Tag Archives: sexuality

Bunk Bed #2: Redshirt

Welcome to the Border House Bunk Bed, a feature in which Zoya and I respond to a game’s treatment of gender and sexuality with two short essays. Each half of Bunk Bed is written in isolation; we are forbidden from reading each other’s work until the feature is done. Bunk Bed is meant to capture the unedited, honest (and sometimes divergent) feelings of two queer games critics. Readers are invited to try the featured game and share their own responses in the comments section. 
 
A photo of a bunk bed.

Welcome to Border House Bunk Bed!

The Game:

Redshirt (The Tiniest Shark, PC and Mac, $19.95 USD) is a sci-fi social media simulator that transports the player to a Star Trek-inspired future while lampooning the Facebook of the present. By navigating social media website Spacebook (get it?), the player builds relationships, acquires skills, and climbs the career ladder. Redshirt will be available on November 13th, 2013 on Steam, GoG, and through direct download.

Top Bunk: Samantha

It’s my dream to be queer in outer space. Why? Queerness and outer space are the two coolest things ever, so they should be mind-blowing in combination, right? My partner and I would live on a homey little space station orbiting Jupiter, far away from all the straight people. We’d be so beautifully isolated and, in the stillness of space, I would perfect the art of the Barbarella-esque, zero-gravity striptease.

When I booted up Mitu Khandaker’s Redshirt, I was ready to live out my dreams of sultry space sex. I made a green-skinned Asrion character named Samantha, indicated an erotic interest in women on my profile and began my simulated space sojourn. But alas, the endlessness of space couldn’t shield me from the vagaries of love. Redshirt was not the queer getaway of my dreams but it did produce an unforgettable tale of love and heartbreak. Continue reading

An Impolite Conversation: The relationship between sex and politics in three games

I recently played a game called Agarest: Generations of War for review (Filipowich, Mark. “Review: Agarest: Generations of War.” PopMatters. Oct 28 2013.). It sucked. Many games are built from the ground up on a problematic premise; baggage is built into them. Many of the problems with Grand Theft Auto V, for instance, weren’t a surprise. But Agarest didn’t have to suck. It carefully crafted its own suckiness from a really good premise.

The game begins with the player-character, Leo—a real swell guy working for a real evil empire—attacking an impoverished country of ethnic minorities. When he sees what he’s been doing first hand, Leo refuses to participate any longer. Then a fellow officer kills him because that’s what happens to traitors. Leo is left to bleed to death in a field when an angel promises to revive him in exchange for his and his descendants’ aid against heaven’s enemies.

The Angel from Agarest, a woman with cyan hair wearing a tiara. She is thin and pale, her torso is exposed save for two strips of dark blue duct tape crossing over her nipples.

The angel from Agarest, an anime woman with cyan hair wearing a tiara. She is thin and pale, her torso is exposed save for two strips of dark blue duct tape crossing over her nipples.

From there, Leo must win the war, seduce a sexy she-human and plant a clone in her baby-sac so that his sacred duty can be passed onto the next generation. This process is repeated for all five generations of slightly differently haired Leos. All the player-characters are men, all possible relationships are heterosexual and monogamous and all the women are eerily infantile and/or battered on top of the usual erotic pandering character designs. Just as bad, all potential romance options claw over one another for the player’s love after the player has invested enough relationship points (Moss, Kim. “Y’know What’s Gross? We Often Play Nice Guys™ In Games With Romance Options.” Nightmare Mode. Dec 3 2012.). Women are just baby-making apparatuses, and to acquire one the player really only needs to ask politely at regular prompts. It’s not very difficult to spot the sexism here, but Agarest props itself up to be so much more by placing the personal and the sexual right at the center of the political.

A block of text from Agarest, explaining that the affection levels of two out of three of the potential lovers have increased while the third remains unchanged. A dialogue box beneath reads "What?" which was more or less the author's own reaction.

A block of text from Agarest, explaining that the affection levels of two out of three of the potential lovers have increased while the third remains unchanged. A dialogue box beneath reads “What?” which was more or less the author’s own reaction.

See, to maintain the order of the world, Leo mustn’t just smite the dragon-king, he has to be the kind of person that others would want to be in a sexual relationship with. The player-character doesn’t just need to seek out sex to satisfy the story, he needs to be a good boyfriend and eventual husband. Furthermore, the story demands that the player find someone willing to stick with them for the entire child-rearing process. It’s not enough to beat the bad guy, the hero must raise a good child with a good person to prevent evil from overtaking the world. If the player-character isn’t a decent, trustworthy, long-term lover and parent, the world will end. At the very least the player must be responsible enough to ensure his child will have a good upbringing; the kind of upbringing that will prepare a child emotionally and ethically for protecting the world in adulthood.

Each generation could follow a child of a different gender and a different sexuality, the game could weigh the challenge of finding a partner against that of deserving a partner. It just doesn’t. Again, the real objective of each of the five player-characters is not just defeating the bad guy, but also falling in love, coping with unrequited love, actually being a romantic partner to an individual. In Agarest, the political is directly linked to sexual relationships: loving others and being worthy of love sustains the world. The player-character’s inability to love, according to the lore provided by the game, would destroy society; being untrustworthy as lover, let alone as a parent, ends the world. That’s powerful. However, Agarest’s “dating simulator” amounts picking out the best cut of meat as the next generation pops into the player’s control.

Aragest doesn’t present sex—it could, and it’d be infinitely better if it did—it presents a specific kind of pornography; where women look and behave according to an insecure, adolescent fantasy. But it does nonetheless stumble into the complex intersection of love, family, sex, relationships, power and politics, even if it never seems to appreciate its own subject matter. I bring up Agarest as a failed instance of what another game, Hate Plus, does so well.

