Happy Pride Month! June is a time of celebration and contemplation, our two favorite activities here at Sidequest. This month, inspired by a tweet by Freyja Erlingsdótter, we sat down to talk about what queerness means in a gaming context. Can games be queer? What kinds of games can be queer? Find out within.
Queer Tabletop Twitter!
What does a game have to have, in your opinion, at minimum, to count as a "queer" tabletop game? These are in *Ascending order*; assume that the fourth option includes all the ones above it, and so on.#Tabletop #LGBTQIA
— Freyja 'Catra' Erlingsdóttir (@FreyjaErlings) May 31, 2019
Let’s start with a big one, inspired by Freyja Erlingsdotter’s tweet: what makes a tabletop RPG queer?
Melissa: On Freyja’s poll, I chose “queer characters etc,” because while the presence of a queer creator is important to me, one single queer person on a team does not inherently mean a game is queer. Their voice needs to be honored and incorporated; if the lone queer person was just there to do playtesting or something like that, I’d be super uncomfortable with calling that game “queer.” Queer characters with the input of a queer person is a much more important step to me, but it’s also not quite enough—and yet, I hesitated to pick the third option, because I couldn’t pin down what a ‘queer theme’ was to me. Textual queerness? A sense of existing in the margins? Defiance of the status quo? None of them seemed quite right (at least not by themselves), so I settled for queer characters, though I don’t quite agree with myself. It’s complicated!
Nola: For me, it’s that the queerness is a dominant and defining aspect of the game, inseparable from the experience. A queer game doesn’t necessarily have to be about queerness, but whether via narrative, players, or characters, the presence of queerness should be significant enough that its absence would dramatically alter the very nature of the game.
Zainabb: I agree that tokenistic inclusion of queerness, whether in the form of queer creators, players, or characters, doesn’t make a game inherently queer, any more than “themes” would if, as Nola says, they aren’t absolutely vital to the game. Like Nola, I think queer games are ones where queerness is woven into the fabric of the experience. That could be overtly communicated through aesthetics and narrative, but it could also be about gameplay mechanics and player intent. Queerness is about identity and feeling but it’s also about connection, storytelling, and being in (and finding) our communities. When players get together to intentionally create an inclusive and explorative environment, games that facilitate the creation of that space act as a sort of queer foundation, with free reign in terms of whether players (or the game) actively explore queerness or other themes entirely.
To move it away from tokenism to actual representation means having characters that are played and treated with some kind of inherent truth.
Angie: Like Nola and Zainabb said, queerness has to be embedded into the game itself. To move it away from tokenism to actual representation means having characters that are played and treated with some kind of inherent truth. Queer themes and characters shouldn’t just be set dressing or a plot device. For me, it comes down to a difference between whether a game is intrinsically queer, or whether that’s something that players can establish by adapting and shaping their own narrative. I think players can absolutely create a queer play even in tabletop games that aren’t. That’s the joy of playing with a group: you can create your own story, moving away from the player guide if you want!
Liam: I think y’all have already really touched on most of my feelings regarding expectations of a queer tabletop RPG, but I have a few hangups. One thing that sticks out for me though, is that by their nature, tabletop RPGs can be completely created by a single person. I guess that’s also true for video games and other media, but a great tabletop game doesn’t need to be a massive production to be successful. In that way, I regard RPG books with queer creators absolutely as queer because it’s way easier for those creators to take ownership over the work. By the same token, queer themes and characters are less important for a tabletop RPG to feel “queer” to me; I need to feel that playbook—often focused on guiding players to create their own worlds and characters—to have the oversight of a queer creator.
Expanding a bit further—what makes a video game queer?
Melissa: Video games are a bit trickier, because though tabletop games have rules, they are easily broken. Video games have rigid rulesets; you have to operate within the system, which, to me, is totally at odds with the idea of queerness. I can look for queerness and rewrite things to my liking, but that doesn’t fundamentally change a video game the way that rewriting the rules of a tabletop game might.
That said, I think indie games can be queer if they’re made with that intent. Something like Robert Yang’s The Tearoom simply doesn’t work without queerness. If the game were made by a straight person, it would be nonsense that might accidentally stumble onto a point, but it would be nonsense first.
