Thursday, 22 April 2010

Friends of Dixie

As you are no doubt well-aware, Well-Rendered likes a good story. Well-Rendered Towers is a bustling hive of narrative threads and character arcs, happily going about their business as the odd backstory lumbers through.

However, in recent months I have been deafened by the silence from one of the downtown neighbourhoods within the Video Game Plot Metropolis. Concerned, I decided to packed a picnic and head on over there, but when I arrived, there was no-one home.

After trawling the streets for several hours, I collapsed on the street, exhausted, and cried: "Where have all the gay video game characters gone?"

So I trudged home, made myself a cup of tea and a crumpet, and began to think. This was a mystery I was determined to solve.

Part of the problem is that the issue itself is hidden. I have been writing this blog for (about) six months and I have been playing video games for (about) sixteen years, and only yesterday did it really occur to me that there is almost a complete absence of gay video game characters in mainstream games. I can't help but think that this is down to many of the same preconceptions which separate "games" and "everyone who isn't male and aged 18-30" in many people's minds. Even my mind, however progressive and female I like to think I am. Or actually am. Never mind.

Alright. I think perceived demographics are a big issue here, just as they are when one tries (sensibly) to discuss female gamers. But the word "demographic" is not as much fun as the word "polygamy", so let's talk about that first.

To say that homosexuality does not feature in mainstream games would be completely inaccurate. On the contrary, a great number of games which allow the player to form relationships with Non-Playable Characters allow same-sex marriages or liaisons.

Role-playing games such as Dragon Age: Origins and Fable give players the option of engaging in relations of characters of both sexes. Questions of equality aside, this makes logical sense. Role-playing games rely on the freedom given to a player. There is nothing more likely to ruin a game's immersiveness than an arbitrary restriction that makes no sense within the context of the game.

Having a character who is free to act however they please on the environment is all very well, but if they find they are incapable of blowing a kiss to a someone of the same gender, the player is sorely reminded that this is, after all, just a game. A restriction such as this is little different to erecting a transparent wall around an area of the game to prevent the player from entering. It doesn't make sense. If the wall was made of brick and riddled with poisoned creepers, fair enough. I wouldn't try and cross a wall like that in real life, so I'm not going to question it in a game. But an invisible wall? If a restriction makes no contextual sense (there's nothing wrong with a force field in a sci-fi game, say), then it diminishes the gaming experience.

In Fable II, your character is free to flirt with and marry any adult* character. I think this was a decision based more on the desire to give players freedom than to create a digital utopia where love is love and anyone can get married. I hold this opinion because the game also allows you to cheat on your spouse, in the family home, in front of your children before abandoning them (italics for the convenience of Daily Mail readers who need to be able to scan articles quickly in order to find things to be outraged about). You can also buy entire towns and charge extortionate amounts of rent.

Fable II doesn't set itself up as any kind of moral arbiter, and the fact that there are no consequences for acting like a degenerate monster (besides the fact that you - amusingly - develop horns and glowing eyes) makes the game all the better. Being able to initiate a homosexual marriage is all very well, but the only characters you can marry (regardless of gender) are all two-dimensional bumpkins who are more amusing than engaging. Verdict? Fable II: marks for equality, but no memorable gay characters.

The same can be said of The Sims. As I have said many times before, The Sims tapped into the sociopathic nature of teenage girls too old for Barbies and too young for boyfriends. It's like Hollyoaks but with better acting (ho ho). As with spouses in Fable, the player can do as they please with their Sims. There is no success or failure in The Sims (although it's easier to make Sims miserable than happy), the game is simply an interactive dolls' house. Therefore: starvation, adultery, emotional abuse, domestic violence, arson, gay marriage. It's all in a day's work for a Sim.

Ok, just in case an irate Maxis employee tries to get in touch: I know that marriage (straight or gay) makes Sims happy whereas burglary and abuse make them sad, but I'm just trying to illustrate the fact that players never empathize with Sims, they're not supposed to. The Sims is a cracking game, but it doesn't give us memorable characters who we can relate to, just blank canvasses who we can placate or torture on a whim.

We're going to have to look further.

Well-Rendered favourite Mass Effect and 2005's Jade Empire are both RPGs which allow the players to form (potentially) homosexual relationships with NPCS. Unlike paramours in Fable and The Sims, the NPCs in these games have fully-formed, properly written characters.

12-rated Mass Effect only allows the player to engage in a homosexual relationship (with the bisexual alien Liara) if they choose to make their character (Commander Shepherd) a woman. A male Commander Shepherd does not (sadly) get the option of romancing nice-but-dim Kaiden Alenko, and is instead allowed to choose between Liara and sassy chick Ashley Williams. Whoever you play as and whoever you end up with, however, the (brief, veiled) romantic scene is much the same.

In the M[ature]-rated Jade Empire, characters can similarly play as either gender, but they are allowed to choose between both male and female characters regardless. However, unlike in Mass Effect, homosexual kisses are not shown in-game. Given the sheer depth of plot and character in the (admirable) Jade Empire, I don't think this is much of a loss, especially when one considers the hoops game developers already have to jump through. Better that Bioware have to omit a kissing scene in order to be allowed to convey an otherwise rich storyline than to have to cut a whole chunk out of their game in order to placate censors.