Hate Plus expands on Christine Love’s Analogue: A Hate Story and follows the first social collapse of the Mugunghwa, a lost generation space ship. Hate Plus chronicles the transformation of a flawed but functional society into one that is self-destructively conservative. But what makes the Mugunghwa’s tragedy so compelling is how it’s told through the many doomed love stories of its people.

New *Mute from Hate plus, with her hand to her chin. She wears a black officer's uniform with gold trim. In the dialogue box she expresses an understandable desire to explore space, solve mysteries and charm men with dialogue wheels.

New *Mute from Hate Plus against a gold background. She holds her hand to her chin. She wears a black officer’s uniform with gold trim. In the dialogue box she expresses an understandable desire to explore space, solve mysteries and charm men with dialogue wheels.

Though the plot is most immediately concerned with the fall of one government and the rise of another (and, ultimately, the fall of that government into extinction), the story is told by people developing crushes, exploring their own or another’s sexuality, committing adultery and betraying one another’s trust. It’s easy to understand how the Mugunghwa could destroy itself from a distance, but by seeing the effect of a new law, a changing fashion trend, a different standard of education through the eyes of the people living through them makes empathising with the Mugunghwa’s people natural.

For instance, a tax break for new mothers is instrumental in changing the Mugunghwa’s cultural view of women; it takes them out of the workplace and puts them in an increasingly domestic role, it makes them more desperate for work and it lowers their expectation of wage and prestige. Taking a detached and academic approach, one could see how a piece of legislation like that could undermine women’s rights, but Hate Plus emphasises the personal impact of these kinds of laws. More importantly, though, it emphasises how the changing zeitgeist dictates how characters are expected to satisfy their sexual needs.

Hate Plus is powerful because it shows how intimate something so sterile as tax reform can be. Kim So Yi, a brilliant engineer, is gradually marginalized by her government, her workplace and even by her well-meaning and otherwise decent husband. Her career is ruined the more her culture encroaches on her sexuality. Heterosexuality and motherhood become privileged and her career is significantly impacted by the sex she’s expected to have, enjoy and make public. The aforementioned tax break is passed by half a dozen rich people just trying to reach their lunch break, but it cages one of the ship’s greatest minds. Her culture silences her in the face of a sexually aggressive co-worker and it forces her to quit her work for children everybody but she wants to have. Depending on who gives or receives a blow job is immensely political and can mean the difference between a high five and prison sentence, Hate Plus shows how that distinction is arbitrated.

*Hyun-Ae and *Mute from Hate Plus wearing Korean hanbok, *Hyun-Ae's is white with red trim and *Mute's is black and purple. *Mute tells her colleague that she "will not be teased by a lovestruck girl with a fixation on hair fluffiness!"

*Hyun-Ae and *Mute from Hate Plus wearing Korean hanbok, *Hyun-Ae’s is white with red trim and *Mute’s is black and purple. *Mute tells her colleague that she “will not be teased by a lovestruck girl with a fixation on hair fluffiness!”

The beauty of Hate Plus is in how connected everything is. The game’s primary concern is how people relate and the player understand the relationships between the cast through their sex and their politics. The way people are allowed to love depends entirely on the Mugunghwa’s power structure, and sex is used to dictate the change of that structure. It’s important to note that the immortal space badass, Old *Mute, is not overthrown and killed because she is outmatched in arms—she isn’t—she is beaten by the slow erosion of her culture’s sex politics and her surrender is made absolute when she exploits her lieutenant’s love and trust.

Hate Plus is not ero—as the catchy credits song explains—but it ties the erotic to the political. It’s a story about conspiracy, intrigue and revolution told through sex stories, love poems and romantic confessions. It works because sociology and history are studies of sexual, lovesick people from a perspective too distant to see those details. Hate Plus shows how the personal and erotic, taken together, build and move a political engine. In that context, it’s interesting to look at another independent game invested in sex, Consensual Torture Simulator.

Merritt Kopas’s Consensual Torture Simulator is a game about two lovers consensually finding joy in one another’s bodies. It’s straightforward about the act and the objective: the player is in a sadomasochistic relationship with their girlfriend and the player’s goal is to strike their partner until they cry. Both the invisible player-character and the nameless girlfriend find joy in the interaction. There’s no twist that one of the lovers is a ghost or anything like that, it’s just two people who love each other being physically intimate with one another.

That’s where Consensual Torture Simulator, for me, becomes more interesting politically. Both the participating characters, even the title itself, are so honest. Moreover, though the player is performing the torture, not receiving it, the game monitors the player’s physical condition. Swinging a whip is tiring, and if the player doesn’t recognize their own limits they’re as likely to break as their partner. Topping is as demanding as bottoming for many of the same reasons. Performing the act successfully requires equal commitment, trust and exertion from the participants.

Promotional material for Consensual Torture Simulator showing a woman's hands bound by leather straps hanging from the ceiling. The photo is washed over in pink with the game's title along the right.

Promotional material for Consensual Torture Simulator showing a woman’s hands bound by leather straps hanging from the ceiling. The photo is washed over in pink with the game’s title along the right.

Patricia Hernandez interviewed Kopas for Kotaku about the game (“A Game Where You Torture Someone Because They Want You To.” Oct 29 2013.) and in the piece she cites some of the developer’s previous writing on violence from her personal blog (“keywords debrief: violence.” Oct 11 2012.). Kopas writes that the greatest problem with how games portray violence is in how “they conceal…structural violences.” It’s significant that Hernandez recalls that piece in a conversation about Consensual Torture Simulator because the structure of that game and the sexual act therein so honest and egalitarian. The player’s satisfaction depends on their partner’s satisfaction. If the player-character gets tired, their partner needs to have patience with them; if the partner’s threshold is reached, she trusts the player to recognize that; if either needs the stimulation to escalate than it must be on the terms of the other. Structurally speaking, neither partner holds power over the other.