I get it, some straight players don’t want to see it, but you know what? Some straight people don’t want to see us, and it’s about time they learned that we’re visible no matter what.
Nola: I think intent is part of it, but I also think that these days we need a better queer marker than “playersexual.” For all that BioWare games, for instance, have been about dating the various members of the party you can collect, male or female (I don’t think even BioWare has had explicit nonbinary rep yet), where is the narrative in which, say, Jack and Miranda have a tempestuous love/hate affair that threatens to destroy any sense of peace the crew of the Normandy might have? Why don’t Garrus and Jacob have a quiet, supportive relationship that builds slowly over the course of the game? I suppose in a way it’s antithetical to the thinking of game design to create something the player is only meant to passively view but those kinds of things are what queer rep is really lacking in games–representation that is not dependent on the player initiating it. I’m picking on BioWare here because they’re the most prominent example, but they have stepped up in that arena—Dragon Age 2 and Inquisition both had a little bit of that, but that’s still not a very large group of examples—two games in one single franchise. I get it, some straight players don’t want to see it, but you know what? Some straight people don’t want to see us, and it’s about time they learned that we’re visible no matter what.
Angie: I agree with Melissa that indie games can be queer with intent. I think this is because they’re a place queer creators know they can tell queer stories. Nola mentioned better (limited) representation in games like Dragon Age 2 and Inquisition, but it’s not like BioWare made it a part of their marketing campaign. Krem wasn’t a main character; you didn’t have to learn more about his background at all. It wasn’t vital to the game, although I know Krem’s inclusion meant a lot to many people. But when I look at a game like Night in the Woods, which did a much better job at examining identity and had several queer characters, it’s the difference between real depictions versus “blink and you’ll miss it” stabs at representation.
There are some restrictions, though. Tabletop games allow a group of people to take the narrative where they want (as long as they all work cohesively to do this!), but video games? You’re limited to the choices you’re allowed to make. You get the pathway you’re given to follow. You can’t play a game like this and create queer themes if they aren’t there. That’s why there’s so much queer fanart and fanfic of media that doesn’t have those queer canonical relationships—people have to create it outside of the game!
Zainabb: Tabletop games allow for the kind of exploration and freedom fundamental to “queerness” not only through rules that can be broken or bent, but through the wildcard that real life human beings inherently bring to the, ahem, table. Video games are certainly a lot more rigid by nature, and I think we do tend to see queer video games as ones that are made by queer folx, featuring those more explicit markers of queerness: characters, aesthetics, narrative, themes. I think it can be harder to identify video games that embrace the fluid nature of queerness in their mechanics and ethos—video games that would cease to work without their queerness.
I think visual novels do an increasingly good job at capturing queerness, not just via player choices, which hint at that ‘wildcard’ player element in tabletop gaming, but I think also in where the game limits the player and the narrative. Often, you’ll play as and meet characters with very specific identities, encouraging you to relate to and empathise with someone who may be distinctly separate from yourself, unlike player avatars in big RPGs, for example. Meg Jayanth wrote about how Butterfly Soup allowed her to both finally play as a queer character who looks like her, and to respect the ways in which this character differs from herself, because these differences are what make her feel less alone in the world. This is what queerness means to me: it’s being a part of a queer family where you can instantly recognise one another as well as each other’s individuality. When we get to see how big and varied and colourful and beautiful our queer communities are, we feel less alone—because we understand that it’s not just yet another space to try to fit into. I think that’s why it’s important to have more casual queerness on-screen and not just in your own avatar’s narrative, as Nola points out; those stories can queer a game by creating a space for empathy, imagination, and connection.
Liam: I think I come to this with a similar experience to Zainabb. Visual novels are the avenue where I see the most work being done in terms of queerness in games. Even when I see a AAA (BioWare, for example) title offering queer romances in their games, it usually doesn’t do much for me. I think it’s that I need a relationship to have verisimilitude for me to get over the hump in even considering a queer romance as good. Like, a VN might be limited in player options, but that limitation is important—I’m inhabiting a character that’s not me! The BioWare style seldom lets me access that interiority for a character, whether I like them or not, and so I never feel convinced of those games “queerness.” I’ve gotta have that personal connection. Besides input from queer creators, the games I’d successfully call queer have at least had queer people consulting on them, so I definitely come back to queer people behind the page.