Incidentally, Bioware were also responsible for Mass Effect and Dragon Age. They are masters of the branching storyline with a focus on behaviour and character interaction, and it makes sense that they'd be keen to develop believable relationships in their games.

Sadly, however much depth there is in the relationship between (say) Liara and Commander Shepherd, it is still limited by the fact that Commander Shepherd's behaviour is dependent on the whims of the player. Every line in the game is recorded separately by the (highly accomplished) voice actors, and are simply played in sequence during a conversation. Consequently, they lack the flow and believability of pre-recorded conversations, acted by two voice actors in the same room, at the same time. Similarly, all animations are "stock" animations, rendered in-engine. Nothing wrong with that (especially considering the quality of today's in-engine cinematics), but when character skins are slotted into a game over the pre-determined animations, the resulting scene loses some of its spontaneity. When animators are able to design a scene around set characters, the results are altogether different. Compare and contrast:

Alright, so although Tidus and Yuna (below) are a little simpering, theirs is (I think) the more engaging scene. Although the scene has the advantage of being pre-rendered (rather than taking place within the game's slightly blockier engine), it's able to make full use of the characters' body language because it was only ever going to be Tidus and Yuna in that scene. Also, the entire game up until that point has been building to that moment. Those Final Fantasy guys have always been deft writers, and they always select good voice actors (even the English dub is pretty good). For all the over-the-top scenery, costume design and plot, they're able to write scripts with a gentle touch, writing dialogue which hints at deeper feelings or relationships without resorting to exposition or melodrama.

In Mass Effect, however, in order to form a relationship with an NPC, the player has to engage in (fairly excruciating) flirtatious banter with their love interest before selecting the "yes I would like to have a love scene now" button (sort of). Consequently the relationships in this game, earnest and well-meaning though they are, ultimately fall rather flat. I have yet to play a game where I could choose which characters I interact with yet still managed to present me with a convincing romantic subplot.

And since homosexual relationships only appear in mainstream games as such optional, customisable extras, I've never come across a homosexual relationship (or character) who is in any way believable or invites my empathy. I might have stuck with Shepherd and his/her quest to save the galaxy because Mass Effect is a truly splendid game, but I can't say I warmed to the Commander in the way I warmed to Jade, Andy, Abe, Marcus, Lara, Ratchet, The Prince, Wakka, April, Raz, James, Jack, Tommi...

So it would be refreshing to see a gay protagonist at some point. Why hasn't there been one already? Allow me to explain through the joint media of Microsofts Paint and Excel.

Gamers (by which I mean the kind of people happy to spent half a day's wages and at least 20 hours on a single game) are largely regarded, by mainstream media and games publishers as a "demographic". You could argue about this one for a good while, but I think that for the sake of argument and sensible marketing, it is possible to draw a wobbly line around "gamers". Similarly, the gay community is also a "demographic".

Therefore, I can only imagine that sales and marketing people (henceforth to be known as S 'n M people) are convinced that the only people who would part with hard-earned cash for the privilege of playing as a gay video game character are represented by the orange slice of my (frankly nifty) Venn diagram:

Now I like to think that this isn't the case, and that a great story will transcend boundaries such as race, class, gender and sexuality. But then I am a hippie who knows absolutely nothing about marketing. The wise people who know a lot about marketing are responsible for the fact that protagonists in mainstream games are divided into the following proportions (click and enlarge to reveal my rapier wit):

Ho ho. Now I realise that I am painting the industry in fairly broad (possibly inaccurate) brush strokes here, but I do think it's fair to say that there are self-perpetuating imbalances between the way games are marketed and the people who play them. Actually, some proper research by The Guardian this week (told you I was a hippie) presents some worrying statistics for the percentage of female video game characters (15%), female gamers (38%) and women working in the gaming industry (11%).

It's hard to disentangle cause-and-effect from these numbers. Are the lack of female players due to the lack of female characters, in turn a result of women in the industry? Or is it the case that few women go into the industry because so few women are gamers to start with? And to return to my original point, given that women make up about 51% of the population and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people make up a (debatable) 10%, what does that mean for them?

It doesn't look good. I had a quick scout around, and using my own knowledge and the wisdom of the imaginatively titled and, came up with a faintly depressing list of game characters that are actually gay and not just a bit camp (sorry Raphael, you didn't make the cut).

I managed to come up with two.

The first is Makoto from Enchanted Arms, the game I picked on last week for having a boring instruction booklet. Makoto is ferociously camp in his original Japanese incarnation, but if you're foolish enough to switch to the English dub, he makes South Park's Mr Slave look like Bruce Willis in Armageddon. It's difficult to know what to make of Makoto as a gay character. On the one hand, he is a deft fighter who is consumed with unrequited love for his brooding classmate Toya. On the other, he is a figure of fun and extreme annoyance for the hero Atsuma, and he is presented as excessively camp, lisping and pouty. To be fair, none of the characters in Enchanted Arms are especially well-drawn, and the fact that a) Makoto is a playable character and b) gets a fair chunk of dialogue does, I suppose, deserve recognition.