Consensual Torture Simulator doesn’t present sex as a capitalist exchange between a purchaser and a provider, nor does it present violence as a colonial attack from an invader upon an underarmed, weaker “threat.” Violence—if it can be called that—is based on a structure of two, equal parties seeking the same, mutually beneficial end. Both player and partner commit to the act as best they’re able. If one needs a rest, the other recognizes it. It’s appropriate that Consensual Torture Simulator comes as a reaction to Grand Theft Auto V because it—like most triple A games—romanticizes violence as a pleasurable act to perform on an unwilling, nameless creature. The structure of triple A games, GTA V just being the most recent representative to take the floor, encourages a lopsided power structure. Consensual Torture Simulator is structurally based on two people that trust one another committed to pleasuring one another in different but equal ways.

Sex and politics may not be fair subject for polite conversation but they’re connected. Politics dictate the terms of how people may interact with their own bodies and most of the people that make up society really like getting off. The two are connected. It’s interesting to see how games—like politics, systems of rules that dictate behaviour—attempt to examine the connection of politics. Sex in games can present their players with a microcosm of power, whether through the failed but promising allusion in Agarest, the mutually dependant organism shown in Hate Plus or the reaction to a current understanding of violence in Consensual Torture Simulator. Sex is a reflection of how power influences people, and games are in a strong position to comment on how one impacts the other.

Agarest: Generations of War is available on Steam for $19.99, it’s also available under the name Record of Agarest War for the same price on the Playstation Network or for $29.99 on Xbox Live Arcade. Hate Plus is available on Steam for $9.99 and Consnsual Torture Simulator can be purchased for a minimum of $2.00 on either Gumroad or itch.io.

Bunk Bed #1: Everlove

Welcome to the first ever Border House Bunk Bed, a feature in which Zoya and I respond to a game’s treatment of gender and sexuality with two short essays. Each half of Bunk Bed is written in isolation; we are forbidden from reading each other’s work until the feature is done. Bunk Bed is meant to capture the unedited, honest (and sometimes divergent) feelings of two queer games critics. Readers are invited to try the featured game and share their own responses in the comments section. 
 
Welcome to Border House Bunk Bed!

Welcome to Border House Bunk Bed!

The Game:

Everlove: Rose (Silicon Sisters Interactive, iOS, $3.99 USD) is a romance game by women-run Canadian games studio Silicon Sisters. The studio is committed to improving the representation of women in games, and recently ran a game jam for projects with female protagonists. This medieval fantasy adventure combines branching dialogue with hidden object and jigsaw puzzles. Everlove also allows the player to romance four different men (albeit one at a time). Beyond the flirtation, another story unfolds, a story about magic, control and resistance to power.

Top Bunk: Zoya

I have never been a woman in love, but I spent many years of my life roleplaying as one. Even before I used the word “transgender,” I knew I could never be a woman on the inside, but I felt that I had to learn to act as one. Nobody would ever love me otherwise, I thought.

I remember the first time we kissed. I remember it as the first time in years that I actually had enough friends to have a proper birthday party. It was working. I was finally lovable. When I broke up with him years later, I learned that he didn’t kiss me because I was lovable. He kissed me because I was vulnerable. I was easy to manipulate. I wasn’t going to say no.

I was nervous about playing romance game Everlove. Other romance games that I have encountered have taken me back to that dark place in my life when, in trying to be a good girl, I lost control of my own boundaries. Romance games are so often about trying to please other people.

Rose, the protagonist of Everlove.

Rose, the protagonist of Everlove.

The protagonist, Rose, is undergoing past life regression therapy, which feels functionally similar to time travel. She wakes up in the body of a past life version of herself in medieval Europe. Immediately, one of the dialogue options you can choose for her is “I’m not sure about this… being in someone else’s body and taking control of it.”

This concern for consent is carried through fairly consistently. When Rose gets the opportunity for a tryst with the man you have chosen to pursue, you can decide to refuse his advances. The same applies when he proposes marriage. It seems obvious now that choosing to pursue a man isn’t the same as wanting to sleep with him, but I was brought up to think that it is wrong to disappoint a man after you’ve “led him on.” Everlove imagines Rose’s motivations more complexly than that.

Rose’s dreams are haunted by a frightening creature called The Beast. It is hinted that The Beast may really be about social control, but Rose has decided to try and work out what in herself is causing these terrible dreams.

Rose is discovering who she is through her relationships with men from her past life. Acting in a way that is true to how you want to play the character is always rewarded with personality points. In addition to Rose’s own self-discovery, the men she is pursuing are attracted to some traits more than others, each one having different preferences. Although Rose has to reach a minimum level of compatibility with at least one man in order to complete the game, beyond that she doesn’t have to change herself to please any of them. Every romance can end in failure and still be the right outcome for Rose as an individual.

The swarthy woodsman Garrett.

The swarthy woodsman Garrett.

Everlove is at its strongest when romancing swarthy woodsman Garrett. I loved the witty banter between him and Rose. When she stood up for herself, he admired her all the more. I trusted him with her, because he seemed secure in himself. The weaker personalities in the game reminded me too much of the fragile ego of that boyfriend who so needed me to be a perfect girl so that he could feel like the perfect man. Because I trusted Garrett, I trusted Rose, and because I trusted Rose, I trusted myself a little bit more. Roleplaying as her gave me some space to forgive myself for the mistakes I’ve made in the past.

In the end, Rose has to find a way to release the hold The Beast has on her, or else she is destined to become The Beast too. Escaping its influence won’t be easy, but I hope that she and I can get there together.

Bottom Bunk: Samantha

The experience of having a man hit on me would be funny if it didn’t make me feel so uncomfortable. As a queer woman and a transgender sex radical, I am so far outside of a straight man’s erotic economy that a successful bedding isn’t even a remote possibility. It’s like watching an octopus try to have sex with a hummingbird: I’m not sure what he’s hoping to accomplish but it’s not going to happen.