Are your expectations of queer representation and/or queer themes changed depending on how the game is published (such as AAA or indie)?
Melissa: Absolutely. I’ve been trying to think about what a queer AAA game would look like and I can’t come up with anything, in part because they’re made by large teams of people for mass consumption. Queerness, to me, requires a unified vision and definitely isn’t for mass consumption.
Indie games, in being made by smaller teams, tend to be more unified and niche. I’ve already mentioned Robert Yang’s games, which may venture out of the target audience—he’s written about what it’s like to have his message turned into humor—but they always maintain his artistic vision.
The space I see for queerness in AAA games is also a smaller, niche space: mods. I don’t mean specifically mods that introduce queerness in the form of romance subplots (though those can be queer as well), but also mods that subvert the status quo, mods that fundamentally change the goals of the original game, and so on. In the same way that it’s easier to queer a non-queer tabletop game because the rules are enforced by individuals rather than rigid systems, mods allow individuals to crack open a video game and make it do something new. That’s queerness in AAA to me, as it operates outside of the system and isn’t made for mass consumption.
…in your open-world cyber-future, or your space opera RPG, or your dragon-dwelling fantasy land, I should be able to see, alongside the tech and the magic and the aliens, my own goddamn self, and characters who look like me and my friends, who care about similar things, who feel as much as we do, and who love the ways that we do.
Nola: Yes, in a large part for the reasons I mentioned above. I expect more from AAA games and yet I also know better than to, because they have yet to meet those expectations. That said when I’m playing indie games that are marketed specifically as being queer-focused or even just queer-friendly, I automatically make the assumption that said content will be better thought out, more representative. I’m sure that one day this assumption will bite me, but it’s held pretty true so far. I guess the best way that I’ve been able to define this so far is that while having queer content and queer creators on a title doesn’t guarantee that the title itself will be queer, the stronger those voices are allowed to be, the greater the potential for that to be the case.
Zainabb: I love the idea of mods as queerness! I think AAA games frequently come with quite predictable, rigid gameplay (and, let’s face it, narrative and characters) that is fundamentally not-queer. I’m very sceptical of AAA titles’ forays into queer characters and narratives (and I certainly don’t expect queer gameplay or mechanics from the AAA scene!), reinforced by how often AAA games get it wrong. Since it was announced, I’ve been thinking a lot about Cyberpunk 2077 and how rapidly my initial interest cooled into unsurprising disappointment and, more recently, frustration that a genre and concept that is already SO FUCKING QUEER has gone in the opposite, most boringly cisheternormative direction instead. The initial announcement came with a lot of spiel about open-world freedom, and it’s naïve but I actually felt a glimmer of hope for a nonbinary character creation option, for all of five seconds whilst starting to watch the trailer.
Whilst that dream was immediately shattered and rapidly followed up with the current and ongoing raging trash fire of transphobia, I think it’s a perfectly reasonable desire to have: in your open-world cyber-future, or your space opera RPG, or your dragon-dwelling fantasy land, I should be able to see, alongside the tech and the magic and the aliens, my own goddamn self, and characters who look like me and my friends, who care about similar things, who feel as much as we do, and who love the ways that we do. No, I don’t expect AAA titles to deliver positive and inclusive queer representation but I still demand it.
Angie: Indie games are a place I know a creator can tell a queer story. Maybe I expect better representation because of this. As Melissa said, within indie games there’s a shared vision and a smaller team. It’s maybe easier to deliver a realistic and accurate depiction that matches the creators’ intents and aims. It does make me think about whether I often find these depictions better just because the creator is queer.
That being said, creators are allowed to create queer games with nuance and their own truth to it. It doesn’t mean they’ll automatically be able to represent every queer experience. I don’t think we should assume every queer creator can or should do this, either.
AAA games pitch themselves to a mass market and they don’t (or certainly don’t at the moment) consider the fact there are many queer players out there within this market. BioWare, in particular, drew in a queer audience to Mass Effect and Dragon Age but didn’t really do enough to reach out to them.