The second is the rather more encouraging Gay Tony from Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony. Now, the Grand Theft Auto series is supposed to be satirical, and it lampoons the presentation of racial, national, cultural and gender stereotypes left right and centre. Consequently, it is often criticized (along with the likes of Family Guy) for using irony as an excuse for exploitative material about minority groups, drugs, crime, sex and violence.

Funny though Family Guy is, it doesn't really break new ground and would rather tell a poo joke than make a point. Grand Theft Auto, on the other hand, can occasionally veer too far in the opposite direction, such as in the moralising GTA IV, where disenchanted-illegal-immigrant-from-an-unnamed-East-European-country Nico Bellic is forced to contend with the hypocrisy and hysteria of a post 9/11 New York. Or Liberty City. Whatever.

Humourless though it occasionally became (rescued in part by the brilliant radio stations), GTA IV at least did a good job of subverting cultural stereotypes. Virtually all the game's characters are criminals of one sort or another, but some are more unpleasant than others. Lazy, stoned weapons dealer Little Jacob is quick-thinking, friendly and loyal. Cousin Roman might be an irritating and unreliable petty criminal who is preoccupied with "titties" and gambling, but he's also lovably vulnerable. There is also a point in the game where a player must choose between the lives of the realistic and ambitious betrayer Playboy X and his ex-mentor Dwayne. Although Dwayne is hard-done by and has an air of nobility about him, he is also whiney, annoying and hung up on his ex girlfriend.

Never once does Grand Theft Auto condemn or elevate these characters. Like the very best fiction, it merely presents them and allows the player to like or dislike them as they wish. It is the same with GTA IV spin-off The Ballad of Gay Tony.

It's not that Tony is any less of a stereotype than Rastafarian Jacob or any more likable than moaning Dwayne. But he is a complex character, and one that is worth he player's time. We're not told that all gay men are purple-shirted criminals, but that this one happens to be, and he's interesting with it. Seeing as I haven't really played The Ballad of Gay Tony (yet), I can't write a lot more without plagiarizing this short and to the point article. But I can only see Gay Tony and (sort of) Makoto as a small shuffle forward in the gaming industry.

I suppose the final question is does it matter? Do we need to know the sexual orientations of video game characters? Well no. And yes. It depends.

For all I know, Marcus Fenix might be gay. The subject hasn't really come up yet (though Gears of War 3 is out in the near future, so we'll see). The point is that although sexuality makes people who they are, we don't need to know about it to find them interesting. I don't know where Marcus Fenix grew up, either, but it doesn't mean that didn't contribute to making him to sensitive individual we all know and love.

Alright, maybe that wasn't the best example. My point is that although we don't need to know about the sexuality of characters in order to find then interesting, sexuality is an interesting facet to a person which can be a powerful tool for characterization and is perhaps underexploited in video games, which often find it all too easy to lapse into parodies of romance and desire..

I know I have neglected to mention any lesbian video game characters. I am reluctant to because they tend to be titillating rather than interesting. Fear Effect 2, for example, boasts a dark and complex plot, at the centre of which is the relationship between Hana and Rain. So far so interesting, but like so many mainstream stories (films, television series, books, Russian pop acts etc) which attempt to portray a lesbian relationship, it so often lapses into sensationalism and, well, this:

Oh well. To be fair, playing Fear Effect 2 after viewing this picture will give players much the same experience as trudging throught the Wreck of the Maria Dora will give hopeful teenagers who bought Tomb Raider 2 after seeing this picture:

Fair enough. Games with complex plots aren't always easy to sell, so if Hana and Rain have to frolic in bikinis in order to make ends meet I suppose I can't complain. Gamers who persevered with Fear Effect 2 were rewarded with a rich gaming experience. It's just a shame that something so potentially interesting ends up being reduced to its crudest elements.

Ultimately gay video game characters are something that it would be nice to see more of. And not because lots of gay people play video games (yes really) and it would be nice to make something for them. Heavens no. If that's how I felt, then I would look like this:

No, I just think that developers should be a little less afraid of thinking outside the beefy straight dude box and every now and again. There are many great stories out there just waiting to be told, but if game developers automatically bypass the ones that are just a bit too Spartacus-tastic, then the world of gaming will be the poorer for it.

*Alright, alright, I realise that your character's inability to have relations with animals or (if you must be sinister about it) children does count as an "arbitrary restriction". Even if you decide to play as an evil character with no self-control and a gambling problem, you still can't make suggestive eyes at a sheep. Even when you are drunk. I don't know if this is something that Peter Molyneux is planning on exploring in his next opus, but if he doesn't, I will understand. Such restrictions may be arbitrary from a logical point of view, but they make sense from a legal/moral/public relations point of view. I have to say that it didn't occur to me until now to try flirting with my dog in Fable II, so the "Fourth Wall" of gaming stayed intact. For me, anyway.

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