Getting hit on is an incessant reminder that so many men instantly perceive women as objects to be valued, owned and exchanged. It’s like they’re all wearing little RoboCop visors and, as soon as they register a woman’s face, their programming kicks in. Prime directive number one? “Sleep with her.”

For me, Everlove is a horror game about the discomfort of being a queer woman in a heteronormative world. The men of Everlove are relentless in their advances; no matter how often I rebuff them, they always come back for more. In the absence of an “I’m so gay and even if I weren’t you wouldn’t stand a chance!” dialogue option, I have to settle for the next most hostile response: “You try anything and you’ll be so ridiculously sorry!”

But Everlove translates my resistance into romance. When I utter the above warning to a befurred mountain man named Garrett, for example, a little heart pops up to let me know that my self-defensive threats have piqued his interest. He likes my “will,” it seems. He finds it endearing. The game encourages me to play up the “traits” that appeal to my desired mate. I shudder to think of Everlove in the hands of young girls, the game implicitly instructing them that saying “no” is just another way of saying “yes.”

There is one character in Everlove, however, that manages to pique my interest: my best friend Fendrel. She’s strong and stubborn with a brooding energy behind her eyes. But there is a sweetness in her loyalty that tempers her otherwise hard-nosed demeanor. And, like me, Fendrel seems to inhabit a space outside of the world of men and royals. We share a similar social station, a common lot in life.

Corey and Samantha.

Corey and Samantha.

Fendrel reminds me a lot of my own partner, actually. Corey and I are a study in contrasts. My California girl skips like a stone across her deep pool of New York cool. Her dark, wavy hair makes my fluffy blondeness pop. But we are also held together by a fundamental sameness. We are both women, both queer, both soft in the right places. My eroticism is located in this interplay between sameness and difference, not in the heterosexual mystification of difference itself.

One late night in Bloomington, Indiana, Corey and I stopped for a slice at Rockits on the way home. As we sprinkled some crushed red pepper on our greasy pizza, a man came up to us and told us that we should each be out with individual, male partners. We’re depriving the world of women by spending our night with each other instead, he explained. He would make a great Everlove character.

Suffice it to say that I tried my hardest to be with Fendrel. I repudiated all four of my male suitors and said the sweetest possible things to Fendrel. Corey thought I was cute. Fendrel would too, right? But an early turn in the plot took Fendrel away for a time, leaving me stranded with four overeager medieval men.

My experience with Everlove—mercifully—came to an early end. My therapist-cum-aunt informed me that I was “not very compatible with any of the men of Heart’s Home”—quelle surprise!—and that I would have to “revisit previous conversations to generate additional compatibility points” with at least one of my suitors. Some games have a gear check; Everlove has a heterosexuality check.

I exited my conversation with my therapist and looked again at the overworld map. Sure enough, there were four paths with men’s names by them but no path for Fendrel. I closed the game and I haven’t opened it since. Four roads diverged in a yellow wood and I turned around and drove away in my U-Haul.

The heterosexual gate.

The heterosexual gate.

Star Wars: The Old Republic and Same Gender Romance

Makeb: the new planet that will be available in the Star Wars: The Old Republic expansion pack.

Makeb: the new planet that will be available in the Star Wars: The Old Republic expansion pack.

Players of the MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic will soon see a long awaited option available to them in game: same gender romance! This has been discussed for awhile (see our January 2012 review of the game) but we now know that it will become official this spring.

The expansion pack Rise of the Hutt Cartel will increase the level cap, create a new area and story line, and include a new option for same gender romances.

A blog post written by Jeff Hickman (Executive producer of the game) states:

Same Gender Romance:  Any news on this front would be great… Answer: First of all, I want to apologize that this is taking so long to get in the game. I realize that we promised SGR to you guys and that many of you believed that this would be with a companion character. Unfortunately, this will take a lot more work than we realized at the time and it (like some other pieces of content we talked about earlier in the year) has been delayed as we focused on the changes required to take the game Free-to-Play. As we have said in the past, allowing same gender romance is something we are very supportive of.

Secondly, I want to reveal today that we are adding SGR with some NPCs on Makeb and do intend on pursuing more SGR options in the future. More details to come!

I am glad to hear that this will be available in the game. In an ideal situation this would have been implemented at launch, but it is great news that they will be adding it in the future rather than ignoring it entirely.

Why do you think you know that Taric is gay?

A skin that can be worn by League of Legends character Taric; it is very pink, features large gems and furry legwarmers, and is accessorised with a very poofy hairdo

This week, there has been discussion about whether League of Legends character Taric should come out of the closet as a gay man (by Todd Harper, Patricia Hernandez, and Kristin Bezio). It is argued that having a character be openly gay, rather than ‘wink and a nod, maybe’ gay, would represent a positive shift in the game’s diversity. From what I gather about League of Legends, I suppose it probably would; but the assumptions underlying this discussion are not at all welcoming of diverse forms of gender and sexual expression.

It’s claimed that by ‘remaining tight-lipped about his life outside of the league’, Taric as a character is furthering the idea that being gay is a hush-hush thing that should be kept out of public view and just whispered and giggled about behind closed doors. Todd Harper lists a few ways that Taric’s sexuality could be included in the game; maybe he has a boyfriend character, for example. This would, Kristin Bezio argues, positively reinforce sexual diversity, rather than simply using it as an in-joke.

I don’t disagree with the value of both fictional characters and real-life human beings coming out of the closet. I’ve benefited immensely from other people speaking and writing publicly about their identities and experiences. If there was someone like me on British TV, I would have a much easier time explaining my identity to my mother. But by assuming that Taric is gay, people are contributing to heteronormative assumptions from which I have only been able to escape in recent years, thanks to other people coming out and being public about their diverse gender identities.

