It’s about time an AAA title made a positive, LGBTQ+ relationship integral to the gameplay experience.
Although LGBTQ+ representation in fictional media is still massively lacking, there have been a few positive examples during the last few years. Films and shows such as Moonlight, It’s a Sin, and Call Me by Your Name have told incredible stories that reflect the queer experience. Understandably, they show the very real hardships and prejudices the LGBTQ+ community endure, but as vital as it is to show wider audiences these stories it has led to a lack of uplifting queer films and shows.
Until Heartstopper came along.
Netflix’s adaptation of the queer graphic novel series is an unapologetically optimistic show that centres on the beautiful romance between two schoolboys. It instantly became a hit thanks to the chemistry between the young leads and the emphasis on showing young queer audiences that they too can have a happy, loving relationship. Heartstopper currently has a 100% critic score and 98% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, and reached Netflix’s Top 10 list in 54 countries.
Fans were ecstatic to find out that a second and third season has since been greenlit by Netflix. The show’s success will surely change LGBTQ+ representation on screen but it leads to the question: when will the same phenomenon happen for gamers?
Romantic relationships and queer characters have been featured in numerous games, but they haven’t quite made the same impact on audiences as Heartstopper has. This is probably down to the fact that queer relationships aren’t at the heart of the gameplay experience. The most prolific games that incorporate LGBTQ+ relationships tend to be role-playing games. Titles like Cyberpunk 2077 (2020), Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014), and the Mass Effect trilogy (2007+) allow the player to pursue romantic relationships with different characters no matter their sexual orientation.
Judy, Iron Bull, and Liara are all fan favourites that resonated with queer and straight gamers for their compelling character and engrossing storylines. The issue with their presence is how little they matter to the wider story being told in their respective game. These romances and plotlines are completely optional, which means developers allow players to sweep LGBTQ+ content under the rug if they choose to do so.
When it comes to indie titles, queer romances tend to be more intrinsically tied to the core narrative and gameplay experience. Games from different genres feature LGBTQ+ romances, such as 2015’s Life Is Strange (although it has indie sensibilities it’s actually published by Square Enix) and Hades (2021), but typically you’ll find them in the form of dating simulators. The two most prolific are Boyfriend Dungeon (2021) and Game Grumps’ Dream Daddy (2017).
Boyfriend Dungeon is exactly what it sounds like: a dating sim where you go dungeon crawling in between dates. It’s a wonderfully inclusive title with fun combat and loveable characters, and the bizarre concept of dating the very weapons you wield in combat makes Boyfriend Dungeon particularly engaging.
Dream Daddy, however, arguably comes closest to Heartstopper’s queer optimism. This indie hit got criticism for being pure escapism that doesn’t necessarily reflect the gay experience but Dream Daddy is undoubtedly fantastic for its representation. Letting gay and trans fathers be themselves without being doubted or questioned is so crucial for showing gamers what positive representation looks like.
Whilst these smaller titles are massively impactful to the LGBTQ+ community, and do gain some interest from the wider public eye, they still haven’t cracked the mainstream audience. As big a hit as Dream Daddy was on Steam at launch, it unsurprisingly hasn’t made a commercial and cultural impact like AAA titles typically do. Of course, a tiny studio’s LGBTQ+ game isn’t going to compete with a flagship title from a billion dollar company, but therein lies the issue: a lack of romance and LGBTQ+ representation in the AAA scene.
Another issue is how romance mechanics are usually never the sole gameplay hook of a game. Even with smaller titles like Boyfriend Dungeon, the dating aspect goes hand-in-hand with combat mechanics. Romantic subplots in big budget role-playing games are just one small cog in a massive machine of interlinked systems.
Games – big or small, LGBTQ+ or straight – rarely have the narrative and core gameplay experience centre around a queer relationship, one that may explore the difficulties of being in such a relationship but ultimately portrays a positive experience that tells gamers this is okay.
What we need from AAA studios is a game with the budget and marketing of an annual franchise or flagship first party title to actual have faith in exploring a queer relationship, both narratively and mechanically. With their infinite resources and talent, they could set the precedent of what that looks like and really make an impression with gamers who don’t typically explore indie and AA games that are currently producing these titles.
With the lines blurring ever more between moving image and interactive fiction, the AAA games industry needs to open their eyes to the success of LGBTQ+ films and shows, and lead the charge for positive change.
Gavin Spoors is an LGBTQ+ writer who specialises in narrative design within films and games. His journalistic and creative work can be read on his website.
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