depression, hanging out playing with a band singing songs about death that feel a little too real to simply be hypothetical, but the game makes sure to explore what's driving Mae's struggles, and present her a healthy path to personal growth.
Mae's anger, depression, and feelings of isolation stem from a refusal to accept herself for who she is, and from attempting to be someone she's not. She learns to grow by taking the time and space to be introspective, to accept that she can't change who she is and doesn't have anything to apologise for about that.
The game also features a number of other well fleshed out LGBT characters, including a gay couple and a trans woman.
The Last of Us: Left Behind
Set as a prequel to one of the best video games ever released, The Last of Us: Left Behind is a sad but touching tale of love and loss at the end of the world.
In The Last of Us, we follow characters Joel and Ellie on a trip across a fungus-zombie-infested America, hoping to discover if Ellie's immunity to infection might be able to provide a cure which could potentially save humanity from the brink of extinction. Ellie as a character feels incredibly passionate about the mission, with a real desire to help ensure nobody else ever gets infected, which makes it all the sadder that the game ends with Joel misleading her into believing she isn't a cure, rather than giving her the choice whether or not to sacrifice herself.
What makes that moment of betrayal even sadder, is playing through the events of Left Behind, and gaining an understanding of her motivations for wanting to help create a cure.
Left Behind tells the story of Ellie's blossoming romance with Riley, as they have fun exploring an abandoned shopping centre together in the dead of night. Eventually the infected creatures get inside, and both Riley and Ellie find themselves bitten.
The two find somewhere quiet, sit down together as the sun rises, and promise to remain and lose their minds together.
"We fight, for every moment we get to spend with each other. Whether it's two minutes, or two days, I don't want to give that up. My vote? We just wait it out. You know, we can be all poetic, lose our minds together".
Sure it falls prey to the "bury your gays" trope (so often, stories that introduce queer characters have their romance end badly or even fatally) but this gains its power from such tragedy. Ellie has to accept and face death, knowing it's at least next to the girl she loves, before watching her lover turn on her. Ellie has to keep living when Riley couldn't. She wanted a cure so that nobody else would have to go through what she went thought. For me, Joel denied her that choice.
It's a sad story, but the way their relationship is slowly built up through the adventure in the shopping centre feels authentic, as does the way it shows Ellie becoming the person she is in the main game.
When I first played Gone Home, I didn't think I'd enjoy it. You play as Katie, the eldest of two siblings, returning home from a trip abroad to find your childhood home trashed and abandoned. Making use of horror elements to make the player uneasy, the game tells its story through notes found throughout the house, slowly shedding light on the experiences your younger sister Sam went through while you were away.
Gone Home is only a few hours long, and interactions are limited to finding things hidden around a house, but it tells a heartfelt story of a young woman falling in love, facing persecution, but ultimately being true to herself and not letting the world dictate who she was going to be.
The game's horror theme led me to spend most of the experience fearing the worst; I thought it would end with us finding our sister dead in the attic or something, but instead it subverts these expectations and ends on a different note.
While much of the praise Undertale received when it launched was for its incredibly smart use of moral choices, its action-heavy combat style, as well as its smart writing, it also deservedly got some praise for its casual attitude towards queer representation.
You play as a non-binary character, there's a couple of gay knights who you can help acknowledge their feelings for each other, and one of the game's most positive endings includes the romance between a badass fish warrior lady and a nerdy shy dinosaur gal.
It's small, it's not overstated, but Undertale offers positive queer representation with minimal caveats, and that's all we need.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm
While the original Life is Strange dabbles with queer identity, and has some wonderful lesbian energy to it at times, the prequel series Before the Storm is much more directly a story about young, queer love
You play as Chloe Price, a school dropout who's struggling with her identity, her boundaries, and the presence of a new stepfather she clashes with in her life. We watch as she meets Rachael Amber, the kind of risk-taking character that just gets you sucked into her passion without thought for the consequences. The game isn't solely focused on their relationship, but a big part of the story does involve the two of them getting caught up in the kind of whirlwind all-or-nothing romance that only really happens when you're still young.
The ending isn't the happiest, but the journey to that end point is charming and heartwarming. It's one of the most fun, well-written, passionately exciting young romance stories I've played.
Butterfly Soup is a visual novel about two young girls falling in love while playing baseball together, the most lesbian of sports besides perhaps Roller Derby.
The game's story follows Diya and Min-Seo, two girls who grew up in conservative Asian-American homes, coming to terms with acknowledging how they feel about each other.
It's a pure love story that honestly warms my heart the longer it goes on. A true gem, and well worth checking out.
Homophobia, biphobia and transphobia all suck, so hopefully games like these will some day help people to better understand each other, and feel a little less hate for people who're just being themselves.