Only because of other people coming out and speaking about their identities do I know that gender-variant people are not always defined by labels relating to sexual orientation. I’m not against coming out, but I am against the assumption that everybody will or should manage their social lives and personal identities in the same way. And even though I don’t play LoL, this call for an apparently feminine male character to come out as gay is deeply troubling to me as a genderqueer person.

Continue reading

Cherchez La Femme

The following is a guest post by Danielle Perry:

Writer and photographer with a desk job. You can find her on Flickr, where she posts pictures daily, and on Twitter, where she posts about books, games, living in DC, and everything in between.

There’s something weirdly comforting to me about slipping back into the Wasteland. I didn’t think I’d like Fallout 3, but I sank nearly 100 hours into it. I was hesitant about Fallout: New Vegas, since I loved Fallout 3 mostly for taking the place I live (DC) and turning it post-apocalyptic, but I am already near 100 hours and have much more to do. So it seems safe to say that the Wasteland, whether Capital or Mojave, appeals to me.

When I played Fallout 3, I took the Black Widow perk – which opens up conversation options that allow the player to flirt with male NPCs – early on. There were only a few opportunities to use it and I loved every single one. But in New Vegas, there’s a different yet similar perk – Cherchez La Femme. It works pretty much the same way Black Widow does, except the Courier can now flirt with other women. I took Black Widow first, because it was familiar, but I fell in love with Cherchez La Femme. It helps that Obsidian does a better job with these speech options than Bethesda did in Fallout 3. There are more of them, for starters. Where there were only three or four Black Widow options in the previous game, there are multitudes in New Vegas.

The way these options have shaped my relationships and affections in the Mojave Wasteland has been interesting to watch develop. Every time I had a chance to sleep with another woman, I took it. Meanwhile, Black Widow has mostly been used to seduce and then murder Benny, the character who shot me in the head in the game’s opening. (This seemed appropriate, given the name of the perk.) The fact that New Vegas includes sex at all seems kind of revolutionary, especially because no one makes a big deal over it. It’s just another thing you can do in the Wasteland.

Continue reading

Cortez

Same Sex Romance and Mass Effect 3

Though rare, same sex romance options are not new to video games. We have seen them Jade Empire, The Sims, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and the Dragon Age series. But lately, BioWare has had some shining moments in this area. When they announced that Star Wars: The Old Republic was going to add same sex romances post release The Family Research Council got members to send thousands of letters to EA to denounce the move. EA did not back down, and instead stood by the decision to include the romance options http://kotaku.com/5899246/homophobes-slam-ea-with-thousands-of-letters-over-same+sex-romance. When a forum poster complained about the inclusion of bisexual NPCs in Dragon Age 2 David Gaider explained that “The majority has no inherent “right” to get more options than anyone else.”  http://social.bioware.com/forum/1/topic/304/index/6661775&lf=8 Several recent BioWare games had same sex romance options, but Mass Effect 3 is especially important as a big budget game that has characters who are exclusively gay or lesbian.

 

 Some logistics first … Let’s look at the numbers!

(Author’s note: My Shepard romanced Liara and stayed faithful to her throughout the series. Information on which other characters can be romanced was taken from the Mass Effect wiki and some YouTube clips were referenced while writing the post.)

Steve Cortez from Mass Effect 3

Before delving into Mass Effect 3, it is important to look at the series as a whole. Let’s look at what character romances result in the Paramour achievement/trophy in each game. I call those the primary romances or relationships. The original Mass Effect had had 2 primary romance options for both the male and female Shepard. As a man you could romance Ashley Williams and Liara T’Soni while as a woman you could romance Kaidan Alenko or Liara T’Soni. While Liara is often considered by fans as a same sex romance for a female Shepard, the game specifies that asari are a mono gendered species. They do not talk about a male/female gender binary; they are simply asari. So we walk away from the original Mass Effect without an official same sex romance.

 

Mass Effect 2 had many more romance options than the original game. As a man, Shepard could romance Miranda Lawson, Tali’Zorah, or Jack. As a woman, Shepard could romance Jacob Taylor, Garrus Vakarian, and Thane Krios. None of these are same sex options.

 

Mass Effect 3 has the largest number of romance options in the series. As a man, Shepard can romance Miranda Lawson, Tali’Zorah, Jack, Ashley Williams, Kelly Chambers, Liara T’Soni, Kaiden Alenko, or Steve Cortez. As a woman, Shepard can romance Garrus Valkarian, Kaidan Alenko, Kelly Chambers, Liara T’Soni, and Samantha Traynor.

Game Shepard Primary opposite sex relationships Primary same sex relationships Asari relationships
Mass Effect Female 1 0 1
Mass Effect Male 1 0 1
Mass Effect 2 Female 3 0 0
Mass Effect 2 Male 3 0 0
Mass Effect 3 Female 2 1 1
Mass Effect 3 Male 5 2 1

 

             

Secondary romances

However, there were also relationships that were not tracked by the Paramour achievement. In Mass Effect 2 either Shepard could show interest in Samara, Morinth, and Kelly Chambers. This last option of Kelly Chambers is the only one in Mass Effect 2 that could definitely counts as a same sex relationship option. In Mass Effect 3 either Shepard could have a sexual relationship with Diana Allers which which add another same sex relationship option for a female Shepard.

 

All those numbers mean something  

When looking at the numbers, there is a clear trend for greater diversity in sexual relationships within the Mass Effect series. But there is something else in those numbers: a male Shepard has more options than a female Shepard. Part of this is due to the exclusion of Thane and Jacob as romance options in Mass Effect 3. Yet, even if those two were included in the group, a female Commander Shepard would still have fewer potential romance options than a male. The quantity of options appears to favor a male Shepard.