I think I expect more than I should from AAA games. I’m so disappointed with what Cyberpunk 2077 has become. I was excited for a game that had the potential to look at queer themes and instead turned into, as Zainabb says, a trashfire of transphobia. It’s more like they’ve adapted the style associated with cyberpunk without really interrogating the queer themes within cyberpunk—a massively wasted opportunity.
Liam: I never have major expectations around queerness for AAA games, haha. Still, since games are such giant productions, I can find value and appreciate single characters/storylines in games and kind of compartmentalize that. I won’t go on singing the praises of a title in those cases, but it can feel nice to see some effort being made. More often than that though, I get annoyed by companies trying some queer stuff that ends up just completely whiffing. Or feeling sooo self-satisfied with the tiniest crumbs of representation. That doesn’t have to happen! Hire queer and trans folks! Let them write your games! At least check with sensitivity readers and consultants! Zainabb already covered the whole Cyberpunk 2077 situation, which is the most topical example that just makes me tired to talk about. It fucking sucks!!
I do get annoyed by some criticism of indie titles handling queerness, as there’s a concerted population that wants to bend those titles towards a sanitized universal experience of queerness which—spoilers—doesn’t exist! Queer creators should have the room to experiment and make games that totally aren’t representative or necessarily appealing to other queer folks. Honestly, the development of the medium as an art form demands it.
What are some of your favorite queer games to recommend for Pride
Melissa: We Know the Devil is my go-to. Lots of games can represent queerness in pure surface-level terms: this character is trans, this character is with a romantic partner of the same gender, et cetera. Few games represent queerness, as in this sort of intangible, complex feeling of otherness and community as well as We Know the Devil does. How does it accomplish such a feat? Easy: the characters are people. They don’t exist to deliver a statement about their identity and then get on with the real quest—though that can be its own joy, too. The identities are woven into the story’s fabric, entirely inextricable from it.
Nola: My first recommendation is Ghosts of Miami, because it wears its queerness loudly: Chelo has multiple romance options across a spectrum of genders. Additionally, getting too involved in the romance portion can affect your ability to successfully do your job, and if that isn’t the truest queer rep in the world I don’t know what is.
Liam: So for a tabletop game: Dream Askew from Avery Alder. A. it’s by a queer creator. B, it’s distinctly about queer people and culture. it’s a post-apocalypse game where creating a queer character (including existing queer identities and fictional offshoots of existing ones) is like the starting point. C, it’s about queer community and queer survival. it’s exactly about what people mention talking about the potential of queer cyberpunk stories, getting into poverty, safety, displacement, decolonialism, bodies and more,
For a vidja game: Ladykiller in a Bind. Also by a queer creator, it’s a very fucky visual novel that’s so good and frank about sex and consent. Those are qualities i think a lot of queer folks are constantly aching for in games.
Also if I could be obnoxious and suggest another: DON’T WAKE THE NIGHT. it’s brujeria @ werk’s first title, created by Santo Aveiro-Ojeda. It’s a short, intimate queer visual novel about Indigenous community safety, survival, and compassion. The art and music and aesthetic (drawing from Aveiro-Ojeda’s Guarani heritage) come together in such a complete way. I highly recommend checking it out.
Angie: I’d go with anything by Robert Yang, especially Rinse and Repeat. The use of intimacy and consent within the game is fascinating. I got to see a preview of Macho Cam, a game he’s currently working on, a few months ago. It’s really worth looking into when it comes out as it focuses upon a male cam sex worker with, I think, a predominantly queer audience. As Yang put it on Twitter, Macho Cam is about “how technology and capitalism extract labor from sex workers.” Gone Home is a few years old now, but its well-portrayed exploration of identity and seeking connection left a really strong impression.
Zainabb: Yeah, Gone Home remains a queer gaming touchstone for me too. I wasn’t expecting the experience I had with that game and it’s very much stuck with me. More recently, one night, hot springs made me cry, and I’m hoping to eventually get together a small queer contingent to play some of Jamila R. Nedjadi’s beautiful and feelings-focused titles.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.