This piece contains descriptions of explicit sexual content (aimed at mature audiences).
Predictable heterosexual smut.
Carbon copy plots.
These are some of the complaints I see people make about the mobile visual novel genre, a category which includes obviously named apps such as Choices, Episodes, and Chapters. However, as somebody who has been playing these sorts of games for years now, I am very happy with the strides that many of these apps have made to become more inclusive. If you like LGBTQ+ love stories but were disappointed in the past by apps like these, I think Choices is worth your time.
The first game in Pixelberry Studios’ Choices app, The Crown & The Flame, had you alternating between two player characters, a princess and her childhood friend. They both had a set appearance and were written as love interests for each other, with many bonus scenes and flashbacks (some even free) that highlighted their relationship. The lesbian options, for the princess, cost in-app currency to progress. There were no gay options for the male protagonist. I played through a good chunk of the trilogy before getting bored and deleting the app.
Stuck at home during 2020, I decided to look around the App Store again. What I saw amazed me. Choices’ latest entries have two options at the start of the character creation process: one to pick your body type (and it’s called body type, not gender) and another for pronouns. They/them is now included as a pronoun option, and choosing it also makes titles gender neutral.
For example, in one story where the player character’s mother is the President, choosing they/them pronouns means that you’re referred to as the “First Child.” More recent books also allow you to pick the gender of your love interest. For example, in The Cursed Heart, a book where you are the human captive of brooding fae royalty, said royalty can be Prince Kieran or Princess Kieran, and you can also pick their skin tone. You get the same number of illustrations, scenes, and sexually-charged power struggles no matter what you pick. Even the books that have a set party of adventuring companions don’t gender-lock love interests. You can romance Nia, the naive-yet-spunky priestess from fantasy epic Blades of Light and Shadow, as whatever model of elf, orc, or human you’re interested in, and it doesn’t change how the relationships are written. BioWare could take some notes.
However, there is one area in which this one-size-fits-all approach has left some LGBTQ+ fans frowning. For example, if you play The Cursed Heart with male love interest Prince Kieran and choose certain options in a premium spicy scene, Prince Kieran “centers himself between your legs, and you cry out as he drives into you, filling you, overwhelming you.” This was a break in immersion for many fans playing through the book with a male character and male love interest. Comments on the Choices VIP subreddit included “Without any lube???” and “I’m a guy, so doing this without lube or prep… no.” Needless to say, I think this is an area where Pixelberry could benefit from a little more playtesting and input.
Another way I think Pixelberry could improve LGBTQ+ inclusion is in the game’s clothing and hair options. Even though not all non-binary people are androgynous, it’s a little disappointing when the “feminine” character model only has long hair and dresses as options, and the character model that looks “masculine” only has short hair and suits. In my opinion, they could get even more money from players by mixing it up. Why not give the large-breasted model the option to wear a cool tuxedo, or let the model with muscles and a chiseled jaw show up at Homecoming rocking a gown? It would be great to see progress in providing options for character appearance the same way Choices has made progress with pronouns.
Despite these issues, I still prefer Choices to one of its main competitors, Chapters Interactive Stories. Chapters has its LGBTQ+ content segregated in a separate category. Currently, they have 16 books in the LGBTQ+ category, with 9 being F/F. For comparison, the category “Billionaire/CEO” has 38 books, and the category “Sports” has 12. This kind of heteronormativity isn’t exactly welcoming, and it’s one of the main reasons why I deleted the app. Even though I really loved some of the stories, especially Poison Study and Falling Snow (both based on the traditional novels of the same name) it was frustrating how quickly I ran out of LGBTQ+ stories. I hope in the future the Chapters team will realize that inclusion isn’t challenging and shouldn’t be bonus content; in the meantime, I’m renewing my Choices subscription for another month. As a nonbinary gamer, it means a lot to me to have the option to use they/them pronouns in a mainstream visual novel.
Plus, what other game is out here letting you pay 12 diamonds to hook up with Dracula?
Ennis Rook Bashe is a nonbinary romance novelist, social worker, and cat dad. If you want to read books with badass queer and disabled characters who take care of each other, you can check out their Amazon author page or sign up for their newsletter. For more information about their series following disabled trans people with magical powers, you can follow them on TikTok at @RookTheBird.