 

This favoritism falls apart when discussing same sex relationships. If we look at Liara as a same sex option for female characters, then a lesbian Shepard has had a romance option since the beginning of the series. Even ignoring Liara, a lesbian Shepard could start a relationship with Kelly Chambers in the second game and then have that carry over to Mass Effect 3. BUT, a gay Shepard had to wait 3 games in order to have a possible relationship. If you choose to role play Shepard as a gay male, romance is left out until the end of the series. See http://kotaku.com/5909937/with-the-galaxy-in-flames-my-video-game-hero-finally-came-out-of-the-closet Denis Farr’s article about this issue.

 

What could have been done differently?

 

Liara from Mass Effect 3

The relationship with Liara T’Soni deserves discussion. Does she “count” as a same sex romance for a female commander Shepard or not? If she is considered female, then there is a potential for a long term same sex relationship between her and Shepard stretching from the first game through to the last. But by describing her as part of a monogendered species the series denies players one positive lesbian romance portrayal. While a relationship with a genderless species could be interesting the asari are not androgynous, they are heavily coded as feminine. Because of their appearance, the relationship looks like a same sex romance with a female Shepard but should it be read as such or should we look at it as something different? I am not sure. Even after 3 games I do not know if my Shepard’s relationship with Liara can be considered a lesbian romance.

 

Kelly Chambers in Mass Effect 2 is also potentially problematic. Her relationship with Shepard is not considered a canon romance in that game. It is a flirtation, a quick hint of a potential relationship. When she joins Shepard in her cabin at the end of the game she is wearing a tight fitting outfit and does a sexy dance. The point of the scene is to provide sexual arousal for Shepard but does not allow for a further relationship within that one game. There is nothing wrong with that, but as the only portrayal of a same sex relationship in Mass Effect 2 it conforms with a male gaze, “two women are hot” portrait of lesbian relationships that is all too common in media. We need more diversity in the portrayal of lesbians. This relationship can become deeper in Mass Effect 3 but only if Shepard goes though this more superficial experience in the second game.

 

What makes ME3 special?

The final game in the series does several important things in terms of relationship options. The game portrays them as something that can be persistent and evolving over time. It is possible to have started a relationship with Liara in the first game, stayed faithful to her in the second game, and continue the relationship in the final episode. This is something unique and not available to a player that just wants to begin a relationship with Liara in the final game. The way the trilogy was set up allowed for the possibility a dynamic relationship. The NPCs were treated as having potential beyond just sex. These were characters whose stories mattered, with their own journey and growing relationships with Shepard.

 

However, one of the new characters in Mass Effect 3 is incredibly important. Steve Cortez is a pilot in the game. When discussing his past, you learn that he lost his husband in a Reaper invasion. This fact is handled wonderfully. We have a man, discussing the loss of his husband, and there is no pause in the discussion. Shepard does not stop to say, “Whoa, hold on, are you saying you are gay?” or ask any other question all too often heard by people in same sex relationships. Cortez mentions his husband and we are meant to mourn the loss with him. It is no different than if he mentioned the loss of his wife. This one simple thing is incredibly important. Imagine a world where all players of Mass Effect 3 accepted gay individuals as easily as Shepard does in the scene. Cortez being attracted to someone of the same sex is not an issue; it is a not an oddity, it just exists as one option within the universe. Cortez is shown as an exclusively gay man, and yet his sexuality is never shown as a problem. His sexuality is not used to impose tragedy in his life. This is not the tale of a difficult coming out story or an attack on a gay man. He is allowed to be a gay man and not have that one trait define his character arc. It is not something we see very often in media. This portrayal was done beautifully.

Authorial intent

Were the writers cognizant of these depictions and their implications? In an interview, Patrick Weekes and Dusty Everman show that members of the BioWare staff were aware of how they displayed these relationships. As Patrick Weekes said about writing a gay character:

Liara’s relationship in Lair of the Shadow Broker can be with players of either gender, so I was familiar with writing dialog that needed to work for a same-sex romance. Nevertheless, I’m a straight white male – pretty much the living embodiment of the Patriarchy – and I really wanted to avoid writing something that people saw and went, “That’s a straight guy writing lesbians for other straight guys to look at.”

 I also really wanted the romance with Traynor to be positive. One of my gay friends has this kind of sad hobby in which she watches every lesbian movie she can find, trying to find ones that actually end up with the women not either dying or breaking up. I think the most positive one she’s found is “D.E.B.S.” I wanted to avoid any kind of tragic heartbreak, to make this a fundamentally life-affirming relationship… at least, as much as possible within Mass Effect 3′s grim war story.

 

Samantha Traynor from Mass Effect 3

Similar to Cortez, for the exclusively lesbian character of Samantha Traynor her sexuality is a part of her but not her sole defining feature. Patrick Weekes again:

 I worked hard to create a character who addressed her lesbian identity in a positive and intelligent way. My first draft of Traynor’s pitch was all about how her character arc would be about identifying and overcoming the challenges of being gay… and my friends and managers called me on it. I’d been so focused on writing something positive that I hadn’t made a real-enough character. So in the next draft (closer to how she shipped), the focus was on her as a mostly lighthearted fish out of water, a very smart lab tech trying to adjust to life on the front lines, with her identity as a lesbian present but not shouted from the rooftops.

 

From Dusty Everman:

 I believe that by the 22nd century, declaring your gender preference will be about as profound as saying, “I like blondes.” It will just be an accepted part of who we are. So I tried to write a meaningful human relationship that just happens to be between two men.

 This interview shows that the team at BioWare was conscious of the implications of their character designs and story arcs. They were aware of some of the pitfalls often found when creating gay characters and they at least attempted to avoid them. The full interview can be found  http://blog.bioware.com/2012/05/07/same-sex-relationships-in-mass-effect-3/

 

What do we want to see next

BioWare did several laudable things in Mass Effect 3. So what do we want to see in future games? From both BioWare and other companies I ask for one thing: DIVERSITY! We need more games to show the complexity of human experiences. Let’s have some asexual characters. Let’s have NPCs that are straight but are NOT interested in the main character despite a match in gender and orientation. Let’s have more gay characters. Once we have more diversity, we can tell more stories. The Princess doesn’t always need saving by the Prince and the Prince may not want to marry a Princess anyways. Let’s step out of the box a bit more and get creative. Who would want to play a game with a lesbian necromancer as the main character? I would! And I doubt that I am the only person. Games are meant to be fun to play, so let’s play with the stories and create some new experiences.

Anders, left, cupping Zel Hawke's face with a caption stating, "This is the rule I will most cherish breaking."

Dragon Age 2: Schrödinger’s Sexuality

Anders, left, cupping Zel Hawke's face with a caption stating, "This is the rule I will most cherish breaking."

Anders, left, cupping Zel Hawke's face with a caption stating, "This is the rule I will most cherish breaking."

 

It was March of last year, during the week before the release of Dragon Age 2, and I still recall that slightly feverish late night hanging around BioWare’s forums as rumors that all the love interests from the game would be bisexual. “They’re all bi!” was passed around jubilantly; someone was livestreaming a play of a review copy to show it was possible to flirt with everyone, regardless of the sex of Hawke. While I did not watch the livestream, I was in the impromptu chatroom that people had set up to discuss the issue. I myself have thus far only played the game twice, once romancing Anders as a man; once romancing Fenris as a man. My next two playthroughs will likely follow suit with playing a woman romancing Isabela, and then another who will romance Merrill.

It is fairly rare to have the option to play four different characters and romance four different characters in a game and have them all be same-sex, sure. However, what intrigues me about this game in particular is what it can say about how we react and respond to sexuality. Canonically, I do believe all the characters are bisexual, though it is not difficult to imagine one might not be aware of this.

For someone not paying attention to forums or online discussions of the game, and only basing their knowledge of the characters from the game itself, the only character who immediately appears to be bisexual is Isabela. For anyone playing a male Hawke, it would also become apparent that Anders is bisexual, as his somewhat desperate playboy personality in Awakening is contrasted with his relationship with Karl in the sequel. As David Gaider, a senior writer for the Dragon Age series,  has stated, that relationship happens, whether we see it or not, though a player who has a female Hawke and romances Anders would not necessarily be exposed to it. In that light, she might well assume that Anders is heterosexual exclusively.

Meanwhile, there is Fenris, who has the option to start a romance with Isabela if your Hawke romances neither of them. If a Hawke goes this route, one could assume Fenris is heterosexual, as he is involved in a sexual relationship with a woman. At the same time, during my male Hawke’s romance of Fenris, there was no real indication that I saw that he was interested in women. For that particular Hawke, Fenris was not bisexual (then again, he also sided with the Templars, so he was not at all a character I would use to describe my own personality). While I, in a meta fashion, knew better, this being a game where I enjoy actually inhabiting a role, that Hawke just assumed Fenris was actually gay. It made him view his history as a slave in a slightly different manner, whereas in a meta fashion, his bisexuality made me do the same.

Merrill, a Dalish elf with markings on her face, before the game's final battle. Caption reads, "(Laughs) The Champion of Kirkwall going to battle naked ... why can't I ever have that dream?"

Merrill, a Dalish elf with markings on her face, before the game's final battle. Caption reads, "(Laughs) The Champion of Kirkwall going to battle naked ... why can't I ever have that dream?"

 

I cannot speak to Merrill from a romantic sense in the game as yet, but from what I have discussed with other people, she does not really mention her sexuality outside of a relationship. The only hint we get of such is a line she has during the final battle, where she mentions wishing she could have a dream of Hawke riding into battle naked, regardless of the sex of Hawke. The comment itself does not seem to say much about Merrill other than build upon her sometimes socially awkward character. Therefore, any Hawke entering into a relationship could assume she is exclusively homo- or heterosexual.

This is something that exists to an extent in all media (there is the somewhat recent example of J.K. Rowling outing Dumbledore posthumously and after ending the books), though games that allow romance options have the ability to make this this all the more apparent due to their interactive and quantum narratives. Because the player can make assumptions about the characters based on only what the game’s text presents, I call this Schrödinger’s sexuality. Again, as this has the chance to exist on a spectrum for the character and player, either individually or together, certain states and assumptions about the character may exist dependent on the text to which they are exposed. As yet, I don’t believe we have horribly many examples of such, but depending on how games proceed in the future, this is a possibility that can occur more often.

Now, the characters actually being bisexual regardless of whether or not our Hawkes are privy to this fact does tend to underline that we can often make assumptions about peoples’ sexuality that may well be erroneous. In Dragon Age 2, this has often taken the tone of bigotry against bisexual people themselves, which also includes some peoples’ tendency to assign a certain label until proven to be otherwise (therefore, a person in a same-sex relationship is gay, until proven bi, or vice-versa with a heterosexual relationship). What the game has the chance to do in the metanarrative, then, is to apply a social commentary about people who see it through the lens of Schrödinger’s sexuality, or allow their Hawkes to do so.

As I am of the belief that Dragon Age 2‘s characterization is for the most part well-written, this then allows a further example to be drawn about how we see and assume certain aspects about people in real life. Just as assumptions about gender and pronouns to use are often made on first contact by many (though not all, depending on one’s own privileges and acknowledgment thereof), having a cast that includes at least four bisexual people speaks to society’s own expectations when people start to naysay this in various fashions. When people make the argument that it is unrealistic to have a party where so many people could be bisexual, they are imposing their own world, and in particular worldview on to the game. As someone whose friends include quite a number of people among the queer spectrum, it really is not that difficult to imagine.

Therefore, that Schrödinger’s sexuality can be said to exist in the game for some people says more about the individual, as either a player or Hawke, than it does about the game. This is where authorial intent can become tricky for some, as they are firmly bisexual, regardless of how our Hawkes may interpret their sexuality. After all, if Fenris, Merrill, or Anders (in the case of a female Hawke) never reveal their bisexuality to Hawke, that is their right and decision to make. That does not mean they are exclusively hetero- or homosexual, though.

An Open Letter to Kotaku’s Joel Johnson

The article "The Equal Opportunity Perversion of Kotaku" with a picture of young men cosplaying.

The article "The Equal Opportunity Perversion of Kotaku" with a picture of young men cosplaying.

I just finished reading your article on Kotaku, “The Equal Opportunity Perversion of Kotaku,” a lengthier response than the one you gave me previously. In case you don’t recognize me, we had a conversation on Twitter about Dan Bruno’s recanting of his praise for the progressive development of the site. Your last paragraph originated from our discussion, and because you decided to take it to a public forum, I figured I would as well.

There is a reason I’m posting this at The Border House. A large part of our readership feels alienated by the content produced on Kotaku and deserves to have access to a dialogue with you that doesn’t require bearing the hostility your site is known for. To be fair, most gaming websites are hostile towards those who point out diversity related issues, and it’s easy to criticize you and Kotaku because you seem to know better. It’s a sucky position to be in, I empathize.

I remember the post that made me unsubscribe from Kotaku, before the good stuff started to roll in. Another gallery of naked women covered in video game accessories. It wasn’t because that post was SO offensive to me, but because I was TIRED of seeing articles like that over and over again. Seeing sexualized women isn’t bothersome to me unless I’m in a space that assumes I’m a heterosexual man, which is very, very often. Almost always when I check out my gaming sites.

What I am hopeful about is your willingness to discuss this issue. If there is something I’ve promised to my editors, it is a proactive outlook on solving the issues multiple identities have in the gaming community. However, I found both our conversation and your article little more than hand waving the issue, trying to be sympathetic while not actually committing to act upon the ideals you say to have.

Let me be clear, to both you and readers at The Border House: I don’t think censorship is a solution, I don’t think Kotaku has a civic responsibility if it doesn’t want one, and I’m completely fine with the expression of sexuality. What is problematic is the dissonance between what you describe as your ideals. The thing is, it’s actually NOT okay to have your cake and eat it too when it’s hypocritical to do as such. If you know that you’re adding to the misogyny and homophobia of a community that is extremely primed for it, how is that okay? You recognize that the columns about Japan rely on the “Asians are WEIRD” trope that is unhealthy, but you’re fine with it because it’s funny. The Male Gaze is mentioned and dismissed in the same breath, showing that you are aware it exists yet neglect to apply it to the kind of content Kotaku produces to explain why minority groups are turned off by the site. I don’t think you or any other writers are deliberately trying to offend anyone, but the intent to be generally open-minded to diversity doesn’t mean what actually happens is as well. How do you reconcile this? How do you tell people reading this at The Border House things are fine when you understand what’s going on is contradictory to what you know should be?

And what stung, both in our conversation and your article, was how you absolved yourself and Kotaku from doing anything by passing the buck to those who feel marginalized. Instead of aiming to produce a staff culture that shows their awareness and support for diversity issues through their content, you leave it up to those who feel unsatisfied to create that content for Kotaku. I don’t know how this is reasonable in any way. It sounds like Kotaku’s staff doesn’t want to do anything different, but still wish to come off as the good guys. That is having your cake and eating it, which is definitely not okay.

The problem is that Kotaku isn’t “equal opportunity” anything. You acknowledge that your staff tends to write towards one demographic and looks for content that falls into stereotypical expectations for what you’d find on a gaming. It’s the easiest thing to do, and doesn’t take nearly as much thinking as keeping in mind that there are more than the assumed immature young straight guy to pander for. That’s not equal opportunity. Equal opportunity would mean there is as much of a chance to produce content appealing for heterosexual men as it is for everyone else. And that’s not even recognizing the different expressions of sexuality for straight guys, just the mainstream one valorized by gaming sites such as Kotaku.

You misinterpreted me before; I don’t want to tag you with responsibility you didn’t agree to. However, it would show that you are a decent person when you are responsible for your own words and actions. If you “unabashedly” want to promote the voices and presence of minority identities in your community, then unabashedly do so. It’s fine if you don’t want to, but just say that.

I hope you can write back to me about this, and involve as many people as you can in this conversation. I would like to subscribe to Kotaku again, especially if more diversity-aware content becomes available. No ill will, just honesty with a wish for genuine, proactive change.

~Mattie

The Border House Podcast – Interview: Choice of Games Designer Heather Albano

A rose, logo for Choice of Romance (my favorite!)

A rose, logo for Choice of Romance (my favorite!)

 

A first of hopefully many to come, this is TBH Podcast’s answer to the community’s request for experts in the industry to speak on diversity issues. I had an awesome time talking with Heather Albano, designer at Choice of Games. Many (I want to say all!) deal with gender and sexuality issues in both minor ways and as focal points, and everyone should give them a try! The main games we talk about in this interview are Choice of Broadsides and Choice of Romance, and I strongly encourage you all to play them before listening, though anyone can enjoy this conversation. Also be sure to check out Heather’s website and check out her other writing I’m sure many of you will enjoy: www.heatheralbano.com.

Anyone who is involved with game development, journalism, criticism, or activism and would like to chat with me about how diversity issues relates them, leave a comment here or find me on Twitter to get interviewed!

 

Opening & Closing Credits - Was that away message for me? by 8bit Betty